Wednesday, September 5, 2018

THE VICTORIAN HOME: Big House, Big Bills

Victorian houses: Big, because they could be.
This is the Boudrow House in Berkeley, California, c. 1889.
(Photo: Daniella Thompson)
Author's note: This is the first in a series of occasional personal reflections on various American home styles—their history, their best features, as well as their shortcomings. 

Ever wonder why Victorian houses were so big?   The answer is—because they could be. 

It’s no gag. The average house of the early nineteenth century was unassuming in scale, with modest rooms, small windows, and relatively low ceilings. But around 1840, two innovations began changing that. The first was balloon framing, a new building technique which substituted light, slender pieces of lumber—today’s 2x4s—for the massive framework of posts and beams that had been used for centuries.  

Hand-in-hand with balloon framing came the introduction of mass-produced wire nails, which superseded the old hand-wrought variety and provided the ideal fastener for the new framing method.

Those beautiful high ceilings also make it a challenge
to keep heat down at floor level.
(Image courtesy of Impressive Interior Design)
These two simple ideas had a huge impact on American architecture. Suddenly, big houses were easier and cheaper to build, and far more people could afford them. And this, combined with a growing mania for machine-made ornament, gave birth to the group of home styles we now call Victorian. In various guises, each more ornate than the last, they remained popular until the end of the nineteenth century.  

Okay—fast-forward about eighty years. After being despised for several generations, Victorian homes are once again beloved for the ir ebullient design and fine craftsmanship—so much so that even today it’s all but sacrilegious to criticize them. Yet as practical places to live, they do have some serious drawbacks. If you're in the market for a Victorian house, here are a few things to consider:
The Victorian
double-hung window:
Only vaguely airtight.

•  Energy efficiency and comfort can leave a lot to be desired. Most Victorians were built with little or no insulation, and used single-paned glass windows with, shall we say, a casual degree of airtightness. The result is chilly floors, drafty rooms and massive heating bills.  Those high, heat-trapping ceilings don’t help matters either. Such problems were recognized even at the time, and helped precipitate the trend toward smaller houses after 1900.

Bringing a Victorian up to modern standards of comfort usually means installing weatherstripping, a modern furnace, and mandated levels of floor, wall, and attic insulation, so plan on spending some serious money on these upgrades.

Knob and tube wiring, along with the usual degree
of attic insulation original to Victorians—i.e., none.
•  Utilities are often in poor condition. Most Victorian houses did not have indoor bathrooms when they were constructed, but rather had their plumbing retrofitted later. Drainage systems were often installed outside the walls and were of cast iron with rammed-lead joints. If this stopgap plumbing system hasn’t already been totally replaced, count on doing so in the near future.  

The same goes for Victorian knob-and-tube electrical systems, which suffer from inadequate amperage, brittle insulation, too few receptacles, and a host of other infirmities. In general, it’s safest to upgrade these systems to modern equipment—once again, major dollars.

The umpteen color paint scheme: Impressive,
but a sentence to perpetual maintenance.
•  Maintaining the phenomenally ornate surfaces of Victorian homes demands real dedication. All that painted gingerbread was a nightmare to maintain in 1900, but it’s an even bigger challenge now thanks to the ravages of time and today’s less durable paints. So be prepared for essentially perpetual maintenance.

•  Finally, remember that despite their substantial appearance, Victorians aren’t as nearly as earthquake resistant as modern houses. Their typically unreinforced foundations and tall basement walls are particular weak points, and seismic reinforcement is an absolute must prior to any cosmetic improvements.

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