Getting down to it

By - , Build 189

In Build 188 Keeping in character, i looked at the major structural issues confronted when refurbishing Aotearoa New Zealand period and character homes. In this third article in the series, i discuss the internal fit-out and what you may encounter.

The rich, warm colourings of timber floors enhance most décors.
Ceiling roses are a treasure to be preserved.
Damaged or missing plaster cornices can usually be matched from original moulds.

BY FAR the most common first big decision to be addressed in the internal retrofit is the flooring.

Floorboards in character homes

The original floors in our early 20th century villas and bungalows were tongue and groove (T&G) boards. The timbers were commonly heart rimu or mataī sometimes mixed together – and, less often, kahikatea, tawa and Oregon or even exotics such as jarrah.

They were not usually clear finished, but when sanded and oiled or polyurethaned, they come alive, with rich, warm colourings that enhance most décors. Ground-level floorboards often have a particularly rich patina from ground moisture evaporation, but this should be prevented with polythene sheeting over the ground. Check for borer or rot in the floorboards before expending too much effort. As the best timbers available were used, these have usually lasted well.

The floorboards vary in width or cover – from approximately 85 mm to 215 mm. While some sizes are more common, there are no standard sizes. Similarly, the thickness of each floorboard is often 22 mm but sometimes a little more.

Existing profiles are critical to match if you are replacing just some of the boards or extending the rooms where you will be featuring the timber floors. Experienced tradies often have the odd trick up their sleeve, but this will involve extra time and cost.

Recycled boards are a good choice

The use of recycled floorboards is the most ecofriendly path to follow and will lower the carbon footprint of your renovation project. They are proven to last at least one lifetime when looked after, and when recycled, they can extend their lifetime indefinitely. As the ad says, ‘longevity is the ultimate sustainability’.

The best source of extra floorboards are the demolition yards. Some specialise in recycled floorboards – you can usually source matching profiles that have the patina of age to suit your existing floors. But don’t be afraid to mix, say, rimu and mataī boards, as was done at the time.

With selective colour matching, they will still look fantastic. Remember, too, that it is far easier to find the desired colour in the actual wood than trying to match it later by using stains or tinted polyurethane. Just wet it to see how the finished colour will emerge.

Also, don’t be afraid to accept small blemishes or even nail holes. The original floors will all be face nailed – where you can see the nails – and usually have some signs of age.

These so-called faults will blend in, add character and help make the new boards appear authentic and the same vintage as the existing floor.

The rich, warm colourings of timber floors enhance most décors.

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Adding the finish

Surfaces of refurbished floors are sometimes oiled but more commonly polyurethane finished. You can choose the required gloss level – matt, satin or a higher gloss level – to suit your tastes.

Don’t dismiss the option of high-gloss floors – they bring the colour out from the timber and reflected light from windows to create an almost 3D effect that really brings the floor to life.

What about the walls?

Next, we should consider the walls, beginning with the perimeter or external walls. You can still come across original walls lined internally with thin timber sarking boards – usually horizontal but occasionally fitted diagonally. Over this will be scrim and wallpaper – usually many layers!

Sometimes there will be the old original plasterboard sheets, which were used here from the 1930s onwards, but be aware – these are not the equivalent of the modern internal sheet linings. Either of these options will mean the wall framing is original – there will be cut or notchedin diagonal timber bracing stiffening the building, with probably no insulation.

One other scenario you may encounter is walls that have been lined with modern plasterboard, but over the top of the original wall linings. This will manifest as a wall lining that sits proud of the top edge of the skirting boards.

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Remove any scrim

Scrim and wallpaper must be removed as this is an extreme fire risk – most house insurers will require scrim’s removal. The sarking should be removed as well – and need not be reinstated – to enable access to the perimeter wall cavities.

Old plasterboard should be removed too but watch for the old cement-based sheet linings that are sometimes present. These often contain asbestos – follow the guidelines from WorkSafe NZ regarding testing, removal and generally working with asbestos. This work must be done by trained and licensed professionals.

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Check in-wall services

At this point, the wall cavity is accessible, so have an electrician check the electrical wiring (sometimes within metal conduit) and upgrade or replace as necessary.

Likewise with any in-wall plumbing or drainage pipework and any other services that are now visible and accessible.

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Install building wrap and wall insulation

With the wall structure now exposed, check the moisture content – this should be a maximum 18% – and the general condition of the wall framing. It may be old, but it will be native heart timber, so it will usually be in good condition.

You will almost certainly need to install new building wrap before installing wall insulation. Even if it was originally used, the old building paper has usually broken down and failed.

Retrofitting building wrap and wall insulation is covered well in BRANZ Good Repair Guide, Retrofitting wall insulation. This explains how to fit the building wrap between studs, how to maintain a gap between the insulation and cladding and efficient installation of the wall insulation material.

This is the perfect opportunity to create a bracing panel by installing proprietary hold-down brackets to each corner of the wall surface – the top and bottom plates at each end. It is not usually necessary to remove the original timber diagonal bracing, but a bracing-rated modern internal plasterboard wall lining can now be installed.

If installed in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines, this will help achieve modern bracing levels for your refurbished home, which will be far superior to the original bracing.

Ceiling roses are a treasure to be preserved.

Ceiling and cornices

Any original plaster or timber cornices or ceiling roses are a treasure to be preserved. They can be carefully removed and reinstated after the wall linings have been replaced and can be tidied up to look like new.

Identical lengths of plaster cornice can still be obtained if needed to match damaged material or for new extensions or additions. These are available from plaster ceiling and mouldings factories in most metropolitan areas and are often cast from the same original moulds used in these local heritage and character homes when they were built.

Remember, too, if adding new plaster cornices, that scale is important. Larger cornices suit larger and more formal rooms, while smaller service rooms would have always had smaller and simpler, plainer cornices.

Damaged or missing plaster cornices can usually be matched from original moulds.

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The final article in this series will discuss the specific principles regarding windows in refurbishing character homes and how to integrate modern fixtures and features into a period home.

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

The rich, warm colourings of timber floors enhance most décors.
Ceiling roses are a treasure to be preserved.
Damaged or missing plaster cornices can usually be matched from original moulds.