There is often a misconception that delving into the history of one’s house serves no purpose other than satisfying our curiosity; that it simply allows you to find out who had lived there or discover tales of scandal or intrigue. However, understanding your home’s history can be more pragmatic than that.

If you own a listed building or you live in a conservation area, there are very real and structural reasons for knowing not only who lived there but when it was built and by whom; knowing what it is built of, where it has been altered, how the building was used. All these elements together define the historic significance of the building and knowing these facts can help you, as the owner, particularly when it comes to repair, alteration and maintenance.

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The most obvious reason why it’s important to understand your home’s past, and its construction, is for planning applications. The requirement for historical information when applying for planning permission has long been a requirement, especially for listed buildings and this has been enhanced in new government planning guidance ‘Planning Policy Statement 5 – Planning for the Historic Environment’, known as PPS5, which places the provision of and application of historical knowledge as fundamental when altering or conserving a building of historic interest.

If your building is listed there will be some information held by the local authorities and English Heritage as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). But often this information is minimal (usually only the listing description) and even that information can be too vague or sometimes just inaccurate. I recently researched a house in Eaton Square, in London, which is listed Grade II*.

While I am used to a degree of vague descriptions, in this case it was so general that it failed to give even a close date of construction. This can have a huge effect on a building’s significance and the subsequent ability to make alterations and improvements.

Overall, whether you commission the research or do it yourself, provision of a well-researched history can be welcomed by conservation officers and planning officials as it helps them make an informed decision based on historical fact.

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However, even if your old house isn’t listed, knowing its history has a day-to-day practical reason too. While I am never one to assume, I hope that sympathetic repair, alteration and maintenance is the intention of most people owning an old building. Finding out as much as possible about the construction materials used, and how the house evolved over the decades and centuries, can prevent unexpected structural surprises further down the works track.  

Finding out the history of your house helps you to know whether you can or can’t alter parts of the building. At the very least it could prevent you from causing irreparable damage to original features, which you would be keen to retain, if you knew their worth. It would also guide you to use the right materials and methods, which would be in keeping with the house.

But of course it isn’t all about the bricks and mortar, or wattle and daub. The story of who’s lived there and what happened within its walls can impact the historical importance of your building. If you are thinking of putting your house on the market, providing a history of your house would put it in a singular light and offer a persuasive selling point to potential buyers.

So, whatever you are planning to do to your old house, whether it is listed or not, knowing your home’s past from cellar to attic, from front gate to the back wall will be a useful tool for its repair, alteration or maintenance.

Ellen Leslie BA (Hons) Dip Cons (AA) is an historian who researches and assesses buildings for building conservation and property professionals as well as private home owners. She studied at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture and attained the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings. Ellen had previously graduated with honours from Birkbeck College in Politics, Philosophy and History. She is an Affiliate Member of the IHBC. Ellen also blogs about her work on: http://building-storeys.blogspot.com/.

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This is an article from ProjectBook which provides a wide range of information for the conservation, restoration, care and repair of period and listed buildings. Ellen Leslie is a member of the Heritage Register which contains over 500 vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants from all over the UK. Updated daily with new content, the website features the heritage register, a products directory, informative articles, current news, events and more. For more information, visit www.projectbook.co.uk.