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16 December 2022

The cold snap is a reminder of how awful Victorian houses are

At least you might not notice the draft because you’ve already succumbed to lead poisoning.

By Will Dunn

Le Corbusier said that a house is “a machine for living in”, and he was right: housing is the most fundamental technology we use. In most areas of life technology evolves and the old stuff, if it’s not buried or recycled, is maintained by enthusiasts for demonstration purposes. But in housing almost all the old rubbish is still in use. British consumers will actually pay more for an old, cheaply made house than a new one built with the latest technologies, and they are encouraged to do so by the government.

Victorian houses are ugly, cold and grotesquely overpriced even by the standards of the shared hallucination that is the UK’s housing market. This week a report from the Resolution Foundation found that 40 per cent of the UK’s housing (and 64 per cent of houses in London) has poor quality walls that cost an extra £650 a year in heating bills.

The single-brick walls in Victorian houses allow 11 times as much heat to escape as a properly insulated modern wall. They’re often cracked, because they’re not supported by foundations but stand on a few inches of rubble. The plaster, made with animal hair and pasted on to thin wooden laths, crumbles at the slightest provocation and greedily sucks up the damp that is a constant feature of houses that weren’t built with damp-proof courses.

High ceilings are a must, of course, because you’re nine feet tall and you love spiders. But along with single-paned sash windows, they only add to the freezing draughts.

Of course, as the occupant of a Victorian house you might not notice the cold because you’ve already succumbed to the lead poisoning from your characterful old water pipes. Or perhaps you’ll have fended off the frost with a wood-burning stove – a technology now so popular that the UK’s wood burners account for more small particulate pollution than all the country’s road traffic.

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Victorian houses are, I will concede, well designed for some things. Discrimination, for example: with kitchens and sculleries kept away from the living spaces, they were designed to keep domestic work out of sight. The larger ones were designed with separate quarters for servants below stairs, to contain the working class physically as well as socially beneath the owners of property.

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Perhaps this is why, despite their failings, Victorian houses are beloved of a small group of men of a certain temperament. They’re ugly, pointy, unimaginative dwellings, each one a weird little church to the old national religions of insularity and froideur.

This aesthetic has been codified by politicians like Michael Gove in policies such as the National Design Guide, which is full of pictures of pointy roofs and in which the highest principles of design are held to be a respect for “context” and “coherence”. What this really means is that if you must build new houses, you have to try to make them look like old houses – but because the quality of old houses is so poor that it would be illegal to build anything like that today, you’ll fail, and the houses will look like toytown imitations of old houses, and the people who can afford real old houses can laugh at the people in their “Noddy Boxes”. The real object of such policies is not to make new housing beautiful, but to make sure it doesn’t show up how ugly and inadequate all the old housing is. 

Estate agents and people who have been duped into buying Victorian houses like to say they’re “built to last”, but they weren’t: they were built to be thrown up quickly and cheaply by a society that was growing fast. The Victorians themselves would be horrified to learn that in the 21st century British people were still living in the draughty remains of their civilisation.

[See also: The woke brigade isn’t cancelling Christmas]

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