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SUPPORTING COLUMNS Structure of Georgian Houses

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Structure of Georgian Houses

Structural engineer Brian Morton describes the typical structural configuration of many
typical Georgian houses.

Recently I was asked to appraise a surveyors report on a

property in London. The client realised that the report
seemed to call for an extensive amount of unnecessary
I wrote to her following my own survey, describing the
structure of Georgian houses associated with potential
problems. She was so enthusiastic that I felt readers of
Context might find the information useful.
comparatively soft, local stock bricks. Walls are built with
lime mortar, which again is soft and, like the bricks,
comparatively porous.
Floors are constructed of timber above basement level.
The structural support for these floors is provided by the
external walls, and generally a timber-stud partition clad
with lath and plaster as a central load-bearing wall
running up through the building. At ground floor level
this major cross partition is generally constructed of solid
brickwork. In many cases the cross partition at first floor
level is in a different line to the cross partition in the
ground floor level.
Timber-stud partitions clad with lath and plaster are
used throughout to support floors. It is unusual to

find any masonry internally above ground-floor level, except

in the case of large Georgian houses where the staircase is of
stone construction. In this case, brick walls are usually
carried up alongside the staircase to the underside of the
staircase to first-floor level, and occasionally to secondfloor level.
Roofs are constructed of timber, formed into principal
trusses with secondary rafters. Often there are open
internal, lead-lined gutters within the roof space to carry
water across the building and out through an external
(normally rear) wall. Roofs are generally clad with Welshtype slates set on to either boarding or battens, without any
underlying roofing felt.
The brick walls of the building start at basement level
as probably one-and-a-half brick thick walls, sometimes
two brick thick walls. As they go up the building, these
walls reduce until in the upper storeys they are simply one
brick thick.
The floor joists are built into the front and rear walls,
restraining them. In larger houses there are generally
main beams which divide up the floors, spanning the
width of the building. Sometimes they run from front to
back, restraining the front and rear

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SUPPORTING COLUMNS Structure of Georgian Houses

walls either by secondary joists bearing on to the walls or

the principal beams bearing on to those walls. The party
walls are a minimum of one brick thick, strengthened by
the chimneybreast to provide lateral restraint to the walls.
The face of the chimneybreast is generally only half a brick
Depending on the circumstances, and the sequence of
building, it is not unusual to find the front and back
walls butting on to an original gable end of a previously
built property, and not tied in. In other cases front and
rear walls simply fly past the party walls and are not
significantly connected.
These buildings were constructed quickly, with little or
no foundations. They were built of flexible materials. The
mortar took a significant time to set and the structures
tended to settle down as they were built, retaining a
degree of flexibility not found in later buildings of similar
size. This flexibility has undoubtedly led to the long life of
these buildings.
The structure of the buildings fails not because of
vertical load but because of lack of lateral restraint, and
sometimes lack of bonding within the thickness of the wall.
Such failures are found particularly in higher-quality
Georgian houses, where the outer skin of the face of the
external walls was built with very thin mortar joints, built
by the experienced bricklayer, while the inside face the
brickwork was built with thick joints by the apprentice.
Thus the walls were never bonded together because the
joints were at different levels. This form of construction
is described as snapped-header construction. Even when
high-quality facing bricks were not used, there was a
tendency for the outer face to be built by the experienced
bricklayer, backed up by the apprentice.
Basements or lower-ground floors are always potentially
a problem as far as damp-proof treatment is concerned.
The modern style of living does not normally suit the
form of construction.
Walls of soft bricks and lime mortar work because they
breathe. Rain makes the wall wet or damp, and the wind
dries the external face. The internal plaster also breathes
and allows a small proportion of the damp to dry out
within the atmosphere of the rooms. The basements or
lower ground floors were constructed with pammets (floor
bricks), covered by stone slabs. Both had open joints,
allowing moisture to dry up through the floors. Walls
were plastered with a hair-reinforced, lime-based plaster
which also allowed the walls to breathe. Even where these
conditions have prevailed for perhaps 150 years, I have
seen original plaster in perfect condition. Air circulated
within the rooms and a damp atmosphere seemed not to
worry the occupiers.
In the early days of conservation restoration, pammet
floors or stone floors were taken up, and floors were
concreted, generally with a damp-proof course. The result
was that the moisture was driven up the walls and the
plaster came off. The walls were then rendered with a
waterproof render, sometimes the full height of the room
but mostly about one

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metre high. Amazingly, the damp within the walls then

permeated the bricks up to ground-floor level. We have
found ends of floor joists rotten at that level due to the
damp-proof treatment in the basement.
In the early days of conservation, English Heritage and
local authorities would give grant aid for the form of
this form of damp treatment to the basement, until it was
realised the problems that this treatment caused. Generally
English Heritage will not now give consent to dealing with
basements or lower-ground floors in this way. If walls are
found to be damp, a properly specified lime-based plaster
is used even if there is a concrete floor, generally with
adequate ventilation to the room and no fixtures being
built against these walls.
English Heritage and conservation authorities do not
generally believe that injection damp-proof courses are
necessary or, in the slightly longer term, of any real
value. We have gone back to what is known to work.
Views on timber treatment have also changed. It is
generally not now acceptable to treat any timber element
within the construction of a house built prior to 1930. It
has even been suggested that to introduce timber
treatment into such structures may be negligent on the
part of the professional because it introduces a chemical
into the atmosphere unnecessarily.
If a method used in the past with particular materials
was found to work, we would certainly recommend its
reuse, but we have no objection to the use of modern
materials if they are going to prolong the life of a
building or an element of it. Stainless steel and resin
anchors, for example, can be used to tie skins of walls
together. The alternative would be to take down parts of
walls and rebuild them without a significantly better result.