From the earliest days Bermuda’s vernacular architectural heritage has been strongly influenced by the local climate, the need to catch water, availability of suitable materials, and a variety of socio-economic factors which persist to the present day.
When the first settlers arrived in Bermuda in 1612, they constructed half-timbered “Cabbens” of a familiar size and shape to those that they would have occupied in the UK. Utilizing raw materials that were readily available, these simple dwellings featured wooden frames fitted with cedar lathes filled with a mixture of clay, sticks, sand, lime, and turtle oil and the roofs were frequently thatched with palmetto leaves.
As one might expect, these original structures did not stand up well in the island’s harsh weather conditions and were gradually replaced with far more durable limestone dwellings, many of which are still in use today.
As durable as these historic limestone dwellings are, they do need regular maintenance in order to be kept in good condition, but their exteriors cannot simply be altered willy-nilly – Bermuda has Historic Listing regulations in place which dictate what can and cannot be altered.
Despite the fact that historic houses were often expanded on numerous occasions in the past and may well reflect a variety of architectural styles, you can’t just add on an addition or make alterations to the exterior this way today.
“Historic properties have either a grade one, grade two or grade three listing classification,” explains Michele Smith Managing Partner at OMBI. “If you own a listed property, the best advice is to do your research to thoroughly understand how your property is classified and what exterior changes are allowed and what approvals you might need to obtain from the Historical Board before making any updates.”
“You cannot simply replace a damaged limestone roof on a listed building with SKB, or rotten wooden windows with double glazed aluminium,” she cautioned.
“Never simply assume that you can make changes to the appearance of the exterior simply because something is worn out. In some cases, you even need permission to alter the style of the shutters,” she said.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to maintaining the interior of a historic property.
“Normal updates to things like the kitchens, bathrooms, wiring and plumbing are not restricted,” said Ms. Smith. “Of course, you will need planning permission for these improvements just as you would with any modern Bermuda dwelling”.
It is important to understand that maintaining a historic home is a labour of love.
If you have recently purchased or inherited a historic property, it is well worth doing a little digging to see what you can learn about the history of the house or its occupants. Discovering, for instance, that your dwelling was once a stable or a shop, can help guide your decisions on what to preserve to maintain the unique character and cultural significance of a property when incorporating modern amenities.
ARCHITECTURAL STYLE CONSIDERATIONS
If your budget permits, you can begin by consulting with an architect who specializes in historic preservation to ensure that any modifications are in harmony with the original design, or you can work directly with a contractor who is sympathetic to the nuances of historic architectural features and employs masons who are skilled in vintage construction techniques and finishes.
“Done correctly, an approved addition to a historic property can be blended in so seamlessly with the original features that it is impossible to tell that it is not part of the original floorplan,” Ms. Smith explains.
It goes without saying that when you are making repairs to a historic property you must try to use traditional and locally sourced materials to maintain authenticity as much as possible. However, Bermuda cedar, limestone block and slate roofing tiles are in increasingly short supply and are also expensive materials.
“Unless you have an unlimited budget, the best thing to do is prioritize what really needs to be done immediately in order to make the house habitable and structurally sound, and what can be done over time as funds permit,” advises Ms. Smith.
Bermuda’s distinctive architectural style includes many original features that should be preserved because they contribute to the house’s charm including cedar beams, chimneys, shutters, butteries, moon gates, and cedar gates.
However, there may also be features that are not immediately apparent that need to be updated for reasons of safety or to comply with modern building codes.
“Sometimes we open the walls or the ceiling of an old house and discover that a home was constructed directly on bedrock without a foundation, or that the cedar beams supporting the roof are riddled with dry rot or termite infestation,” Ms. Smith explained. “In these instances, repairs will have to be made”.
“Another thing we often find in old homes is that the roof was often placed directly on top of the window frames without a supporting lintel which can lead to structural problems over time,” she said.
There are also cases where the original cesspit was a single chamber, and the building code now requires that the cesspit contain two chambers to separate black and grey water for health reasons.
A thorough home inspection is a good way to understand what you are getting into before you purchase a historic property or contemplate making updates to your existing dwelling.
INTRODUCING MODERN AMENITIES
When integrating modern amenities that enhance the comfort and functionality of the interior of the house, it is often advisable to preserve early floor plans as much as possible.
For example, early homes were often oriented on the building site so that the prevailing breezes would blow from the front door straight through the house to help keep it cool, and the porch was usually placed on the most shaded side of the structure (even when this was not the side of the house with the most advantageous view).
While it is quite possible that you could gain planning approval for an alteration to the interior which increases the modern functionality of your property, the question to ask yourself when you are updating a historic home is whether you will be happy with the end result if it cuts off the airflow flow or fails to carry the original features of the home into a new wing?
In short, you need to consider the function of historic features of the house as well as visual appeal before embarking on any upgrades.
Restoring and maintaining a garden that blends harmoniously with the age of the house is another great way to add curb appeal and enhance the authenticity of the property.
Early Bermuda gardens were essential to maintain food security and often featured a mixture of palmettos, sheltered citrus groves, and practical kitchen garden plants that came into season throughout the year.
Planting cedar trees is also an easy way to add an air of authenticity to the landscape that will be appreciated for years to come.
For further information consult: The Traditional Building Guide: Advice for Preserving Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage 2002