Renovating & Extending a 1970s House: an Expert Guide - Build It (2024)

Design It

Properties constructed during the '70s often present great refurbishment opportunities. Architect Opinder Liddar lists some of the improvements you could make to a 1970s house and how best to execute them to meet your goals

by Opinder Liddar27th November 2023

I relish the idea of taking a 1970s house and making it into my own home. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done this at Lapd Architects for many clients, and these have been some of my favourite projects. They’re delighted when we transform a relatively non-descript house into an exciting contemporary home.

On first impression, 1970s houses can look aged and uninspiring. They can feel dark and cramped inside, but these properties also tend to come with a generous volume of space, good gardens and the basic structure to be able to create a modern home that meets your present-day needs.

Here, I’m covering some of the typical issues that are likely to arise during a home renovation and identify solutions so that, if you own a 1970s house or plan to buy one, you can transform it into your dream home.

The Existing 1970s House

Most 1970s houses present a wide front facade, often containing an integral garage. The car was still regarded as central to the design of new estates which adopted many American design ideologies, although they were not appropriate for our relatively small UK landmass. Other American influences like feature stone chimneys, warm air heating systems and spacious kitchens were also found in the designs of this era.

The landscaping surrounding the houses and the collective appearance of the buildings were both considered important, so we often find generous plot sizes with 1970s houses, with good-sized front and rear gardens. The square footage of the site often brings an opportunity to extend without significantly impacting neighbours.

This era of housing typically used a pale yellow brick, dark tile-hanging and timber cladding on the facades, as well as large, landscape-orientated windows. Staircases were designed to be features, and so you’ll often find open stair risers that offer plenty of opportunity for small children to climb through them, or wide boards acting as balustrading with large gaps around them. Neither of these features meet modern safety standards, but they can be reworked to deliver a much-improved home that meets Building Regs.

Essential Renovation Advice: Home Renovations: 10 Steps to Successfully Renovating a House

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BEFORE: Build It readers Ed and Nicola Dolman retained their 1975 home’s original brickwork while creating a crisp and contemporary finish to the extension

Renovating & Extending a 1970s House: an Expert Guide - Build It (3)

AFTER: Architect Lesley Hally of LA Hally incorporated a mix of grey zinc and slim cedar cladding that both complements and contrasts with the yellowish bricks

Reconfiguring the Internal Layout

While having the external appearance of a very large home on sizeable grounds, I find the internal planning of ‘70s houses to be bigger on the outside than on the inside; much like an inverse Tardis, the rooms feel much smaller than the external appearance leads you to expect. This is usually the result of an internal layout that consists of dark corridors with doors that lead to separate rooms which do not flow into each other.

Often, there are cupboards with solid walls that separate living spaces and are inefficient for storage. It is usually best to remove these and to accommodate storage elsewhere. This gives you the opportunity to incorporate this space into your new design and to increase the size of rooms. You may also find split levels throughout the house which can be interesting, however they limit how you can use the footprint, they may be in the wrong place and act as an impractical obstacle.

Where there is sufficient headroom, you can align floor areas or, if this is not possible, extend the size of the building at one of the storeys to create a room that works better for you, rather than trying to accommodate the same use across a smaller split-level room. If you level the floors creating an area with a low ceiling, aim to locate utility, storage or cloak rooms in these areas and position your habitable rooms in areas with better ceiling heights.

More Ideas:

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used their son’s design expertise to help them transform a 1970s house in Rutland into a bright and modern home. Designed by Paul Testa Architects, the redesign features a larch-clad kitchen extension which is angled to face directly down the garden. Photo: Dave Burton

In our designs we aim to get views all the way through a home, from the front to the back. In some projects we have moved the staircase and solid cupboards out of the central spaces and opened rooms into each other, doing away with corridor space. This has the benefit of creating more habitable space and providing you with a larger open-plan room without the need to extend.

To maintain the open appearance of a 1970s staircase, consider replacing the timber with glass balustrading which will seal the gaps and make the flight much safer for everyone in your household. Open risers can be adapted to meet current safety requirements by incorporating a fixed metal bar, which reduces the gap between them.

FAQ: Should we knock the whole thing down?

Although 1970s structures are better than those dating pre-1965 (when the first set of Building Regulations was introduced), new build homes that meet those standards would be condemned today. However, the buildings are still standing after 50 years, so you can probably enhance the structure of the outer shell rather than demolishing the entire thing.

Reconfiguring the space within the existing volume or adding fairly modest extensions may be more economical than building from scratch.

Occasionally you might consider demolishing and rebuilding, subject to the tax you would otherwise pay. Current HMRC rules provide that new builds are zero-rated for VAT purposes, and refurbishment and extension projects are subject to full VAT at 20%. So, before committing to a planning application, calculate the total cost of your refurbishment plans.

For some projects, by the time you add on VAT to your overall expenses, the price is very close to that of a 0% VAT newbuild. If this is the case for you, consider how far the existing structure compromises your dream home design, and whether or not that 20% is better spent to remove those barriers through demolition and rebuild.

Expert Advice: Replacement Homes: Planning Permission for Knock Down and Rebuild Projects

Enhancing the Kerb Appeal of a 1970s House

One of the most requested objectives of clients who are looking to redesign their 1970s houses is to improve the exterior appearance of the property and enhance its kerb appeal. This is because the elevations are typically long, dark and flat – a popular look at the time.

However, current tastes are not in favour of the flat designs and simple detailing that 1970s elevations offer. A building looks more visually appealing when its front view has elements of interest that break up the facade. For example, you could change a single linear roof to incorporate a gable feature or introduce a new bay window.

The typically wide, white casem*nt windows on 1970s properties emphasise the horizontal nature of the elevation, but these can be redesigned to have a portrait aperture instead. We often put in smaller windows and block up existing large units to transform the front of a home, ensuring that the resulting design still has sufficient light.

An alternative approach is to combine the ground and first floor windows to make a large multi-level glazed feature which continues the glazing up into a new gable roof. This worked successfully at our Whitehaven project (see case study box below), turning the run-down 1970s house into a modern home.

Updating the exterior of a 1970s house with modern render materials like untreated timber or metal is effective in improving its kerb appeal, too. It’s also an opportunity to boost its thermal performance.

Learn More: Cladding for Home Renovations: How to Upgrade Your Home’s Exterior

CASE STUDY 1970s house upgraded

Lapd Architects’ Nikki Fulton transformed this tired 1970s estate house into a beautiful 21st-century home. The owners were keen for their abode to be a standout structure on a street full of similar-looking houses, as well as reconfigure the internal layout to better suit their needs.

Renovating & Extending a 1970s House: an Expert Guide - Build It (5)BEFORE

Renovating & Extending a 1970s House: an Expert Guide - Build It (6)AFTER

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A key aesthetic update to the property is the double-height main entrance, with a catslide roof forming a dramatic feature while simultaneously creating a practical covered porch area. Double doors lead from the light-filled lobby through to the kitchen-dining-living space, with bifolds on both the front and rear elevations leading out to raised decks. Beyond the main open-plan zone is a flexible family room, screened via a wide set of double pocket internal doors.

The impressive revamp has been achieved with relatively little extension work (just 23m² of extra space). This includes a modest side addition that accommodates the utility room downstairs and a dressing area in the master bedroom upstairs.

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Improving Energy Efficiency of a 1970s Dwelling

Upon removing tile-hanging or timber cladding, you’ll either be met with concrete block wall, or timber studwork with the plasterboard of your bedroom wall attached to it. In the latter case, it will be clear to you why your room has always felt cold; there was hardly anything between you and the external environment. This gives you a great opportunity to enhance the thermal performance and improve the airtightness of the building by adding insulation into these spaces and the rest of your external walls.

The same goes for floors. In areas with suspended timber floors, lift the floorboards and fit a windtight breather membrane underneath them and insulate between the joists before relaying the boarding. Concrete floors are harder to improve, as they tend to be a thin layer of screed laid directly onto a relatively thin concrete slab.

In some projects, we have removed these floors where they’re cracked or we’re looking to improve the thermal performance of the whole house. Before you start this kind of work, however, a structural engineer is required to review the property and the depth of the existing foundations.

Improvements to the thermal performance of a roof tend to be far easier to make than those to the walls or floors. The easiest way to do this is to lay mineral wool insulation above ceiling joists. If there is more height available, consider insulating both at and below rafter level to create a warm hat over your house.

The windows and doors on a 1970s house are likely to be single glazed with timber or possibly steel frame, so upgrading them to double or triple glazing is one of the biggest improvements you can make.

More Advice: Retrofitting Insulation: Best Ways to Insulate Your Home Renovation

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Alter Architects were commissioned to redesign this 1970s home to accommodate multigenerational living. Much of the existing building was recycled and the original stock bricks were reused. Sheep’s wool insulation was installed to upgrade its thermal performance

Today’s Building Regulations require us to consider heat lost and gained through glass in buildings. Think about the orientation of large expanses of glass and consider reducing the surface area of those windows.

If you want to maintain the views and dramatic impact of large swathes of glazing, then also weigh up the addition of external shading devices. A 1970s striped awning could do the trick, or you may want to consider a more contemporary method such as fixed louvres or shutters.

An improved level of airtightness means you’ll need to design in ventilation to ensure you have a constant supply of fresh air and to minimise the risk of condensation. Using the redundant ductwork from an original warm-air heating system in your 1970s house, you could consider installing a mechanical air ventilation system, perhaps with mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) if your budget allows.

Alternatively, consider more passive ventilation measures, especially in kitchens and bathrooms, such as trickle vents and extractor fans. A roof-level opening window, usually above the staircase, is particularly important for very hot weather, as it will naturally ventilate your home and provide an effective form of cooling.

More from Opinder: Extension Design: Creating an Extension That Works With Your Home

Renovating & Extending a 1970s House: an Expert Guide - Build It (2024)
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