I Want to Install Electrical or Other Services

You may want to install, replace or upgrade building services, such as gas or heating pipes and electrical wiring in your historic building. This page outlines how to do this without causing any permanent damage to the historic fabric.

It is important to remember that you may not be able to use the shortest or most direct route for cables or pipework. You may have to use a different approach to one that you could use in a modern or unlisted building.

An old kitchen of the sort which owners may wish to add new services to or modernise.
An old kitchen of the sort which owners may wish to add new services to or modernise. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive

The impact of installing new or replacement building services

An older building may have many features of interest which make it special and which are worth preserving. These could include its architecture, ceilings, staircases, windows or early forms of building services. For listed buildings, the entry on the National Heritage List for England sometimes describes their features of interest.

You can usually change and upgrade most building services without affecting what's special about the building. If that's the case, there's no need to get listed building consent. Listed building or conservation area status should help to ensure that proposed changes are thought through carefully, rather than preventing change.

When you want to make changes to building services, find out whether you need any consents before your contractor starts work. These may include listed building consent, building regulations and planning permission. See our Who do I contact? page for more information.

The cumulative impact of lots of changes, however small, can be significant. It is important to minimise any permanent alterations or scarring to the building, especially that caused by works involving building services.

Image showing old round light switches
Old fashioned light sswitches © Historic England

Building services

You may wish to install, replace or upgrade building services to comply with health and safety or to modernise facilities. Building services include:

  • Electrical services such as lighting and power. This includes specialist items such as communications, data, fire alarms and security systems (intruder detection, CCTV, etc.). These services also include anything that needs an electrical connection, like cookers, dishwashers and washing machines;
  • Mechanical services such as air conditioning, comfort cooling, heating (low temperature hot water), gas (cooking and heating), oil (heating) and ventilation (bathroom and toilet fans, kitchen hoods etc.);
  • Public health (or plumbing) services such as drainage (handling sewage or rainwater), water systems (hot and cold) and anything that requires a water supply or drainage connection, like dishwashers and washing machines.

Issues to consider when planning work

Works should minimise the loss of, and permanent scarring to, historic fabric (such as old walls, floors or ceilings). You should only carry out the minimum amount of work that disturbs existing historic fabric. Where such work is needed, keep as much of the original fabric as possible and position any new or additional items discretely.

You'll also need to carefully consider the appearance of building services both externally and internally.

It's a good idea to carry out a detailed building survey before any work starts. This should establish what services already exist, and the routes they take though the building, so that they can be reused wherever possible. Make use of existing features, such as mouldings or balustrades, which can provide hidden routes for services. This may avoid destructive chasing (cutting a groove into a surface to install cables or pipes). An alternative might be to route services through voids under floors or above ceilings.

If you can't avoid new openings and chases into fabric, then you may be able to minimise loss of historic fabric by ensuring that as many services as possible share common routes.

Wireless control technology for many services such as lighting and heating controls can remove the need for hard-wired connections.

Locating new equipment

Think carefully about where to attach, fix and locate equipment. Examples of things to consider are:

  • Locating new equipment: when locating electrical accessories (socket outlets, lighting switches and so on) and heat emitters (such as radiators) position them as discreetly as you can while maximising utility and effectiveness
  • Recessing equipment: recessing items like lights into surfaces such as ceilings and walls should be avoided if the surfaces are of importance. This, however, may be necessary where there are legal obligations (such as an emergency lighting unit) or where the item needs to be as discreet as possible while being effective
  • Fire detection devices: you may be able to hide items such as smoke and heat detectors behind ceiling beams or other features. Take care to position them far enough from the beam for them to work effectively
  • Ceiling and wall mounting: where to install heavy chandeliers and service items such as boilers and electrical distribution boards, as ceilings and walls will need to be able support their weight. This is especially important where ceilings and walls are of lath-and-plaster construction
  • Floor loadings: locate heavy objects such as boilers, cookers, dishwashers, freezers, refrigerators and washing machines where the floor will be able to support their weight. This is particularly important where floors are of suspended timber construction
  • Locating services in buildings such as those with cob walls and thatched roofs will need even greater thought to ensure that the safest and most appropriate locations are chosen

Where possible, you should avoid drilling into building fabric. The preferred method is fixing into sacrificial materials, such as mortar joints between brickwork and stonework.

You may need specialist building surveying or structural engineering advice. For listed buildings, choose a professional who is used to the challenge of fitting modern life into old house layouts.

Existing services

If there are any existing services which you cannot reuse, but which retain significance to the building, these should be left in place where possible. If you need to remove such services then disconnect them, make them safe and record them before removal. This record will help you and future owners to understand what was there before.

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