Victorian house layout ideas - Grand Designs Magazine
A row of Victorian houses

Victorian house layout ideas

Solidly built with generous proportions, the Victorian period was cemented as a seminal time for architecture. Here's how to modernise your Victorian home. 

By Sara D'Souza |

With the combination of a population boom and a strong economy, the Victorian period was cemented as a seminal time for architecture and Victorian layouts were strong. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) was founded in 1834, three years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, and it was a great time for building. The houses were constructed solidly and, epitomised with their covetable high ceilings and generous proportions, they’re still one of the most sought-after house types to buy and renovate in the UK.

However, there are many ways you can remodel them to work for you and be fit for purpose for modern life. A renovation can course correct some of the issues that we commonly see with a Victorian house, whether that’s upgrading their energy efficiency to a sufficient standard (all the way to Passivhaus standards), draught-proofing sash windows or sorting issues with damp.

Victorian houses lend themselves to adding a single-storey rear extension, a loft extension or a side return, although some people prefer to retain the house’s characteristics and retain the external structure and look at moving walls instead. Given their history, any extensions will need to be carefully planned, especially if the property sits within a conservation area where you’ll need to match the original materials when updating. Contemporary extensions to Victorian properties have fallen into favour, but there’s also an argument to retain as much of the houses original layout as possible to stand the test of time.

Opt for large picture windows

Bi-fold doors and floor-to-ceiling glass are de rigueur, but vast expanses of glass come with their own issues. With climate change and temperatures rising, you’ll need to think about adequate window dressing to prevent the rooms from being heated up like a greenhouse. Picture windows are a great and often more affordable way to flood natural light into your home. They create a strong connection between the indoors and outdoors, framing the alfresco scene like a picture.

The picture windows pictured below from Mark Edwards and Penny Talelli’s careful restoration of their Victorian gatehouse lodge in Haringey, North London are a great example of modernising the space to work functionally and stylishly. It’s a good idea to mix picture windows with bi-fold doors, as picture windows are typically are fixed and sealed within the frame, so while they have a good U-Value, they’re often not built to open and you’ll need to think about proper ventilation in the room.

Living room and kitchen in modern extension

Image credit: Fraser Marr

Open the hallways

Victorian house layouts usually have a good hallway. Hallways were an important hallmark of the time, as the first area that guests were welcomed into the home, a good impression was imperative. However, they were often long and lacking in light. You could think about opening up the space to create the wow-factor in the thoroughfare of the house. The entrance space of the Grade B listed Victorian villa in Edinburgh (pictured below) has an axial window view at the bottom that’s been created to bring in light and add a connection to the garden.

In many Victorian layouts the design is that the staircase is boxed in on either side. You can open up the staircase by taking out either one (or both in some cases) of the walls to create a brighter, airier feel. It’s most common to remove the wall that separates the staircase from either the reception room or even an unused outdoor space, like a coal store.

Victorian villa renovation in Edinburgh by Archer Braun

Image credit: David Barber

Go broken plan, not open-plan

While going open-plan is common when thinking of Victorian house layout ideas, it’s not for everyone. A great compromise if you still want more space and open areas but like to zone things off, is broken plan. But, what exactly is broken plan? Instead of having traditional solid walls to separate different areas, broken plan uses different ways to divide the space. Such as Crittall panels and doors, like the renovated Victorian stable block in West London (pictured below).

In this Grand Designs renovation, Emily Brooks reports that the couple “moved the stairs into the centre of the building and installed a skylight above them. The staircase forms the backbone of the new layout and is a glorious architectural centrepiece with a sinuous oak handrail and slim black steel spindles. A Crittall glass wall provides a view of the stairs from the living area and allows daylight to flow around the first floor”.

There are plenty of other ways of creating a broken plan design in your Victorian house, including opting for open-plan shelving that runs across the room or placing a bespoke piece of furniture to divide. If you want something more adaptable, a moveable screen can work well. Or a design trend that’s been resurfacing lately is a sunken living room, in the 70s they were called a “conversation pit”. Think steps down from the main living area.

A Critall wall divides the space in this former Victorian stable block in West London

Image credit: Alex Maguire

Mix materials on your extension

Dependent if you’re in a conservation area, or the type of planning permission you need, you may be able to get creative with your Victorian house layout extension and bring in a modern material to contrast with the existing original stock brickwork. This three-bed Victorian semi-detached villa in Hackney, east London is a four-storey house that owners Andrew and Lotti have turned into two apartments. The three-storey extension at the back of the house allows for a double-height space clad in incredible Corten steel. We’ve got more Victorian house extension ideas to help you plan.

extension with corten steel cladding on a victorian house in Hackney, east LondonImage credit: Stale Eriksen

Get creative with your layout

Jon and Jenny Plant had a vision to create create “a stylish family home with well-designed details” in their Victorian semi-detached house in Wandsworth. In a masterclass in zoning they’ve added an open-plan  ground floor with a pocket door (a sliding door that disappears into the wall cavity when it’s opened) that connects the entrance hall and the living area. Built-in bespoke bookshelves line the walls and create more storage, as well as a striking look.

Victorian semi renovation in Wandsworth London 6

Image credit: Luke Casserly

Double the size of your kitchen

One of the most common Victorian layout ideas is to have the living space at the front of the house, opening up a large kitchen at the back of the house, most likely with an ample kitchen island, open-plan dining area and glazed or bi-fold doors that open out onto the garden. The back of Jon and Jenny Plant’s house shows just that. Their kitchen-dining-living room has full-width doors that open out on the courtyard and garden and rooflights to flood in natural light.

Victorian semi renovation in Wandsworth London 1

Image credit: Luke Casserly

Add a side return

Victorian terraced houses often have a narrow alleyway running down one side of the house to access the garden, and are most likely cluttered up with bins or bikes. Utilise this space by adding a side return and turning that disused outdoor space into valuable square feet for your home. You may not need planning permission unless your building is listed but you will need a party wall agreement if you’re in a terrace. Use Resi’s checklist to see if you fall within the PDR (permitted development rights).

This London side return (pictured) by John Norman at Mustard Architects has added considerable space to the kitchen and created a connection to the garden. To regulate the temperature there’s added insulation in the walls and floors and triple-glazing on the rooflights.

Image credit: Tim Crocker

Add a loft extension

The steep pitch of a Victorian house lends itself to converting the attic into an extra room, and given that many Victorian houses have large landings, it should give you the space to create an ample staircase to reach it. In many Victorian house renovations, you’ll find an additional bedroom in the loft conversion, which, particularly if you add a bedroom with an en-suite, will add value to your house.

Look into dormer loft conversions, hip-to-gable loft conversions, which are seen in semi-detached and end of terrace houses and for the most space a mansard roof, which has two pitches on each side. This flat-roofed loft extension (pictured), by Browning Architects is a sensitive addition to a Victorian property and incorporates wall-to-wall glazing to flood light into the room.

Loft extension with flat roof and wall-to-wall glazing by Browning Architects

Image credit: Browning Architects

Use a mezzanine

While you won’t usually need planning permission to add a mezzanine floor to your home, there are other considerations to make, such as building regulation approval. A mezzanine will add additional weight to your home’s supporting walls and the structure and calculations will need to be within legal requirements. If your Victorian house is a terraced or semi-detached, you’ll also need a party wall agreement. However, once you get it all signed off, mezzanines can create some striking design statements and add value to your home, as you can use them for anything from a home office to a cosy living spaces.

This former Victorian school laundry and kitchen in Clerkenwell (pictured) has been transformed into a modern open-plan living space with high vaulted ceilings and queen post timber trusses. The mezzanine floor adds a dining room space and another floor without losing any of the light or double-height space.

victorian school conversion - gpad london kitchen and mezzanine - grand designs