Heritage Building Group

Timeless & tasteful

Adelaide-based Heritage Building Group works from heritage designs to create sophisticated homes for the present day.

Photo courtesy Heritage Building Group


Philip O’Brien

Rich in heritage stone villas edged with distinctive quoin cornerstone blocks, Adelaide has some of the most idiosyncratic domestic architecture in Australia.

And, while these older homes continue to be restored, there is an increasing trend to build new houses in a heritage style. One of the companies doing this very successfully is Heritage Building Group which celebrates its 40th anniversary of building in Adelaide this year. Heritage has been a HIA member for over 35 of those years.

The company has established a reputation for quality, service and skill by providing a bespoke building service specialising in heritage-style homes. Long-established connections and collaborations with local craftsmen and tradesmen have become integral to its ongoing success.

But its focus has changed over those 40 years. It did not begin as a heritage business, director James Wagner recalls.

‘The business was started in 1978 by my late father, a carpenter who migrated to Australia from Germany. It was then a general design and construction firm. The heritage side began with me about 20 years ago.

‘With Adelaide’s built heritage in stone, I thought that, rather than just renovations, why not rebuild the homes exactly as they were but with modern finishes and appliances?’

James employs three full-time staff – site supervisor, project manager and interior designer – along with 50 trades, of diverse skills, on a contract basis.

‘We still do some renovations but most of our work is in new homes. I source heritage mouldings and work out the general design of each house. We then use separate designers for the stonework.

‘Victorian period villas are the most requested style,’ he says.

Heritage Building Group
‘The demand for modern homes built in a heritage style is increasing ...They don’t go out of date’
Photo courtesy Heritage Building Group
Heritage Building Group
The company has established a reputation for quality, service and skill, specialising in heritage-style homes
Photo courtesy Heritage Building Group

‘Clients will give us an image or idea of the type of house they want. We then go about deconstructing the elements of that house, for instance seeing what moulds are available from that period’.

What challenges are there in constructing a heritage-style home in the 21st century? The most significant is cost, James says. In the 19th century, materials and labour were comparatively much cheaper. As a result, ornate finishes and extreme attention to detail were more generally affordable.

‘We still put a lot of detail into our homes but we’re forever looking at ways to do things better at an economical price.

‘Bricklayers and stone masons are in high demand today and hard to find. In fact, so is finding the right tradespeople who enjoy doing the type of work that we do. It’s not for everybody.’

Although limestone and sandstone remain popular materials, it’s bluestone that characterises so much of Adelaide’s residential architecture. This is not in the dark basalt tones familiar in Victorian bluestone but a mineralised slate that has a pale grey or beige colour. Client budgets determine the amount of stone and brick that is used, James says. ‘Some homes are cavity brick and some are brick veneer with stone facing.’

The high ceilings favoured by 19th century builders can be costly today, he notes.

‘Your 3.6-metre ceilings are cool in summer but the rooms are harder to heat in winter. So we sometimes drop the height of the ceilings at the back of the houses.’

And light is also an issue.

‘So many of the heritage homes had a central hallway and, as a result, you find that the front rooms can be a bit dark. So we put in skylights as well as more windows in the side walls to create more natural light.’

‘We still put a lot of detail into our homes but we’re forever looking at ways to do things better at an economical price’

Mouldings, for decorative features such as porticos, arches and architraves, have also evolved.

‘Back then a lot of it was brickwork which would then be rendered and would have taken tradesmen longer to complete. We use concrete now which is more efficient.’

So what advantages do the heritage styles offer modern design?

‘Because of ceiling heights, ventilation was better,’ James says, ‘and the high roof pitches now give greater accessibility to services such as air conditioning. You can actually walk around the roof space. The verandas might make the rooms a bit darker but, facing west across the front of the houses, they ensure that the interiors are shaded and cool.’

Although he has been approached by clients who have moved interstate to build for them there, James says that Heritage remains an Adelaide-focused business. The company caters to the upper-end of the real estate market with some homes selling for over $2 million.

‘But we’re trying to bring it back to the mid-range with attractive homes that are reasonably priced. Most of our homes sell for $600,000 and above.’

He says that the South Australian market is reasonably healthy at present.

‘We’ve got one to two years’ work ahead of us. We only do up to a dozen homes a year but the homes we’ve built lately seem to be getting bigger and taking longer.’

The demand for modern homes built in a heritage style is increasing, he says.

‘They don’t go out of date. My philosophy is to try to blend in rather than stand out. People look at one of our homes and think that it’s a renovated 19th century villa. That’s probably the best compliment that we can receive.’

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