Developing a basic knowledge about your old building is one of the best ways to ensure its effective preservation. Once you have an awareness of the features that make it special and authentic, you are in a better position to plan for changes, general refurbishment and repair of damaged or decayed elements.

Even if you intend to appoint builders, specialist craftspeople, surveyors or architects, it is always instructive to do some groundwork yourself. This will help you to assess the impact on the original fabric of the building, make decisions about your accommmodation requirements and to direct works where appropriate.

As a guide, consider the four main areas below to gain a better insight into your building.

Historic shopfronts are a key component of Irish historic streetscapes

Historic shopfronts are a key component of Irish historic streetscapes


One of the first steps in understanding your building is to undertake some basic research into when it was built, for whom and for what purpose. While many architectural and historical consultancies can do this job for you, there are a number of avenues you can pursue yourself. These include:

Identify when the building was constructed using historic maps. Most county and college libraries, including the Trinity College Map Library in Dublin, hold maps that will be relevant for your needs. Use our Resources page for online mapping links. Your building’s title deeds also contain invaluable information on construction dates, names and occupants, while the Registry of Deeds retains a record of most property transactions in Ireland from 1708 onwards.

Find out what the building was originally used for and who occupied it. This can be pursued using street directories such as Thom’s Directory (available in Dublin’s Pearse Street Library and Archive), Census records (available in our Resources section) and searches in historic newspapers and parish records. Historic newspaper collections are held by the National Library of Ireland and through some online portals.

Discover what the building may originally have looked like using visual documentary evidence. A surprisingly rich record of Dublin’s streets and buildings is held by a variety of institutions and online resources, including old photographs, prints, paintings and drawings, trade cards and advertisements, street directory sketches and even early film footage. Visit our Resources page for more information.

Title deeds are an invaluable research tool

Title deeds are an invaluable research tool


Consider the design of your building and the features that make it special and authentic. Most traditional buildings in Ireland were not designed by architects but erected by local builders, developers and individual tradesmen. This gives them a unique sense of character, with subtle differences in materials and details, while still conforming to a general pattern within a wider building tradition.

Generally speaking, the style of your building will be recognisable to various building periods – whether Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, pre-War, post-War or later. To find out more about these building periods and their influences, consult our Architectural Styles section.

Design features that help define the character of a building can include:

  • Scale, proportion and number of storeys
  • Presence of a basement
  • Design of the roof such as gables, pitches, hips or parapets, roof coverings and chimneys
  • Style of original windows and doors, such as sash and casement windows, or panelled and glazed doors, stained glass, sidelights and fanlights
  • Decorative features such as entrance porches, bay windows, decorative ironwork, steps and tiling
  • Distinctive craft techniques such as brick wigging, stone carving, decorative plaster, render and mud walling
  • Original shopfronts and their elements such as shuttering, fascia boards, brackets and glazing bars
Victorian doorways, c.1890

Victorian doorways, c.1890


Building materials were traditionally sourced as locally as possible. As a result, the materials from which our older buildings were constructed are a unique indicator of their locale and are often quite distinctive.

Brick is the defining building material in Dublin, extensively used from the early 1600s to the present day. It was also used in Limerick and places that had access to good brick-making clay. Most brick before about 1850 was handmade using clay moulds, while more regular, machine-made brick became commonplace for facing buildings after this period. This change in brick types is often one of the defining differences in the appearance of Georgian and Victorian buildings.

Stone was commonly used for facing major public buildings but also for dressing everyday buildings in conjunction with other materials. Limestone and granite are most typical, often used to build basements and boundary walls, and to create doorcases and window sills, plinth walls and decorative features.

Lime mortars were used to bind materials such as brick and stone together, while renders were applied as a smooth face to buildings, often moulded into decorative features around windows and doors. Lime gives a distinctive mellowed appearance to buildings and also performs an important function in allowing your building to ‘breathe’ – permitting moisture to pass through.

Ironwork is a hallmark of Dublin’s streets and widely used across Ireland in railings, gates and decorative features. Wrought iron was beaten by hand, such as the rods used in standard Georgian railings, while cast iron was set in moulds and could create elaborate patterns that are common from the 1830s onwards.

Slate is the most commonplace roofing material in Dublin, usually dressed with terracotta ridge tiles. The loss of natural slate in favour of modern synthetic materials can radically alter the appearance of an old building. Clay tile, thatch and corrugated roofing are other forms of traditional roofing materials.

Glass is easily overlooked as an important component in historic buildings. Dublin retains a wealth of historic glass compared with many European cities that were subject to conflict and bombing during the 20th century. Windows often retain crown, cylinder and plate glass, most of which was handmade and features irreplaceable imperfections that add character and authenticity to a building.

Interior Features

Interior features and materials are one of the primary attractions of living or working in an old building. Elements such as doors, shutters, cornicing and fireplaces were typically crafted by hand by skilled tradespeople like plasterers and joiners. These are integral to the character of a building and often demonstrate how interior fashions changed over time. They are invariably made to a higher standard and with better materials than modern-day replacements and should be cherished.

Features to look out for include:

Joinery such as panelled doors, shutterboxes, skirtings and architraves. These elements often share the same panel and profile mouldings and can be considered as integrated design schemes within rooms. Modern replacements are usually poor imitations of such original fabric.

Decorative plaster in the form of cornices, centre roses, ceiling and wall decoration are common features of older buildings. Elaborate decorative plaster was often hand-modelled with limited casting in the 18th century, supplanted by mass-produced, cast plaster enrichments during the 19th century.

Plaster finishes are too easily overlooked in older buildings, sometimes covered in layers of wallpaper or modern paints. Authentic lime-plastered walls and lath-and-plaster ceilings are a critical element in the authenticity of old buildings and were applied by skilled tradespeople. Look out for the subtlety with which irregular walls and ceilings were ‘packed’ or levelled out to achieve a uniform appearance. Such finishes are also important to the breathability of your building, while subtle imperfections lend character and patina.

Floors whether set as timber floorboards or solid stone floors were designed with functionality in mind. Suspended timber floors allowed air to circulate underneath and complemented large carpets and rugs, while solid stone and tiled floors were used in heavily trafficked areas such as hallways and kitchens.

The little things that get overlooked or replaced in older buildings are often the very elements that lend it historic interest. Service bell-pulls in reception rooms, bells and cooking ranges in kitchens, and early gas and electric fittings all tell a story about how a building was originally used. Ironmongery such as brass, iron and ceramic door handles and shutter knobs, or window latches, pulleys and eye hooks were invariably handcrafted and are of a high quality. Look out for other features such as surviving curtain poles and fabrics, wallpapers and decorative paint finishes, tiling and hearth grates that all lend a window into the past.

Exterior elements

Exterior elements surrounding a building, whether in its garden or area fronting a street, provide a setting to an old building. These can include outbuildings and greenhouses, original boundary walls and railings, stables and water tanks, carriage arches and protective bollards.

Commonly overlooked are original ground surfaces such as flagstones, setts and cobbles which are integral to the setting of many older buildings. Their replacement with modern materials represents a shameful loss of original fabric – they should be cherished where they survive.

Definitive Irish Reference Manual

For more information on conserving your period building, consult our invaluable reference manual:

Irish Period Houses – A Conservation Guidance Manual (2016)
by Frank Keohane

The manual is available to purchase directly online - priced €45.