Historic buildings need special care | Everything Property

Historic buildings need special care

historic buildings

People who want to buy or renovate a heritage home must be aware of the unique risks involved, especially when it comes to insurance.


People who want to buy or renovate a heritage home must be aware of the unique risks involved, especially when it comes to insurance.

South Africa boasts a wealth of historic buildings that carry immense cultural significance. The National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 goes a long way to ensuring the preservation and protection of historic buildings by prohibiting their alteration or demolition. Still, the owners of these properties face unique risks, especially regarding insurance.

Tarina Vlok, MD of Elite Risk Acceptances, a subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure, says, “We have so many historic buildings in our country, from Cape Dutch houses in the Winelands that were built hundreds of years ago to special landmarks such as the Castle of Good Hope, monuments, memorials and others. Many of these are at risk due to their age, which means they must be treated differently to modern buildings at all stages – from maintenance to refurbishments.”

Castle of Good Hope


Recently the preservation of historic buildings in Simon’s Town has garnered significant attention due to the looming threat of decay and neglect, affecting notable structures like Palace Barracks. Some of these buildings have experienced damage or structural collapse, posing a risk to their existence.

Similarly, heritage buildings on wine farms have encountered various forms of damage, not only due to their age but also because of fires or floods. A striking example occurred in 2019 when the historic Non Pareille farmhouse, dating back to 1826, tragically succumbed to a devastating fire, despite ongoing restoration efforts.

Adding to the list of losses, the iconic Mostert’s Mill in Cape Town, with a history spanning over two centuries, fell victim to a fierce fire in 2021. Currently, diligent restoration work is underway. Skilled craftsmen have been contracted to execute the restoration. Milling experts from the Netherlands were consulted, and the mill’s sail cloths and refurbished mill stones were imported from there, underscoring the level of expertise involved in the process.

Groot Constantia


According to Vlok, reinstating a heritage property is often more costly and takes longer to complete than a modern building. “This is because old materials need to breathe and move according to external forces like moisture and temperature change. All repairs need to respect the materials, and insurers and their service providers must ensure that the correct matching and traditional materials are used.”

Often new materials do not match the original proportions and could destroy the home’s character. She advises getting original plans and period photographs to reference where possible. It’s a good idea for homeowners undertaking a refurbishment to engage with their local heritage officials to document the property correctly and choose an insurer who can ensure compliance with modern building regulations while maintaining the original integrity of the heritage home. They should have a panel of service providers with the skill to repair the property within the heritage authorities’ guidelines.


Another element that is often overlooked is maintenance. “Ensure that gutters and downpipes are clear and not leaking, keep joinery and masonry well-painted with breathable paint, ensure that windows are correctly sealed, treat areas of rust with rust inhibitor, ensure water drains away from the property, and keep invasive roots away from it. It’s also important to ensure that air vents are unblocked and that there is a free flow of air under the floors.”

She says a well-maintained heritage property that has withstood the elements for more than 60 years does not introduce an increased risk for insurers. “However, the elevated cost of reinstatement and the expected delays in finalising it may add to the cost of insuring a heritage property. Insurers consider many factors when pricing risks, including location and a client’s risk profile.”


According to The Heritage Portal, SA’s leading history and heritage website, it’s the informal name given to section 34 of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) which states that “No person may alter or demolish any structure or part of a structure which is older than 60 years without a permit issued by the relevant provincial heritage resources authority.” In this context, “alter” is defined as “any action affecting the structure, appearance or physical properties of a place or object, whether by way of structural or other works, by painting, plastering or other decoration or any other means.”

It is important to disclose the age of a property when selling it if it is older than 60 years. Likewise, if you are buying one, you should “consult with a professional before you put in an offer. This is the time to get advice on what you can and cannot do with the property and helps you to avoid nasty surprises…. Where the building is of greater heritage value, we recommend using a conservation architect or the combination of an architect and heritage consultant.”

A Section 34 permit must be applied for if alterations are being considered, no matter how many times they have been completed before, even if they are only internal. Visit The Heritage Portal for more information.

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