for People with a Passion for Period Property
Ask an Agony Uncle!
Stephen Boniface - Stephen Boniface specialises in building conservation providing multi-disciplinary consulting services. He is Chairman of the Building Surveying Faculty and member of the Residential faculty. He serves on the RICS Building Conservation Forum Board and is the 'Agony Uncle' on the Period Property UK website (

Ask our Agony Uncles ...

You can write to our panel of experts free of charge on any subject, providing it's got something to do with Period Properties.

Our experts are all specialists in matters directly involved with older properties. So, if you have a problem with an older building - or if you think you might have a problem - ask an Agony Uncle...


SUBJECT: Removing cement renders is the preferred solution
FROM: Marci` Thiel (Buckinghamshire)
We have a house in the south of France near Pau built in 1783 with 2 foot thick solid walls that appear to be an aggregate of stone and earth (visible on the unfinished end of the barn.) The house has damp problems, we assume primarily due to the cement render on the outside, and in some cases there is cement on the inside walls as well. We love the idea of taking off the cement render and replacing it with lime render, but fear that this would be very expensive. Are there any alternatives that are feasible to cure the damp, and if not, what scale of cost are we looking at to remove the cement and re-render with lime? Would we have to wait for the walls to dry out completely before re-rendering? How long does that take when damp shows up to 4 feet above the floor in some places? (All gutters and drainage are in good order now.)

Marci` Thiel

The simple answer is that I believe there is no real alternative than to remove the inappropriate cement render that is simply trapping the moisture and causing it to find its own route through hence the dampness problems internally. Although the cost may be high in the first instance it will be a far more satisfactory and long lasting solution to the problem as it simply puts the building back to function in a way it did before the cement was applied. You would have to wait for the walls to dry out to an extent but of course this will depend on the precise circumstances. If using a traditional lime plaster, etc. it will allow some residual moisture to evaporate through without causing any major problems. An alternative is to apply lime plaster but on the understanding that it may be sacrificial to some extent and that you might have to replaster after a couple of years if the dampness is extensive.

Another matter that you might wish to consider is lowering external ground levels if they are high in relation to the floors. The more of the wall that is exposed below the ground floor level the larger the area available for moisture to evaporate from before it reaches high enough to cause any damage internally. Regarding cost, it is impossible to give you any guide on cost because there is simply not enough information and in any event the costs in France will be significantly different from those that you might encounter in England.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface Associates for answering this question. Stephen Boniface can be contacted on 01279 421 500


SUBJECT: Lead water pipes what should I do?
FROM: Brian Anker (Eastleigh, Hampshire)
Our Edwardian Terrace house appears to have lead water supply pipes. We have been told that this is nothing to worry about because limescale build up in the pipes acts as a barrier. Is this true, or should we replace the pipes?

Brian Anker

Yes and no. It is true that limescale can build up within the pipe and this is providing a protective layer between the lead and the water. That said, if there is another metal in the system there could be a bi-metallic reaction that results in the limescale breaking down and the lead coming into contact with the water once again. There is always a risk of the lead being in contact with water and where it is practical and reasonable to do so one should look at having the lead pipes replaced. I say this purely for health reasons. However, what you should also bear in mind is that many of the main supply pipes to the houses will be lead. You can only replace the section on your property. The rest of the supply before that could have lead in it. This is a risk we all face and until all historic main supply pipes are eventually replaced across the country there is an ongoing risk (albeit minimal perhaps) of lead contamination to water supply to Victorian and Edwardian houses. One has to take pragmatic approach and in this instance I would suggest replacement of accessible lead pipework.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface Associates for answering this question. Stephen Boniface can be contacted on 01279 421 500


SUBJECT: Options for ceiling repair in a period house
FROM: Paul Cole (Dennington, Suffolk)
I have (had) a ceiling that was lath & plaster, which has collapsed, due to burst water tank. What is the bet method of repair. Obviously I could use lath & plaster but would using plasterboard provide a suitable solution without causing any other problems?

Paul Cole

It really depends on what you mean by best method of repair. There are three primary methods of forming ceilings in historic buildings. First and the one regarded as the most traditional is of course lath and plaster. The general rule would be that if you have a lath and plaster ceiling it should be repaired or replaced in a similar manner. However, this does depend upon the importance of the fabric itself or the ceiling in question. The next method is to use a modern expanded metal lath with a wet plaster system applied. This would generally be cheaper than lath and plaster and some conservation officers will accept it as a replacement for lath and plaster. The reason is that it is a wet system that will follow the contours and outlines of an existing ceiling. The final method is of course to use plasterboard. This is a dry system, which is quick and relatively cheap. It can be used where the ceiling is perfectly flat with no serious undulations, etc. However, it does result in a very clinical uniform finish unless of course the plasterer deliberately finishes the plaster to give an appearance of old plaster (although by this I do not necessarily mean hacienda style lumps!). If the ceiling is relatively unimportant, plain, etc. then the conservation officer might accept replacement with plasterboard particularly if it is perhaps vulnerable to a future leak and problems. However, if you are living in a more important building or the ceiling is particularly important then replacement with lath and plaster will have to be the first option. This is really a matter you need to discuss carefully with the conservation officer.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface Associates for answering this question. Stephen Boniface can be contacted on 01279 421 500


SUBJECT: What does 'Townscape Merit' mean?
FROM: Anita Elms (Richmond Upon Thames, Greater London)
My house is classed as townscape merit. What does this mean and what are the restrictions?

Anita Elms

The term 'Townscape merit' often appears on list entries. All it means is that the person who recommended the building for inclusion on the list believed that it was worth listing on the strength of its contribution to the townscape alone - for example, as a building which forms an integral element of an important town square. It does not mean that the building is any less protected than any other listed building, and it is a criminal offence to make alterations to either the exterior or the interior without permission (or 'listed building consent' as it is known).

Period Property UK would like to thank Jonathan Taylor at


SUBJECT: Victorian tiles need make over
FROM: Angela Ragen (Blackburn, Lancashire)
I have a 1911 semi detached house with original black and white floor tiles in the hall way. They are dull and damaged by stains over the years and splashes of paint , but in very good condition (no breaks or pieces missing) Please could you tell me of a company who can clean and seal my floor in the Lancashire area. Any tips for me to have a go?

Angela Ragen

Angela, please visit the information section of the site where you will find an article concerning the cleaning and restoration of encaustic floor tiles. The article is written by a company called Original Features who specialise in the restoration of Victorian and Edwardian tiled floors. I believe they can supply certain products via mail order. They can be contacted on 020 8348 5155 or visit

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface Associates for answering this question. Stephen Boniface can be contacted on 01279 421 500


SUBJECT: How do we remove paint from our Inglenook?
FROM: Alison O'Neill (Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
We are renovating an old stone farmhouse and have uncovered an inglenook fireplace, which is covered in dark green paint. What is the best way of removing the paint, with the least damage to the stone? Also, I read with interest your comments regarding damp proofing, when the external ground is higher than internally. We have an extensive damp problem to sort out! Is it possible to expose the stone work to the inside wall, rather than have to plaster it?

Alison O'Neill

Alison, many people mistakenly use sand blasting to remove paint from everything from exposed timbers to brickwork. Sometimes, if used by a skilled practitioner it can be successful but the preferred route is to use a poultice which will break the paint down so it can simply be removed by washing down with warm water. Contact Strippers of Sudbury on 01787 371 524 who will be able to advise you and supply a trial pack of the correct material to use. Believe us, if used correctly you will be amazed with the results. On the stone front any move to remove the plaster will aid the drying out of the fabric of the property which has resulted from the damp described. But, for a long term solution the external ground levels should be returned to their original level to prevent penetrative damp with a lime render applied internally enabling the stonework to breathe. Before lowering the external ground level seek advice from a surveyor who specialises in older properties to ensure the walls structural integrity have not been impaired.



SUBJECT: Possible simple solution to sagging historic ceiling
FROM: Kate Tuck (Old Basing, Hampshire)
We have just had many layers of wallpaper removed from a first and ground floor corridor and small back stairs with a view to re-decorating. We appear to be back to an ochre coloured paint which I assume must be distemper. There have been a number of 'creative' repairs over the centuries using hardboard and cement, the plaster has lifted or crumbled away in places. The house is C16/17/18 & 19, so not entirely sure when this section was built, it is over the oldest part of the house. The walls are definitely lath and plaster with hairs in it - so I take this to be lime plaster? I can see that we can have patch repairs carried out on the walls but my biggest worry is the ceiling. The plasterer is suggesting taking the whole ceiling down (it is not all poor, probably only half needs re-doing)and putting plasterboard up. This doesn't sound right to me but I'm under pressure from husband (cost) and plasterer. Can you advise, or suggest where I can obtain independent advice on this - people/books etc. Also suggestions for what I should paint the completed plaster work with.

Kate Tuck

Kate, period home owners today are often faced by tradesman who neither have the experience or understanding of older properties to undertake work in a way which is sympathetic and in keeping with the original fabric of the building. Therefore, rather than use the most appropriate technique and materials to undertake a repair they simply pull down the original feature/materials and take the line of least resistance. In this case the removal of a historic ceiling - if your property is listed you will require listed building planning permission to remove the ceiling - and replacement with plasterboard. From your description it is clear that the ceiling requires repair rather than wholesale destruction. One particular technique which you could use to re-attach the plaster to the laths is by using small brass screws and brass or copper washers - made from metal sheeting. The washers and screws should be slightly recessed into the plaster and then covered once firmly fixed in place. If plaster has already fallen away from existing laths an experienced plaster or indeed yourself will be able to undertake patch repairs easily. This would involve the area to be patched being brushed to remove loose debris which may be loosely attached to the laths. Then using a scraper shape the remaining older plaster to a 45 degree angle. Dampen the old plaster using a water spray and apply the lime mix (1 part lime putty & three parts coarse sand) ensuring it is pushed firmly between the wood laths. Score the surface with a criss-cross pattern to provide a good key for the final coat. Once dried apply the final layer of lime (1 part lime and 3 parts soft sand). Leave until nearly dry before running over the surface to ensure it is smooth.