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 (www.periodproperty.co.uk).

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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: How do I finish my stripped doors
FROM: N. F. (York)
I've stripped most of the wood in my Victorian house. I am now looking for an attractive 'honey' coloured finish to apply. So far, I've sampled most proprietary finishes, ranging from so-called 'antique' finishes to 'oak' colours, all to no avail. Have you any recommendations on how to achieve that rich 'honey' colour using a wax or oil? I don't want to varnish

N F

I presume your wood is predominantly pine and oak, these woods patinate well over time to give lovely colours and should not require much staining. Any traditional solvent finish in itself should deepen and warm the colour. If you want to apply oil then pure boiled linseed oil or pure Chinese tung oil are the traditional ones to go for, you do need to apply around five to ten coats with at least 24 hours drying in between though. The well known "Danish oil" in the brown tin for example is really a thinned out varnish and bears little relation to a traditional oil finish.

Personally I would seal with shellac sanding sealer, sand back, coat again with French Polish (button polish will give a lovely honey colour) then apply a good clear wax with 0000 grade wire wool and buff up. Further applications of wax should increase the shine.

If however you cannot seem to get much of a change in colour when applying solvent finishes there may be another problem. When you say you have stripped most of the wood in your house you have to be sure that you have stripped it really clean. If the wood has previously been coated with pre 1950's paint then you may well have a slightly shiny, waxy-feeling, misty off-white film still present. This is likely to be the final residue of a horrible old oil bound primer they used to use. If you don't break through this film by sanding, any subsequent finish you apply will just rest on the surface and will not "wet" the wood underneath and you will not be able to get that deep rich colour we all love. In this case it is time for more hard work I'm afraid in the form of sanding.

The film is quite tenacious and you may need to use 60 or 80 grit paper to start with, followed by 120 then 240 grits. If you have more than a couple of doors to do it really wood pay to buy a decent sander. If you are on a budget go for a 5 inch random orbital sander form Makita for around 80, this will speed up things by 2 or 3 times and save your arms! If you have say 15 doors, skirting, floors etc then it is well worth paying a little more for a 6 inch random orbital, these are more powerful and are around 5 to ten times faster than by hand alone. I recommend the Metabo SXE450 Duo as it is both a rough and fine sander in one, around 150. Look it up on the internet. After sanding the wood should be perfectly clean and even a rub over with a damp cloth should deepen the wood to a rich honey colour.

Period Property UK would like to thank Newell Polishers for answering this question. Contact Toby Newell at info@newellpolishers.fsnet.uk

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Parquet flooring advice
FROM: Marion Garner (Loughborough, Leicestershire)
I've just moved into a late 19th century house which has wooden parquet flooring throughout the ground floor. In one room there has been a lot of shrinkage in the wood blocks, some are loose and there are gaps between the blocks. Also the surface is worn and faded. The floor seems to have been laid direct onto a hard surface (there is no cellar) and there is central heating throughout the house.

I want to restore the floor but don't know how to deal with the gaps between the blocks and whether I should sand down or stain the top surface. Presumably it should be finished with a wax seal?

Marion Garner

It may be prudent to get quotations from professionals before you start this job because this is quite an involved and difficult job and you could spend a lot of time and money making mistakes.

Firstly you should remove the loose blocks, clean the floor underneath and clean the block, then relay using the appropriate flooring adhesive (take the block into the flooring shop with the old adhesive still attached for advice)

The next 2 stages involve filling in the gaps and sanding clean. Which one you do first will depend on the overall condition of your floor.

If the floor is perfectly flat, i.e. no waves or undulations, then you should apply the gap filler first and then sand off the excess and then clean and smooth with a floor sanding machine from your local hire shop.

If your floor is not flat, i.e. it does have waves and undulations then the job is more difficult. You will need to strip any residual stain or varnish by hand with a solvent-stripping chemical like Nitromors. Then sand the floor with a portable sander and by hand. Apply the gap filler very carefully scraping away as much excess as possible. When dried remove the remaining excess gap filler using a portable sander and a cabinet scraper.

The gap filling compound needs to be compatible with the finish you are applying over the top, you should really discuss this at a reputable flooring shop as the trade gap fillers which are mixed with sawdust are much easier to apply and use than wood glue and sawdust or wood filler (which will fall out eventually)

Depending on what gap filler you have used you can now finish your floor with anything you like. They already had varnishes in the 19th century so don't be afraid to use a modern varnish, your floor sounds like it is probably oak so this shouldn't go yellow with the varnish. You can apply a couple of coats of French polish then apply wax by hand with fine wire wool but this will not be so durable. I would not recommend a modern oil finish as these are just diluted varnishes! A traditional oil finish takes weeks of work to prepare and can go sticky if not done properly. Good luck.

Period Property UK would like to thank Newell Polishers for answering this question. Contact Toby Newell at info@newellpolishers.fsnet.uk

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Damp continues after using traditional building materials
FROM: Paul Farmer (Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire)
We have a 500-year-old flint and brick cottage which I am renovating. my internal and external walls have been rendered over the flint using hydraulic lime and sharp sand mix only. Two internal rendered walls are not drying out and are still damp up to about 1.2 metres. I believe the outside level is higher than the inside floor, but I am unable to lower the outside level due to a 100year old peach tree rooted up against the front wall which is surrounded by soil. How can I either reduce this dampness inside or if possible remove it completely. I obviously do not have any damp courses anywhere? All outside walls are painted using lime paint only. In fact I a have used all traditional materials everywhere

Paul Farmer

It seems that the wall is saturated with dampness and although you have used the appropriate materials to allow the wall to breathe, the amount of moisture appears too great for the wall to cope. Externally if you really cannot lower the ground level it might be possible to install land drains around or near the tree to try to take moisture away from this area. Without precise details, a plan or photographs it is difficult to advise fully and you might need to seek professional advice on what might or might not be possible to undertake to the exterior wall. Internally is a different matter.

Quite clearly the amount of moisture in the wall is too great for the wall to cope with normally. It would be inappropriate and a retrograde step to attempt a modern solution with impervious materials, as I believe this would simply served to trap moisture and build up an even greater reservoir of water within the wall. You clearly want to achieve dry internal surfaces. A possible solution to your problem might be to create a ventilated cavity on the inner face of a wall. This would involve creating a form of dry lining. Traditionally this involved the use of timber battens fixed to the wall and a lath and plaster wall surface created on the face of the battens, thus leaving a void behind. The modern solution would not be dissimilar from this although pre-treated battens should of course be used. A ventilating or drainage gap should be left at the bottom, possibly disguised by a skirting. You might occasionally find moisture collecting at the base but it should not pose a serious problem. I assume you have solid floors internally and that they are traditional in that they allow breathability. An alternative to using a timber batten, etc is to use a modern proprietary membrane that has dimples to create a void behind but to allow conventional plastering to the surface. There are a number of manufacturers such as Platon or Newlath. If such a system is used I would recommend the use of traditional lime plasters in any event. If you do not want to have the dry-lining to the full height of the wall you could disguise it by creating a dado area using the dry-lining and this could be ventilated at the top and bottom and disguised by skirtings and mouldings, etc. Further advice from an imaginative architect or surveyor used to dealing with old buildings should be sought and you might need to obtain listed building consent.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Advice on VAT before starting to build extension
FROM: Claire Beard (Knutsford, Cheshire)
We are considering buying a converted mill dating back to 1730 which is Grade II listed. The current owners have been granted planning permission for an extension to the kitchen/dining room and I understand that it may be possible to reclaim VAT on both the extension itself and the new kitchen required as part of it. Is this discretionary and who do I contact about it?

Claire Beard

VAT exemption can be obtained on authorised alterations to listed buildings. You will of course need to obtain Listed Building Consent, but the work also has to be regarded as a genuine alteration for VAT purposes. It will be for the builder to deal with, in that the builder will not charge VAT and will then have to explain and justify this to the VAT office local to the builder. However, you will of course need to provide information for the builder to use. You will need to work with the builder to deal with this. There are sources of advice for such matters including The Listed Property Owners Club on 01795 844 939 and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings www.spab.org.uk , who have recently brought out a publication on this very topic.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Timber & damp survey fails to follow RICS best practice leading to bad advice
FROM: David Purcell (Yorkshire)
My wife and I are in the process of buying a sub post office in North Yorkshire. The building is a 1750 Georgian Grade II listed building. Our Bank asked us to get a Timber and Damp report, which we duly did. Our problem is that the man found lots of damp in the downstairs and recommended that the quarry tiles ( lying directly on soil) be replaced with a concrete floor and the installation of Silicon based DPC system with tons of plastering. The estimate for this is a staggering 11,000. The vendor of the property is horrified and claims that there is no damp and the floor is fine.

David Purcell

I suspect the testing undertaken by the timber and damp man involved the use of a hand-held moisture meter. These were not really designed for use in masonry and can be very unreliable when used on plaster, brick or stone wall surfaces. They are merely a tool and can only be a general guide on whether there might be actual dampness. If there is no visible evidence of a problem it is quite possible that the building is functioning properly and moisture is moving through the fabric of the building quite satisfactorily without causing any damage. The property needs to be inspected by someone who properly understands historic buildings and can advise fully on an appropriate approach, if indeed any work is necessary. You could find that the work actually necessary is relatively minor and could cost far less than the modern treatment approach. Further, in the long term it will be far less damaging to the building, etc.

Regarding the mortgage, if it is merely a condition that you obtain a report you could tell the mortgage company that you will undertake the work in due course and agree to be bound by the condition. If they ever check the matter (which is unlikely) and they find that you did not undertake the work you would simply explain that you sought further advice that provided a different solution. If the mortgage offer includes a retention in relation to these works you will need to take the matter up with the lenders. You will need to be armed with a report from a professional person experienced in dealing with historic buildings, providing appropriate advice in this instance. To find a suitable professional you should contact The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings www.spab.org.uk as they have a Northern caseworker and probably have names of suitable professionals in your area. The RICS conservation group will also be able to provide names of Chartered Surveyors in your district with conservation experience.

On a more general note you might find it useful to advise your mortgage company of the following. When a valuer undertakes a mortgage valuation he or she should comply with the requirements of the Red Book. This is the manual for valuations published by the RICS and adhered to by all valuers. Within that publication there is an Appendix (GNA2) that specifically deals with recommendations for works to historic buildings. In that section it makes it clear that advice with regard to timber and damp problems should be obtained from a properly qualified professional experienced in dealing with historic buildings who does not have a vested interest in the outcome of the recommendations given (unlike most 'high street' timber and damp specialist companies). It also makes it clear that conventional modern treatment should only be used as a matter of last resort. You should advise your mortgage company that the valuer does not appear to have followed properly the guidance in the RICS Red Book.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Should I use an Electro Osmosis system to deal with rising damp
FROM: Iain Giles (Dunstable, Bedfordshire)
We have recently bought a 250 year cottage constructed of earth bound stone walls 600mm thick. The external walls have been covered in a mixture of cement renders and polymer based paints and have trapped moisture within the walls. I have been advised to remove these coatings and renders and expose the lime based mortar joints thereby allowing the building to breathe. The problem may be solved by adequate moisture management by suitable heating and ventilation but the problem of dampness rising up the walls from the ground does concern me. Would you recommend an Electro osmosis system to cater for the latter in addition to the other solution suggested. If so can you recommend a company. The property is in Cornwall.

Iain Giles

The simple answer is no. There is some debate on how much rising damp actually exists in most buildings. However, where dampness exists in the base of a wall it will try to escape by evaporation from surfaces as soon as it can. If it is trapped then it will rise higher up the wall or if there is an excessive amount of moisture at the base of the wall then it will rise further before that moisture can fully evaporate away. By lowering ground levels and ensuring that moisture can evaporate as low down the wall as possible, the dampness should escape before it rises to cause any particular problem at a higher level. By using breathable materials the remaining moisture can evaporate away before it causes any major problems. If dealt with properly I doubt if any need for a retrospectively inserted damp proof course or damp proofing mechanism will be needed. In it any event, where I have seen the Electro osmosis system installed I have not yet found one that has been effective, as far as I can ascertain.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Professional advice required for peace of mind
FROM: Darren Jones (Deopham, Norfolk)
We are 1st time buyers and have set our hearts on a Weavers Cottage (asking Price 75,000) we were prepared to pay the asking price until we had a home buyers report which suggested it was only worth 65,000...so HSBC will only give us this...the reason why it was de valued by the surveyor is that it was an "under dwelling" and that it was built against a hill, which makes it prone to dampness (in fact dampness work is now due) however, the survey also states that "some movement has occurred" and that "some metal ties have been inserted to aid stability" we have seen these large circular metal plates on two areas of the front as their seems to be some slight bulging (the surveyor has suggested that we get a structural survey done on these defects). The house is about 1850, do most properties this old have something like this in the homebuyers report! We are worried as we like the property however we will only now consider the property for 65,000 but what about this metal tie thing! Is this common on Houses this old?

Darren Jones

In my opinion the homebuyers report format is unsuitable for the type of property you are purchasing. This format aims to identify only those major defects that might have an effect on values. In most instances the surveyor will identify a defect but will not pursue this to advise in greater detail. Quite often there is very little assessment of defects made within the scope of a home buyer's report. Yet problems appear to have come about for two reasons, firstly the type of report you have obtained and secondly the apparent lack of experience of the surveyor preparing the report. Most buildings of any age have suffered a degree of movement. In the vast majority of instances the movements will be historic and of little consequence. Some older properties were constructed with metal tie bars and plates. However, in many instances lateral movement of the wall will have occurred after construction, probably due to loads from the floor or the roof. If there is little lateral restraint to the wall it will bulge out words and the insertion of ties would be a conventional method of restraining the wall.

Even today, we use a similar principle to retain a wall where lateral movement has occurred. The main difference is that the ties are not visible. The issue of dampness is another matter that needs to be carefully considered. You will have noted the other answers to queries on dampness and will also have noted the discussion forum regarding damp issues. In this instance it seems that you require advice from an engineer experienced in dealing with historic buildings who can properly assess the movement, whether it is recent or ongoing and whether there is any need for further work. You will also need a professional opinion from someone who properly understands historic buildings with regard it to the dampness. I would refer you to the answer above regarding dampness in a property in Yorkshire. Once you are armed with these further reports you can return to the mortgage company and deal with the matters that they race. This will of course involve additional costs in obtaining the additional reports.

Next time, I suggest that you commission a full building survey from someone suitably experienced in the survey of historic buildings and then you will avoid inappropriate advice being obtained. As a general rule I am of the opinion that the homebuyers report format is only suitable for twentieth-century buildings that remain relatively unaltered and are generally standard.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Confused about damp. Get us out of here!!!!!
FROM: Carole Wynne (Knutsford, Cheshire)
The original part of our house dates back to 1730 with a later addition in 1959. We are very confused about damp in older properties and have had several damp companies in to survey. Damp proofing was carried out to part of the property in the 1970's and we have just had some damp proofing done this year. However out side the house on the lower brickwork individual bricks have spalled and blown in places and no damp readings were found. What causes this to happen and how can we remedy it? The brickwork to the house is painted and not very well. It will need redecoration next year. Should we use a bitumen paint on the lower courses of bricks or not? Who are the best people to get advice from regarding damp proofing as the commercial companies are obviously in it to make money and they differ widely. I am not even sure we should have had the work done that we did. I did speak to the British Damproofing and wood preserving association but they were a bit wishy-washy to.

Carole Wynne

The fact that damp treatment has been undertaken in the past and you still experience a damp problem suggests that the original dampness did not arise from a cause that the treatment deals with. Damp treatment generally can only deal with rising damp. There are many possible causes of damp in your property and if any of these other causes were the actual source of the dampness problem the treatment would have had no effect. Nevertheless, the insertion of a damp proof course does provide a barrier and where inserted into a wall that is already saturated with moisture it causes two problems. Above the damp-proof course the residual moisture may become trapped and could cause problems until such time as it eventually evaporates or escapes away. Below the inserted damp proof course there will be a continuing zone of dampness that can no longer rise and evaporate naturally. It therefore becomes trapped in the zone below the damp-proof course and this area becomes supercharged with moisture. The result is that some soft bricks and stone will suffer spalling. The fact that no damp readings have been obtained suggests that the internal wall surfaces have been tanked with a waterproofing render. No surface readings will be obtained if this render it is still satisfactory. However, behind this render the wall could still be saturated. I do not recommend any paint or other finish that serves to trap the moisture further. You should lower ground levels as far as possible externally and expose the brickwork so that moisture can escape. If you have suspended timber and boarded floors you will need to ensure that the voids are clear and well ventilated as these areas will also aid the evaporation of moisture at a low level in the walls. It may also be of assistance to remove any modern tanking and reinstate traditional lime plasters so that any residual moisture in the wall can evaporate through to the inner surface. Initially you might find the dampness occurs on the inner faces but over time as the excessive moisture reduces the wall should be able to cope with the remaining normal levels of moisture in the wall structure itself. In any event, the tanking will probably break down in due course as I find that it rarely lasts much more than 10 to 20 years. You will need to seek further advice from a professional with suitable experience in dealing with historic buildings. Again I would refer you, as in earlier questions, to the RICS Conservation Group and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings www.spab.org.uk .

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Thatched cottage first timer needs advice on cost of thatching
FROM: Elena Blanco (Oxfordshire)
I am thinking about buying a thatched cottage in Oxfordshire that is in need of renovation. The one thing that I can't do myself is the roof so I wondered if you could give me any idea of the sort of costs associated with completely re-thatching a roof. I appreciate that it is very difficult without seeing the cottage and having accurate dimensions but if I tell you that it is a two bedroom cottage and the roof is approximately 25' long and the house is 19' wide can you give me any idea of worst case scenario costs? If it makes a difference the cottage is grade II listed? Also it would be very useful if you could tell me how long it should take to completely re-thatch a roof just to have some idea of how long Icould be without a roof! Currently the roof does not leak but on one side it has quite a nice crop of grass, weeds and flowers growing out of the thatch, if it is in that bad a condition is it ever possible to do a repair rather than a complete re-thatch? I'm sorry that I can't be more specific but if you could give me even the vaguest of ideas I can judge whether to pursue it with a local thatcher.

Elena Blanco

There is much debate over the issue of re-thatching thatched properties. In Oxfordshire there are all three main types of thatch found; long straw, combed wheat reed and water reed. Any change from one material to another will require Listed Building Consent. Depending upon whether the conservation officers regard the existing thatch as appropriate or not, may determine whether consent is obtained. Generally, consents will not be given for changing long straw to combed wheat reed or water reed. Usually change from combed wheat reed to water reed will not be approved either. Changes from water reed to long straw may meet with approval if it is regarded that long straw is the traditional thatching form for your district. However, if it can be shown that water reed was originally the material used on your building, or that it is the traditional material for your district, then change to reed or retention of reed will be acceptable. You should speak with your conservation officer regarding the issue of thatch and what they it may regard as suitable. Although some thatchers will give good advice there are others who may have a vested interest or limited skills in certain materials. This may therefore colour the advice they give. Such comment does not apply to all thatchers and there are many who give good independent advice. Most thatchers do not belong to any particular trade organisation and although most thatchers use the term Master, it does not signify any particular level of skill, achievement, etc. Quite simply, any one in thatching can call themselves a Master Thatcher.

I suggest that you look around your village to see other well-established thatched roofs and find out who the thatcher was. Ask to see other examples of thatched roofs undertaken by that thatcher some time ago to establish that his work stands the test of time. It may be that your thatch does not require complete renewal. It may be possible to undertake appropriate careful repair of the surface, perhaps re-thatching of only one slope where deteriorating, perhaps re-ridging together with some localised repairs, etc is all that is needed. It really depends upon the condition of the thatch, the nature of the thatch, etc.

Most thatchers I have spoken to will advise that it is rarely possible to satisfactorily patch repair reed roofs. However, long straw roofs and combed wheat reed roofs can often be patch repaired rather than completely re-thatched. It would be sensible for you to seek advice from at least two or three independent thatchers as well as speaking to the conservation officer before making any final decisions. If re-thatching is necessary you may have to wait one to two years before the work can be undertaken. You should find a thatcher that will in the meantime undertake an occasional patch repair to prevent leaks, if the deterioration is that serious. With regard to costs, I can only give a very vague guide but would suggest that for completely re-thatching a building of the size you mention a budget of around 15,000 would be sensible. Although I have mentioned above that most thatchers do not belong to a trade association I would suggest that a guide to a thatcher, if other routes of locating a suitable thatcher fail, would be to find someone who is a member of the regional Master Thatchers Association. The National Council for Master Thatchers Associations can provide lists of their members in your area.

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

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Should quarry tiles laid on an earth floor give us reason to be concerned
FROM: Steve Johnson (Worcestershire)
My wife and I have just started to renovate a cottage built in 1850. One of the floors is a direct to earth quarry tile floor. When the damp course was being installed the company expressed concerns over this floor, even though since uncovering it, it appears to have dried out a great deal. There are now very few visible signs of dampness. They recommended replacing this floor with a concrete floor but I don't like this idea as it such a great original feature. Is it possible to leave the floor exposed, but treat it in some way to help seal it without causing damp problems?

Steve Johnson

My first concern is the fact that you have had a damp proof course installed. You may have read other answers on this section of the site or read comments on the discussion forum. A building of 150 years old or more would have functioned by moisture management in that walls and floors would have been able to breathe. By reverting to such an approach it may have been possible to avoid the need for injecting damp-proof courses etc. It is now of course too late to uninstall the damp-proof course but I do not recommend allowing a concrete floor to be laid. A breathable floor structure, as originally intended, will function far better. You have already mentioned yourself that as soon as the floor was uncovered it dried out. You should not lay fitted carpets or other fitted floor coverings that seal in the moisture. No surface sealant should be used on the floor as this simply seals the moisture trapped underneath and this causes problems. Simply leave the floor to function as originally intended. Externally ensure that ground levels are sufficiently below the internal floor level, approximately 150 mm, and ensure breathability to the bases of the walls. This will then mean that ground moisture under and around the building can escape before rising to cause any significant problem within the property. If you change the floor to concrete it will cap ground moisture and drive it out and you will probably then find problems occurring to the chimneystack, to the perimeters and wherever the damp proofing has not been 100% effective. Modern buildings and modern building techniques all aim to exclude moisture. The treatment industry also aims to exclude moisture. When building a new property moisture exclusion methods can easily be incorporated. When retrospectively inserting moisture exclusion methods, such as damp proof courses, etc, they are rarely 100% effective. Any weakness in the system, gaps or failure all then lead to a concentration of a specific damp problem. I therefore generally recommend that all older buildings should be left to function as originally in that they should be able to breathe.