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 (

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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: Leaking smoke from chimney gives cause for concern
FROM: Mark Wilkins (Wiltshire)
I have a stone cottage build circa 1830 of rubble stone. One of our chimneys is leaking into a first floor bedroom, which I think is due to a collapsed old chimney feeding the redundant bedroom fireplace.

I think we probably have to get the main fireplace chimney relined, but am completely perplexed as to which method is best. I would prefer a non-destructive method and have heard of system such as CICO which pumps a compound around a balloon to reseal, but is that type of system ok for older properties? or is a metal liner the better option?

Mark Wilkins

Until the problem is properly assessed I would not recommend any form of lining. I suggest you start with a full flue survey. Although perhaps unorthodox a CCTV camera (such as those used in drains) could be put down the flue to examine its internal condition and precisely where the defects exist. If possible it is preferable to resolve the problems by conventional building works. This may even mean taking down and re-building part of the chimney, or even opening it up from the side to repair a specific area internally.

That said, if the above is too expensive or inappropriate for any reason you could consider re-lining. There are pros and cons with each method you suggest. The CICO system involves installing a balloon and filling around with a cementitious mix. This is permanent and not removable in future. It can place pressure on the interior of the flue and in a few rare instances it has been found to cause the chimney to 'explode'. Approach this method with great care on old chimneys. The double walled flue liner is more flexible and removable. However, it has a limited life and can have condensation problems. It is possible to insulate around it, but this can be difficult.

With any chimney lining it is necessary to ensure you have a clear unobstructed flue to line. If not repairs or local opening up may be necessary to form a clear void.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.



SUBJECT: Legal advice first port of call concerning absentee landlord.
FROM: Anthony Matthews (Carmarthenshire)
I own a house that shares a chimney with a neighbouring property. Mine is the original house (1743) but the neighbouring property shared the chimney at a later date. I have 7 flues and the neighbouring property 4.

My neighbour refused to contribute to the cost of rebuilding the chimney using original materials - the Conservation Officer for Carmarthenshire called in an expert architect about the rebuilding and laid down the details as to what materials should be used. A meeting was called which my neighbour was asked to attend but he did not show. He is an absentee landlord. I claimed 4 elevenths of the costs from him but he ignored my letters and phone calls and then sold the house to a third party. The new owner was made aware of the dispute by me prior to the purchase and maintains that she had written into her contract that the vendor had to withhold the sum claimed (2365) in his solicitors' clients' A/C. I have contacted this solicitor who states that he knows nothing about this and anyway no longer acts for the vendor. The vendor appears to have moved overseas.

Do I have any claim against the new owner?

Anthony Matthews

This is a legal matter and a solicitor must advise on this.

On a more general point, if you have a claim against someone (e.g. a neighbour) and you have doubts that you will get your money quickly or easily and suspect they may sell there is a possible method of securing some assurance of payment. You can ask for the amount to be placed as a charge against the property. This would then show on local searches and would have to be paid out of proceeds of the sale before the vendor gets the balance. I am not sure of the precise method and whether you have to have a successful court win beforehand, but I have come across some Councils that use this method to recover the costs of drainage works when owners refuse to pay them their proportion.


Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.


SUBJECT: Dodgy builder claims you can get dry rot in bricks
FROM: Ben Miles (East Sussex)

I own a four-story terrace house in Hastings. In the loft the red bricks in the chimneybreast are crumbling and are like powder in some places (it only seems to be the red ones and only on the chimney). The mortar in the whole chimneybreast is turning to powder. I had a builder round and her told me I had dry rot in the brick and I needed to rebuild the whole chimneybreast at a cost of 5000. So I spoke to a dry rot specialist on the phone and he told me you don't get dry rot in bricks it can only pass through it. Can anyone give me any advice?

Ben Miles

You do not get dry rot in bricks.

What you describe sounds like the brick crumbling because it is a soft red brick, probably poorly fired in the first instance. Water ingress over the years has resulted in more rapid degradation of these soft bricks. In the circumstances you describe I suspect that the only sensible repair is to cut out and replace damaged bricks. Unfortunately, this may result in quite extensive re-building.

It is a salutary lesson to us all that it is not always possible to retain degrading historic fabric and at some point the old fabric has to be taken out and replaced. In replacing it you should however make sure that the replacement is as close to the original as possible.


Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.



SUBJECT: Local council rejects sympathetic plans for conversion of outbuilding.
FROM: David Armes (Hertfordshire)

My wife and I are the proud owners of a "Whealden" timber framed house that is listed grade 2 with a *.

We have spent the last 2 years putting right a level of neglect that previous owners have allowed to the property.

In the rear garden of the house we have a detached outbuilding that was once the tack room for the farm. This is joined to the house with a brick wall. It is fairly dilapidated and is currently used as a shed/store room.

We would like to extend the house by adding a garden room, between the house and the tack room and to completely renovate the tack room and turn it into a bedroom and bathroom.

We are very keen to add this in keeping with our beautiful house and so have commissioned potential drawings and submitted these to the local authority, asking the planners of our chances in getting permission to proceed.

We are intending to build in green oak, with a tile roof of the same pitch as the existing tack room. We really want to preserve the nature of our home and so want to build from the same materials as the main house as much as possible.

The planners have been slow at acknowledging our request to look at permission and have now come back with a flat rejection, stating that a previous application for a similar scheme was rejected in 1991 on the grounds of not being in sympathy with the house.

Can you please advise on how we should approach this? We do not want to inflame the planners but feel that renovating the outbuilding must be a positive move.

We believe we have gone to great lengths to minimise any material change to the house and want to do this work in keeping and from materials that will fit in with the house.

What is our best approach? Are we completely wasting our time given the grade 2* listing? Do planners ever say no on an advice basis but then say yes when a formal application is made? If they reject a formal planning application and we go to an appeal do we stand any chance of success?

David Armes

It is not in the Planner's interest to say no now, only to change their minds in the future. That said, if a formal application is accompanied with a set of documents such as a justification, arguments in terms of local and national policies, etc they may then find it harder to refuse. If they do, you could always take it to appeal.

Listing is not intended to preserve buildings in aspic. For most historic buildings their future relies on careful and sensitive change to keep them habitable. This applies as much to Grade I, II* and II buildings. Very few are so rare or fragile that they cannot be changed - and these are usually museums! Nonetheless, the extension and alteration must be carefully handled.

The sort of things you need to consider are:

  • Do the alterations involve cutting through, removing or affecting the older parts/fabric of the building?
  • What are the proportions of the alterations to the original?
  • Are the alterations in a sympathetic or suitable contrasting style? [It is not always appropriate to copy the style of what exists]

In other words you really need to have a full assessment of the building undertaken so that you can present a conservation statement and plan identifying the importance of the building and its various elements, etc. This helps to understand the more important and perhaps 'sacrosanct' parts and those that can be altered/changed.

I cannot comment on your specific case, but I hope these guidelines help. I would not suggest that you simply give up, but take things carefully and slowly develop the background and information to support the proposed scheme. You will need the help of professionals (planner, architect, historian, etc) that are experienced in dealing with older buildings in your district.


Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.



SUBJECT: Acid washed bricks give perpetual salt deposit problem
FROM: Ponset Brown (Greater London)
I am concerned about the ugly salt deposits on the red bricks around my door. Brushing the deposits off doesn't work...they just return. When the whole house was repointed last year I noted with the builder that some of the brick surfaces seemed a little powdery and one or two bricks were highly pitted, but he said I didn't have a problem - the house just needed repointing. The pointing used was sand and cement (not lime and the bricks were acid washed -- my brickwork was the darkest on the street due to the popularity of washing the brickwork and I was advised to do this. It has cost me a few thousand pounds to get this work done (I used the same person as both my neighbours who had it done earlier in the year). After reading your site information, I have got the impression that I need to get someone else to remove the work and then lime it! What I do not understand is my neighbours do not have this problem and have had the same work! As the problem only exists around the doorway (around six bricks) is there any less drastic solution - replacement etc? Internally the only problem is a v- small circle of bubbling paintwork in the kitchen. Again, is there any way to simply treat this area? I repainted it twice last year and I know simply pva and paint isn't going to work long term. The internal walls are sand and cement plastering with a damp inhibitor. I now know that this hasn't helped, and had it done on the advice of what I believed to be a good builder - again on recommendation!

Rather than gut the house - can you offer me any less drastic solutions? I really don't want to remove everything but the bricks in the house (i.e. all-external mortar and internal plastering) and start again, nor can I afford to have this work done again on my own! Is there another way?

Ponset Brown

The use of a cement mortar and the acid washing are probably the causes of the salt problem. To wash the bricks or introduce moisture simply dissolves the salts and they will re-appear when the bricks dry out.

It is possible that the use of a cement mortar has concentrated moisture escaping the brickwork into the area of soft reds, hence the present problem. Normally I would suggest re-pointing in lime mortar and waiting patiently for the salts to gradually come out and just keep brushing them away.

However, I cannot explain why you have the problem but not your neighbours.

Further, there is a possibility that there is high moisture content in the wall and that the problem will continue as moisture evaporates and deposits the salts on the surface.

Whilst the bricks are not crumbling away it is unlikely to pose a serious problem (it sounds mainly aesthetic), but for a long term solution I suggest you find a local surveyor/architect who understands historic buildings and such problems. It seems that only further on-site investigation will resolve this problem.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.



SUBJECT: Rebuilt conservatory destroyed by lilac tree leads to problem with local council
FROM: Natasha Hitchcock (Cheshire)
My parents bought a house that was derelict twelve years ago, when they purchased the house it had a stone veranda attached to the rear with a totally ruined summer house built on top of it and a lilac tree growing through the external structure. Due to the tree, the structure was demolished and after the internal renovations were complete they rebuilt the stone structure and a couple of years after they built a conservatory on top smaller than the previous structure.

The council has now complained that the conservatory might have to be pulled down because it is made of glass. They are not disputing the fact that there was something there on the 1st floor just its materials. Are they allowed to complain about such a thing? If they have conceded the size is fine and the main base concurs with the original plans how can they complain about the materials used?

Natasha Hitchcock

If the house is listed the demolition and reconstruction would have required consent. In the process of considering the application matters such as materials would be a relevant consideration. Even if the property is not listed demolition and reconstruction may have required planning permission, in which case the Council would look at materials used.

Either way, the Council would normally have the right to consider materials and can require certain materials to be used, especially if the building is listed or in a conservation area.

You have not provided enough information to give a more detailed answer. Is the building listed or in a conservation area? What action have the Council taken (e.g. Enforcement Notice)? How old was the previous structure?

If the Council is taking formal action you should nevertheless have the option of taking the matter to appeal either against a refusal or in response to an enforcement notice. Nonetheless, before taking the matter further it would be wise to seek independent advice from a professional experienced in dealing with older buildings in your district.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.



SUBJECT: Should I asphalt my quarry-tiled floor before laying new Oak boards.
FROM: Robert Fraser (Cheshire)
I have an 1860s semi-detached Cheshire brick property. The floor is quarry tile and is in a very poor state of repair (cracked, missing). They appear to be laid straight on sand or directly on earth. Some parts of the floor have been concreted by previous owners and a carpet laid on top. I would like to lay an oak floor over the tiles but I am concerned about whether there is a risk of damp from below the tiles which could warp the boards. I've had it suggested that I should have the surface asphalted first and then have a floor fixed to chipboard. Does this make sense? I would have expected a timber floor to be fixed to batons.

Also, some of the walls have been fitted with some kind of low power damp proof system - is this appropriate in a late 19th century cottage?

Robert Fraser

I would not recommend using asphalt below a chipboard floor.

As you will have noticed from the various postings on the discussion forum, it is generally not good practice to form a damp proof membrane in an old floor because it can drive ground moisture elsewhere (usually up the walls). It is better to allow the floor to breathe. If you lay Oak on such a floor it will eventually rot, but could take many years. You could therefore take a risk. Historically it was quite usually to re-form a timber floor every so often.

With a solid floor it is more usual to use brick or stone finishes. If you wish to use timber you could lay the Oak on pre-treated battens on strips of isolating membrane (a damp proof layer). The void should be ventilated and this could be by way of grilles in the floor edge positioned under radiators.

Ideally, a timber floor should be properly formed by way of a conventional suspended floor construction with ventilated void.

As a completely different alternative, if the property has an effective horizontal damp proof course to all walls, chimneys, etc you could then lay a modern concrete floor with membrane incorporated. You could then lay your Oak floor as a finish on top of this. The reason I mention damp proofing of walls is simply that if walls have a dpc the installation of a membrane in the floor is unlikely to then cause problems of moisture migrating elsewhere because it will be constrained by the damp proofing. This is not my preferred approach, but I mention it for completeness.

The damp proof system you describe sounds like an electro-osmosis system. I am not convinced that these are effective, although they do not cause any significant physical damage to the building. I would therefore suggest that you leave it in position and ignore it. If you have a damp problem the matter would need proper investigation. There are many postings on dampness on the discussion forum and in previous answers to Agony Uncle questions.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.


SUBJECT: Soil & rubble filled trench around house leads to damp
FROM: Caroline Skelton (Warwickshire)
We have recently purchased a house parts of which are 400 years old. The ground level in this part of the house is lower than the outside ground level. The inside of the walls have been treated with vertical structural waterproofing by the previous owner. On the instructions of our surveyor we had the render taken up by three courses as it was at ground level outside. On doing this we discovered a retaining garden wall 12 cms from the house 41 cms deep with concrete underpinning at the bottom. This trench was filled with soil and as a result the bricks of the house were sodden. We have cleared out the trench along the side of the house to allow the bricks to dry out. Please could you advise the best way to fill this trench to allow drainage and stop the wall absorbing too much moisture.

Caroline Skelton

My preference is to leave such trenches open with no backfilling. You could install a layer of pebbles, etc for decorative effect. However, if the trench is completely filled with pebbles, etc it defeats the object of having an exposed wall through which moisture can escape and evaporate. Although gravel or pebbles allow drainage through it, it does not leave an exposed wall. The wall could still retain moisture. If the trench is a hazard you could install a grille cover, or cantilever paving slabs, etc provided you ensure that there is some ventilation to the top. You should also ensure that there is access for occasional clearing.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.


SUBJECT: Does bulging wall need to be rebuilt.
FROM: Shona Williamson (Northumberland)
The gable end wall of an end terrace house we are interested in is bulging out. Internal inspection shows the wall breaking away from the ceilings, as if the wall is falling outwards. Does the wall need re-building or is repair possible?

Shona Williamson

How you deal with the problem will depend on the cause and whether the movement is ongoing. If there is an active movement problem you will need to have it thoroughly investigated and this could involve monitoring the crack for a period of months. If you have insurance cover the insurer may accept a claim.

Subject to what is found following the investigation and monitoring a decision can be made as to appropriate repairs. If, however, you find that there is no ongoing problem, you will need to consider repairs - mainly for aesthetic reasons. Whether to repair or rebuild depends on the extent and precise nature of the damage. Rebuilding is usually a last resort undertaken if the stability and general condition of the majority of the wall is poor that its overall integrity is doubtful. Repair is preferable and can include the insertion of concealed restraint bars, etc. Repair can also include some localised re-stitching of brickwork to remove cracks. With regard to the various timber members bearing into the wall, these can be re-supported into the wall whether repaired or rebuilt. You should find a local professional (building surveyor or engineer for this type of work) who properly understands older building and can prepare a Schedule of Work. This all assumes that the matter of ongoing movement is non-existent or resolved.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.


SUBJECT: Should we lime render our exterior brick walls after removing cement rending
FROM: David Newby (Cheshire)
In order to rectify a very bad damp problem we have just renewed the slate roof and removed all render from the external brick walls of our 1820s house, which unfortunately in the process has damaged a bit of the brickwork. We were hoping to apply a render course, be it lime based or another material, but this time with some sort of weatherproof additive in it. We have also been advised by another contractor to pebbledash the walls. Could you please advise as to the correct methodand materials we should use and if it is possible for us to safeguard against this damp problem in the future.

David Newby

A property of this age, would normally have been constructed in a way that allowed the wall to breathe (lime mortar, lime render and lime plasters). A breathable wall surface does not necessarily lead to damp problems.

The first thing is to determine precisely why you had so much damp. Was it roof leaks, water penetrating cracks in walls, moisture trapped behind the dense render finish, rising damp, high grounds levels, condensation, etc? You may have cured the problem for now but unless you are certain you identified the initial problem you could find that you have the dampness back again in future.

That said, my initial preference would be for the use of traditional lime render finishes. If the wall/s in question are exposed you could use a naturally hydraulic lime (NHL) rather than a render based on pure lime putty. This would normally give slightly better weathering protection but retaining the breathability.

The idea of a breathable wall is that water is absorbed into the outer face of the render and then evaporates away during wind, sun and dry weather. It only penetrates through to the interior if there is a concentration of water (e.g. a leaking gutter) or in extreme circumstances. The other benefit of a breathable finish is that internal moisture (e.g. condensation) will also be absorbed into the wall rather than show as dampness on the surface. The system is one of moisture management. This is perhaps the very opposite of modern technology that aims for moisture exclusion. Without knowing more about your original problem I cannot be certain that the traditional render approach will solve all your dampness problems. However, in the majority of cases such an approach would see improvements and would be generally beneficial for the house and its occupants.

You will gather from the above that I would not suggest the use of pebble-dash (assuming the modern interpretation i.e. cement render with stone/pebble in its surface). However, in some parts of the country (e.g. Scotland) harling and rough-cast are traditional forms of wall finish that involve the use of stone/pebble etc in the render mix.

There are many postings on the matter of damp on the discussion forum.

If you want independent advice find a local professional experienced in old buildings to advise further.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.