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).

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...

o Water in my cellar Richard Butler (West Midlands)
o What to do about the damp patches and plaster crumbing from the wall ? Clive Loe (Southampton)
o Is damp caused by modern paints being less porous? Alan Malcolm (Edinburgh)
o Do I need to consult my neighbours if I wish to reslate my roof? Karen Steel (Basingstoke)
o Oak beams treated against fire Helen Cocaign (Bristol)
o A bodge job cottage with a granite floor under concrete Alison Owen (Cornwall)
o Suitable types of paint for a Dorset long-house Georgina Kitching (Dorset)
o Damp steps Samantha Robinson (Greater London)
o Rising damp - a new interior wall or a second skin? Catherine Moore (Somerset)
o Deadening sound between floors Susie New (Greater London)
o Lime courses in Norfolk Desmond Legget (Norfolk)
o Sand blasting wood Anne Goatman (Gloucestershire)
 

SUBJECT: Water in my cellar
FROM: Richard Butler (West Midlands)
I have an edwardian semi with a small cellar about 13ft sq. After there is heavy rain the ground water comes in to the cellar through various points in the walls to about 1/2 a foot (it's definitely ground water). The neighbouring house's cellar floor level is about a foot or more higher than mine and has sump in the corner and they rarely get water in. I am looking for the cheapest way to stop the water problem but not cause the neighbour any problems, I want to sell the house on and don't want it to be an issue. If I raise the floor level and put a sump in do you think this will get me above the water table and stop the problem? If not what do think think is the best way to fix it cheaply?

Richard Butler

There is insufficient information to provide detailed technical advice. Much may depend on how the cellar is used (if at all). I would tend to take things one step at a time. Whilst you could raise the floor level, this may affect head height and could raise other problems because of the displacement of the water. I would not undertake such work as a first measure, but keep it in mind as a possibility in future. Rather, I would simply create a sump in the lowest point of the cellar and install a semi-submersible pump (with float valve). This would not stop the water getting in but would ensure that the water is pumped away as it enters. The pump would need to be of sufficient power to remove the volume of water and it needs to drain out to a suitable gully so that the water is taken away (not merely shifted to where it can cause other problems). If the pump is undersized you would still get some flooding. I think that a simple sump and pump would be the cheapest solution, but cannot be certain without seeing it. In addition, you should ensure that the cellar is well ventilated to help reduce the risk of the general moisture levels causing problems.

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: What to do about the damp patches and plaster crumbing from the wall?
FROM: Clive Loe (Southampton)
We have a end terrace thatched cottage dated late 18th century. Having had a damp proof course approximately 5 years ago, we have what seems to be rising damp on the neighbouring wall, the plaster has crumbled from the wall leaving very damp patches. We can not go back to the company who actioned the proof course as they are no longer in business.

Clive Loe

Assuming you mean a chemically injected DPC it cannot be removed anyway. It is quite likely that rising damp was not really the problem anyway (or may have been only part of the problem). The inserted DPC may have been ineffective or only partly effective. Therefore, I think you should forget the past and look at the present. There are many posts on the Discussion Forum about dampness, its causes and possible remedies. It is impossible for me to suggest what may be causing the damp in your case. There are matters you need to look at. Is the building rendered and if so is it cement (or covered in some way with impervious finishes)? Is the ground level high in relation to internal floors? Are there leaks? Is the thatch wearing back and rain dripping from eaves onto the wall? Is there a hard finish to the ground around the building allowing rain to splash back into the wall?

As a general rule, buildings are not constructed with inherent dampness. If damp occurs it is usually because something has changed or gone wrong in some way. Most historic buildings are breathable structures and if this is prevented, they suffer damp problems. There are many forms of damp and before your problem is tackled the cause should be properly identified, to ensure the appropriate remedy is implemented. See further information on the Discussion Forum. However, it may be necessary for you to seek advice from a professional experienced in historic buildings (and therefore understanding how they function) and most importantly from someone who has no vested interest in their recommendations.

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: Is damp caused by modern paints being less porous?
FROM: Alan Malcolm (Edinburgh)
I live in a Victorian tenement building which has a communal cellar leading out the shared back garden. The cellar was in a poor state of repair and was recently painted with white masonary paint. However, since this has been done the stone floor has become damp in some areas. Is this caused by modern paints being less porous and causing dampness? If this is the case what's the best way of improving this? Would I be best to concentrate on improving the ventilation? I have also seen anti-condensation paints advertised which report to absorb moisture. Would this help or would the fact there'd be a less permeable coating underneath mean this is ineffective? If all else fails what is the easiest way of removing the paint that's been applied recently?

Alan Malcolm

The cellar would have functioned satisfactorily for years by breathability. To return to this you need to remove the impervious paint and other finishes. This may best be undertaken using chemical removal systems (e.g. Strippers - see Suppliers directory). To achieve a white finish to the walls I suggest you use limewash, which is a traditional breathable system. Advice on limewash can be obtained from the Scottish Lime Centre (Historic Scotland can provide contact details) and it is based in or near to Edinburgh. In addition to the above I would think that ventilation improvements can only help. How you improve ventilation will depend on the specific construction, layout, etc, etc. You may have to use extractor fans, but I would hope that you would not need to go to such lengths. Whilst dealing with this also look at the exterior and if necessary revert to a breathable finish externally, otherwise your works internally may result in only minor improvements (if any).

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: Do I need to consult my neighbours if I wish to reslate my roof?
FROM: Karen Steel (Basingstoke)

I am wanting to have my roof reslated with all new slates. The colour will differ from the ones I have at present, as my roof is over 100 years old. However I am a mid-terrace house, and wondered if I need to approach my neighbours for their permission, due to the different colours of tiles that will overlap their properties, ie. as some tiles overlap on both sides. My only other option is to have the roofing company cut the tiles either side in half, so a clean line exists? However this is quite a big increase in cost.

Karen Steel

If the building is listed you will need LBC. If you are going over the boundary line you will probably need to serve Party Wall notices to neighbours (depends on precisely what you are doing).

On the matter of colour, I do not accept that the colour cannot be matched. Further, with slate it is often possible to salvage 50-75%. Why not re-use and match in with replacements. Perhaps use the original on one slope and new on the other(s). I suggest you get further advice/quotes.

As for the junction with neighbours, if you use a different colour and interleave with their slates I suggest you liaise with them. The idea of cutting a junction is fraught with potential future problems. It can be done, provided a lead drip tray/concealed gutter/valley (call it what you will) is installed beneath and discharges out to the gutter.

I am concerned that you assume you need a new roof. If the nail fixings have failed (nail sickness) it may indeed need re-covering, but it is often possible to salvage the slate and re-use. I am concerned that you have been told the slate cannot be matched. However, matching slate may be a more expensive variety.

Finally, also consider the size of the slate. Make sure that they match the size of the slate on neighbouring roofs, otherwise it will look silly anyway.

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: Do I need to get my oak beams treated against fire?
FROM: Helen Cocaign (Bristol)
I've just moved into a late 19th century house which has wooden Oak beams. I am interested to know if I need to get these beams treated against fire. What is the fire resistance quality of European Oak? And is the treatment something that I am able to carry out myself?

Helen Cocaign

I do not know if there are fire test statistics. However, when Windsor burnt down they found that most of the Oak was only charred on the external faces. Where the Oak had been affected by infestation (usually only the sapwood) it burnt away and where the fire got into joints it burnt out joints. However, the main lengths of Oak were still structurally sound.

Engineers will often tell you that timber performs better in a fire than steel. Once the outer face has charred the timber below tends to be protected from further burning. When designing buildings this 'sacrificial' element of timber is often used to avoid the need to clad timbers, etc. If you have a timber support beam of sufficient size it will not normally require fire protection (under B Regs), whereas steel has to be clad to protect it.

If this is a matter that really concerns you I advise you to get specific professional advice. However, I would not normally recommend that Oak be treated. The only exception might be if there needs to be a fire protected route (usually stairs) and in some instances an intumescent paint can be used on surfaces. It does not sound as if this is the case with your property. My starting point would be that Oak rarely, if ever, needs a surface treatment against fire.

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: A bodge job cottage with a granite floor under concrete
FROM: Alison Owen (Hayle, Cornwall)
We are renovating a traditional cornish granite cottage which has had a lot of bodge work in the past. We have discovered a beautiful granite floor in our dining room and hall leading to a large inglenook but over half of it is under concrete. Any advice of the best way to remove this and not damage the granite?

Alison Owen

Carefully!

It is not something I have had to do, but as a general rule when removing concrete you have to accept that some damage will occur to the material below. Start by locating some loose/hollow areas, because these have lost their key/bond and should lift easily. Work out from that point using a wide bolster chisel and club hammer. Gently tap the surface of the concrete to try to encourage de-bonding, work the chisel under the edge and try to strike the chisel in such a way that it goes along parallel with the surface of the underlying material (i.e. between the concrete and floor slab). Work your way over the surface, removing the easy bits first. If you are left with stubborn areas you will simply have to be more forceful and accept the risk of some damage. If there are only thin residues in places a modern cement cleaner may remove the last few bits and clean the surface (follow the manufacturers instructions to avoid leaving stains, etc).

One does have to ask why only half was concrete covered? Is it because the covered area is in poor condition anyway? Are you sure there is a floor slab under the concreted areas?

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: Suitable types of paint for a Dorset long-house
FROM: Georgina Kitching (Dorset)
Our house was built around 1600 (+/- 10 years), and we believe it was a Dorset long-house before being extended C1740. Currently we are redecorating and looking to replace a modern fireplace and open up a bricked up upstairs one. Do you have any advice on suitable types of paint (or colours) which would be in keeping? The plaster work under the wood chip wall paper is new and standard ie not lime based I think. Also, what would your recommend regarding fireplaces?

Georgina Kitching

I remember once hearing Prof Steve Parrissien (now head of Art Faculty at Plymouth University) speak about authentic and sympathetic colour schemes, finishes, etc. He made the point that authentic colour schemes were often very different to modern taste ("who would now want to live with **** brown skirtings") - although looking at TV interior designers, maybe historic ideas on colour are returning! He also made the point that we do not live using candle light, etc and therefore any 'authentic' lampshade, or other fitting, can only be a pastiche. The starting point must be to decide what you are trying to achieve. If you really want authentic, you should research local archives, read books on the period and source appropriate colours, fittings, etc.

Of course, with a historic building you also have to consider which period you are going back to (1600, 1740, 18., 19. ?

My preference (and this really is a matter for personal choice) is to keep it simple and contemporary. I often think that modern contemporary can look better in a historic building than poor pastiche.

That said, if you are going back to an 'inglenook' fireplace, why not have the inglenook opening, but with a modern burner (with flue liner, etc).

Whatever, you decide, there are now wide ranges of pigments so traditional limewash can be used as a modern decorative finish, ditto other traditional paints.

The most important thing is to have a definite idea of scheme, design it properly and keep to it. If you are going back in time, decide which period and research it thoroughly. Phaidon publish a number of books on Architectural styles. There is also a book called 'Elements of Style' (cannot remember publisher), which is very useful.

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: Damp steps
FROM: Samantha Robinson (Greater London)
I live in the basement flat of a victorian property - there are a flight of steps going up to the flat above us which leak into our flat. I want to find out how I go about sealing the steps....they are stone, and there are no visible cracks that I can see. What would you recommend - and are there companies who specialise in such things?

Samantha Robinson

There was a thread on this topic on the Discussion Forum a little time ago (late July/early August 2004). A method that is now often used is to carefully take up the steps and salvage the stone. Reform a base in concrete, coat in a suitable damp proofing material and re-lay the stone on the surface (mainly as a decorative finish). This re-forms the steps so that they are sound and secure. It retains the stone finish and prevents dampness.

Historically these steps probably always leaked. Over the years I have seen many finishes applied to try to stop this, but none work for any length of time. Only by re-forming will you find that the problems are resolved. If you want a cheaper solution I would opt for a high grade asphalt over the top of the existing.

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: Rising damp - a new interior wall or a second skin?
FROM: Catherine Moore (Somerset)
I have rising damp problem: some builders are advising a damp course treatment and others a "new" interior wall, a second "skin" against the damp wall to hide the rising damp... What is best? Is there a good specialist in the Bristol/Bath area that you can recommand?

Catherine Moore

Is it rising damp?

There are many causes of damp and in fact true rising damp is probably the rarest. Unfortunately, the specialist treatment companies survive by selling treatments that are intended to deal with rising damp only (and their effectiveness is often questioned). The first thing to do is to establish the true cause of dampness and deal with accordingly. Most historic buildings are breathable structures and the problems can often be traced to the application of modern finishes, etc that prevent breathability. Other causes often relate to changes to the building. For example, the increase of ground level over time (which may also cover sub-floor vents). Some dampness will be due to leaks (check roof and gutters).

Sometimes the area in question is below ground and it is inevitable that it will suffer penetrating (lateral) damp. Treatment for rising damp will not usually help with penetrating damp. However, in some instances of penetrating damp an internal system may be necessary. Although a waterproof render tanking system is often used, my preference is for a drained/ventilated cavity system. There are a range of proprietary products on the market of this type (e.g. Newton, Delta, Proton, etc). Whether this is suitable and how it should be installed depends on circumstances, etc.

I strongly advise that you obtain independent professional advice.

A poster on the discussion forum called 'pc' is an independent damp specialist in your area. He will want a fee for coming out and giving advice, but he does not have vested interests (i.e. not trying to sell a product) and from his postings I believe he will give sound advice. There are probably others like him in your area and/or surveyors or architects who may be able to advise. Hartley Conservation are based in Frome and although I know they are busy at present they should know of someone who could help you. Look on the 'Seeking Specialists' suppliers page of this site.

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: Deadening sound between floors.
FROM: Susie New (Greater London)
I am considering sanding the floor in the lounge of my victorian flat but I am mindful of my downstairs neighbours and would choose a new wooden floor and quality underlay rather than disturb them. However I would prefer to renovate the original boards - is there a product that can be placed in the cavity under the boards or would it be uneconomic to have to lift the boards in order to do this?

Susie New

Many leases now have clauses that forbid the exposing of the floor. This is to prevent sound problems and ensure that any fire proofing is not affected. There are sound proofing products that can be fitted, but the work involves complete removal of the floor and ancillary work will involve lifting skirtings, altering doors, etc. My preference would be to use a modern laminate (or similar) and a thick isolating underlay below. Then place rugs, etc on the surface to help deaden sound 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.

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Lime courses in Norfolk
FROM: Desmond Legget (Norfolk)
Our claylump "ex farmhouse" built in 1852 has been totally ruined inside and out, as usual most rooms have been skimmed with modern plaster and one room has been concreted aahhhh. floors as concrete etc and external walls are peppledash!

I want to know about lime etc and attend courses on how to redo internal and external walls - i need to get my hands dirty as the saying is. Whats the best courses in Norfolk, can you let us know.

Desmond Legget

None that I know of in Norfolk (but speak to Mike Knights - CO at Norfolk County Council). There may be some local courses. Otherwise Essex County Council hold lime days (speak to Pauline Hudspith of the Historic Buildings Section at the main Council offices). Some companies provide training, e.g. Mike Wye, Old House Store. Alternatively go to one of the 'lime centres' (Winchester or Edinburgh). Another option is to contact SPAB and go on one of their lime days (usually led by Marianne 'Restoration' Suhr).

When you come to do the work on your building, be very careful. Removing large areas of render from such structures can sometimes result in collapse. Look at the Guidance Notes on the IHBC web site (www.ihbc.org.uk)

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: Sand blasting wood
FROM: Anne Goatman (Gloucestershire)
You discuss the merits and demerits of sand blasting wood. We have many large varnished roof beams and rafters that we propose to blast clean, ideally with your preferred sand/water/air combination. Can you recommend any suppliers as we intend to purchase the necessary equipment?

Anne Goatman

This is not the place to write specifications for individual properties without an inspection. However, I can give some guidance.

Firstly, I would not normally use any form of sand blasting. It is harsh and often removes all loose and friable material, leaving the hard elements of the grain and harder profile of the timber standing proud. It can result in a very poor appearance. It can also remove evidence of historic marks, carpenters marks, etc. My preference is for a chemical removal system. Although more time consuming the end result is far less damaging to the timbers. There has been a threads on this topic on the Discussion Forum recently (early August 2004).

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.