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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: How should I finish our beams?
FROM: Lucienne Rickerd (Northamptonshire)
I have a few questions that desperately need answering. We are currently restoring a grade one listed building and need some advice on the timber beams. Over the last 850 years the history of them is a little fuzzy! When was Lime Wash painting first used, in the 50's / 60's? How long has wood stain been used for? And I presume the beams would have been left bare for many years?

Lucienne Rickerd

Whilst I do not have specialist knowledge in this particular field of architectural history, I am aware that research has revealed a wide variety of finishes to timbers over the centuries. Historically limewash has been used as a finish both externally and internally for many centuries. There are examples of painted patterns on timbers using limewash. There are also examples of historic oil paints being used on some timbers to create patterns, etc. I have personally seen examples of pictures and patterns on walls (going over the timbers as well) internally that date from the late medieval period. I once saw a timber with crewell patterning on a timber beam that I believe may have been in oil paint. The timber in question is now hidden in a roof space, but once would have been the principal high level tie beam in a hall. Wood stain is a term that could be used for a variety of materials, but I suspect you mean modern stains. These came into use around the 1950s/60s. The Victorians are mainly responsible for the fashion of 'black and white'. From the days of the industrial revolution black tar paint has been used externally. Throughout the centuries there would have been some houses that had bare timbers. As with today, how timbers were finished would have been dictated by finance available, fashion, materials available and personal taste.

When undertaking work to decorate a historic building remember that it is really only museums that attempt an authentic scheme. This would then involve reproduction of schemes using traditional materials, reproduction of examples of historic patterns, etc. However, in most domestic houses we would not necessarily enjoy living with authentic schemes day-in-day-out. Rather, it is usually more appropriate to aim for a sympathetic scheme. That said, whatever approach you take you must first ask yourself "what evidence remains in the property of what once existed anyway?" If there are remnants of earlier schemes, you may wish to consider restoring and reproducing these.

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: Noise insulation advice required on a tight budget?
FROM: Anonymous (Buckinghamshire)
I have recently moved to an Edwardian house, it still has old sash windows that let in the cold air. Plus I live quite close to busy road, so need to get some noise insulation. Can you advise if it is possible to have double glazed sash windows? But on a tight budget pls.


If the building is not listed and you replace the windows then under building regulations replacement windows have to comply and this usually means being double-glazed. However, when thinking of double-glazing don't assume that this automatically means plastic because there are now many joinery companies manufacturing timber sash windows with double glazed units. Remember that for noise insulation the wider the gap the better the result.

In some instances it may be appropriate to consider a scheme of internal secondary glazing. This involves leaving the existing windows in place but installing a system of internal windows just inside the original, thus creating two layers with a wide gap between.

In many instances, if the windows are otherwise sound, the insulation can be improved significantly by a system of good quality draught proofing. Heavy curtains also provide good insulating qualities. If you have sound windows and are looking for a cheap method of improvement then I would simply suggest draught-proofing and heavy curtains.

If the building is listed you can argue that replacement double glazed windows would not be appropriate and although listed buildings are not exempt there are special considerations meaning that other solutions can be considered rather than simply double glazed replacement units.

There have been quite a number of posts on this subject on the discussion forum section of the 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: Cellar prone to flooding raises concerns.
FROM: Simon Bower (Greater Manchester)
I have purchased a property circa 1769, called `the parsonage`. The survey we had done came back with some positive feed back, although there are certain surface problems that need sorting out. The main concern is the cellar. In the survey it was noted as a wet cellar and even the vendors told us that it was. There is damp that was recorded on the meters. With the age of the building and where it is situated, it was built over streams and wells and during a wet period it is prone to flooding at least 3 to 4 inches above the ankle. The previous vendors had installed an automatic water pump, that when the water got to a certain level it would activate and pump all the water to an outside drain. Is this ok! or should there be proper maintenance done? They have had a brand new central heating boiler installed down in the cellar and as you can imagine some of the concerns I may have. Do I get the boiler and floor suspended?

Simon Bower

It sounds as if the cellar always was and always will be damp. The system using a semi-submersible pump is an acceptable and common method of ensuring that excess water in the cellar is removed before it causes real harm. Make sure the cellar is otherwise well ventilated to help ensure that moisture levels are kept as low as possible. Isolate perishable materials from damp surfaces.

With regard to the boiler, I would suggest placing it on a non-perishable platform above the highest level of past 'flooding' so that it keeps out of any zone liable to get wet.

Without more information on the nature of the cellar and your proposed use of it I cannot be more specific. There have been a number of posts about cellars on the discussion forum 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: Will the use of a sealant help stop my bricks spalling?
FROM: Lesley Walton (Devon)

My house is a solid red brick village house built around 1850 the brickwork is porous and in many places it is noticeable that many of the red bricks have deteriorated i.e. they are spalling and look like they are in need of replacement, what is the best solution (a) to have the bricks replaced and the walls sealed with a water repellent, (which would last only approximately five years), (b) to fill in the gaps with a lime mortar and paint the brick walls (c) to traditionally render the outside walls or (d) arrange a wall coating company to spray the walls with a modern coating that will protect the outside for twenty years. The brickwork is an attractive soft red colour.

Lesley Walton

All brickwork is porous, but certain bricks are more porous than others. In most buildings this is rarely a problem. Contrary to common conception, solid brick walls (9-inches thick) do not usually allow rain to pass all the way through unless it is very concentrated (e.g. a leaking gutter, a very exposed location with driven rain, etc) or if the pointing is poor. However, your question does not state that you have an internal problem, so I will assume the problem is mainly one of aesthetics.

Bricks can deteriorate over time and surfaces can spall. This can happen due to extreme exposure, poorly fired bricks, dense pointing forcing the water to escape from the brick face rather than the pointing, etc, etc. When spalling has reached the point of looking very poor or could lead to direct water penetration you need to do something. Considering the options in turn:

a) sealants rarely provide 100% coverage and if rain gets behind the sealant it will be trapped and could cause more damage. Further, as you rightly point out, the sealant will need to be re-applied regularly. I would discount this as a suitable option. Incidentally, I would not usually regard this as suitable for any older building.

b) This is an option that could work. However, by 'paint' I assume you mean limewash! There is no point in using lime mortar repair to then coat it all with a modern masonry paint.

c) Yes this is an option, using lime render of course.

d) No - as with above this modern approach will lead to moisture becoming trapped within the wall and you could find yourself with more damage in a relatively short time.

You do not mention whether the pointing is lime or cement? If the latter, you really ought to consider major re-pointing with lime mortar.

As mentioned above, bricks are porous. Old walls should be allowed to breathe. The application of modern cement pointing, modern sealants, coatings, etc all work to prevent breathability. If the wall cannot breathe problems will ensue. There are many postings on this subject in the discussion forum, but I hope the above helps.

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: Will a spray applied foam help to insulate my attic room?
FROM: Rory Moore (Yorkshire)
Our house was built approx. 1900. The loft is original (I've been told anyway) and has always been used as a bedroom. Unfortunately this room has no insulation at all, making a couple of months in both the summer and winter unbearable. It's just plaster and then the roof tiles. We'd like this room to be our permanent bedroom and so are looking at options to insulate. I've been reading up on foam lining but that doesn't sound like a good idea. Is there anything else we can do or will we have to re-roof, and will it be possible to insulate it some how then?

Rory Moore

The problem with foam insulation is that it sticks to everything and completely fills the void. Roofs can be formed to have a completely filled insulating layer and we call this a warm deck roof. However, there is then a need to incorporate a vapour barrier, etc. It is not usually possible to create a warm deck roof retrospectively. It is therefore better to create a cold roof. This means putting in insulation but with a ventilating air gap on the cold side.

In your situation I would suggest you consider applying an insulating board to the underside of the existing ceiling and then finishing this with plaster, etc. If you can get sufficient access you could instead try inserting semi-rigid insulating board up the slopes in the void, but leaving an air gap above it.

Remember that the reason fridges stay cold is that they are insulated. Insulation does not make a cold room warm or a hot room cold. Insulation merely ensures that the temperature within is more constant. If you have a cold room that is unheated it will tend to stay cold whether insulated or not.

In loft rooms the problems you mention are common. Insulating the ceiling and perimeter walls, etc should help keep warmth in, but it is important to ensure the room is heated (although being at the tope of the house there will be heat rising from the rest of the building).

The insulation is unlikely to help with regard to the summer months. To deal with this I suggest you ensure windows are kept open to allow air to flow through and perhaps invest in some fans.

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: Are the builders re-pointing my stonework with the correct lime mix?
FROM: Vivienne Dyer (Gloucestershire)
I am in the process of renovating a 200-year-old Cotswold cottage. The builders have begun removing the existing cement pointing and replacing it with hydraulic lime mixed with sand in a proportion 4:1. I have been told that they are not using the correct material and that the depth of the 'fillet; needs to be at least 11/2" deep and that lime putty should be used to enable the walls to breathe and the pointing to remain soft and porous.

Please could you let me know what the correct procedure is for repointing Cotswold stone buildings?

Vivienne Dyer

To re-point the joint needs to be raked out to a depth of about 20-25mm (1-11/2 inches). The back of the recess should be as square as possible and cleaned out of debris. When re-pointing it needs to be wetted before the mortar is put in.

The mortar should be one that allows the wall to breathe. A lime mortar is therefore necessary. Ideally a mortar made with lime putty should be used, but this should not be used whenever there is a risk of frost. It also requires great care in controlling its drying.

A Naturally Hydraulic Lime (NHL) is a lime and is breathable and should be acceptable. Whilst it should not be used during frosts, it is less liable to failure in adverse weather and it requires less 'aftercare' than a lime putty mortar.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the precise mix being used, because there is loo little information in your question. However, if the material being used is a Naturally Hydraulic Lime, I would not be overly concerned. There have been a number of discussions on such matters on the discussion forum. There is some difference of opinion on the use of NHL, but there is general consensus that a Lime mortar is better than any that includes cement.

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: Oxfordshire giant seeks more headroom.
FROM: James Hogan (Oxfordshire)
How easy is it to lower floors in my 17th century beamed house? I would like to gain some more headroom!

James Hogan

If the building is listed you will need consent. If the floors are original and are otherwise sound I doubt if you will get consent.

However, if the floors are not original then it is possible that consent would be given. You will however, need to form a new floor that allows breathability. There have been a number of posts on the discussion forum regarding such matters and how to achieve a new floor complying with modern regulations and at the same time maintain breathability.

The other issue is whether the excavation will take you below the base of the perimeter footings. If so, you may have problems during the excavation itself. It is important that you do not undermine the footings or weaken the load-bearing zone. If you have to go deeper than the base of the footings, you might have to abandon the idea, or consider a very careful method of approaching the work.

Assuming the existing floor is not original, I suggest your first step would be to undertake some limited opening up to find out how much depth you have to play with. Also, you may find an older floor beneath. This might be at a suitable level for your requirements and you could aim to simply restore the floor to its original level and finish.

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: Solution required to reduce dust and spiders from thatched roof.
FROM: Mags Miller (Suffolk)
Is there any sort of breathable material that we can use to line the inside of our Norfolk reed thatched roof to cover the seed heads and reduce the amount of dust and cobwebs, without harming the roof itself?

Mags Miller

In some houses that had the ceilings formed by the underside of the roof covering a layer of plaster was installed under the thatch. However, if you refer merely to a roof space I would not suggest any form of lining. Although lime plaster allows a degree of breathability it is far better for thatch to have no lining under it so that air can pass through it, to help keep it dry throughout its depth. This is not merely breathability, but a level of air flow.

With regard to dust, this can be periodically swept up. The cobwebs are good, because the spiders are the natural predator of may unwelcome bugs.

Living in a thatched house does mean you will suffer this problem in the roof space. My personal view is that you live with it because any other solution could result in problems in future.

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: 14th Century beauty requires intensive care.
FROM: Suzanne Albert (Suffolk)
In August 2002 we bought a beautiful 14th century, grade ll listed, cottage. We have since discovered that the cottage needs a lot more work on it than was 'found' in the survey.

Our neighbours (adjoining) had their cottage renovated a couple of years ago and spent in excess of 25,000! Although we had not anticipated spending that sort of money so soon, we are prepared to re-mortgage in order to restore the house we fell in love with.

Our problem is finding (all round) builders who specialise in buildings of this age in our region. The builders that renovated our neighbour's property did a good job but were not recommended and others just don't have the experience.

As first time buyers we now feel that we were very naive in our purchase and now we are trying to be extra cautious. Therefore we would like to get 2 or 3 quotes but are having trouble finding just one! Can you give us any advice on where and what to look for please?

Suzanne Albert

Being based in East Anglia ourselves, there are many builders in the region capable of taking on such work. Your conservation officer should be able to provide a list of contractors experienced in dealing with historic buildings. If not your local authority, try phoning Essex County Council Historic Buildings Dept and ask them for a list (I know they hold one). Remember that Councils DO NOT recommend. They can merely give you names of those they know to have undertaken similar work to historic buildings. However, a lot of the builders dealing with this type of work are very busy.

The other issue here is that of the surveyor and possible negligence. Surveyors do not have the benefit of X-ray vision or carry crystal balls around. However, a survey should identify defects and problems that are reasonably detectable. Did your surveyor properly understand the nature of the building? You might wish to consider the possibility that some of these costs you seem likely to incur might be recoverable from the surveyor.

On both of these matters I would be happy to talk to you further if you wish to contact me direct.

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: Potential noise from single-skin brick wall needs addressing.
FROM: Lorraine Horley (Buckinghamshire)
I have a Victorian cottage c1890 that was originally part of one larger house. The original house was built with an access 'alley' through the middle - which has made them ideal to split into two separate properties. This was done 10 years ago and my part was fully renovated at that time.

The adjoining property has been empty for a number of years - but is now being renovated also.

An issue has arisen with the only adjoining wall which is an upstairs bedroom wall. This apparently should have been upgraded to party wall thickness, when mine was done years ago. But was not and it is only 1 skin thick with plaster. This means soundproofing is now a problem. Next door have put plasterboard on their side - but I don't think this is enough. I am trying to source the best material to soundproof my side. Seems to be 2 options M20 insulation and Acoustic plasterboard.

Lorraine Horley

Firstly, this is a Party Wall issue and the Party Wall Act applies. Nonetheless, the best solution will be arrived at by you and your neighbour sitting down to discuss it. If you suffer a noise problem, so will your neighbour. It is in both your interests to resolve this.

The best way of insulating for sound is to create density. Acoustic plasterboard and other products can help, but in many instances the result is a minimal difference. Ideally for both of you it would be best to consider the formation of a surface that is slightly independent of the wall structure and not in direct physical contact. This may be far more disruptive for you. However, a compromise solution might be to use an acoustic insulating material within the wall voids and then create a new wall face on the neighbours side set slightly in from the structure and isolated from the wall, ceiling, floor (by proprietary separators). This wall could be formed with acoustic boarding.

The more physical density you can get between you and the neighbour the better the sound reduction. However, remember that sound will find a way through any gaps. For the system to be effective you will need to ensure that floor voids, etc are all dealt with.

There have been a number of discussion about sound insulation on the discussion forum.

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: Advice required on potential re-thatching of cottage.
FROM: Sally Ives (Devon)
Our cottage is a thatched Grade II listed one which locates inside Dartmoor National Park. Its thatched roof needs to be redone before too long. Can we ask:

1. Whether there is any subsidy from the DNPA for the re-thatching?

2. We heard there are some reeds that can last for about 30 years. Do you know the types?

3. Where can we get a good thatcher in Devon?

Sally Ives

You will need consent for whatever work you do.

Who says it needs re-thatching?

To answer your questions:

1) I do not know, as I am not local to the area. Most grant schemes relating to thatch are designed to encourage the re-use of traditional thatching materials for that particular area. In other words if the existing thatch is not traditional for DNP they might grant aid any additional costs that might be involved in changing it to the appropriate thatch.

2) The longevity of thatch is a perennial debate. There are many factors that affect performance of thatch. For some years it was said that certain thatch materials last longer than others. In ideal conditions for it is true that Water Reed will last longer than Combed Wheat Reed, which would normally last longer than Long Straw. However, there are many factors that influence this and there are examples of Reed lasting only ten years and Long Straw over 50 years (I have heard of Long Straw that was 90 years old). In East Anglia, where thatchers have a tradition of working with both Reed and Long Straw they will sometimes advise Long Straw over Reed because of certain local factors. Factors such as the pitch of the roof, the precise location of the building (surrounded by trees, near a river, on a hill top, etc, etc), the quality of the material being used and the skill of the thatcher can all impact on how long the thatch will last. If you find a thatcher heavily promoting one material against others it is possible that the thatcher is unskilled in the material that is being 'put down'. There is a helpful web site on some of these issues at

3) Recommendation is the best way. Speak to DNP and see who they use, or they know to work in the area. Speak to other owners of thatched properties nearby to find out who they use. The National Trust has a number of thatched properties in the region and they may be able to give you names. The local conservation officer may know of thatchers. Although there are some thatch 'trade' organisations I remain unconvinced that asking them provides a satisfactory result, particularly as the majority of thatchers do not belong to them. There is an organistaion called the Thatched Owners Group who may be able to help (

Above I mentioned that the National Trust has thatched properties in the region. For some years now the NT has been involved in research regarding traditional thatch, performance of thatch, etc and has used its Honicote Estate for this. You might wish to ask the NT who they were using on this and who they use on their properties.

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.