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

Ask our Agony Uncles ...

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

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

o Traditional Methods or plasterboard for Lime Virgin? Paul Solerti (Oxfordshire)
o Help required to get through VAT minefield Helena Evans (Worcestershire)
o Hard as Nails on the Inside, Soft as Putty on the Outside. Robert Bottle (Herefordshire)
o Solution required for Crumbling Stone Window Lintels Colin Anderson (West Sussex)
o Guidance required on Restoration Repairs. Barry Marsh (Bedfordshire)
o Conservation Officer sits on Fence Catherine Edwards (Derbyshire)
o Help. Rats are eating my house Roland Rat (Some where in the South)
o Long-term Water Leak could lead to Fungal Growth Vugar Khalilov (Greater London)
o Wear goggles & mask & check joints carefully Tina Mullington (Devon)
o Heating Bill could drive us into Poverty Cindy Pickering
o It's still happening, but they don't believe us Fiona Davis (Herefordshire)

SUBJECT: Traditional Methods or plasterboard for Lime Virgin?
FROM: Paul Solerti (Oxfordshire)
I have recently moved into a 3 bed cottage that is about 250 years old. The interior walls have mostly been installed at a later date and are stud walls. However, there is one internal wall that runs through the middle of the house that looks original and indeed in need of repair.

I have taken off the multiple layers of woodchip paper in one of the bedrooms and revelled a wall that is cracked and in a lot of places sounds like the top coat is coming loose. I have removed a small section of plaster which I think is lime mortar with bits of grass/ reed in it. Underneath the plaster the structure is wood joists about 1 foot apart from floor to ceiling. Nailed to the outside of the joists there are horizontal batons which look like lath and plaster batons and are about 20 cms apart. The wall has then been filled with what looks like more lime mortar and again is quite crumbly.

Basically I would like to repair the wall and would like to know the options that I have and what technique this is actually called as the wall is not hollow.

Some people have suggested pasterboarding it but I fell that that is just neglecting the problem.

Paul Solerti

Without photos it is not possible to provide a conclusive answer. Historically there were many regional variations on a similar theme, in terms of methods of construction. What you describe sounds as if it is a form of wattle and daub, although it could be a crude form of lath and plaster. What you should find is that there is a surface layer of finer material (no grass, hair, etc.) and a backing coat with the coarse stuff in it.

The fact that it is not on a hollow wall (I assume it is against some form of masonry wall?) suggests it is a form of dry lining.

The loose and deteriorating surfaces should be carefully removed and the material itself set aside (bagged up). You should keep the finer finishing material separate from the coarser backing material. Clean down the sound surfaces and wet down. Where there is damage to the timbers, or fixings of the 'battens/wattles' have failed these will need to be repaired. Meanwhile break up and knock up the old material. This material can usually be re-used if mixed with water (not too wet). However, you will probably need to add new material to it and I suggest you look at the web sites of The Old House Store and Mike Wye to get some idea of what they can supply and how to use the products. The sites also have some advice on re-using old material.

If the wall is so bad that most of it comes away, you could simply re-form in the traditional manner. Alternatively, you could use clayboard and lime plaster onto it.

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: Help required to get through VAT minefield
FROM: Helena Evans (Worcestershire)
Please could you let me know what needs to be done to reclaim VAT on the alterations and improvements we are planning to our Grade 2 listed home?

We are: -

1) replacing an asbestos cement garage with a brick-built entrance hall, garage and conservatory

2) rebuilding a single storey brick garage with a two storey extension containing a downstairs utility room and cloakroom with shower and a bedroom upstairs

3) replacing downstairs, rear of the house metal frame, single-glazed windows with hardwood, double-glazed windows, in keeping with the front of the house

4) replacing upstairs, single-glazed windows with hardwood, double-glazed, sash windows, in keeping with the front of the house

5) changing use of an adjoining bedroom to an en suite bathroom

6) repositioning an internal wall to its original place

7) removing cement at the front of the house, restoring the original brick steps and paving the front with brick with an iron railing

8) installing an oil-fired boiler for central heating

We have all the planning permissions and listed building consents for the work and are using a VAT registered builder.

Helena Evans

VAT is a minefield and I will not answer your specific individual points.

Local VAT offices are usually helpful and if you send them the Schedule or a list of the works you think are eligible for VAT exemption they will often write back and advise specifically. However, it is really a job for your builder. It is the builder who has to deal with the VAT office and if claiming exemption for certain works is later assessed wrong it is the builder who (in the first instance) has to pay the additional VAT on those items - a sensible builder would always put in writing that if he has to pay extra VAT at a later date he will recover it from the client.

Those items that are clearly alterations (not merely repairs or replacement of an old item or material for new) would normally be allowable for exemption provided the work also has listed building consent.

If you have an Architect or Surveyor on the project they should be able to work with the builder and help provide relevant information to assist in persuading the VAT office that exemption should be given. However, it is the builder's responsibility alone at the end of the day. If the builder refuses for any reason you could try taking it up with the VAT office yourself, but as you are not the one having to account for the VAT they may not be quite so helpful as they might when dealing with the builder.

The Listed Property Owners Club has a regular feature on VAT and there is a specialist in the South-West, David Brown of Bishop Fleming who often advises through their magazine and web site (you have to be a member to get information from the site). Mr Brown can be reached through

VAT exemption is a specific and specialist field of work. The above are pointers only. There have been discussions on the Discussion Forum pages of this site where others have shared their experiences of getting VAT exemption. You may find their comments helpful.

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: Hard as Nails on the Inside, Soft as Putty on the Outside.
FROM: Robert Bottle (Herefordshire)
We have just purchased a 16th century black and white cottage. some of the oak beams are rotten on the outside only. the inside is still in a solid state. I think the infills are timber framed and rendered.

I would like to know how to repair the damaged oak beams without replacing the original beam?

Robert Bottle

This is a common problem where impermeable finishes have been applied over a timber frame.

Without inspection I cannot advise specifically how to repair the timbers. The nature of the repair, materials to use, etc. will depend on the extent of damage, the location on the frame, the species of timber, etc., etc.

The first thing is to tackle the job in phases (unless you are wealthy!). Gradually strip the finishes to reveal the damage, but if done in sections the extent of work (physically and financially) should remain manageable. By exposing the timbers you will establish the degree of damage. However, before tackling the repair you need to consider how the elevations will be finished at the end of the work. If the whole elevation is to be rendered over there is little point in attempting any face repair to the timbers. It is often better to repair joints and splint weak timbers on the basis that it does not matter what it looks like provided it is an appropriate and reliable repair, because it is all going to be covered over again.

If you have exposed timbers consideration needs to be given as to how to repair in a way that leaves an aesthetically pleasing finish. This may mean the repairs have to be concealed (e.g. if joints have to be strengthened with metal brackets they may have to be hidden rather than face fixed) and this could involve dismantling of infill panels, etc. Where the faces of the timbers have deteriorated but the timber has retained much of its integrity you may have to consider placing new timbers on the faces of the original. However, this is not always appropriate and the methods of repair will need considered discussion with the Conservation Officer.

When the work is finished you will need to ensure that future render is lime based (no cement!) and that the elevations are limewashed. There are various schools of thought on whether to continue the limewash over the timbers, I have to say that this is my preference. It removes the black and white appearance, but is much better for the building. If you do not want to limewash the timbers as well you should consider leaving them perhaps with linseed oil applied, but no paint. In some regions black tar paint might be used, but it is usually for agricultural buildings and is a 19th century form of finishing.


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 for Crumbling Stone Window Lintels
FROM: Colin Anderson (West Sussex)

I have a property built in 1907 which has sandstone lintels above the windows and sandstone "pillars" between the windows. Most of the house faces south and the sandstone has become very weathered and on one window there is a piece missing down one side. Structurally it is all still sound but I cosmetically it don't look to good.

I am thinking of probably doing a great sin and painting the sandstone. There is a house nearby which has done this and it does look quite smart.

My questions are:

Is there a material out there which I could patch the sandstone with which would look OK so I could leave it as was intended to look?

If I decide to paint it what should I fill the sandstone with and what other preparation should I do and should I just use ordinary masonary paint.

If you can help me with this it would be great as I have spent the last 5 years puzzling over what would be best. Unfortunately I do not have the money to get a stonemason to replace the sandstone as I have been told this would cost many thousands of pounds.

Colin Anderson

Sandstone is a very vulnerable material and I would hesitate in coating or painting it with anything

Although you have concerns about the cost of a mason I suggest you get a stone mason to inspect and advise in the first instance. The mason can tell you what face repairs can be undertaken and how best to finish the stone. You may not be able to afford a mason at present, but it might be sensible to pay for some professional advice now, get an indication of likely costs (it may be less than you fear) and even if it is too expensive you will have a better idea of how much to budget for in future. Further, the mason can advise whether there are some essential works needed now. Whether or not immediate work is required he can advise how to provide some protection for the stone until such time as you can afford the repairs.

My concern with paint is that it will look good for a few years and then fail dramatically taking more of the stone with it.


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: Guidance required on Restoration Repairs.
FROM: Barry Marsh (Bedfordshire)
Is there a general rule of thumb for pricing a restoration job per sq. metre? Our house needs to be completely gutted. We have solid floors with damp, all the external walls are damp. electrics & plumbing needs replacing for new. I realise this is a difficult question but how do we know if we are being over priced? Should we look at this as a new build? If so what would we expect to be charges per metre for that?

Barry Marsh

Not really, but: as a rough rule of thumb we assume a normal refurbishment on a standard house will cost between 500 and 1,000 per square metre. An extension (modern) is roughly 1,000 to 1,500 per square metre. For older buildings the figures increase but it really depends on what needs to be carried out. When assessing rebuilding costs we find ourselves starting at about 2,000 per square metre and going upwards for old buildings. Repairs and refurbishments are rarely cheaper than rebuild costs. For older buildings I would suggest starting at 2,000 per square metre for major repairs.

The best way to get an indication is to find a builder (experienced in conservation) willing to spend an hour or so wandering around to give you a budget price. If they believe there is the likelihood of a job they will usually be prepared to give some time and a budget guide for no fee.

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: Conservation Officer sits on Fence
FROM: Catherine Edwards (Derbyshire)
We have recently purchased a semi detached property built in 1894 situated in the Bolsover 'Model village.' This property (Together with the rest of the model village) was Grade ll listed in 2004 due to historical mining importance which was prevalent in Bolsover since the late 1800's until recent days

Our house (Which is the first of 12 semis in total) was purposely built for the residence of mining managers and was therefore constructed to a higher spec than the terraced houses which were built for the miners themselves.

We wish to replace a boundary fence (From the road to the house and also adjacent to a field) However, we are unsure what to replace it with, even after consultation with our local conservation officer, and what will be acceptable for planning permission/grant

We also wish to replace our drive which is currently of poor tarmac quality. After some research, we are informed that the drive would of been constructed using local availability of products. We are led to believe that the bricks used for building the house would of come from the pit. Would the drive and fence used the same materials and if not, what would have been there and how can we best reconstruct.

We are at a complete loss and feel that our hands are tied somewhat due to the listing and the matter is not helped when our local authority are not in possession of plans or evidence in order to help us get through planning permission!

Catherine Edwards

I am sorry but this is not something that I cannot help you with in any detail

You really need to do more research to find out if there are any archives further afield (e.g. national archives - such as RIBA library, V & A, etc.) where information may be held.

Failing that you should simply go with what seems to be most appropriate aesthetically. It is often the case that the same materials were used for boundary walls, etc. as for the building. Sometimes timber fences were used, etc. You will need to research Victorian source books, etc.

Regarding the drive remember that they did not have heavy vehicles and although they may have had various materials on the ground when it was built you have to be careful to ensure that whatever you use now can cope with the weight of modern cars, etc. A common material that often works well in this situation is a loose material such as gravel, crushed stone, etc.

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: Help! Rats are eating my house
FROM: Roland Rat (Some where in the South)
I have a persistent rat problem that appears they must be tunnelling under the foundations and into the floor void - we have had the entire soil pipe replaced to the street drain so this is not the cause of the problem.

The house is a Victorian terraced cottage in a conservation area and requires some renovation works anyway - in desperation we are considering whether filling the current floor void with concrete may solve the issue (given there would be no void for them to occupy!). Is this possible and if so what are the potential issues that may result and what do I need to look out for when seeking quotes etc.?

Roland Rat

The problem in replacing a timber floor with concrete is that you displace the ground moisture under the building. This can result in an increased risk of dampness at the bases of walls, chimneys, etc.

A method that might help prevent this displacement (or at least minimise it) is to create a breathable zone around the edge of the concrete floor. The drawback is that this then becomes a damp area and you cannot really lay carpets over it. However, the advent of modern cavity membranes (e.g. Newton, Proton, Delta, etc.) means that you could use one of these membranes against the bases of the walls to drain into a gravel strip at the bottom perimeters of the walls in the present void and to be ventilated at the top just below the skirting (leave a gap between the bottom of the skirting and the floor surface). The concrete can then fill the main void and you still have a degree of breathability to the edges by virtue of this drained/ventilated 'cavity'. I must admit I have not used this material in this way and prefer not to fill voids with concrete anyway, but you could consider this if you really do need to fill this void.

Filling voids is not always easy and if the void is deep it could be expensive. Creating concrete floors could be an expensive way of dealing with rats.

Have you looked at the rat runs and baited them, as well as filled all visible holes, etc.? Before embarking on such drastic building works such as forming concrete floors seek further advice from a pest control specialist.

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: Long-term water leak could lead to fungal growth
FROM: Vugar Khalilov (Greater London)
I have made a claim with my insurer over water damage from outside. The Loss adjuster inspected the damaged area after 1 month. during September 2005. After that he refused my claim because of fungal growth on the wall. The loss adjuster claimed that the growth meant water leakage had happened over a significant period of time.

Vugar Khalilov

Fungi can germinate and grow quite quickly in the correct conditions. It is therefore quite possible that the fungal growth was a result of the water leak problem. However, the loss adjuster clearly believes that the fungal growth pre-existed the leak, or that there was an older leak that pre-dates the insurer's liability. You will need to get professional advice from a surveyor who should inspect and provide a brief report on the likely cause, the damage and how long he/she thinks the problem has existed. It is possible that if the report supports the fact that this matter should be dealt with by insurers, the loss adjuster will re-consider. If not and the independent report supports your view you could take the matter to the Insurance Ombudsman.

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: Wear goggles & mask & check joints carefully
FROM: Tina Mullington (Devon)
We are currently converting a 17th century barn which is Grade II listed adn therefore we are required to keep the original oak A frame trusses and purlins. They are very old and have some signs of wood worm - can you please advise as to what we should be treating them with to best care for them without damaging them.

Tina Mullington

Is the woodworm old? If it is inactive and the flight holes are old you probably need to do nothing.

If there is active woodworm you could apply a conventional chemical treatment system (many DIY stores stock suitable chemicals). The timbers can be sprayed (a garden spray is usually a good way of doing it) or the chemical can be brushed on. Either way make sure you are covered (in an overall) and have goggles and a mask. That said, I repeat, only treat if you are sure the woodworm is active.

The other issue is whether the timbers are weakened. This is something you may need to seek advice on from an engineer experienced in dealing with old timbers. It may be that the timbers will need to be individually assessed. The most vulnerable points are usually the joints.

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: Heating bill could drive us into poverty
FROM: Cindy Pickering ()
We've just moved into a 150 yr old 2 and partly 3 storey double glazed farmhouse. Our first gas bill for 68 days of heat and water is 527 for only about 8 hrs of heating a day. We therefore need to upgrade the insulation! We can obviously and easily upgrade the roof insulation, and get the 7 yr. old boiler replaced, but how do we insulate the internal outer walls as we have no cavity? Is the only method the foam on a roll type stuff or are there other things I ought to know about? I can't understand how the foam insulation works as surely the walls will feel springy once it is applied, even if it is decorated over. It is quite expensive to buy and I don't want to use it and find it has made no difference. I have done quite a lot of surfing the net for information but would really appreciate some expert advice on latest energy efficiency methods which can be applied to the house during building work this summer.

Cindy Pickering

Most of the heat will be going up through the roof. Solid walls are very difficult and expensive to insulate. If all other means of insulation are dealt with the walls should not be a problem. However, you do not say what the walls are formed of and if they are single skin walls these could be problematic.

The new regulations require a holistic approach to such matters and it is not simply a matter of upgrading every element.

By putting more than standard levels of insulation in the roof you may find that this does help significantly.

However, make sure the void above the insulation is ventilated (or you could get condensation problems). You say the building is double glazed, but if it has been badly installed there could be voids around the frames that provide little thermal protection. Check that there are no hidden voids around frames. If so fill them. For those properties that are not double glazed and where double glazing cannot or should not be fitted consideration can be given to secondary glazing. This is where an inner 'window' is formed. It is often removable, so that it can be taken out during summer months. In my view it is often preferable to proprietary double glazing.

Make sure that there is good draught-proofing to windows and doors. However, also make sure you have means of ventilating the property adequately. Draught proofing can include heavy curtains in front of windows and doors, as these can be very good insulators and can be removed during the summer.

Finally, consider whether you could insulate the floor if it is of suspended timber.

Should you really want to insulate walls the best method is to use an external cladding. However, if this is not practical (or too expensive) you can use various insulating boards, etc. on internal faces. The main problem is that these take up space and you will find that other things have to be adjusted (skirtings, architraves, etc.) and this all adds to the cost. There have been discussions on the Discussion Forum of this site regarding insulation of walls, particularly where they are single skin thickness.

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: It's still happening, but they don't believe us
FROM: Fiona Davis (Herefordshire)
We live in the east wing of a old rectory and are presently in the middle of an insurance claim for subsidence. Our wing of the house probably has medieval origins with a Queen Anne facade/extension built on at a later date. Typically, the house has pretty shallow foundations and a small cellar about 3m deep sitting under one room. Our wing sits close to a clay bank, which was topped with poplars until last May, when they were removed following soil surveys. I have 2 issues with the management of our claim since the trees were removed:

1. The project managers who are managing our insurance claim are now pushing us to allow decorators in to our house to allow interior repair of the cracks. There has been no professional monitoring of the cracks, despite us telling them on numerous occasions that movement is still occurring, albeit to a lesser degree than before the vegetative management. I am loath to allow redecoration if it is all going to crack again within weeks.

2. We have been told that the insurance claim does not cover lateral movement of the side wall. I have read the small print of our insurance policy (a standard policy with a very large company) and can find no mention of this. Are we being given the correct advice?

Fiona Davis

Initially you will need to pay for independent professional advice. You should seek advice regarding your point 1. I would agree that without monitoring, etc. it is not sensible to start on the remedial works, but without knowing the full facts and what has been investigated, etc I cannot give a categorical answer. I therefore have to advise that you get an independent opinion. If this supports your view your loss adjuster should consider it, failing which take the matter to the insurers direct and/or the Insurance Ombudsman.

On the second point it is difficult to say without seeing the policy wording. Most insurance polices cover for subsidence, landslip and heave, but no other structural movements (although they do not usually say this explicitly). Therefore lateral movement (if that is what is really happening) may not be covered. However, if the lateral movement is a result of rotation of the foundation due to the subsidence, etc. you should be covered. Again, it seems that this is something you need to seek independent advice upon.

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.