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

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

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

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SUBJECT:
Different advice leads to confusion
FROM:
Tontschy Gerig
(Hertfordshire)

I have recently had a specialist timber and damp survey conducted on my (small) property which supported my view that the sole plate in my 17th century, grade 11 listed house would benefit from being replaced in the living room where there are clear damp problems to 2 of the walls. This situation has been made worse by the previous occupants painting over the soleplate and brick plinth so that no moisture can escape. The sole plate may well need replacing everywhere else at some time too but at the moment the house continues to stand and is not causing me any structural or other problems!! The problem I have is not so much with the building but with the advice I have had regarding preventative measures I can take to improve the situation before it does become a problem.

I am on a limited budget and I have to date asked 4 builders to quote for replacing the soleplate in the living room and repairing the plaster to the affected (2) walls. I have also consulted 2 friends of mine, one of whom is a surveyor and one of whom is a structural engineer. Whilst everybody agrees there is a damp problem I have found the responses from the prospective builders contradictory and confusing! They have ranged from:

  • "don't do anything except fill up the holes in the plaster with pollyfiller and ignore the (crumbled) soleplate"
  • "put airbricks in the wall and a dampcourse in and light the fire more often"
  • "replace the soleplate in the livingroom with concrete"
  • "replace the soleplate in the livingroom, and rebuild the brick plinth and tackle the rest of the soleplate later"
  • "replace the soleplate along the whole of the r/h side wall in the living room and dinning room now as building regulations might ask for that anyway" **

** I have already has our local council preservation officer to look at the possible works and she was happy with what was proposed and said that I did not need to apply for listed building permission

Of those bothering to actually quote the figures involved have ranged from £1000 to £8000. Since they can't all be right, how on earth do I make a decision as to which course of action to take? By the way they are, as far as I can tell, reputable builders who either specialise in or have done a lot of, restoration work.

Tontschy Gerig

Without inspection and/or photographs it is difficult to provide specific advice. From your description it seems that a timber sole plate has been inappropriately covered for some years with modern materials and is now deteriorating. It is not entirely clear whether the deterioration means total failure or merely surface deterioration.

Firstly, I would advise removal of the materials causing the problem. Even leaving the sole plate exposed to the elements is usually better than covering it with impermeable materials because whenever there is wind and/or sun it will dry out. Further, exposing it in this way will enable a proper assessment of the extent of damage.

I often find that clients are more than happy to spend a few evenings or weekend chipping away carefully at cement render over a sole plate. This initial opening up and exposing work need not cost much, if anything.

If the above work results in holes, etc you may wish to plug them temporarily, but don't use any material that is impermeable or will be difficult to remove later.

If the sole plate has lost its structural integrity then those sections will need to be replaced. How this is dealt with depends on the precise construction and finishes. Whether the damage extends to the posts and studs will also determine how much work is necessary and how to finish the sole plate to post/stud connections.

Work replacing a sole plate (whether in part or in sections) can often involve rebuilding the plinth. If the frame is Oak and an Oak sole plate is being reinstated I see no need for a DPC, but if you do insert a physical DPC when rebuilding the plinth make sure it is at least one course of brick down from the sole plate (not directly under it)..

Do not under any circumstances use cement for the repairs, or for that matter any other impermeable materials.

Only replace the sections of sole plate that have lost their structural integrity. Sometimes if the face has gone you could undertake face repair only.

If funds are limited tackle the work in manageable sections, not all at once.

If there is a suspended timber floor and a void then air bricks to ventilate this would be a very good idea (if not essential).

Using the fire can indeed help generally dry a property or at least promote air flow and this helps keep some moisture at bay. Do however check the flue before lighting a fire, accidental burning down of the property would bring you more problems than at present!

As the work is repair I would be surprised if Building Regulations applied at all.

Depending on the extent of work the Conservation Officer might want an application for Listed Building Consent, but I suspect keeping the CO informed would be sufficient in this instance.

Although the above can only be a general guide I hope it helps.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Will chronic damp damage our clunch property?
FROM:
Erica Sneddon
(Cambridgeshire)

We have clunch walls and have issues with chronic dampness in the property. Can you please tell me whether the use of dehumidifiers will improve/lessen the damaging effect of penetrating damp?

Does condensation generally add significantly to the damage caused by penetrating damp?

Erica Sneddon

Dehumidifiers can assist provided you empty the container daily or (preferably) have a dehumidifier that vents to the outside of the house via a duct.

However, if you have a damp problem it needs further assessment. With clunch dampness can cause major problems and you have to find out why it is damp. Is there an impermeable finish to the walls (cement render or modern paint)? If so, you may have to consider its complete removal.

You suggest there is penetrating damp, but normally clunch should not suffer in this way. Is there a limewash or lime render finish and is it in good condition? Is there a need for repointing, etc?

Condensation does not usually by itself cause rot of timbers or major deterioration other than perhaps to paint and décor. Condensation is probably a result of the excess moisture in the property anyway. Deal with the damp problem and you should find the condensation problem resolves itself.

As clunch and traditional materials are permeable you rarely find condensation on surfaces, because the moisture is absorbed. The presence of condensation suggests either a major damp problem or perhaps impermeable decorative finishes on which the condensation is forming.

You would be better off trying to ensure that all sources of dampness inside the house have been eradicated, and avoid the usual sources, such as drying clothes, the use of unvented gas fires, steam from cooking, damp dogs, etc.

I hope these general comments are of some assistance.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Peeling limewash causes problem
FROM:
Steve Tongue
(Shropshire)

My building is a timber framed house built in 1645. About 10 years ago I replaced the concrete panel with daub. The daub is a mix of local clay/loam, sand and straw on hand split chestnut lath. My property faces the west so the front of the house is subject to weather. Because of the weathering I rendered the daub with lime plaster to protect the panels. I have no problems with the daub but the lime render started to peel after three years. The failure of the render inspired me to try another treatment to protect the daub. I striped the render and re worked the daub and lime wash mixed with tallow and pigment. After six months the lime wash has peeled back to the daub. Why has the lime wash peeled so quickly? Is the tallow the problem? I need a breathable coating to protect the daub from the weather. Any ideas?

Steve Tongue

There are many suggestions as to what can be added to lime wash and there is often disagreement about what is best. As a general rule adding tallow is unlikely to pose a problem. Most of these additives are to help prevent the lime wash coming off when touched, some are said to increase its longevity. Generally for external lime wash I doubt you need to add anything.

Lime wash usually fails because it has not been applied properly, applied when the weather was too cold or applied onto a surface that was not sufficiently porous.

Did you trowel the surface of the daub? If so you may have left it too smooth and the lime wash is not sufficiently 'keyed'.

If the lime was not fresh when you applied it this can also help to make it fall off. And then go powdery after an application of limewash.

I suggest you remove the failed lime wash and prepare the surface ensuring that it is not too smooth, but has a slightly rough texture. Apply the lime wash one coat at a time leaving a day between. Apply five coats. Do not apply during colder weather (spring or autumn are good times) and if hot wet down with a garden spray to control drying time. Mix up enough of each batch to cover the whole area (this ensures consistent colour). Use good quality pigments.

I hope this guide helps achieve a finish that stays in place.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Will listed building regulatings prevent me installing flood protection devices?
FROM:
James Morris
(Bedfordshire)

I live in part of a 400-year-old stone former village bakery, which is unfortunately situated in a flood risk area. I've recently had my first flood alert which of course was pretty worrying.

I've been looking into the possibility of having temporary flood barriers installed across my front door and possibly one of my sitting room windows, as those are lowest and hence most at risk. Most of these temporary systems require some kind of gulley bracket device permanently attached to the building, which the flood gate device is slipped into in the event of a flood warning. However, these probably wouldn't go down too well with the local authority as my house is Grade 2 listed.

Have you ever heard of a similar situation and how it was resolved? I thought perhaps of having the gulleys installed on the inside, so at least any water damage would be limited to just the door and window rather than the entire interior of my house.

James Morris

Until last year I had not actually seen any flood protection such as you describe. However, last summer I went to visit relatives in Cornwall and they live on the sea front and regularly find the sea in their front room after storms. They have a system of flood barriers that slot in place to the exterior whenever a storm is forecast.

In your situation if the risk is something that is likely to regularly affect the property I am sure you could persuade the CO to allow a carefully designed system to be installed (one that minimises the visual impact). After all, the protection of the building generally could be regarded as more important than the visual impact of a couple of pieces of wood or metal either side of the door and window.

That said, if the building is still formed and finished with traditional materials that are breathable, if it does flood you will find it dries out fairly quickly afterwards. It is only if there are impermeable finishes that problems arise because the flood water becomes trapped.

Of course any flood will cause some damage and distress and if flooding can be prevented that would be preferable. However, in some instances the damage may be limited.

Before embarking on costly works, etc I suggest you find out what the real risk of flooding is from the Authorities. If you still feel that some protection is in order you should speak to the CO and discuss to find a solution that all are happy with.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Strict conservation officer has us jumping through hoops.
FROM:
Geoff Redstone
(Somerset)

I am trying to help a friend and customer of mine to overcome difficulties with a listed buildings officer from our local district council. She appears to be hounded at every turn. Her intentions have always been intended to preserve and work in sympathy with the 1700 ish grade 2 cottages she owns. The buildings were listed in 1976 with only the usual vague description. An unfriendly local recently reported her for having the place repointed and repainted - she retained the existing white colour and the repointing, to combat ingressional damp was done using lime mortar, the painting using a paint that was recommended by an advisor from ICI. This is not a job that has been done on the cheap! The appearance of the local conservation officer led on to her being told that she was going to have to remove some windows which were put in before her ownership and put single glazed windows in. They have even had her running around to find batch numbers on the tins of specialist paint, saying that anyone could say they used that type of paint.

Where I come in, is that I am to repair some elm flooring and joists to the first floor bedroom floors. I know the boards themselves are fragile, wormy and crumbling in places and, judging by the spring of the floor, the joists have deteriorated at the wall ends. To be "good" she told the conservation officer our intentions; he said can't do that and wanted to have a look with the floor cleared and some boards removed by me for inspection. He has now changed his mind and insists that he will only talk to a qualified building surveyor about it. Has he got the power to do this? I thought the whole point was that we are all on the same side! Obviously having to consult a chartered surveyor will add costs to what should be a simple repair, which will not impinge on the character of the building except to help it. The conservation officer is fairly new to the area but has already developed a reputation. I'm loathe to fall out with him as we are just about to refit the bathroom, hopefully to get rid of that lovely "listed" avocado suite. Then there is the kitchen! Where do you stop applying for listed buildings consent?

Geoff Redstone

The list description is an irrelevance. The legislation requires consent for any work that affects character. It is the interpretation of this that causes the problems. The other problem is where a past owner has undertaken unauthorised work. If you look at the Discussion Forum section of this site you will find many others who have discussed this at length.

In short, if someone purchases a property and does not establish for themselves whether all past works have consent then they risk facing action from the Council if the Council find out and choose to take action. If the person did not undertake the work it is unlikely the Council would take out a criminal prosecution but they have the power to take enforcement action.

The problem here is lack of communication from the beginning. The CO was not consulted at all and having been brought in late to find some works that were previously undertaken without consent and recent works that arguably needed consent they are taking a tough stance. As far as resolving the problems with the CO I suggest a meeting at which all matters are properly discussed. It sounds as if there are plans for other works which may or may not need consent, but it is best to deal with everything together and get an understanding on what consents are needed so that they can be submitted in time. COs do not generally like a piecemeal approach because it can often get out of hand and messy. It would be far better to consider holistically all that your client wants to do over time and have a consistent approach and single application now so that all have a plan to work towards, even if some of those works will not be tackled for another year or more

Turning to the particular works, I note that you say the works undertaken thus far have been sympathetic, but the use of ICI paints on lime based products is not something I would normally regard as sympathetic. However, it depends precisely on the circumstances and what was actually used.

Some of the works to the floor you mention are based on assumptions. Many old buildings have springy floors and do not need any work, others need major work. Simply 'wormy' boards do not often require replacing, especially if the worm is long dead.

I appreciate the desire to keep costs down, but it does seem that a more thorough assessment and proper consideration of what is truly necessary needs to be undertaken. This is an old building and must be dealt with differently to a modern building. What might be unacceptable in a modern building could be seen as part of the 'character' and normally acceptable in an old house (e.g. slightly springy floors and a few worm holes in boards).

Further, there are methods of repair that involve minimum intervention and repair rather than replacement. It is possible that the CO is concerned that the 'repair' in this instance will actually end up being replacement. Assure the CO of the nature and extent of the work and I am sure you will find a better reception.

There are many works that either do not require consent or would be given consent without a problem, e.g. replacing a bathroom suite. However, replacing one old suite with one new suite is not the same as re-fitting that involves moving appliances, new positions resulting in new holes in walls, etc, etc. Again it is possible the CO is concerned about the extent of work proposed.

The problem seems to have arisen due to lack of timely consultation. It is now imperative that you fully consult and agree things in advance. Where the CO states that no consent is required write and confirm this after the meeting so that you have some form of record of what was agreed.

I doubt if the relationship with the CO has been lost but some work will have to be put in to create trust on the part of the CO.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
How should I plaster my stripped clunch walls?
FROM:
Andrew Sercombe
(Norfolk)

My wife and I are rennovating a clay lump Goergian cottage in Great Hockham, Norfolk and I am seeking some advice.

Firstly I have stripped all plaster from the walls internally, exposing the clay lump which appears in good condition. How should I replaster the walls?? Some people say you should use a lime based product where others suggest a cement render will be fine. Can I get away with using a cement render as this is by far the quickest and cheapest method or would this have a detrimental effect in the future. Also we are stripping the external render where live and replacing as necessary, therfore the same question applies to this!!

Secondly at some point in the past a concrete ground floor has been laid over a polythene membrane. We are considering laying an underfloor heating system on the top of this floor and then battening out and floorboarding over. Do you see any issues with this??

Andrew Sercombe

Under no circumstance should you use cement based materials or impermeable modern paints etc on a clay lump structure. It may seem quick and cheap now, but when the building collapses in future because of the cement render it will not seem as cheap then!

This type of structure should always have a lime render and lime wash finish. Cement and impermeable finishes significantly increase the rate of deterioration and could lead to major problems.

Yes, I see an issue with a concrete floor. Take it up and replace with a limecrete floor incorporating your underfloor heating - a breathable floor using traditional materials in a modern way that gives very good results. Most importantly it is good for the building. Unfortunately underfloor heating does need to be kept dry, and so the compromise answer might be to apply a damp proof membrane in the middle of the floor under the heating areas, and leave an area round the outside where moisture can evaporate.

Please look at the IHBC web site (www.ihbc.org.uk) where there is a guidance note on earth buildings such as clay lump. Please also look at the Discussion Forum on this site, where there have been discussions on such matters in the past.

The solutions may not be cheap now but they are far better in the long run for the building and will not pose problems that could lead to future major expense that would be the case if you used inappropriate materials, etc.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Damp Christmas decorations lead to roof condensation problems
FROM:
Sarah
(Norfolk)

18 months ago we had the roof stripped, several rafters replaced, the whole area treated for woodworm, and then some sort of felt made by Ruberoid laid down before the clay tiles were put back. There is 6 inches of new fibre-glass insulation in the loft;. When we went to get Christmas decorations down, a fortnight ago, condensation was dripping everywhere and some rafters had a white mould on them.

Our cottage is 250 years old, in North Norfolk, built mostly of flint with a brick chimmney. Where previous owners have covered damp with cement and artex we have removed and restored with lime mortar. Having been assured by the roofer that this product was breathable at least four times, we are now very concerned. The roofer is resting his broken foot and sent a colleague to view the roof. He agreed it was wet.

Please can you advise us on the next step and what we should use, if anything, to replace this felt.

Sarah

It sounds as if you have a condensation problem due to lack of ventilation in the roof space. Ruberoid do manufacture breather membranes, but has it been installed correctly?

You may be in an unfortunate situation where a breather membrane does not give sufficient ventilation to a roof. It is possible you will have to consider specific roof ventilation. You can achieve this in a number of ways, either by getting some big "clothes pegs" made to open up the sarking felt at the laps and letting the air in to circulate. Alternatively, cut some vents in through the eaves or gables, whichever is preferable. The answer always is ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.

It may be that leaving the felt in place and inserting additional vents is a suitable solution. It may be that simply cutting away the felt is a solution. This latter solution is only really appropriate if the tiles are traditional overlapping rather than interlocking pantiles, etc where there is only one tile over any part of the roof.

At present you need to see what the roofer suggests.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Can I vent my new bathroom in to the thatch roof void?
FROM:
Sharon Green
(East Sussex)

We recently moved into a thatched property and are currently looking at refitting the bathrooms. We are considering extractor fans in the ceilings but will these have an impact on the thatch if the damp air is vented out into the roof space? The loft is fully insulated.

Sharon Green

You should always vent the air to the exterior. This may be through a window, through the wall or even through the thatch (using a proprietary duct and collar - a thatcher would have to install). Do not vent into the roof space. Introducing moisture into the roof under the thatch could have an impact on the thatch and cause premature degradation.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
My house is being eaten by rats!
FROM:
M. Mant
(Oxfordshire)

My family urgently needs help in dealing with rats who have burrowed into our old ironstone and clay mortar village house. The rats are now a health hazard and a threat to the structure of the building: tunnelling through the walls and knawing wood and cables.

We keep all food in containers and have tried conventional traps and ultrsonic devices with limited success. We have tried blocking the holes but the rats re-open them and now they are wary of the traps. Our daughter's dog keeps them out of sight when he is here but they do not go away. We are very reluctant to use poison, both from the humanitarian point of view and because we do not relish the smell of decaying rats in the walls. In the long term we know we shall have to repoint the walls with lime mortar but we have not the time, money or weather now and we are not convinced that this will be a complete solution to the problem.

M. Mant

This is a pest problem rather than a building problem. Until the pests are eradicated you cannot really resolve any of the building problems. Rats will tend to chew through mortar, even some soft bricks, etc. Although you do not like the idea of poisons you really need to consider some method of permanent eradication. I know some farmers who sit up at night waiting with a shotgun when they get a serious rat problem - this can be effective, if somewhat noisy and potentially damaging to the building fabric!

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Awol thatcher needs to be brought back onside
FROM:
Mrs Green
(Devon)

We are currently having our cottage in the South West re-thatched and are having trouble with our thatcher. He started work in the summer and stopped suddenly during the Autumn. After chasing him he told us that he dealing with private issues and could not work on the roof but would finish up at the end of the month. Of course, he didn't and now its the New Year and after chasing him numerous times and various promises on his part the roof is still unfinished. With winter upon us we desperately need the roof finished, although a second opinion has told us that the roof looks watertight, we are still worried that it may not be. Is there any advice you can give on how to deal with our awol thatcher? We are at a loss.

Mrs Green

This is basically a standard building problem where the contractor has failed to complete. You ought to seek legal advice, but my thoughts are as follows.

You should give him written warning that if he does not return within a reasonable time frame to complete the work you will get others to finish it.

Assuming he does not return and you have to get others in, you will have to pay him for the work he satisfactorily completed. There will be a balance between what you should reasonably pay him and what you originally agree for the complete job. If the cost of finishing it exceeds that balance you could pursue him for that balance as it is his fault that you incurred the additional cost. Whether you do so in the particular circumstances is up to you.

It might be sensible to get some legal advice on the letters and action to take. If you have cover for legal costs on your insurances you could go to your insurance company for their legal advice. Alternatively you could go to your local CAB.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Non-standard building construction leads to mortgage problem
FROM:
Miss Knight
(Bristol)

We have had an offer accepted on an old mining cottage in Cornwall. The house is about 200 yrs old. Our mortgage company has just informed us that the construction type (rendered rubble stone) means they will not lend us the money to purchase. We paid for a valuation, and the valuer deemed the property to 'represent suitable security to the bank' but, the bank, having sent the valuation report to the underwriters, has now deemed it 'unsuitable'.

Can you please tell me whether this is the standard response to 'rendered rubble stone' buildings? Bizarrely, they have told us this is a 'non-traditional construction type"...

Miss Knight

It is up to the lenders to decide what they do and don't want to lend on and unfortunately many of the big 'high street' lenders will not provide a mortgage on anything out of the ordinary (in their eyes!).

The simplest solution is to find another lender. Has the vendor got a mortgage and if so who with, because clearly they had no problem lending on it? Have you gone to the same lender to see if they will give you a mortgage?

If you have used a broker ask why he/she did not find out whether the lender had any particular policies before going to them. If the lender was told and did not inform that they would not lend on non traditional buildings in advance they could perhaps be partly to blame for the situation. Either way, you may wish to seek recompense for any lost costs.

However, you should explore further what they really mean and ask if they would be prepared to lend if you found another underwriter willing to accept this property? Is it just a matter of getting the insurance sorted out? If so, look on this web site and you will see insurance brokers who would happily find a suitable insurer/underwriter.

If you have a mortgage broker these are matters the broker should be sorting out for you, or in the last result the financial ombudsman may be able to help if the mortgage lender refuses to return the fees you have paid.

This is a subject that has been discussed on the Discussion Forum. A lender you could consider approaching is the Ecological Building Society.

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