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...

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SUBJECT:
Will curing the damp help wipe-out Death Watch Beetle?
FROM:
Sophie Hall
(East Sussex)

We live in a 400 year old barn which was converted in 1997. We moved in in 2001, and were given the usual certificates regarding timber treated beams. We have had a problem in the last few years with Death Watch Beetle in one end of the barn which has an ill fitting window on the ground floor that lets in rain. But the worst affected room is above which is not damp. I am now getting the window dealt with but the builders have suggested that I need to treat the two affected rooms with a water based insecticide, "Sovereign Sovaq". I have read that Death Watch Beetle only thrive in damp conditions, having installed an Aga the rest of the barn seems not to be affected. Do you think that once the damp problem is sorted out the beetle will eventually die out of its own accord?

Sophie Hall

How to deal with Death Watch Beetle in practice is very much a careful judgement about how much damage the activity is causing or likely to cause and how much damage treating it or dealing with it is likely to cause.

Surface treatments are rarely effective against Death Watch Beetle due to the life cycle and nature of how the beetle gets in and out of the timber. If you are absolutely certain that you have identified the precise location of the Beetle some treatment may help, but the effectiveness of such is disputed by many that specialise in the scientific study of DWB (see Matt Green's posts on the Forum pages).

Generally speaking I find that active DWB is closely allied to dampness - in fact I cannot remember the last active DWB infestation I have dealt with that was not associated with damp. It is not only the obvious damp or water ingress that you need to consider but the possibility of any form of moisture being trapped in the area of the infested timbers. You need to consider whether an impervious finish is causing moisture to be trapped and therefore creating the levels of moisture that would normally be associated with active DWB.

How extensive is the infestation? I have seen some cases where the beetles are so extensive they are falling out of the timber before your eyes and yet in other instances the only sign is the occasional tapping noise. If the former you really do have a problem and need to get to the bottom of it. This may involve some careful opening up, etc. If the latter I would question how much damage a mating pair may do and whether you will cause more damage in trying to eradicate them.

I do not know about the specific product you quote, but generally surface applied treatments have very limited effect against DWB. Further, those that use water as a carrier for the chemical are simply adding more water to a situation that is almost certainly moist anyway. Is this wise?

I suggest you seek further advice from a specialist that has no vested interest in selling a specific chemical treatment system - e.g. Ridout (who Matt works for) or Hutton & Rostron.

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:
Lime rendered wall still fails to solve damp
FROM:
Cindy Haskell
(Carmarthenshire)

I have a 1850 stone cottage. Built with a mixture of red & yellow sandstone (very porous) I recently had the west facing double storey pine end rendered with 3 coats of lime based render (no cement or waterproofer) 3.5 NHL. I was reluctant to render a lovely natural stone wall, but as it is outside the chimney void, the wall it is only 8/9 inches thick in the central area, and during the worst of the westerly wind driven rainy weather it became saturated & began gravitating down & out through joints into the single storey room attached to the pine end. However, we were so disappointed to find it is still coming in on both sides of the chimney void, albeit nowhere near as bad as it did. We did think the three coats would have been able to absorb all of the driving rain without it reaching the red sandstone behind. What do we do now? We did what we thought was the right thing, given the building is built using lime, even though it was three times more expensive.

Cindy Haskell

I think you have done the right thing, but the task may not yet be finished

Driven rain is always difficult to deal with because under normal conditions there is no problem and the problem only arises in specific conditions. Also remember that rain requires only a very small gap to find a way through. I once dealt with a rain ingress problem that we spent hours trying to find the fault only to eventually undertake a hose test and find the cause to be a hairline split in a length of mastic seal around a window. This taught me that rain can find a way in through a gap that is almost invisible to the naked eye and yet pour through and cause much damage.

You will have to go over the elevation in fine detail looking for any gap or area of weakness through which water may penetrate. Look for any specific area where water may collect or be focussed on (e.g. is there an overhang where water drips off onto a lower area - thus causing additional water on the lower area). Using a lime render (what has been used seems reasonable) patch repair any such areas. If there is a need to form a new detail (e.g. a lead chute to direct water away from an area), etc then speak to the Conservation Officer and get permission to make the alteration.

If the above fails to produce a result you may have to resort to careful testing during dry weather. This may involve playing a hose over specific areas to see if this creates the problems you experience during rain. If this works you sho0uld be able to identify where the water is getting in and consider targeted works to that area.

Failing all else you could consider a different form of finish to the elevation. I am thinking here of a separate cladding. In your part of the country I would suggest something like stone tile or slate cladding, hung on the face of the wall. Such a cladding allows the wall to breathe, but provides the protection you require.

Without inspecting the problem I can only give general guidance, but I hope the above is of some help.

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:
Inconsistent advice drives me potty!
FROM:
Reagan Blyth
(Cheshire)

I was hoping that you may be able to provide me with some top-line advice. I recently bought a love 1840's stone house. Although I appreciate that a house of this age would have issues, I wasn't expecting as many as I've got. But my main problem is inconsistent advice. The plaster was blown in many rooms of the house and I have spent many hours removing it. I was then hoping to just plaster board onto the stone wall and apply a standard plaster. However, a damp specialist has advised that I should have a chemical injection damp-proof course installed (no obvious signs of damp were detected by the survey, I think the plaster was blown due it its age: about 70 years old according to the structural engineer). The damp man also said that lime plaster would be the worst material to use for re-plastering (I thought this was recommended for old buildings?), instead he has advised that I should use a sand/cement mixture (I thought this led to significant cracking and I plan to just paint the plaster). Wherever I turn, I get conflicting advice.

Reagan Blyth

The advice you have been given is inappropriate for many older buildings.

I cannot say why the plaster was blown and whether it was really necessary for you to strip out, etc. However, I can say that about the last thing I would recommend is use of sand/cement and/or any form of modern damp proofing.

Without specific details I cannot say whether your problems are more deep rooted and you do not say whether you have obtained professional advice (either now or before you purchased). It is likely that you need to speak to a specialist who can come round and have a look. Someone not far from you is Alan Gardner, who is based in Bolton (01204 572242).

If you have no damp problem you do not need a damp specialist. Even if you had a damp problem I would seriously question whether you need modern treatment to resolve it

Quite simply you need to use the materials that the building was originally constructed with. Lime plaster can last many centuries. Your plaster probably failed after central heating was installed and dried it out (assuming you have CH). If the house is 160+ years old I doubt if the plaster that failed is only 70 years old (or is it in a later extension?). In any event, using traditional lime plaster is the best approach. Do not use plasterboard and do not use sand/cement.

May I suggest that the inconsistent advice is between those that understand old buildings and those that don't. Listen only to those experienced in dealing with old buildings and I suggest the inconsistencies will reduce significantly.

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:
Do we need to protect our wiring from Squirrel attack in our thatched roof?
FROM:
Kevin Harris
(Wiltshire)

Could you tell me if there are any special regulations/restrictions for the wiring directly beneath a thatched roof (i.e. in the roof void) in a Grade II listed cottage?

We have had two sets of advice (contradictory) with one company saying that we need to protect the wiring from rodent (e.g. Squirrel) problems. They have suggested we need to use a kind of armoured trunking at considerable cost

Kevin Harris

Not specific regulations as such but there are recommended best practice. This is mainly contained in what has come to be known as the Dorset Model. This is a document relating to new thatch, but there are associated supporting documents that go into detail about fire protection, etc.

For wiring it is suggested that the cables be protected from the risk of rodent attack. You could achieve this by using conduit, or special cables, etc. None of these are completely rodent-proof because rats can eventually get through most things. However, you will be giving some additional protection to reduce the risk.

Other tips:

DO NOT use capillary joints for pipework in a thatched roof! It may seem obvious but you would be surprised how many plumbers are quite happy sitting with their blow torch sealing capillary joints inches away from thatch.

If it is new thatch you could use a fire barrier beneath it but a ventilating gap must be left under the thatch otherwise there is a risk that the life of the thatch will be reduced due ot lack of through ventilation.

Fire retardant chemicals are questionable in that with Reed roofs the thatch has to be laid dry and yet if treated in a chemical the Reed is wet. There is some evidence of premature failure of reed roofs where the reed has been dipped in a fire retardant and not been allowed to dry before use.

Fire retardant sprayed on after thatching can reduce ventilation through the thatch and this may lead to premature failure.

Spark arresters have to be cleaned regularly and to get to them can cause damage to the thatch. It is now generally thought unnecessary to use a spark arrester if the top of the chimney is at least 1.8m above the nearest thatch.

Finally: put a smoke alarm in the roof space(s) and hard wire it to the landing alarm. If there is a fire in the roof you will get early warning.

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 learn to live with noise which is driving me bonkers
FROM:
Lucy Strutt
(Hertfordshire)

We live in a thatched, timber framed cottage on a busy road and are having problems sound proofing the house. We have had secondary glazing put in but it has had little effect on the noise levels. The noise is apparently coming through the walls and I understand that it is not possible to have flock cavity wall insulation for a timber framed property. Do you know if this is correct and do you have any other suggestions?

Lucy Strutt

Noise can be difficult to deal with. Generally the best thing to stop noise is density, but even then there are issues about how sound moves through materials.

Regardless of what has been done there only needs to be a gap of say 10% of the overall surface to allow through about 80-90% of the sound. In other words unless sound-proofing is 100% you will not perceive a noticeable reduction in sound.

With a property such as yours it is particularly difficult. It is possible that you have a timber frame with an externally applied render (if the timber frame is visible on the internal faces of walls). In which case there is simply the thickness of render between you and the source of the noise (the road). If the render is over a wattle and daub substrate this will help, but to open it up and find out would cause unnecessary damage, etc. I therefore advise that you leave the existing wall as it is.

The question therefore is whether to apply some form of sound proofing to the internal face of to the exterior. This would have to be a form of cladding. Internally it would mean covering over the timbers and marginal loss of space. Externally it would mean complete covering and perhaps loss of any breathability. In both instances it would mean changes to window and door reveals, etc.

A possible alternative would be to install some form of acoustic insulation between the frame members and create a false plastered wall over this, just leaving the faces of the timbers exposed. This would be very fiddly and I am not sure you would notice a significant improvement.

My conclusion seems to be that you may have to learn to live with it, as previous owners seem to have done. Place large items of furniture along the road wall, install heavy curtains, etc, etc. These may all help a little.

However, if you really cannot live with it get an acoustic specialist to come along and undertake tests to identify precisely where the sound problem exists and see if there is a solution that improves the situation for you without damaging the character of the building.

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:
Surveyor does not know his cob from his stone built house
FROM:
Jan Phillips
(Cornwall)

I'm an owner of a cob house in Cornwall. The original surveyor failed to notice that the walls were particularly thick and could have been made of cob and also failed to notice or report on a serious lintel problem at the front of the house. (amongst other things) I have been arguing with the survey company for over a year on the issue of their liability and some compensation for me. Meanwhile, I have a mortgage on a 'stone' house and am terrified what will happen when I tell my high street mortgage lender that it is cob. Has anyone had this situation and any advice on the liability of the original surveyor, who was , of course, representing the mortgage company.

Jan Phillips

On the face of it the surveyor does sound as if he/she was negligent. However, when discussing liability it is not simply the fact of negligence that matters, but what impact this has on the value of the property.

You need to consider several issues.

Is the problem now simply that the property is of cob, or is there a more serious structural problem that a competent surveyor would have identified if he/she had realised it was cob?

If the former then the only issue is whether in general terms a cob cottage has a higher/lower value than one of stone. If there is a surveyor/valuer who can give evidence to the fact that there is a different value attached to the nature of the construction you may have a case for negligence and demonstrate a financial loss (assuming cob structures have a lower value).

If the latter applies - you have structural problems anyway - then there may be a case for negligence on the basis that failure to identify the construction properly resulted in failure to identify faults and that this results in a financial loss to you.

Establishing negligence is therefore not the end of the story. You have to also demonstrate financial loss due to that negligence. The common term for this is diminution in value.

You really need a surveyor that not only understands this type of structure, but is also experienced in giving evidence in court cases, etc. Before you progress further you really must have someone independent to inspect and advise on the issues, its condition, what needs to be done, etc and to consider whether some or all of these should and could have been spotted and reported on by a competent surveyor.

As for whether you tell your mortgage company - I suspect that non-disclosure could create problems in future. They are unlikely to simply remove the mortgage facility. The only time they may become concerned is if the building collapses (not unknown with cob structures). Of more concern is the insurance and you will certainly need to disclose to them and they could well withdraw cover. If you don't disclose and eventually make a claim they may then refuse the claim anyway. Therefore it is better to disclose now than leave it.

For a surveyor in your region experienced in historic buildings try David Scott (01872 263939).

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:
Cascading pond work results in garden revamp being stopped by enforcement officer
FROM:
Cath Twine
(Gloucestershire)

We have a Grade II listed building and have started to make formal gardens, including cascading ponds. The local enforcement officer has asked us to stop the work, saying the ponds are too big for the setting. They are saying they are engineering work. I really need some help on the planning law and garden design.

Cath Twine

You need help from a landscape architect.

I suspect that if the ponds, etc are extensive then you will need to obtain formal consent, etc.

I do not know many landscape architects generally, but someone you could try is Anthony Stiff (www.anthonystiffassociates.co.uk) as he is based in Oxfordshire but works over the UK.

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