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:
I have found the cellar!
FROM:
Nicola Dakin
(Cheshire)

I live in a 14th century half timbered home. It is with great excitement that I have found the cellar. The property was renovated in the 1960's and the cellar filled in as we believe. From a very old person who knew the property owners back in the early 1900's it would appear the cellar was used to store cheeses made on the property. There may have been access from the outside and the indications are vague inside where the door may have been. Can you advise how I would go about locating a way in and indeed how to reinstate the cellar.

Nicola Dakin

I assume the property is listed and the first thing to advise is that you should speak with the Conservation Officer about careful opening up and investigation.

Without far more detail I cannot provide specific advice. Locating the entrance will involve an assessment of the building and what changes have been made to it, particularly about the time of the cellar being infilled, that might lead you to an area of alteration where the work may have included covering the cellar entrance. Quite simply, the altered or covered entrance will be relatively modern work and this itself should help guide you to find it.

Until you find it and a way in you will not know how it has been infilled. It may be loose material that can be easily (relatively!) taken out . but it could be solid concrete. If the latter I suggest you leave it alone and forget it.

You need to speak to the CO and do some further non-invasive site investigation followed perhaps by some selective opening up

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:
A couple of blows to the head
FROM:
Richard Hall
(Suffolk)

We have just bought a cottage built in approx 1560. The head-height on the beams in a couple of the rooms was always a minor concern but something I was prepared to live with. Now having had a couple of blows to the head, the head-height could become a bit of an issue. Would lowering the floors in the offending rooms be a way to increase the height and could it cause moisture problems?

Richard Hall

It depends on whether the floor to ceiling heights are as built originally. If so I suggest it would be more problematic in persuading the Conservation Officer to let you lower the floors than if there have been past alterations. Furthermore, you may have problems with excavating down below the original structure (see some of the discussions on the Discussion Forum).

If the floor has been increased it may be possible to argue for taking it back to a lower level.

Whether it causes a moisture problem depends on many other factors. Will the floor be below the external ground level? At what level is the natural water table (if low ground water may not be a problem)? What materials are to be used to form the floor and/or what has been used already to surrounding walls? Remember that changing a breathable structure (floor and/or walls) to a non-breathable structure usually increases the risk of moisture problems.

Putting a 'limecrete' floor in the property at a lower level may be a way forward, provided the finished floor level is above ground and there is no high water table normally

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 to clean the beams of rust marks
FROM:
Paul Marshall
(Essex)

I live in a medieval Hall House whose oak timbers have recently been re-exposed throughout. The cleaning method was high pressure water blasting & application of a dilute stain to darken. As a result the house is rendered dark by the stain & the beams are disfigures by rust marks from thousands of broken off nails which had fixed the previous ceiling cladding. Any ideas as to how to clean the beams of rust marks & how to lighten them? Would bleach do the job?

Paul Marshall

Why did you do it? Such work would often need listed building consent and it is possible that you have committed an offence if LBC was not obtained.

Any form of pressure 'cleaning' is nowadays frowned upon for various reasons. The use of water is also discouraged for the reason you have discovered.

I would not compound the problem by trying to use bleach.

I suspect the rust stains will show through almost any finish you now use.

You need specialist advice and I suggest you try 'Strippers' in the first instance.

It may be appropriate to use some form of coating on the beams and my first thoughts are to use limewash; apply a few coats and then gently brush back to give a soft limed finish. I doubt this would cover the stains, but it might improve the appearance and would not cause any harm to the timber.

The other problem you now face is whether water has got into joints and if so whether it has properly dried out or whether the water is now going to cause other problems (rot, etc) in hidden areas.

As a warning to others - if you want to clean down beams get consent first, get specialists in (independent from selling a product or service to do the work) and undertake trials areas to see the results before embarking on widespread work.

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:
Should we use limewash, soft distemper, oil distemper or a modern "breathable" paint?
FROM:
Nigel Brooks
(Wiltshire)

We are renovating a Victorian rectory. This incorporates a former schoolhouse which is to become the kitchen. The schoolhouse had very poor lime plaster on top of brick - solid walls obviously. The existing lime plaster has now been totally removed, leaving bare brick

There is no evidence of damp (either rising or penetration through the walls) and we are keen to achieve a breathable internal finish to ensure that happy state continues.

We intend to re-plaster, using a lime plaster, but my question relates to finish. Should we use limewash, soft distemper, oil distemper or a modern "breathable" paint (and if so which ones are best)? As it is a kitchen, we need some degree of "wipeability" and resilience in the face of moisture (although we will obviously install extractor fans).

Nigel Brooks

There are many views on this and mine is not necessarily correct.

Good quality limewash if properly applied does not usually simply brush off. However, it is not necessarily a good finish internally. Distempers have their pros and cons. Look at the Discussion Forum of this site to see what others have found in similar situations.

I would advise against modern breathable paints as most are not breathable in the way you mean or indeed need. However, I would suggest you look at some of the 'earth paints' that are now coming onto the market (e.g. those made by EarthBorn - See the Period Property Shop). These are said to be hardwearing and yet breathable. Those I know who have used them speak highly of them.

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:
Pesky Birds
FROM:
Paul Whitlock
(Kent)

How do I stop chaffinches pecking holes in the lime mortar on my garden wall? They are creating a real problem. The lime mortar is fairly new (one month old), and they are just ripping it out.

Paul Whitlock

We have discussed this in the office and confess to being stumped. We all know of birds pecking out linseed oil putty. The only thing we can think of is that they are after the grit. Perhaps RSPB would have some idea on this.

As for stopping them, we have discussed various lethal means, but cannot think of anything sensible! Have you tried putting a pile of lime mortar somewhere close to divert them away from the wall? How about getting a cat?

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:
Plaster and reed instead of floorboards
FROM:
Anthony Heath
(Warwickshire)

I have removed he carpets from the 2 upstairs bedrooms in a terrace house I have just bought. Instead of floorboards there is a mixture of plaster and reed underneath. Some of this is quite badly cracked in places. How best am I to proceed. To create safe /smooth floors I also want to install central heating in the house for the first time.

Anthony Heath

What you describe sounds like a Lime-ash floor. SPAB has a leaflet:

"Introduction to the Repair of Lime-Ash & Plaster Floors", Price: 2.00 (Zero Rated VAT)

The routing of pipes and cables will need very careful consideration. You should be able to make some holes through the floor in a few carefully selected places, but you may have to devise a boxing system (or use of deep skirtings) to run services around the rooms. If there are floor voids you could use these.

Whatever you do will need listed building consent.

Lime-ash floors are quite rare and important. There is nothing wrong with them as structures and no reason to remove them provided they are carefully repaired and looked after.

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:
Flood waters above the chemical damp proof course
FROM:
Gerrad Robinson

We recently moved to an 1860's brick cottage which had a chemical damp proof course injected in 1988. During the recent floods there was standing water above the injected course and water entered the house through two walls. We consulted the company who did the original work who suggested that the damp proofing may have been compromised by the ingress of water and that we should claim on our insurance. This we tried to do, but the insurance company don't agree. I therefore have two questions:

1. Might an injected damp proof course have been compromised in this way & require re-instating?

2. What's the best way to locate an independent surveyor as clearly the install might be seen as having a vested interest? (It transpires that the internal walls were plastered with a gypsum rather than lime plaster following renovation and this probably needs removing to.)

RobTavendale

If the chemical DPC is compromised it does not say much for the system in the first place! There is certainly no reason for repeating the errors of the past.

Wait until the property is fully dried out (this could take six months) to see if there is a residual damp problem. Over time the damp above the injected DPC should dry out if the wall surfaces are exposed and/or breathable. Below the DPC they will also dry out if exposed and/or breathable, but might have a higher level of 'normal' moisture than above the injected DPC.

I would suggest you do nothing in terms of the DPC itself and concentrate on dealing with the wall surfaces and getting these working properly as breathable structures.

Without knowing where in the country you are I cannot say who to go to. There have been discussions on the Discussion Forum of this site in which some independent consultants have been mentioned. If you are in the Oxford area I suggest you speak with Richard Oxley (Oxley Conservation) who may be able to assist you.

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:
Should I use a high pressure washer to remove old lime wash?
FROM:
Jon Jones
(Somerset)

I have a large area of old crumbling/flakey lime wash to remove/prepare prior to re-washing. The small area that I've already removed through scraping has taken a great deal of time and exposed a large amount of mortar which I need to repoint. I'm thinking of using a high pressure washer to remove the rest. Do you have any suggestions?

Jon Jones

The danger with any high pressure system is that there is a high risk of it removing more than you intend. You could find that it also removes brick faces if they are old soft red bricks

If you are going to apply fresh limewash why not simply brush off loose and friable material, wash down and then apply the new limewash over the old?

If the removal of limewash is removing mortar it sounds as if some re-pointing and general maintenance of the wall is needed anyway.

How far you go in preparing the surface depends on what you intend to put back. If putting back limewash and simply replacing like for like I would tend to suggest that you remove only what is loose and failing to get back to a generally sound surface - not necessarily one that is completely 'clean'. This may create an uneven finish, but that is perhaps the attraction and 'character' of many old buildings - the build up of surface finishes creating a textured surface.

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:
Turnerised roof
FROM:
Rebekah Pearson
(Devon)

My roof has been turnerised (had bitumen poured over the slate) since at least 1935 (I've seen a photo with it done then). The house was Grade 2 listed in 1973 - do I need listed building consent to do it?

Rebekah Pearson

To do what?

I would not suggest continuing with this method of coating a roof. It is now known to be the cause of many problems and more rapid degradation of the slate, etc.

Wherever I see this I warn the client that at some date the only option is to completely remove and re-cover the roof. The slates will be unusable and a new roof covering will be necessary.

The danger with continuing with the coating is that if water gets in (or condensation from underneath) the roof frame could suffer.

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:
Charred wood in my beams
FROM:
David Cane
(Norfolk)

Have stripped ceiling of 17th C. farmhouse to expose ceiling beams. Under the whitewash, there is substantial surface charring to some beams and upper floorboards - presumably as a result of some ancient, serious but localised room fire. Removing surface 'charcoal' dust is fairly simple but it leaves a hardened black surface which is not responsive to wire brushing nor (gentle) sanding.

Does you know of a good method to further clean this wood please? We have ruled out sand-blasting because of inevitable dust damage to adjacent rooms already restored.

David Cane

It is not a surface coating that can be cleaned off. The hard black stuff is the charred wood itself. Removing it will remove some of the timber - not a good idea!

Why remove it? It is part of the history of the building and it probably explains why it was covered in the first place. The only solution, if the aesthetics are poor, is to cover it in some way - whether the whole ceiling or individual timbers is a matter for consideration.

If the building is listed you should have obtained consent for the work undertaken thus far and will need consent for further work.

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