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:
How do I strip paint from chimney breasts?
FROM:
Glen Beamson
(Kent)

A variant on the 'how do I strip paint from bricks' question. We have a 15th Century Hall House down in Kent which had inglenooks added sometime in 16/17th Century - the chimney breasts to the inglenooks have been plastered with a thin skim coat ~2-3mm and then painted with gloss paint. I can\'t tell if the skim is lime or cement plaster. Any ideas, firstly how I could check for this, and secondly once I know what it is, how I get the plaster off? I don’t want to sandblast if possible.

Glen Beamson

The gloss paint can be removed using a chemical removal material/system, but wash down and remove the chemical afterwards to prevent it doing any other damage.

Once the paint is off the nature of the render may be more apparent. If it is very hard (cannot dig into it with a penknife, etc) it is almost certainly a cement based render. If so it was probably applied to tackle an actual or perceived damp problem at the base of the chimney stack. If it seems soft (you can dig a hole in it) it may be lime plaster. However, some lime plaster can be quite hard and this is not an absolute test.

Removal should be fairly straightforward using a standard bolster chisel and club hammer. Carefully start at a corner and try to get the chisel in between the render and brick so that you force the separation at the interface of the materials. It may not be easy. However, if it is lime render why remove it? If it is cement render and is well adhered you may find that removing it causes more harm than leaving it in place (unless you suspect that its presence is causing damage somewhere).

If you do remove it be warned that you may take brick faces with it, no matter how careful you are with the chisel. It is quite likely that you will need to re-render using lime render once the existing render has been removed. I would be surprised if the bricks look good enough to leave exposed if the render removed is cement based.

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:
Modern injected damp proof course in 1840s house?
FROM:
William Wright
(Wales)

I have purchased a 1840s house built with solid stone walls. My initial survey said that the house suffers from rising damp. I have been told by various people that it is almost impossible to have a modern injected damp proof course put into a house of this kind. Could you tell me if this is so and what other solutions are available to me?

William Wright

If the initial surveyor relied purely on a reading from a hand-held meter I doubt the analysis was sufficiently robust to say that there is rising damp. Before considering any form of work to remedy "rising damp" have the problem properly analysed. There are many reasons for damp to be present and/or appear at the base of the wall. The insertion of any form of horizontal barrier in the wall may be a pointless waste of money if there is no true rising damp.

The majority of damp problems can be resolved without inserting a horizontal DPC. In any event whoever told you that an injected DPC cannot be inserted in a stone wall is correct. Whilst the chemical can be pumped into the wall it is unlikely to create an effective barrier and is therefore a waste of money.

I cannot advise on solutions without knowing the cause of the damp. The problem has to be properly assessed and analysed before a solution can be considered. A possible solution is to do nothing!

Please read the 'sticky' thread on damp at the head of the Discussion Forum pages. This should help inform you better on the issues.

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:
Reinstating Cornices
FROM:
Andrew Gibb
(Bedfordshire)

We live in a 1916 detached house which is predominantly intact and original. We have mainly Victorian with one or two Art Deco features however three of the bedrooms are missing their cornices. The one bedroom which retains its cornice feels much nicer and looks fantastic. Are there any pitfalls in having the cornice reinstated? Should I use the existing bedroom as a template? What material is best and who can do this for me?

Andrew Gibb

Are you sure the other bedrooms ever had a cornice? Sometimes only the principal bedroom had a cornice. If others had cornices there was sometimes a hierarchy of styles or degree of ornateness.

If there are other similar houses nearby ask the owners if you can inspect to see if any of them have cornices in these rooms. If so see if there is a hierarchy, etc. It may be better to use another house as a template if that house still has its cornices.

If the above is not fruitful you will need to check style and pattern books for the period and see what may suit. Bear in mind that the cornice in the main bedroom may be too deep and not in scale with other smaller bedrooms. Generally speaking lower order bedrooms tend to have fairly plain cornices.

In 1916 the cornices may have been pre-fabricated rather than run on site. Provided the style is correct I see no problem with a fibrous plaster cornice or plaster moulded cornice - I do not necessarily see the need to have a cornice run in situ. However, I would advise against plastic, polystyrene, 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:
Draughty holes
FROM:
Kirsteen Paton
(Cambridgeshire)

In the kitchen, there are holes at skirting board level along the walls of our brick and flint farm workers cottage built in 1869. They don't seem to go all the way through to the outside but a draught can be felt coming from them. What could the function of these holes be and do we risk damp problems if we fill them in?

Kirsteen Paton

Without seeing the holes and assessing the wall structure it is impossible to say. Can you post photos and perhaps sketch the plan/section of wall to show what you can see/assess? If you can do this and post on the Discussion Forum here I am sure that between us the regular posters and other experts that use this site can come up with some form of explanation.

Until you have a better idea of what the holes are for I would avoid filling 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:
Damp protection following flooding
FROM:
Pamela Watkins
(Worcestershire)

Our Cottage is about C1820 and we were badly flooded in the July Floods. Following discussions with our builders we are unsure of how best to protect our cottage from further damage. We read the government literature of the repair of buildings after flooding and were preparing to replaster with a lime based mix not gypsum (we had 3 1/2 foot of water so all of the plaster had to be removed) in line this these guidelines. We were also advised that as our cottage does not have a DPM (Damp Proof Membrane) but has injection course that it may be advisable to lift the floor and put down a DPM, they also stated that this might slow down the water if it was trying to get up through the floor.

The insurance surveyor appeared the other day (five months on!) and stated that we should not put down a DPM (Fine) but that we did need a new injection course and that due to the fact that the lime plaster is breathable we need to replaster in gypsum so that the injection course is sealed in??? Which goes against my understanding of using a lime based render, we were considering leaving some walls with just exposed brick to minimise the need for repair should such an event reoccur. My husband is now considering painting the house in bitumen to stop the water from being able to permeate the bricks again. Could you please offer advice on the best ways of protecting from damp and if there are any other methods open to us.

Pamela Watkins

This is not a matter that can be dealt with in detail remotely. It is something that needs inspection and careful consideration.

I would usually advise against a mixed approach. Either use traditional materials and create a breathable structure, or form a complete (100%) barrier to damp (internal and/or external).

If you follow the latter route and the damp barrier is not 100% water will find a way in. Once water is in the rest of the system (tanked walls and modern floor) you have formed creates an indoor swimming pool! Even if the system is 100% effective as a barrier any water that gets in will not have a route out again.

If you go down the route of any form of 'damp proofing' once water gets in it will take a time to get out again and the materials will trap moisture within the structure, therefore increasing the risk of long term damage.

My general preference would be to use traditional materials to create a breathable structure. This would have little resistance to flood water in future, but would dry out quicker and be easier to repair. As the structure dries out relatively quickly there is less risk of long term damage.

Externally you could consider a form of land drainage around the building to take away low levels of "flood" water, but this would not cope with major flooding.

Depending on circumstances some form of physical barrier at doors and windows, etc that can be temporarily installed can prove effective. I know some properties on the sea front have such measures to protect them against high waves crashing onto the front of the property.

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 ingress due to different roof levels?
FROM:
David Baker
(Northamptonshire)

My friend owns a 17th century period property that has been modernised some 20 years ago. She also has a neighbouring, adjacent property that has been modernised and a new roof added. The roof line of this adjacent property is lower than that of my friend.

The adjoining wall is exhibiting signs of damp i.e. crumbling plaster and damp areas on the newly applied anaglyptic wallpaper (previously the walls had vinyl - Vymura - wallpaper with a substrate thin layer of expanded polystyrene).

Have you any suggestions as to the source of the damp please? Is this normal damp that is evaporating out from the solid (20") exterior / adjoining wall?

Could there be some disturbance damage as a result of the work carried out by the neighbour on their roof? I notice that there is no lead flashing where their roof joins my friend\'s outside wall; there is a ridge of cement in the joint.

David Baker

Without seeing it I cannot be certain about what is happening.

It is possible that water ingress has occurred through the upstand section of wall between the higher and lower roof lines. Obviously the area should be checked for obvious signs of where water could enter (cracks, etc) and appropriate re-pointing/filling, etc undertaken with lime mortar. If necessary perhaps the wall surface should be limewashed or even lime rendered. A cement fillet is liable to crack and allow water in. A lead flashing or a lead soaker under a lime mortar fillet would be more appropriate.

The previous wall covering may have disguised the problem because the internal finishes were generally impermeable. Now that they have been removed any trapped moisture is able to escape and is now appearing.

Leave the area in question exposed and well ventilated to see if it dries out. If it does the problem may have been trapped moisture. If it does not dry there may be an ongoing problem that needs further investigation.

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:
After the flood
FROM:
Nigel Madeley
(Oxfordshire)

We have a cottage built variously between 1840, 1980 and last year. We were flooded to a meter deep in last summer's floods and the plaster has been hacked off to 1.2m. We see references to lime plaster being more resilient than gypsum (see e.g. National Flood Forum 'resilient repair advice'), but our plasterer doesn't think that this is the case. His understanding is that the need to hack off the plaster was to do with the risk of contamination, not water penetration. We want to make our house as flood resilient as we can; how do we work out what to do with the plaster?

Nigel Madeley

My earlier answer (Damp protection following flooding) above provides you with the general guidance you need.

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:
Mundic Blocks
FROM:
Tresca Pascoe
(Devon)

We live in a Victorian mid terrace built in the 1850's. We are in the process of remortgaging in the surveyor and mortgage company are insisting on a monadic block test. This to me seems to be a peculiar request as I thought 'Mundic' block only occurred in properties built between 1900 and 1950's there is an extension to the rear of the property which we are led to believe was built in the 1970's. Can you suggest why a ‘Mundic’ test may be needed and can we appeal against it us our budget is tight and can't afford £350.00

Tresca Pascoe

You are correct in believing that Mundic Blocks is a term usually used to refer to blocks formed in the first half of the 20th century. Your property (assuming the date is correct) seems too early, but there can be exceptions to the rule. However, the problem relates to the reaction of various materials in the aggregate with the concrete used. In 1850 it seems unlikely that concrete was available for use. Is it certain that the building is of blocks or a solid shuttered walling system? If so is it possible that it is an earth based structure?

Further it is now thought that the problem of Mundic Blocks extends to a limited area in the SouthWest (within 15km of Gunnislake-Tavistock). Outside of this area testing is only recommended if there is good reason to suspect a problem (there are visual indications consistent with mundic deterioration). As I do not practice in the region I have no direct experience. However, RICS published a Guidance Note in 1997 and it is still relevant today. It is free for a Chartered Surveyor to download and therefore the surveyor in question (if a member of RICS) should be able to make a basic assessment using the Guidance Note advice.

If there is evidence of a problem (cracking, etc) then whether the property is mundic or not there may be a good reason for further assessment.

You cannot 'appeal' as such. However, you can enter into discussion with the surveyor and ask for further information/explanation before you incur the cost of testing or any further investigation. Specifically ask the surveyor why he/she thinks there is a mundic problem with this property.

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