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:
Poor re-pointing leaves me in tears
FROM:
Peter Grant
(Nottinghamshire)

What is the best way to re-point and clean the bricks at the front of my 1900's brick built House? My builder has done half of the front and it looks a mess. He has used a cement based mortar after having ground out the old mortar with some of the brick I was nearly in tears on returning home to see the mess. He has also used an acid wash and left behind streaks and very pale looking bricks!

Peter Grant

The best way is with great care.

It depends on the nature of the bricks and the mortar originally used. Although harder bricks could be cleaned with acid I would regard this as a last resort. How to clean and what to clean with are dependent on what the problem is as well as the nature of the bricks themselves. I would always suggest finding an area that is not highly visible to trial a few different methods and materials. A stiff brush might be appropriate, simple water washing could work, but it may be necessary to use a chemical system (contact Strippers http://www.stripperspaintremovers.com ) or a high pressure system. I would tend to avoid abrasive systems.

A problem with cleaning is how far to go? If you clean it back to pristine condition how will this then look compared to other properties. You would also lose the patina of age. More often one would go for a gentle clean that gets the worst off but leaves some of the patina.

With your problem I suggest it needs a careful wash and re-assessment as to what could be done to salvage it. You may even need to consider some way of 'dirtying' the faces to get rid of some of the streaking.

Your second problem relates to re-pointing. Raking out should never be done with a disc cutter or anything that could do more harm than good. There is a recent 'saw' designed to be used for cutting into mortar and bricks that is said to do no harm to the bricks but I have not seen it used in a real situation. The usual method is to rake out by hand - time consuming and expensive, but effective and results in minimal (if any) damage.

Re-pointing should be with a mortar that is as close to the original as you can get. This would probably be a lime mortar perhaps with a pozzolan in it (perhaps brick dust, etc). I would doubt that a modern cement mortar is appropriate in terms of appearance finished texture or technical performance.

As a rule of thumb, regardless of what mortar is being used, the mortar should always be softer than the brickwork - after all it is the mortar that is the element that should be regarded as 'sacrificial'. In other words it is easier and cheaper to rake and repoint every generation or so than it is to cut out failed brickwork.

From what you have described I suggest you get rid of the builder, look at your insurance policy to see if you have legal costs cover and consider taking legal action to recover any costs you now incur to resolve the problems. You may need to get some professional input on the problems and a suitable solution.

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:
Bitumen covering ruins Welsh slate roof
FROM:
Helen Spittle
(Gwent)

I have recently discovered that the top floor of my turn of the century Arts and Crafts home, has been Turnerised. The bottom half of the house is stone, and the top of brick covered in slates. It's a real shame because they would have been beautiful Welsh slates graduated in sizes from top to bottom. They have been painted with bitumen to stop them from moving in the wind at some point, and then painted with a blue/grey paint so we were not aware of it when we bought the house. Should I do anything about it? I suppose there's no way of removing the bitumen, and replacing the tiles would be extremely expensive!

Helen Spittle

Now that it is done it is impossible to remove without complete stripping and re-covering. The problem with this is that the slates are now unsalvageable. This is a typical problem with 'turnerised' roofs and also is a problem with any material that sticks to the roof covering (whether external or internal).

If the roof leaks you will need to get it patch repaired using a similar bituminous system. If the leaks are beyond repair you really will have to consider stripping and replacing.

You will need to watch out for condensation within the roof void and the possibility of rot affecting the battens and rafters. Periodically check the roof structure where you can. If you find signs of a problem that is when you need to consider stripping and re-covering.

If you have no sign of a problem at present I suggest you simply leave alone, but start budgeting for eventual major work (whether in a year or two or in several years).

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:
Address & development type error leads to call for plans to be re-submitted for LBC
FROM:
Sheila Berry
(Merseyside)

I applied for planning permission and listed building consent for the conversion of a barn into 2 dwellings on 12/12/07. On the 14/01/08 I received a call from LBC asking if I could take some pictures in of the outbuildings that we were hoping to demolish. I asked why I they were asking as it was 4 weeks after I had taken my application in. I was told they were very busy. The next day on their web site I noticed they had both the address and development type incorrectly recorded. I called LBC and explained this to them they said not to worry as the correct details were on the application, it was an admin error. I spoke to the planning officer and another member of staff up to 6 times about this who also said it was an admin error but not to worry. I received planning permission 4/02/08 then LBC on 06/03/08 and it still had the wrong address and also development description was still wrong. This week they have told me they can correct the address but as they had made the mistake on the description I have to put in a new application for LBC. Everyone I have spoke to has said I shouldn't have to do this as it was the council's error but the council have said I have to. Have you any advice as to who I can contact or what I should do next

Sheila Berry

I have not come across this before and I think you need to speak to a planning specialist (one with some legal training as well).

If your application was correct in all regards and the Council have got it wrong I think you may be able to argue that you can go ahead - although the problem is whether they have actually assessed and granted permission for the right scheme on the right property - I suspect that this is why they want you to re-submit.

If the approvals refer to the correct plans and it is simply the description they have got wrong (you say that they are willing to correct the address anyway) I cannot see why you should have to re-submit to correct their error. After all the correct plans, etc are in the file and associated with the application so that anyone looking at it can see what was intended and approved. No-one looking into planning history in depth on the property should simply rely on the basic description anyway.

I think you need to seek specialist planning advice and you should consider taking the Council to the Ombudsman.

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:
Builder's ideas on home improvements could ruin terrace of properties
FROM:
Delilah Policane
(London)

My new next door ( builder ) neighbour wants to render over the pebbledash, paint it a 'fun' colour and fit a large porch with windows and doors in place of the original wooden porch(from 1928) at the front of the house. He also plans to put up fences higher than the 2m fence I already have and build a 'lean to' along my fence as part of an extension to the original garage to make a utility room, also at a height of about 3 m. We are one of a row of 8 identical Art Deco houses and hate to think of how this will change the line of our street and block light from my rose garden.

Delilah Policane

If you are in a Conservation Area I suggest you speak to the Council speedily before he does any work. They may be able to stop him. Otherwise if the work is within 'permitted development' there is little you can do other than point out how it will appear detrimental to the street scene and will probably devalue his property (and yours for that matter!). I have not heard of a case where someone has claimed devaluation from a neighbour, but it is something you could look into.

As for the fence, that is a planning matter and you can use the planning system to stop him putting up a high fence.

As for the lean-to, if he builds it up against the fence and it forms a structure he could bring into play the Party Wall Act and need to serve notice, etc. If he does not you may be able to get an injunction. Of course you will need to make sure that it is a Party Wall matter and for this you may want to seek some initial advice from a Party Wall expert - www.partywalls.org.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.
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SUBJECT:
Fire regulations causes problem for stained glass door
FROM:
Ann Hawker
(Northamptonshire)

We have a Listed building in Leicester used for a Christian Community house. There is a leaded light stained glass door and screen at the top of the main staircase with a lobby behind it and a further door and glazed screen to the landing at top of rear stairs. I need to ensure half hour fire separation between the 2 landings. Do you have any suggestions?

Ann Hawker

Without seeing the details it is difficult to make suggestions.

There are various glasses that can be used perhaps as a cover screen - the glass placed in a suitable frame and placed over the whole of the original screen. Any doors and frames could probably be upgraded either by replacement, painting with intumescent paint or having intumescent seals to the perimeters, or covering the glazed sections with a second fire glass screen - or a combination of several of these.

Is it possible to erect a fire screen somewhere between the two?

Is there a solution to fire safety issues that would avoid the need for the half hour separation at this landing?

You may need to employ an independent fire protection consultant who can look at the problems holistically and laterally to consider solutions that may be acceptable, but non-standard.

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:
French drain advice required for sandstone villa
FROM:
Richard Fowles
(Central Scotland)

We live in a large sandstone villa built in 1890. Immediately outside and against the house is a 2 foot wide tarmac path which we would like to replace with stone chippings. A friend told me that the best way to do this would be to take a sledgehammer to the tarmac path to the tarmac, to break it up and remove it before putting down sand and chippings. However, he also said that drainage may be an issue and that I should dig down to find the damp proofing level (a slate line) and make sure that some form of trench/filling is put in place which is at least equal to the slate damp line to ensure no future problems with damp entering the house (we have never had any before).

Richard Fowles

The general principle to follow is that the ground level should not be above the line of any damp proof course, because it could lead to bridging of the DPC and damp at the bases of walls internally. The fact that this has not yet happened means that either you are lucky or the ground is not yet above the DPC.

The important thing is first to establish where the DPC is in relation to the ground level. This will then help determine whether and how far you may have to excavate before laying the new surface.

If the ground is above the DPC and you have to excavate you could take the level of the whole area down externally or simply create a drained channel beside the wall. The ground level (or bottom of any channel) should be at least 150 mm below the DPC level to avoid the risk of future problems.

There have been various discussions about this type of problem and the issue of 'French drains', etc on the Discussion Forum of this web site. You may find some useful comment on that Forum.

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:
Death watch beetles could hide more serious damp threat
FROM:
Erica Betts
(Norfolk)

Just less than a year ago we moved into a grade II listed thatched house. The oldest part dates from about 1520/1530. We are undertaking various repairs and improvements. It is being rethatched at the moment. In the last week I have discovered we have death watch beetle. Knocking in the walls at night not unusual I am sure in a building of this age. However it is difficult to know what we should do or not do. The beams involved are within rendered clay lump walls and I believe at least a foot thick. Only a small part of them is therefore visible in the internal walls of the house. So please do you have some advice. I now have quite a collection of beetles!

Erica Betts

As a rule of thumb if you have live and active Death Watch Beetle (DWB) you have a damp problem. They usually find it difficult to survive on hard historic timber unless it is softened by being damp and rotting. The presence of active DWB is usually an indication of a more serious damp and/or rotting timber problem.

You mention clay lump walls and I wonder if moisture is trapped within them. If the elevations have a modern cement render and/or modern paint there is a high risk that moisture is trapped in the walls and causing damp, etc to timbers embedded in the walls.

Your description leads me to suspect more serious problems that need to be investigated properly. If you do not take care when tackling the problems with this type of structure there is a very real risk of collapse to the building. Do not simply start hacking render off. You need specialist advice.

At Norfolk County Council there are Conservation Officers who have specialist knowledge on such buildings - in particular Dirk Bouwens. You should also contact and perhaps join Eartha (www.eartha.org.uk ).

To try to deal with the DWB without tackling any other issues would be a waste of money and could result in unnecessary damage to the fabric. Surface treatment is rarely effective.

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 get the original drain reinstated?
FROM:
James Ross
(Cheshire)

We have just moved into our Victorian house. I have been investigating a damp problem on an internal wall and traced it back to the rain water down pipe from the gutter. I have unblocked this and resolved the problem of the overflow/leak. However, the drain pipe at ground level is a cast iron pipe that exits through the base of the property wall, just below ground level. The route of this pipe the other side of the wall is blocked by either, the pavement having been made up - if it originally discharged onto the street, or a BT telegraph pole that has been put into the path, adjacent to the property. Do I have any comeback on BT or Highways to get the original drain reinstated? I do not know how long the pole has been there. There is no room for a soak away.

James Ross

I think the simple answer is - probably. If you can demonstrate that the work of Highways/Council/BT has caused this problem you probably do have some comeback. You really need legal advice.

There was a case in Cambridgeshire last year that was settled out of court where the Council eventually paid an owner where the ground level had been increased and caused problems. There have been some discussions about this on the Discussion Forum of this web site.

You may have to get your insurers involved. On the face of it you have an escape of water claim and unless the outlet of the downpipe is resolved this will be an ongoing problem and frequent claim. You should persuade them to join you (and/or assist you by way of legal costs and legal advice) in taking action against whoever caused the problem.

Of course you should also look at whether there is another solution such as re-routing the rainwater goods.

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:
Trust seeks payment to lift restrictive covenant
FROM:
Mark Ashton
(West Midlands)

Our property has a National Trust restricted covenant at the wishes of a previous owner 60 years ago when she died. We are planning to build an extension however the National Trust are wanting a fairly significant sum of money from us before they will grant us permission.

We live in a 2 bed house and are just planning to add 2 further bedrooms. The plans are sympathetic to the original building and in keeping with the area ...blah blah blah

The amount of money the National Trust want is jeopardizing whether we have the funds to go ahead

It seems like daylight robbery and very unfair however the national trust tell us its because they are a charity and therefore if our property gains value after the extension then they have a duty as a charity to take a proportion. The National Trust do not seem to have a specific guideline and instead keep changing the goalposts and there are many contradictions when we speak to them.

We have checked our deeds and although it states the covenant there is no additional detail on how they would proceed in our current circumstance. Can anyone offer advice? Can we divorce ourselves from the NT Covenant?

Mark Ashton

The National Trust will seek to enforce a restrictive covenant and the only way to get it lifted is usually to make a payment.

A restrictive covenant is what is says - a covenant designed to stop an owner doing something. The Deeds do not need to explain anything - they simply record the restriction.

Assuming the covenant is enforceable the National Trust is correct in that if they lift the covenant you are able to develop your property further (and thereby increase its value) in a way that the covenant was designed to prevent. Therefore if you want it lifted you will need to pay and usually the payment is related to the increased value after the development.

They could refuse to lift it anyway, but you would then go to court and ask that it be lifted. A court could order this, but may also include in the order that you pay a sum to the NT for so doing. A court (actually the Lands Tribunal) has the power to lift, modify or enforce a covenant.

Sorry, but if the covenant is enforceable I suspect the only way to resolve this is to negotiate a payment to the NT to get the covenant lifted.

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 my timbers need moisturising?
FROM:
Ann Street
(Dorset)

Our lovely c1630 cob cottage has lots of exposed beams which look 'dry ' as if they need some 'moisturiser' and some of them have cracks along part of their length. How would we know if the beams are failing and need replacing or are these normal signs of aging? Unfortunately the developers dry-lined the property in 1990 so we cannot see the walls to check for movement.

Ann Street

Better dry than wet!

Old timber that has dried out will crack and open along the grain. This is quite normal and there is usually no need to do anything to the timbers they will have adjusted to the normal atmospheric moisture content.

The dry lining may have concealed the timbers but if there are no defects apparent to the visible surfaces (e.g. cracks) the chances are that there are no major movement problems, etc to the hidden areas.

However, as the building is cob and has been dry lined alarm bells ring in my head that perhaps the developers did other work that is in fact causing damage. Cob buildings need to be able to breathe and if modern = impermeable finishes have been used the risk of trapped moisture causing damage to the cob is high (even thought the visible timbers may be dry).

Please see the answer above to the question on clay lump because cob and clay lump are in effect simply earth buildings and have similar characteristics and problems. My concern here is not with timbers that are too dry, but with the risk of hidden problems of trapped moisture in the cob walls. I therefore suggest you read up about this and have a specialist inspect and advise (contact your local Conservation Officer for names of cob specialists in your area).

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