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:
How do I stop brown staining on wallpaper in small room over porch?
FROM:
Victoria Clayton
(Northamptonshire)

We have a small room built over a porch in 1633, (originally perhaps the steward's room) converted to a bathroom sometime in the last forty years. With outside (thick, rubblestone) walls on three sides, nothing above and an unheated porch below it is a cold room though heated by a radiator and towel rail and a convector heater for immediate use. The wallpaper (white background) has turned pale brown. I would like to have it re-papered but what can I do to prevent the same thing happening?

Victoria Clayton

It seems likely that your problem is primarily condensation but perhaps exacerbated by moisture penetration through years of exposure. There is little point in attempting to put anything on the exterior of the building as this would mar the appearance and affect the performance of the fabric.

Without seeing the property my initial reaction is to consider internal dry lining perhaps incorporating some insulation. This however, depends on whether the depth of dry lining might cause an unacceptable loss of floor space in the room if it is particularly small.

There are various methods of dry lining including modern membrane systems but you could look at traditional pre-treated battens with an insulated board forming the wall surface.

Alternatively you could consider a different form of finish to the wall internally. The wallpaper is probably absorbing moisture and therefore it is turning brown and deteriorating. If you did not have wallpaper at all but used a breathable finish (traditional limewash perhaps or one of the modern clay paints - such as Earthborn) might be a satisfactory solution. It would not stop the problem of condensation or moisture in the room but at least the decor should remain satisfactory.

I would not recommend any paper that attempts to conceal the problem or hold moisture in the wall as this would simply exacerbate the problem and the paper would not last long.

You could consider simply re-papering with a conventional paper accepting the fact that it may be only a few years before you have to re-paper again.

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 do I remove bedroom ceilings in thatched cottage?
FROM:
Julie Jones
(Cambridgeshire)

We live in a thatched cottage and would like to remove the ceilings in the two bedrooms creating more headroom. Do you have any advice on doing something like this? The previous owner did this to part of the ceiling in one of the bedrooms and it gives the appearance of a vaulted ceiling. It actually looks very good. Could you tell me how much space is required between the thatch and the materials (board?) covering the thatch (we are thinking of attaching it to the existing beams?

Julie Jones

You do not say if the building is listed and if so you would need listed building consent. This will significantly impact your decisions. The fact that a previous owner did similar work does not mean to say they obtained consent if the building was listed and it does not follow that you would automatically gain consent.

However, on the assumption that you gain consent to do the work you would need to explore whether the timbers forming the ceiling itself are structural in terms of the roof. Quite often with these buildings the ceiling joists are actually collar ties for the roof structure. If this is the case you may be able to remove the ceiling plaster but would not be able to remove the timbers without major alteration to the roof structure.

It is not clear from your question how the underside of the thatch is finished at present. Generally thatch requires air circulation throughout its depth to prevent moisture causing it to rot and fail. Traditionally thatch was often finished internally with lath and plaster to the underside and being a breathable finish this would allow a degree of breathability under the thatch so that problems do not generally arise. Now if a building is being thatched we tend to refer to the need for it being underdrawn. This means leaving a slight air gap underneath it. Quite often this air gap is the equivalent of cross battening and is therefore around 50mm. It should therefore be acceptable to ensure that a gap of about 50mm or more is left between the thatch and any new ceiling material.

I should of course add that whilst thatch itself does have insulating qualities it is not sufficient in itself to provide particularly good insulation over most buildings. How much insulation it provides depends on a number of factors including the nature of the thatch and its thickness. When dealing with the ceilings you might therefore wish to also consider using an insulating board to aid the insulation of the ceiling.

None of this should take away from the fact that your first question must be whether you will be allowed to do this if the building is listed and whether the change means structural alteration.

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:
Somebody lives under my house
FROM:
Michael Eames
(Surrey)

We have recently bought a fisherman's one up one down cottage. The seller sold it as freehold and a surveyor inspected it stating the flooring was of solid construction. I suspected their was a cellar beneath the flagstone flooring on inspection, after lifting a flagstone found the original 17th century cottage below, which my cottage is extended up from, all good so far except the neighbour whose house is at ground level, (ours is set on a hill about 12 feet above ground level) has decided it is his and is using it as a storeroom/utility room.

My question is who owns it, me as I bought the property freehold or him as he has been using it for some time. There is nothing on the deeds i.e. easements and the deed map shows it as belonging to me. Do I own the ground below my house?

Michael Eames

This is a legal question and you need to speak to a lawyer.

It is often the case that deeds are not entirely clear, particularly in this situation where there are adjoining properties and parts may overlap.

It could indeed be the case that the area below is part of your property and the neighbour has taken possession. The issue then is how long the neighbour has had possession and whether the neighbour can make a formal claim for adverse possession in which case you would have to fight this and you would need to speak to solicitors about your chances of success or otherwise.

You should of course bear in mind that there is such a thing as a flying freehold whereby one freehold is under or over another. This is quite common in historic town and village centres. It is therefore not unheard of to have one freehold over another.

The other thing to bear in mind here is whether there is proper direct access from your property down to the room below. You mentioned lifting a flagstone but you do not say whether there is a proper access point. If there is it would indicate that the area below might have once belonged and been part of your property but if not it could indicate that in fact the room below was never a part of your property and was always a part of the neighbouring building in which case this would be a flying freehold situation.

You should also bear in mind that what you purchased is what you saw for yourself and had good reason to believe you were buying with no expectation of any further accommodation. Again your solicitor will need to advise you as to whether you have any claim against any of the parties involved such as the solicitor or surveyor but I suspect not. As a surveyor I often come across flying freehold situations and if there is no obvious and direct access to an area of a building I generally assume it is not within the ownership of that building. It is of course something that a solicitor will need to verify from the deeds but if the deeds are also silent it would suggest that the area concerned is not a part of the property.

The above are simply my own initial thoughts on the matter based on the limited information you provide. You must seek advice from a solicitor who specialises in such matters.

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 really need a DPC in our 200 year-old cottage?
FROM:
Becci Kearle
(Essex)

last year we bought a 200 year old cottage. At the time our survey showed that there was a little bit of damp in the external walls in a few places. The surveyor noted that the house did not have a damp proof course and advised that we had one fitted. The vendor did this for us. However, since then the damp problems have escalated, and now reach 1 meter up the wall at the worst. The house is a double fronted terrace, linked to a converted barn on one side, and an identical property on the other. We have had the new damp proof course checked and it appears to be shoddy and it hasn't been plugged. Another company has advised us that we should inject from the inside, but we have become a little wary. The outside of the house is rendered (it was done in 1984); the walls are nearly 2 feet thick and are made of large stones with a rubble infill. We have solid concrete floors that are also damp. We have been researching more traditional alternatives such as limecrete and lime render, but need some impartial advice as to whether they are more likely to be effective than more modern techniques such as damp proof membranes and tanking.

Becci Kearle

The alarm bells rang immediately I read that the walls are nearly 2' thick and made from large stone with a rubble infill. A chemically injected damp proof course is never going to work in this situation.

A simple explanation is that the building is no longer functioning as originally intended and therefore moisture has become trapped and will of course cause a problem. What you need to think about is getting the building to function as originally constructed. This means removing the cement render from the exterior so that the wall can breathe. This will usually mean replacing the cement render with a traditional lime render. You will need to look at ground levels and whether these need to be lowered if they are perhaps slightly high in relation to internal floors etc.

You cannot remove the damp proof course but I doubt if it has done much good and neither has it done much harm with this type of wall. I simply suggest you ignore the past treatment.

The concrete floors could be exacerbating the problem. In some situations concrete floors can trap moisture under them and force the moisture out to increase the amount of moisture at the base of a wall. This of course depends upon how much ground moisture is under the building anyway. However, to have a concrete floor in this situation could be part of the problem. Therefore taking it up and re-forming with a limecrete floor, or perhaps with a suspended timber floor and a ventilated void below is an alternative to consider.

I would not recommend any damp proof membranes and tanking at this stage. I would prefer to see the problem tackled by going back to basics i.e. going back to how the building should be functioning in the first place and this means reverting to traditional materials and finishes. Only if those measures do not resolve the problem will you have to consider other approaches.

It would be sensible to try to find a professional near you who can inspect and give specific advice. You need to try to find a building surveyor experienced in dealing with historic buildings.

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:
Survey calls for additional survey to look at 'unstable walls'
FROM:
Lisa Costa
(Greater London)

We are looking to by an 1830 semi detached cottage in Essex which the survey report describes as made of timber framed construction with wattle and daub infill and rendered externally. We have been advised to get a more detailed survey as it would appear the external walls are unstable. How would be go about this? How much would it cost?

Lisa Costa

As the property is within an area that I cover and I deal with building surveys I could claim to have a vested interest in this question. If you wish to contact me then please feel free to do so. However, I will answer the question in a more general sense.

I have often seen survey reports on historic timber framed buildings that suggest the building is unstable or faulty in some way. This can often be because the surveyor simply does not understand historic timber frames. It does not automatically follow that because it is an old timber frame it is unstable.

You do not say what level of survey you had undertaken. If it was merely a mortgage valuation then it might be sensible to have a more detailed survey and in this instance I would advise against the home buyer report but suggest you go for a building survey. Find a surveyor experienced in dealing with this type of property. You can ask the surveyor to tailor the report to suit your specific requirements and if for example you only want a report on the timber frame then ask the surveyor to do a report on this and to omit all other parts of the building. Most independent building surveyors would be prepared to undertake specific element inspections if required or specific defect analysis if appropriate.

If your survey report was in fact more detailed it would suggest to me that the surveyor did not properly understand the nature of the building and arguably should not have accepted the instruction. You should revert to the surveyor and ask for more specific details so that you can have it properly investigated. This does not change the fact that you will probably need to find a surveyor specialising or experienced in this type of building.

The cost depends upon a number of factors. Some surveyors charge based on the value of the property whereas I tend to charge on the basis of the size and nature of the building. If you have a limited survey that only deals with certain elements of the building you could perhaps expect to pay maybe 200 - 300 + VAT. If you are to have a full building survey the cost is likely to exceed £500 + VAT and could in fact be nearer to £1,000 + VAT. This really does depend upon the size and nature of the building. Of course, if it is a large semi-detached building the cost could even be higher.

I hope this is helpful but the information you provide is limited. This does however raise the issue of the fact that when employing a surveyor ensure they understand and appreciate the nature of the building they will be surveying.

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:
I've been asked for a 'design statement' covering a central heating installation in my listed cottage
FROM:
Daniel Reilly
(Hampshire)

I have recently purchased a grade II listed mid terraced property. The property is need of some structural repair and I have had reports prepared on the same and had a meeting with the Listed Building Consent Officer at the property. During this meeting I raised the fact that we would like to put in gas central heating to the property and was told that I could do this but that I may as well include it in the application for Listed Building Consent. I did this and have now received a response which asks me to provide a design statement covering the same. I have also been asked to include in the design statement the following: Addition of a damp proof tray to one chimney (currently leaking and the most significant cause of water ingress and damp); removal of the water/damp damaged wall covering to two room affected by the water ingress via chimney (we have stated that we would remove and replace with lime plaster); and to remove to modern stud dividing walls that have been put up since the second world war, to open the rooms up to their original shape and size.

My question is whether it is necessary for me to have included all of the above in the application for consent and if so whether it is normal to have to provide a design statement in relation to the same? I would be grateful for any advice or information that you may be able to provide me with or direct me to.

Daniel Reilly

The simple answer is yes, a design statement is usually necessary. Even before changes in April 2009 to the planning system with listed building consent applications it was generally necessary to provide sufficient information to justify the works and to explain them fully to the Council. Since April 2009 all planning applications (including listed building consent) require a full set of documents accompanying them and this will always include a Design and Access statement but will sometimes include other matters such as a Heritage Impact Statement etc.

Usually a Council administrator will reject an application if it does not have all the required elements when the application is submitted. If it was validated and accepted you may have submitted some of the basic information required. If that is the case they are simply asking for more information and detail about the works. They are entitled to ask for this and you should be prepared to provide it. You need to think about justifying the works and explaining it fully. It is all very well speaking to a Conservation Officer on site who fully understands and can see what you are attempting to do but when formalising it in an application you must bear in mind that others will be seeing this application that have never been to the property and do not have the benefit of that discussion with you. You must also bear in mind that this information will be associated with the file in perpetuity and therefore in future when someone comes to look at the file they will then properly understand what was done and why.

Most of the information that you have been asked to provide seems to be fairly straightforward and could probably be dealt with in a fairly short letter form of report. The one aspect that is not clear is the removal of the modern stud dividing wall. Is this something you wanted or they are insisting upon? If the former then that is all well and good and you will need to justify it as above. However, if it is something they are insisting that you do because they believe it to be unauthorised work, what needs to be established is whether it was undertaken before the property was listed or after. Although it is modern work it could have been undertaken before the building was listed in which case the Conservation Officer cannot insist upon its removal as it was there at the time of listing. However, if the partition was put up after the property was listed without consent then it is unauthorised work and the Conservation Officer does have the right to request its removal and ask that you show it within this application. If that is the situation and you do not include it there is always the possibility that they could later carry out enforcement action to seek its removal.

It seems to me that you have a reasonably good relationship with the Conservation Officer at present because you have already had a meeting at which various matters were obviously discussed and it seems there may have been a large measure of agreement. I suggest that perhaps before you prepare any further documentation you have a brief chat with the Conservation Officer to ensure that you include all information required and are not facing yet further questions by providing insufficient information yet again.

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:
Mystery leak causes havoc
FROM:
Suzette Booth
(Kent)

I am having terrible trouble finding where a leak is coming from which seems to be in the region of where a 35 year old extension joins the main 16th century building. Repairs were done and the leak seemed to be fine for more than 6 months and then, with the terrible weather we're having, something seems to have opened up again. We have removed plaster board and can see the water dripping in a couple of places but our very honest builder could not stem the flow, no matter what he did. He admits that the best he might have been able to do at this point is "botch" the job until better weather arrives, but even the botches don't seem to be working. I am in a misery about it all, especially as it comes at the only place where we can have our dining table for Christmas dinner and we will be a large gathering. In fact, the whole thing is depressing me immensely, especially as my husband only has low paid part time employment and I have a small shop which doesn't provide much at all and is struggling.

The expense is mounting up and my new oak dining room floor (which was put in when we thought the leak had been repaired) is in serious danger of being ruined.

Is there any help you could give if I managed to send good photos of the situation and do you know of any grants that we might be able to get to help pay for the problem?

Suzette Booth

I am sorry to hear of your problems and unfortunately this response may come rather late as I suspect that you submitted your question some time ago. It should be borne in mind that these answers are only provided about once every 6 - 8 weeks and sometimes an urgent response cannot be given to an urgent situation.

On the general point of tracing leaks it can be very difficult. Whilst you could post photographs on the discussion forum site where others including some professionals might be able to give you pointers as to what could be wrong there is no substitute for an actual inspection by someone who can open up and trace back the leak and find its source. It sounds as if you have a builder able and willing to do this but not able to trace it back sufficiently in time for Christmas.

I suggest you persevere with the builder and ask him to carefully open up the building and trace back the leak until you find its source. If you cannot afford for the builder to do this it may be something that you will have to do yourselves. Tracing back a leak simply means to very carefully open up the fabric of the building by removing the surfaces etc. to trace back the pattern of staining. This way you should get back to the point where the leak is occurring. This is sometimes not very easy and it can mean careful dismantling of some elements. In certain situations if you suspect that there could be a more serious problem or to trace it back involves quite a lot of structural work you will need to think about how this might be achieved.

Unfortunately there is no substitute to someone actually tracing the problem.

If you have owned the property for quite a few years there may be grants available for certain types of work but not usually for normal maintenance and repair. I suspect that there will be no grant aid available to you.

Of course if you can trace it back to a roof problem for example, you may find that a temporary repair could be undertaken that will stop the leak although it may not be particularly pretty or permanent in nature. This might help with regard to the costs.

The other thing to think about is that the damage the leak causes may be covered by insurance under the "escape of water" clause of your policy. It would be sensible to speak to your insurance company about this in case you can obtain some money from the insurance.

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:
Insurance claim leads to builder suggesting further damp proofing measures
FROM:
Hilary Twigg
(East Sussex)

We have a former Forester's cottage built on Ashdown Forest in Sussex 1875. The ground floor is split level, with the kitchen which was originally a dairy, on the lower ground floor accessed by stone steps from the ground floor.

Recently we discovered that water had been leaking on to the floor (in the kitchen under the vinyl floor covering) from a central heating pipe, probably for months .., and we are in the process of an insurance claim which also includes water damage to the walls.

We have always been aware of a low level of dampness in the kitchen walls, but this is more pronounced following the leakage despite evidence of a damp proof course to 1 metre along one wall (behind which must be soil because of the split level).

The builder we invited to quote has suggested further damp-proofing. However, we have been advised that damp proof courses are not necessarily the best solution in old cottages such as ours, and indeed that which was done in the past would seem to have failed.

We would be most grateful for your advice, since we do not want to spend a lot of money on damp proofing if this is not the best solution.

Hilary Twigg

I would regard damp proofing as the last resort to a damp problem and it is rarely a solution that I ever reach.

You have suggested that the ground level is high and if possible this should of course be lowered either by completely lowering the ground or perhaps by creating a channel against the wall so that at least the wall face can breathe and is open without soil against it.

From what you say the property may have been treated in the past and if there is still a damp problem it either indicates that the past treatment has failed (as you suggest, but is in fact rare) or indeed was never the problem in the first place and therefore a waste of time and money. I suspect that further damp treatment could again be a waste of time and money.

You need to think about ensuring that moisture can escape at low level from the building before it reaches high enough up the wall to cause any damage. This can mean lowering ground levels as indicated above but it can also mean ventilating voids under floors if there are floor voids and simply ventilating the building internally. You should also consider whether there are impermeable finishes to the walls either externally or internally that could be trapping moisture and preventing it from escaping. If this is the case you might need to revert to traditional breathable finishes. Also have a look to see if there are other problems such as leaking gutters or something dripping onto this section of wall that might explain the problem.

The problem with insurance claims is that the loss adjusters and surveyors, builders etc. that are involved often do not deal with historic buildings and are more conversant with quick modern remedial treatments. You will need to speak to the Loss Adjustor and explain that with this type of building the sort of work being proposed could actually be damaging and you do not want to follow that route. If the Loss Adjustor is resistant to such discussion you might need to pay for independent specialist advice that you can then use to discuss with the Loss Adjustor.

I find that these matters can often be resolved by gentle persuasion and discussion with the Loss Adjustor etc. but if not you may have to go above the Loss Adjustor back to the original insurance company and explain the situation. The last resort may be to accept a cash settlement and simply have the work undertaken yourself with the money obtained from the insurance company.

There are various options but in terms of dealing with your basic problem I would not consider further damp treatment until all other matters have been explored and dealt 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:
'Noddy' guide required to help maintain timber-framed home
FROM:
Nigel Miller
(Gloucestershire)

I have just moved into a Grade 11 listed timber framed cottage. The front face is exposed to the elements and the timbers are exposed. The render around the panels need to be refilled and there are a couple of missing pegs. The recent high winds and rain has exposed some minor openings. One being in the roof, others in the oak beam joints etc. All as expected and planned for so no problems there. My question is this; is there a simple 'Noddy' guide to undertaking minor repairs of this nature. For example I have looked at numerous books and web sites for the solution to caulking the joints around the infill panels. The advice ranges from fill with modern mastic, fill with marine caulk material and marine mastic to the extreme of fill with expanding foam. How do I fill a pocket in exposed timber etc.

I am clear that whatever I do will be done in a sympathetic way and in keeping with the long term plan to restore this building correctly. So please point me to a source for this type of advice.

Nigel Miller

There is no easy answer because there are various methods that could be appropriate depending upon the situation and the end result desired.

As for good books on the matter I can do no better than recommend Marianne Suhr's recent book "Old House Handbook". Another very good and useful book would be Richard Oxley's "Survey and Repair of Traditional Buildings".

You should avoid using modern filler materials such as expanding foam or cement based fillers. These tend to exacerbate the problem. You should look at using traditional materials such as lime putty and timber itself for filling and repairing gaps etc.

In the longer term you need to think about whether the building was always finished in the present manner i.e. with an exposed frame. If it was then you will need to think about how to deal with the elevation in a way that retains the appearance and repairs the finishes. Are the infill panels of cement render? If so is this part of the problem and they perhaps need to be removed and re-formed in lime render?

Alternatively, if you find evidence that the building was in fact rendered over at some point in the past you might need to think about whether to revert to complete rendering over the frame and panels so that the frame is no longer exposed. This provides a much better finish for weathering purposes but of course fundamentally changes the appearance.

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