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 treat the exterior beams of my thatched cottage?
FROM:
Leslie Roberts
(Kent)

The exterior oak beams on my customer's thatched cottage are previously painted black should I remove paint and repaint with a sadolins product i.e. classic wood coating as the beams are in a sorry state with lots of splits and holes and decay.

Leslie Roberts

You do not say what material has been used to paint the timbers black. Generally however such painting is not traditional but often found to date from the Victorian period and later.

Depending on the nature of the finish it could cause damage in that if the finish is impermeable and moisture gets behind it it will accelerate the decay of the timber. This of course applies to any finish that you choose to put onto the timbers.

If the present paint finish is resulting in accelerated decay of the timber it would of course be sensible and appropriate to remove the paint. Whether the timbers are then repainted depends on circumstances. I would generally prefer to leave them exposed without a paint finish as such. However there are times when a finish might be appropriate in which case a suitable breathable finish should be considered.

Quite often we recommend the continuing of limewash over not only panels and render etc. but over the timbers as well. This does help provide a breathable protective finish. The disadvantage of course is that it does not provide the black and white contrast - if that is what you wish to achieve. Whilst I would not specifically recommend a product such as the Sadolins finish I am not aware that this product in particular causes any major problems (unlike oil based or plastic paints).

Another matter you may need to consider is whether listed building consent will be needed for such wok. The conservation officer may have a view on this and may be able to better advise on an appropriate finish used commonly in your district.

With regard to the splits and holes etc. some of these are natural and could be left but some might need careful filling. There are different ways of achieving this. You could attempt to splice slithers of a suitable timber in place. If the frame is of oak you might need to use oak. The problem is often ensuring that it completely fills the gap. Some of the holes you refer to could actually be peg holes and the simplest way of filling these would be to put some new pegs into them even if they are in effect dummy pegs and not fully through the hole. If by decay you refer to historic damage then the above comments apply. However, if there is decay and it is an active problem it will need repair and this would be an indication of an ongoing issue that needs resolving rather than simply covering up. Generally speaking it is better not to interfere too much with the building because doing so can result in a worse appearance and more problems.

The other consideration here is whether the timber was ever intended to be exposed. With many timber framed buildings they were clad in some way by render or weatherboard. In parts of Kent weatherboard was quite common. If there is evidence that this building was once clad in some way you might wish to think about recladding it. From the perspective of looking after the timber frame cladding it with a lime render or weatherboard is far better than leaving the frame exposed especially if it was never intended to be exposed.

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 we stop our folly leaking?
FROM:
Tom Jones
(Powys)

I own a grade 2 listed Folly which was built in c1700

We have extensively renovated the property including having the whole building repointed using lime mortar (someone had repointed it using cement in the 1980s we believe).

We are very exposed on the top of a large hill which gets high winds and driving rain.

We are unfortunately getting some water coming in on the top floor (its 3 storeys) of the building.

I'm fairly sure the flat roof is fine as we have tested this by flooding it with no obvious signs of water ingress.

It seems as if the water is either coming in through the stone or maybe through the castellation on the top of the building.

Can you suggest a water sealant product that I could use to help protect the stone/lime pointing from the driving rain etc?

Tom Jones

The simple answer to your question is no. I would not recommend a sealant product because if there is a problem of moisture getting into the stone etc. a sealant would simply trap moisture that does eventually get in and cause accelerated deterioration. It is inappropriate to believe that a sealant provides 100 per cent. protection. With most sealants on finishes such as stone, brick or timber they never provide 100 per cent. coverage and even if they did to maintain good coverage one would have to reseal very frequently. Therefore the risk of water getting behind and causing accelerated damage is quite high. I therefore strongly advise against sealants as such.

Limewash and lime products are probably the most effective way of providing a breathable but protective surface. You could consider whether the building needs a limewash to act as a sacrificial protective layer. You might find that it needs recoating every year or every couple of years but even this might be easier and cheaper than eventually having to replace stone etc. An alternative to limewash could be a lime render.

With some buildings in exposed locations other forms of cladding can be considered such as slate hanging, tile, weatherboard etc. I realise that many of these would be inappropriate for your building but I make the point that cladding is sometimes used for protection of exposed buildings.

Water can find its way through the smallest of cracks and joints. I have been involved in situations where we have traced back water to find that it has penetrated through a hairline crack that was barely visible. When you see the amount of water that can come through such a crack and quite rapidly it is alarming because it indicates just how easily water can penetrate into a building. It is largely for this reason that it is often impractical and inappropriate to attempt to completely stop water getting into a building and therefore consider adopting a management appropriate instead.

In this instance you could try to establish precisely where the water is getting in and this may be a drawn out process of slow meticulous investigation. However, you could consider some form of management system internally. If you can identify where water is coming through it might be possible to provide some form of detail that can then positively take the water away.

I can only provide suggestions as to different approaches without having seen the building. It may be that you need to find someone locally who can inspect and provide more specific advice. However, I would regard using a sealant product as a last result if all else fails and even then I would question the use of a sealant because it could cause more problems than it solves.

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 lay a stone floor on floorboards?
FROM:
John Ball
(Wiltshire)

I live in a grade II listed period property. On the ground floor there is a mixture of period tiles, floor boards and hard board flooring. I want to lay Cotswold stone over the top of all these surfaces throughout. I intend NOT to take any of the existing surfaces up which would allow them to be reinstated by taking the cotswold stone tiles up if required in future.

Do I need LBC for this?

John Ball

The simple answer to your question I believe would be yes. Even if this is a grey area - where it is not absolutely clear that consent is needed - it would be sensible to discuss the matter with the conservation officer before taking on the work.

If you are laying the stone on top of existing surfaces there are a number of matters you need to consider and this is why I believe consent is required. Laying the stone on top of existing surfaces will increase the finished floor surface level. This could have an impact on all doors, skirtings and other fitted joinery etc. It could impact the heights of doors for example. It might impact where a stair drops down on to a floor because it might change the height of the first riser.

Generally speaking laying a new floor over an old flooring has quite major impact on a building because of the matters mentioned above. Usually one would take up the old flooring first.

In this instance I understand why you might want to leave the old flooring down partly to save time and cost but also as you say to enable it to be reinstated later. Certainly where there are previous hard surfaces such as tiles or brick floor coverings laying Cotswold stone on top should not cause too many problems provided you maintain a completely breathable finish through the floor (I will come back to this). However I would be very concerned about laying the stone on top of floorboards. It is quite likely that if the floorboards start to deteriorate it will then cause problems with the stone and the very presence of the stone could actually accelerate the rate of deterioration for the floorboards.

If your existing floors are already modernised with damp proof membranes etc. or are laid on to concrete then the issue of dampness through the floor may not be a serious consideration. However with many historic buildings the floors are breathable and would have some moisture coming through them. By laying another surface on the top you are restricting the breathability of the floor especially if you lay that floor covering in any material that is not breathable or finish it in such a way that the breathability is reduced.

I therefore question the wisdom of the work you propose. That said I have not seen the building and there may be good reasons for your proposal that need to be carefully consider nonetheless I do believe that, for the reasons mentioned already, consent would be necessary in this instance.

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 fill the gap between my floorboards & skirting board?
FROM:
Kerrie Cameron
(Surrey)

Having replaced the original floorboards in our 1850's house we now have a gap varying from a couple of mm to 1cm between the floor and skirting and don't want to rip out the original 13 inch skirting. What can we fill the gap with that won't crack or show, the skirting is painted.

Kerrie Cameron

The obvious answer is to carefully cut scribe pieces of timber to fill the gaps specifically. That said you should remember that a slight gap between floor and skirting is always desirable to allow a small amount of air movement and to allow normal expansion and contraction of materials. No skirting should ever be in direct contact with the floorboard or floor finish as such.

Traditionally gaps in floors were often filled using papier maché and then painted or stained to match the flooring or the joinery. This is of course a cheap and effective means of filling gaps but could be time consuming. You could consider using a natural material that is flexible such as cork. Again it would need to be scribed in and cut to fit. This will allow a degree of flexibility because of the nature of cork and you could perhaps paint it or disguise it in some way.

You may be hoping that I would recommend some form of gap sealant. I do not however believe that this would be appropriate partly due to its visible appearance and partly due to the fact that if you completely seal up that gap you could cause problems by not allowing some ventilation at that junction between the floor and skirting.

I hope the above suggestions are helpful.

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:
Are my storage heaters to heavy for my cob walls?
FROM:
Steve Morton
(Devon)

We have a 300 year old thatched cottage with cob walls

I need to install a storage heater, but I'm concerned that, as it is so heavy, it may be difficult to attach it.

Can you advise on the best way to attach the heater to the wall as I suspect drilling and normal raw plugs won't do the job.

Steve Morton

Without inspection of the walls in question it is difficult to say whether the hanging of a heavy storage radiator on the wall will cause problems. I agree however that the likelihood is that the problems will ensue.

I would suggest ensuring that you install a floor mounted storage heater that sits on its own legs and may only require a simple bracket fixing to the wall that will simply help stop it toppling over rather than providing full load bearing support.

I am sure that if you speak to the manufacturers of the heaters they will have a form of leg that you could use for these heaters.

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:
Is my property suffering from subsidence?
FROM:
Christine Knox
(Devon)

Our grade ll listed house was built sometime during the 18th century. The gable end is a 3ft stone plinth and cob to the thatch roof; we also live on a hill. In Jan 2010 we discovered cracks in the gable end; the insurance company inspected and said not subsidence. We got listed building permission for the repair. When work began the builder found more damage and is convinced its subsidence. The insurance company re-inspected (loss adjuster and qualified surveyor) and still say no evidence of subsidence even though the stone plinth appears to have been pulled down from underneath. The wall has been substantially supported with concrete and bricks, but we are concerned that the underlying cause is subsidence. Is there a way to challenge what the loss adjuster says? Should we try - will it damage our ability to sell or insure the house if it really is subsidence?

Christine Knox

This is a classic example of different parties having a different view on the same problem. However from your description it does occur to me that no one has actually undertaken any detailed investigation. At present it seems the various individuals have simply inspected.

Structural problems and movement in particular are often difficult to assess in detail from a one off inspection. Whilst an initial assessment can often be made it usually requires more prolonged investigation before a final decision can be made on cause and appropriate remedial work.

Such investigation might involve monitoring the cracks over a period usually involving several seasons. The purpose of the monitoring is to see whether the cracks are actually worsening over time (and never recovering) or are they opening and then closing with different seasons. The former is of course a far greater concern than the latter.

Other investigations might involve a trial pit at the base of the wall to look at what is happening around the footing or foundation area and to establish whether there are problems that might explain the damage that is occurring.

One would also need to look at the presence of trees, the nature of sub soils etc. When excavating the trial pit one would often take samples of the soil at fairly shallow depths but then auger through to take soil samples at greater depths. In the course of taking these samples roots may be encountered that can then be tested to establish whether they are live and what trees or shrubs they come from.

It is only when you have this collection of information that you can say for certain what is actually happening to the building and what needs to be done if anything. Sometimes if it is caused by trees for example the situation can be resolved by removing the cause and there may be no need for underpinning or more substantial work. However in extreme examples underpinning may be required.

Your question is how can you challenge what the loss adjuster says and in this instance I would simply suggest that challenge is perhaps a rather strong word to use in this situation. I would go back to the loss adjuster and insurance company and advise them that in the course of attempting the repair others involved feel that the problem may not have been fully understood and investigated. On this basis you could argue for further investigation before a final decision is made.

If the loss adjuster and/or insurance company are not prepared to undertake such work you may need to pay to have a specialist engineer (someone experienced in dealing with this type of property) inspect and investigate on your behalf. Such investigations can sometimes cost in the order of £1000 or more depending on what is required. If as a result of those investigations however you prove that there is an ongoing problem that should be covered by insurance then you will have the evidence available that you can then put to the loss adjuster and insurer. If they still refuse to accept it then your route may then be the Insurance Ombudsman but prior to that the insurers may be prepared to accept a second opinion.

You should remember that the insurers are guided by the loss adjuster and at present all they have to go on is the loss adjusters report backed up by the surveyor the loss adjuster bought in. With respect to your builder the loss adjuster and insurer would generally take the opinion of a qualified surveyor over a builder (who they may regard as having a vested interest in 'finding work'). Your first port of call should therefore be to try to persuade the loss adjuster to approve further investigation etc. but failing that you could consider going straight to the insurance company. You should remember that the insurance company and the loss adjuster are not one and the same. If they refuse to do anything then you will have to pay for your own investigations, etc and await the outcome before deciding what to then do (remembering that the investigation could prove the loss adjuster correct).

Dealing with your last point if you have genuinely got a structural problem then it will affect the sale of your property in future. If it is unresolved it will have a far greater effect on the sale than if it has been resolved. Yes there is an element of blight attached to any property that has had subsidence or has had to be underpinned etc. and often this blight is totally unjustified but it is the reaction of the market generally. That said I have seen many properties in areas where subsidence is common and there is no blight due to subsidence because it is a common issue. At this stage it is impossible for me to guide you on whether you might have a future problem. I can only urge you to ensure that the matter is properly and fully investigated now and resolved as appropriate.

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:
Who owns the kitchen wall?
FROM:
Rosamund Richmond
(Yorkshire)

There are many Victorian terraced properties with a kitchen and bathroom extension of which the external wall will provide the boundary against neighbour's yard but not their building. It seems ridiculous that if the internal boundary between the two properties bisects this kitchen wall that the neighbour "owns" half of a wall which does not comprise part of his building fabric. I read that in one case a judge decreed that a boundary line actually followed the external face of the extension wall then "dog-legged" in to return to the internal boundary line. Hence the kitchen external wall belonged wholly to the kitchen owner. We have a similar issue.... can you advise if it is normal to "dogleg" a boundary to include an extension wall wholly within your property???

Rosamund Richmond

Without seeing photographs or drawings etc. it is difficult for me to picture precisely what you are talking about. However I have come across many unusual situations with regard to boundaries.

Where you have a simple situation of two properties sharing one party wall the boundary is taken to be down the centre of that party wall. The boundary is of course an invisible thin line and unless the deeds show otherwise for some unusual reason the boundary line is taken to be the middle. The exception might be if one property was constructed first and then the other property built alongside. This can happen historically in which case the boundary may be the outer face of the original wall and therefore the inner face of the adjoining property. This is not particularly common but it can happen.

You then have situations such as flying freeholds and this often happens in historic town centres where the buildings have historically been sub-divided in such a way that part of one building is over or below another.

When it comes to back additions and extensions there are large numbers of historic buildings where the extensions and back additions have not been constructed completely in line with the internal party wall and this can create a dog leg effect when viewed on plan.

If the land genuinely had a dog leg in the boundary then of course the extension etc. could be wholly within the land and the boundary line will follow its original course. If this means a dog leg in the boundary then so be it. To establish this may involve looking back through deeds and historic documents to establish where the boundary previously existed and whether it might have been moved in some way by someone accidentally drawing incorrectly on a later deed plan or for land registry purposes.

However, there are situations where someone builds over a boundary (illegally) but it is not picked up at the time and they effectively "get away with it". Over a period of time they gain possessory title. In effect they win that piece of land and the boundary shifts.

If dealing with a historic building where this might have taken place then possessory title would have occurred many years ago and the boundary would follow the outline of the present buildings.

The difficulty here is whether the boundary is on the outer face of the wall, down the centre or on the inner face. This can be extremely difficult to determine and may be influenced by any one of many factors on site.

The other possibility is that the flank wall of the extension was built more or less in line with the party wall and therefore astride the original boundary. If this is the case then the boundary line would still continue down the middle of the wall. This brings us into the territory of party wall matters generally. In general terms the situation is as follows.

Where there are two properties sharing a wall with the boundary down the middle and the boundary follows out to the rear in a straight line then that invisible boundary line will be down the middle of the original wall. If then an extension is built there are three possibilities for the position of that extension. One is for it to be fully within the land of the person building the extension and for no part of it to extend up to or over the boundary line. The result may be a thin strip of land between the face of that wall and the boundary line that remains in that property ownership (but is impractical for access purposes) and the reason for stepping inside the boundary in this way is simply for legal reasons to avoid party wall issues etc.

The second scenario is where the face of the wall or the face of any part of the building is actually on the boundary line. If this is the case then the whole of the wall is within the original property boundary but the face of it is on the line itself. This should not affect the neighbour until or unless they choose to build an extension as well. At that point there are issues to then be considered about where the neighbour places a wall and how they build up against the existing structure.

The third scenario is where a wall is placed astride the boundary line. This is usually only done by agreement where both parties accept that the wall should be astride the boundary. This would often mean that the neighbour who does not wish to extend or build at that time nonetheless has an option to build out and use that same wall without having to build a new wall. This wall then genuinely becomes a party wall and is fully shared once the neighbour builds against it. Nonetheless if it is astride the boundary it is still a party wall in the strict sense of the word because the boundary line is down the middle of it.

It is therefore not ridiculous to find a situation where an extension wall along a boundary might be half over the boundary and therefore half into the neighbouring land. It really depends on where the boundary lies. If the boundary is not a straight line it becomes more difficult but only by reference back to deed plans etc. will it be determined whether the boundary was meant to be a straight line or not.

The issues you raise are quite complex and without much more information I cannot give you a specific answer. However I hope that the general guidance I have given above gives you a basic understanding of what the issues might be and that it is nowhere near as simple as you may at first think. Boundaries and disputes about boundaries can be the most contentious and difficult disputes to deal with.

I take it that the reason you raise this issue is because either you or your neighbour intend to do something, i.e. build an extension or something similar. If that is the case I strongly recommend that you find local surveyors experienced in dealing with boundary and party wall matters who can advise you. It might be sensible to jointly appoint one professional who can independently advise both parties. Alternatively each party may need to obtain their own professional advice and for those surveyors to then meet and try to thrash out the issues between them.

I hope this answer has provided 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.