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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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:
Help required to clean flagstones
FROM:
Charlotte Shakespeare
(Somerset)

We are the proud owners of a 1860 Somerset farmhouse which we are renovating. We have managed to remove the concrete screed with chisel and hammer on most of downstairs floor to find lovely old flagstones (local). Clearly these have been laid on earth and we do not want to lift. What can we use to clean, and then seal the flagstones to make them usable to a family with 3 small children i.e. easy to clean!!

Charlotte Shakespeare

I note that you intend to leave the exposed flags in place and I agree that to try to lift them would disturb the ground beneath and it would be virtually impossible to re-lay them exactly as existing. I therefore agree that the best thing is to leave them in place on the original earth base. However this does mean that the floor will be breathable and the moisture in the ground will be able to evaporate particularly through the joints. This is important and ensures that the floor is working as originally intended. Provided there is no high water table in the area (to cause a regular problem of dampness to the floor) the fact that this is an original floor structure should not pose any serious problem.

I would not normally recommend sealing the floors as such because this would inhibit any breathability and could result in problems. Any product that seals the surfaces to make them easy to clean is likely to cause a long term problem. Even if it is not necessarily a major issue (i.e. degradation of the flags) it could result in discolouration particularly if moisture tries to evaporate from below and is trapped by a sealant; there could be staining or even damage to the sealant. You might even find that a white 'bloom' appears. I would therefore urge you to avoid sealing the surfaces.

However, I am aware that those who own properties with such flagstones have found some materials suitable for finishing them that will provide a degree of protection without causing damage. If you do a search in the discussion forum section of this website you will find discussions about how to finish flagstones such as these in a suitable manner. I think you will find that materials such as beeswax have been used in different situations and with varying degrees of success. A light polish with beeswax to the flags (not to the joints) could bring out the colour and provide a protective surface that does not do any harm.

If the joints are open you could carefully brush a weak lime mortar into the joints to fill them but to allow evaporation.

I therefore suggest that you learn from the experience of others and find out what others have found to have worked by reference to the discussion forum. Of course to some extent this may depend on the condition of the flagstones and how vulnerable they might be to future dampness from the ground beneath.

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:
Seaside house needs help with damp
FROM:
Diana Holmes
(Norfolk)

We have bought a house that has damp everywhere. It has flooded in the past as it is near the sea, but has never been properly refurbished since. The floors are concrete, the bricks outside painted, and the flint pointed with cement. There is randomly applied black tar and cement to about 3 feet high in most parts of the house, even on inside walls. We don't have much money but want to do the best for the house, built in 1865 of brick and flint under a clay tiled roof.

Diana Holmes

I firstly note that you comment that the property has flooded "in the past" but what is not clear from your post is whether it suffers an ongoing problem of flooding or high damp levels due to the water table in the surrounding ground. Depending on how vulnerable this property might be to future dampness could determine how the problem is now tackled.

Ideally I would prefer to see the impermeable finishes removed completely so that the building can breathe properly. This would mean taking off the paint, the tar and cement finishes so that the moisture trapped in the walls can escape. I suspect the reason the property is still damp is that moisture has become trapped in the structure because it has been unable to escape. Removing these impermeable surface finishes will help to dry out the property.

My thinking is that you will need to do this in any event. This will then allow the property to dry before you then consider how to deal with the longer term problem of how to keep the property dry.

If there is no going problem of dampness and the water table is not normally high then it is quite likely that allowing the walls to breathe etc should ensure that the building remains relatively dry and that the damp problem eventually goes away.

If however there is a high water table the concrete floor could in effect cap this and drive moisture under the building out to the walls and exacerbate any dampness in the walls. To combat this you might have to create a degree of breathability through the concrete floor itself. Ideally this would mean taking up the whole floor and either creating a ventilated void or a breathable floor structure. However a compromise solution might involve creating breathability strips around the edges a drilling a serious of holes through the concrete to create breathability through it. The holes, etc would be filled with limecrete. Of course a breathable finish would need to be provided to the surface. There have been discussions on the Discussion Forum about this and I suggest you look further at the forums about how you might tackle this.

If there is no high water table and no ongoing risk from flooding etc then you might be able to leave the concrete floor and not undertake any of the above work.

You do of course need to consider whether the ground level is high around the building and if so you might need to lower it and to ensure that the walls at low level are exposed so that they can breathe and release moisture. This may involve creating an open channel around the base of the wall.

If the problem is unlikely to simply go away because there is a risk of future dampness or flooding you might be better off considering an internal membrane system that will ensure dry internal surface but allow the moisture to pass through the wall and then drain away probably by way of a sump and pump system.

As you can see from the above there are a number of possible solutions. I have so far avoided suggesting any modern damp treatment as such because I prefer to see the problem tackled by trying to revert to a breathable structure as originally intended. Whilst I cannot completely rule out the possibility of some form of damp 'treatment' in future - if the problem persists - I would prefer such measures to be considered as a last resort only.

The above can only be taken as general guidance because to resolve the problem in detail would involve an inspection and it would therefore be sensible for you to find someone in the vicinity who can provide appropriate professional advice on how to tackle the problems you face. Of course the professional should be someone with experience in dealing with this type of building and in particular this type of damp problem.

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:
Old house deemed not suitable for mortgage
FROM:
James Newman
(Staffordshire)

I am purchasing a period property (not listed). The bank has done a valuation and the valuer has indicated that the top part of the chimney will need rebuilding and also a single storey wall taking down and rebuilding due to cracking. They have also noticed that one of the timber beams in a wall has 'dropped' (or more likely twisted and bent 100's of years ago) which has caused the floor to dip in the bedroom above. For this reason the valuer has said that it's not a secure place for the mortgage. The bank is lending 175K and the purchase price is 250K. I'm bemused that the valuer doesn't consider the issue to be in character with the period of the house (1750's) and also you could literally demolish the house and sell the plot for 200K easily. I had a full building survey done which indicated that although the floor is uneven the overall structure is not adversely affected. The bank is saying they want a structural engineer's report!

On that particular issue. I don't know what to do because I really don't want to mess about with the beams because of how old they are and I don't mind the unevenness because it's part of the character. Please advise what I should do because the bank is saying even if I do all the work they might not be able to pay up.

James Newman

I must firstly assume that the valuer has got it wrong and that your building surveyor is correct and that this no problem. If this assumption proves incorrect then it may well be that you need further professional advice. However, assuming that the valuer has simply not understood the nature of the building and has taken an extremely cautious view you have followed the advice I would normally provide and that is to send the mortgage company a copy of the building survey report with a covering letter.

The problem you face is not uncommon in that mortgage companies will take the word of their valuer over any professional you might have employed. Further, it is quite common for the mortgage company to require a structural engineer and yet if you obtained a building survey (even from a chartered building surveyor) they may not accept it simply because their system specifically requires an engineer rather than a surveyor. This may seem rather ludicrous as for certain problems either professional would be suitably competent, but this is not an uncommon problem. This comes about primarily because the mortgage companies want a simple system that clerks can easily deal with by tick box etc.

You could start by writing to the bank and specifically asking the valuer to explain in detail why the building survey is considered inadequate especially if you can provide the surveyor's CV to prove that the surveyor is properly qualified and competent to deal with the issue of concern. Of course if your surveyor is not sufficiently qualified or the CV is not sufficiently impressive this may not work.

You could argue the matter if they insist on an engineer's report, but this would simply mean taking time and ultimately could cost you money. What may be necessary is a further letter or report from your surveyor explaining that this is an old building and cannot be assessed against modern technology, regulations etc and perhaps the valuer has not properly accounted for the fact that there are many thousands of such properties in this area that are regularly bought and sold with mortgages and without a problem.

The other approach is simply to get an engineer's report and deal with the matter that way. However before you go to that expense you need to be absolutely certain that they will provide you the loan if the engineer comes back with a positive report.

Unfortunately it may be that this particular building society will simply dig their heels in and refuse to change their approach. In that case you may have to consider taking your business elsewhere.; If you have a broker acting for you I suggest you ask the broker to get involved because after all the broker will not get a fee if this does not go through and it is in their interest to try to help resolve it. If you have not gone through a broker then it might be sensible to consider doing so next time or instead of continuing with the present mortgage company simply go to a broker and go elsewhere.

Unfortunately because the mortgage company is lending the money they can set the rules and decide who they will give money to or not as the case may be. Therefore whilst some of the suggestions given above may work with some lenders it may not work with others and to some extent this could also depend on the valuer individually and how they consider the issues once they have the reports and further information before them. Some valuers are quite sensible and pragmatic whilst others tend not to be.

On a wider issue this is a concern where valuers cause problems unnecessarily and it would be helpful to know which company the valuer works for because it might he something that needs to be fed further up to the senior people in the that company. In my experience the senior surveyors in some of the larger valuation companies do understand the issues and are often sympathetic and concerned when their employees take such an attitude. If all else fails it may therefore be worth taking it higher.

I cannot give you hard and fast guidance as to what will definitely work but it does seem that you should be taking the matter further.

I should also mention that the plot value etc is not usually a consideration 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:
Advice needed on chimney breast removal
FROM:
Fiona Barker
(Berkshire)

I have recently bought my first house. It is an end terrace build in the early 1900s. I would like to remove the chimney breasts as it is a narrow house and would give me a lot more room. What is the best way to do this? Should I leave the remaining chimney or remove everything? What should my first step be?

Fiona Barker

I have had a quick look at the property on Streetview (Google Maps) and am not entirely sure which chimneys you are thinking of removing as the property appears to have a central chimney with one against the party wall. The one against the party wall does not appear to be shared with the neighboring property but from the Streetview images I cannot be certain.

What you should remember is that chimneys contain quite a lot of brickwork and whilst the loads are not necessarily huge once you start taking away chimney breasts the loading can become destabilized if the upper parts are not adequately supported.

When removing a chimney breast on one side of a wall it is often better to ensure that the chimney breasts on both sides are removed so that the loading remains equal. This does however mean that the upper parts need to be supported and this will usually have to be on some form of steel frame often concealed within the floor structure.

It is possible to remove the chimney breast from one side and not the other (such as on a party wall) but in providing a support mechanism it has to take into account the fact that there could be unequal loading because you do not want to create an instability problem. Further, if it is on a party wall and the neighbour later removes the chimney breast on the other side it could create problems. It is therefore important that you liaise at all times with a neighbour where a party wall chimney is involved. If it is indeed a party wall chimney The Party Wall Act may also apply.

Although this is a relatively small matter I would suggest that you seek advice from a local engineer who can properly devise a support mechanism and advise on the size of steels required etc and provide all the information you will need for Building Regulation approval.

If you have no intention of ever using any of the chimney at all to upper parts etc, then it might be best to simply remove the complete chimney but of course this involves far more work and making good.

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:
Does the Party Wall Act provide retrospective protection?
FROM:
Claire Robinson
(West Midlands)

A house next door (adjoining to us) has been done up and renovated over a long period of time and now it is up for sale we have realised they have knocked down the party wall/chimney breast inside their property but they did not inform us of this which I understand they should have. The house has just been sold and I wondered what if anything I could/should do before the now owners sell it on and we cannot contact them.

Claire Robinson

The Party Wall Act does not apply retrospectively and therefore if work that should have been carried out only following a Party Wall Notice etc has been finished then there is little you can do in terms of the Party Wall Act etc.

The work of removing a chimney is a structural alteration and would normally require Building Regulation approval. Even if your neighbours did not follow the Party Wall Act I would hope that they had an engineer involved and obtained proper Building Regulation approval etc. This is something that you should discuss with owners, or check with the Council.

Of course, one of the first questions that has to be asked is whether you are suffering any problems in terms of cracking or damage to your side of the wall? If not then it seems unlikely that the work has caused any problems at present.

In terms of what you could do before the present owners move out is simply to have a friendly chat with them to establish what they have done, how the other part has been supported etc and to confirm that they had Building Regulation approval. You could simply explain that whilst there are no problems that you can see, if ever you choose to remove the chimney breast on your side of the wall you need to know what they've done avoid any future complications etc.

Unless there is an obvious problem there is very little you can do about the matter now other than to find out what has been done for future reference.

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:
Hairline cracks in pebbledash render make me nervous
FROM:
Eira Blowers
(Greater London)

I live in a Victorian/Edwardian mid-terraced house in S.E London (clay soil) on the brow of a hill. The house is pebble dashed and was when I moved in 1984. The cement for the pebbledash is very thick. In the last couple of months I have noticed hairline cracks appearing in the pebbledash so that in some places it looks like crazy paving, mainly between and above the front door and bay window. The front of the house faces south. Is this possibly a) the result of the pebbledash coming to the end of its natural life; b) the result of la couple of bad winters or c) something to be concerned about?

Eira Blowers

I have briefly looked at the property using Streeview on Google Maps. I note that most of the properties along this stretch of road have had the gardens removed and paved over to form parking spaces. Whilst yours does appear to have some form of parking space yours is the only property that also retains vegetation in the form of some trees. I do of course assume that I have looked at the correct property.

The pebble dash is not original to the building as can be seen by looking at other properties in this street where the pointed face in the brickwork is evident. It is quite likely that the pebble dash dates from the mid to later part of the 20th century.

There is of course the possibility that the pebble dash is coming away. The only way to establish this is to carefully tap the surface to see if the pebble dash has a slightly hollow sound which would indicate that it has become de-bonded. If this is the case then yes indeed the pebble dash could be reaching the end of its effective life and coming away. However looking at the Streetview images it does not appear to be in particularly poor condition.

What would concern me far more at present is the presence of the trees. We have experienced a period of relatively dry weather and when it has rained it has rained in large quantities that have flooded over the surfaces rather than penetrated into the ground. There have been some incidents of subsidence this year and last. It is therefore possible that the tree roots are influencing sub-soil conditions and causing slight movement.

In this instance the problem may be exacerbated because yours is one of the only properties with an open front rather than having it completely paved.

The cracking you describe does not yet appear to be structurally significant and it may be an early indication of slight movement. It is quite likely that if this is the case dealing with the trees (by severe cutting back or complete removal) could resolve the problem. This is something you need to have investigated further.

My advice would be to contact your insurance company and notify them that some cracks have appeared. They should then appoint a loss adjuster who will inspect the property and if the loss adjuster believes that there is the likelihood of a movement problem he will instigate further investigation and monitoring.

Nowadays it is rare for properties to be underpinned if the problem is caught early enough. It is more likely that the cause will be removed (i.e., the trees) so that the property can stabilize and underpinning can be avoided. This does of course assume that it is a movement problem brought about by the proximity of the trees.

I therefore suggest that you undertake your own simple 'hammer' test to see if the pebble dash has de-bonded and if it has then you might want take some of the pebble dash off to see if the brickwork itself is cracked beneath. I do however suspect that you will need to contact your insurers and perhaps lodge a claim to instigate the appointment of a loss adjuster and this will then result in monitoring and further investigation. Properties in this area are vulnerable to such problems.

I would also point out that quite often the water supply pipe runs up the garden path and into the property under threshold of the front door. With a property of this age there is a possibility that that pipe is leaking the moisture in the soil will be causing volume changes to the clay and this itself could result in some cracking around the doorway. I would also point out that they bays of Victorian properties such as this were often built on shallower foundations than the main building such that the bays are often quite prone to slight movement independent from the main house.

Without further investigation and actual inspection I cannot provide any more detailed guidance but I hope the above have given you something to work from.

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 we finish lime render with Tyrolean?
FROM:
David Parry
(Cheshire)

We have a cottage, approximately 130 years old which has pebbledash render in poor condition which we are going to remove. I understand that a lime render to replace it would be best to allow for 'breathability'. We would like a "Tyrolean" finish over this but would this affect the lime render's breathability?

David Parry

The Victorian period was one of innovation and experimentation. The pebble dash or render that you describe could be original because some properties during the later part of the Victorian and during the Edwardian period were given a finish using a render with pebbles incorporated such as the Tyrolean finish. It was also during this period that cement (an early form of cement that is) first started being used. I cannot exclude the possibility that the pebble dash if original does actually include a form of cement and not a pure lime based render.

I have had a quick look using Streetview and it is not entirely clear from these images whether the finish is original or not.

As a general rule I would prefer to see a lime based render replace the original but if you find that the original does include a cement based material (assuming that what is on there is original) it may indicate that use of a lime render is not strictly essential provided you do not have any damp problems internally etc.

Various forms of textured finishes incorporating stones, pebbles, shells, etc have been used for many years particularly further north in the UK. In Scotland it is often referred to as 'harling'. This is whether the stones are mixed into the render and are thrown against the wall (on to a base coat). Lime render was often used but in more recent times such as the Victorian period onwards, a cement based render has been used. These stones actually increase the surface area from which evaporation can occur and theory is that textured surface allows greater breathability than a flat surface.

I would therefore suggest that a textured form of render where the stones are mixed into the render could be appropriate and provided it is properly applied I see no reason why it should necessarily result in any significant problem in terms of breathability.

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 remove masonry paint from limestone and brick infill?
FROM:
Alan Gray
(Buckinghamshire)

My part oak timber framed cottage was renovated in the 70's, A masonry type paint was put on the brick infill and over limestone blocks, Some of this is delaminating as water has got behind in places and will peel off so we have lime washed over the bare brick/stone. We want to remove the rest, tried a Strippers product which didn't really work

Alan Gray

I have again looked at some images using Sreetview on Google Maps and can see the basic problem you have. I note you have tried some of the products produced by Strippers. If these have not been successful (and assuming you have spoken to Strippers about lack of success etc) then you might have to consider one of the systems such as Jos or Doff.

The Jos system is a low pressure process using a mixture of air fine inner powder and small quantities of water. This is usually used for removing dirt etc but has to be undertaken by someone experienced in this system. Similarly the Doff system requires specialist application as well and uses a combination of heat and pressure. This is perhaps better suited for removing the paint and other surface coatings.

As with any such removal or cleaning system it is best to find a small area that is slightly out of sight or not highly visible to use as an experimental patch. You can then try the different systems and products to see which works best.

Of course the alternative if the be present coating is not leading to any particular problem immediately is to let it degrade with age and gradually allow it to peel off and scrape it off occasionally. When the majority has eventually fallen away then you could carefully scrape off the remainder and then apply the lime wash etc. However in most instances this takes a long time and it is often aesthetically poor because it creates a rather uncared for appearance for the building. I therefore suggest that if you have exhausted the chemical removal system that you look at the Jos or Doff system and seek further advice from a specialist contractor.

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 sell a Grade I scheduled monument?
FROM:
David Penn
(West Midlands)

How do we sell a grade 1 listed scheduled monument? The Government Heritage Estates Unit and English Heritage have been utterly useless and simply won't answer questions. The property is a former house, but must now be used in connection with education and appreciation of the Arts. It also has gardens which must be made available for public access. The building is owned by a college, but is now surplus to requirements.

David Penn

You do not state what questions you have posed to English Heritage etc is that have not been answered.

In terms of selling the property it is simply a matter of finding an Estate Agent that specializes in the sale of the type of property particularly, education facilities, galleries etc. They may well have some experience of dealing with listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments. These will not usually be the conventional high street residential estate agents.

You could of course look at advertising through SPAB or one of the other amenity societies (such as the Georgian Group if it is Georgian in period). There will be other magazines and websites that you might be able to use to advertise the property for sale.

If the property is already in use or has recently been used I do not foresee any particular problem with selling it. It is not clear from your posting whether the property already has a change of use in place or whether this is something that needs to be dealt with. You state that it is a former house but must now be used in connection with education and arts. If this is a change that already has permission then it is simply a matter of selling it as a property in that use. If however it is still obviously a house and does not have the appropriate change of use consents these are matters that you might need to deal with. It would be a matter of seeking Listed Building Consent and Ancient Monument Consent and probably also Planning Consent as well.

Unfortunately the information you provide is insufficient for me to provide any detailed advice on how best to sell the property. The fact that it is Grade I Listed and a in the Schedule of Ancient Monument are not necessarily problems in themselves because there will be potential purchasers willing to purchase such a property. The issue is whether the consent matter has been already dealt with or is yet to be dealt with. You may find it easier to sell if you have already dealt with such consent matters.

In terms of where to advertise it is something that you really need to seek specialist advice from an estate agent used to dealing with such properties and this may in fact be a specialist commercial agent. As well as or perhaps instead of you could speak to amenity societies and other specialist groups. You may even find that a magazine such as the Museums and Galleries publication or other bodies such as those to which museums and galleries belong etc could assist you because I am sure they will include galleries and educational facilities. With this type of building it is probably a matter of some lateral thinking into how best to advertise it for sale.

I am sorry that I cannot give more specific guidance but I hope the above is of some use. If you care to provide more information about the questions you specifically want answered I would be happy to attempt to provide a more detailed answer at that time

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