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:
What kind of property survey should I have?
FROM:
Dorothy Nardini
(Durham)

I have seen a property I love, but I want to make sure I'm not letting myself in for problems! It's a Grade II listed Georgian townhouse, built in the mid 1700s. I don't really want to alter it (besides some new carpets!) - I like its style - but before I buy it what should I check for? Should I get a buyers report done, or find someone who specializes in period properties to have a look? What could I ask the estate agents/ owners? Finally, I heard that period properties can harbor allergens mould\spores - would that be something to worry about with this kind of house?

Dorothy Nardini

There are two web pages/sites that I would refer you to initially as these contain some advice that you should consider and follow.  With the English Heritage site follow the links to the other pages as well.

http://www.spab.org.uk/publications/look-before-you-leap/

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/your-property/owning-historic-property/thinking-of-buying/

Regarding a pre-purchase survey the RICS guidance and my advice would always be that for an historic building only a building survey is really suitable and not anything less.  The Home Buyers Report (Level 2 survey, etc) was not designed for anything other than modern estate or mass development housing.  You should specifically seek out a surveyor with experience and knowledge of buildings of this type and age.  This may require some questioning of a number of local surveyors and perhaps ask to see their CVs.

It is not appropriate here to try to list all that you should consider because that in itself would form the basis of a book!  The most common concerns are:

  • Structural movement;
  • Timber and damp problems;
  • Unauthorized alterations;
  • Use of modern or inappropriate materials that could be having a detrimental technical impact on the building and causing a more rapid deterioration of some elements, etc.

Asking questions of the vendor can be helpful.  Ask them what they know of the property and its past, what have they had done and what documents do they have to show you about the property and/or works?

You could speak with the conservation officer / planners to find out if there has been a problem in the past and when you get the planning history (from local searches) check whether there seem to be any unauthorized works.

There are a number of books that might help you, particularly Marianne Suhr’s ‘Old House Handbook’ available from the SPAB website.  Haynes also publish a series of books with some useful information.

I am not sure where you heard about moulds, etc.  Many properties suffer condensation and damp problems (not just historic ones!) and suffer from mould, etc.

The materials in some old buildings could harbor some risk. In lath and plaster the hair used historically can sometimes contain anthrax and this should be noted when stripping old wall and ceiling surfaces.  To some joinery old lead paint could still exist on the surface beneath modern finishes.  Care should be taken when preparing paintwork for redecoration.

I hope the above is of some use as an initial guide.

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:
What traditional sealant should I use to fill around windows?
FROM:
Marianne Taylor
(Herefordshire)

I am painstakingly refurbishing Victorian casement windows, re-bedding the original glass using linseed putty, and using Holkham's linseed paint.  We have early cavity walls, (50-70mm) and these are partly 'closed' at windows with snapped brick returns from the inner leaf. The window frames are set in a check reveal and the interior linings obscure this rather untidy work. On the outside, the joints between frame and brickwork are up to 10mm wide in places, and my question is: what to fill the gap with? I am a bit wary of Burnt Sand Mastic because it can't be painted. I can point the gap using lime mortar, but what should I pack with first? (Otherwise the mortar would just fall into the cavity). Or should I use a modern frame sealant? My concern is for flexibility but also breathability and not trapping moisture against the wood. If I use Oakum, would the tar affect the lime mortar?

Marianne Taylor

I have answered similar questions in a previous batch of questions. In many houses of this age such gaps were often simply finished by the mortar. Use of a mortar would be appropriate. Packing out behind is often found to have been with newspaper in the past! I would not recommend repeating this however. You could use string/rope. I am not totally against use of a modern silicone sealant, but consider the more traditional approach first. Oakum is not something I would tend to use in this situation because of the risk of the tar leeching out and causing staining, etc.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
What floor covering should I use on a limecrete floor?
FROM:
Phillip Barrow
(Shropshire)

We are renovating a cottage c1700s and have laid a limecrete floor with under floor heating. We are now searching for an appropriate flooring to cover it. The stone cottage revealed itself to be timber framed which we are keeping exposed. The original floor we lifted was quarry tile and a small area of stone. We would like to know what the best flooring for breathability is. We have a sealant from a well known supplier of lime products but it obviously does not give us a sheen. We have looked at York stone but are concerned about the continual shedding, a problem when it will be a kitchen area.

Phillip Barrow

Bricks (soft reds for example) are often a suitable finish laid on sand and lime with no sealant, etc. Similarly unglazed tiles, such as traditional quarry tiles or pamments are also suitable. I am also aware of stone being used and other natural breathable materials. If you seal the surface you reduce or eliminate the advantages of a breathable floor. Arguably if you seal the tile only and not the pointing/gap you should retain sufficient breathability, but the work involved in sealing only the tiles is onerous.

The following page gives some answers to this question part way down the FAQs: www.lime.org.uk/products/limecrete-floor/components/accredited-floor-free-calculation-service/

This web site also gives some comments on the matter of finishing: limecrete.net/faq.htm

 

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 improve insulation in timber-framed cottage?
FROM:
Ralph Williams
(Cambridgeshire)

I am buying a grade II listed cottage where the walls are oak frame and clunch fill, built on 2 courses of brick with concrete floor. The outside has lime plaster, the roof long straw thatch.  Windows are wood framed with double glazed panels.

I would really like to improve add wall insulation to reduce heating costs (oil fired radiators) but apart from putting foil reflectors behind the radiators and hanging foil lined tapestries against the walls I am not sure what I can do. 

Ralph Williams

Such matters have been the subject of books. I would refer you to Marianne Suhr's Old House Eco Handbook that is available from SPAB.

The building needs to be considered holistically and it may be that some solutions need to be subjected to calculation to ensure you do not cause an interstitial condensation problem.

However, the construction you describe is probably of a higher thermal mass than many modern buildings.

Wall insulation is about the most difficult and problematic form of upgrading you could consider to a listed building and I generally advise against it unless there are major works required to the walls anyway, in which case the upgrading can be included with any repair.

For major upgrading work, such as wall insulation, you will almost certainly need listed building consent.

A part of the strategy with a building such as this is to consider how you use the building, how you heat it and your use generally. Changing and upgrading controls, etc can sometimes result in improvements in energy use. In fact wall insulation is about the last thing that one would normally consider because of the practical difficulties, the costs and therefore the cost benefits/payback periods.

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 cheap exterior masonry paint from exterior of listed property?
FROM:
Rebecca Kearle
(Leicestershire)

We have recently bought a grade II listed property which this has been painted with cheap plastic exterior masonry paint.  The paint is blistering off in places and we would like to remove this so that we can re-paint using a breathable paint. (Ideally we would like to leave the paint off altogether but the house is listed and the brickwork is in a poor condition).  We have researched a number of removal methods, but we are after some advice.  Which methods would be deemed suitable?  We are quite keen to do the work ourselves to keep the costs down, but is it possible to undertake work such as walnut shell blasting ourselves? If this was not recommended to be carried out by ourselves could you recommend an approved contractor who would be able to carry out this work?

Rebecca Kearle

There may be several methods that could be suitable and/or workable. In such a situation I would normally identify a section of wall where a couple of different methods could be tried to see which are the most effective, before starting work in earnest on the main elevations.

Non abrasive methods use chemicals and you could use these yourself, with care. You should perhaps speak with 'Strippers': www.stripperspaintremovers.com.

Rather than a chemical system I wonder if a steam system might be suitable, but I would consider abrasive methods last if other methods are not suitable, or do not work.

A company not too far from you and with a web site giving some useful information about different systems can be found here: www.bonsersrestoration.co.uk/masonry-cleaning.php?a=uk.

It may be worth paying a company to undertake some trial removal to establish the best method. You may then be able to hire equipment and materials to do it yourself, but this may depend on the precise method and ease of undertaking.

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