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...

Go back to the top
SUBJECT:
Do we require LBC to make bathroom alterations?
FROM:
Marian Little
(Wiltshire)

We have a small 16th/17th century cottage.  We want to move the bath to an internal wall (it currently lays against a partly external wall) and put a shower over it.  The previous owner has put MDF tongue and groove around the lower part of the walls and has used kitchen/bathroom paint and painted over the top of the wall, which includes an old beam. We cannot afford to remove this paint, but at the moment the over-bath shower gets this wall wet, which we are not happy with. We want to tile around the bath once moved and would like to know if it will affect the breathability and what we should use to cover the wall before tiling. In addition, we need to raise the part of the ceiling over the bath in order to use the shower properly. The cottage is listed.  It is structurally possible to raise the ceiling without danger to its structural integrity. Would a conservation officer need to approve and is this likely?

Marian Little

The issue of moving a bath or sanitary ware generally often arises when dealing with listed buildings. If it is simply a matter of moving the sanitary ware and units with no physical impact on the fabric of the building then there would normally be no need to seek listed building consent. The issue of obtaining listed building consent arises if the work might involve cutting into the fabric of the building such as for pipes or other services. Therefore, as a basic rule of thumb if the work does not involve creating any new holes or cutting into the fabric then it would probably not require consent.

However, you also raise the issue of tiling around the bath. This is slightly more complex, but if the work does not physically impact the fabric it should not pose a problem. With a timber framed building I would generally prefer to install a waterproof board or panel against the wall on which you then tile so that the tiles are not physically directly onto the structure of the building. Arguably the tiling is then fully removable without any significant damage to the fabric of the building other than a few fixing holes where the board was installed. The main problem in this instance is whether you might suffer condensation between the board and the wall face. This needs to be carefully considered and will depend on many factors. Sometimes it may be necessary to create a ventilation gap between the wall face and the board. Generally speaking such work is unlikely to require listed building consent. Of course, if the wall you wish to cover with tiling is particularly significant within the building this could change matters and consent may be required. It is impossible to give absolute guidance that covers each and every scenario and my advice in such situations is normally to speak with the conservation officer in the first instance.

The one issue you mentioned that will need consent is lifting the ceiling. From a purely technical point of view it is usually possible to undertake such an alteration without affecting the structural integrity provided the work is carefully thought through and perhaps an engineer involved if there is any suggestion that ceiling joists may also act as ties for the structure generally or the roof.

What the conservation officer will need to consider however is whether such an alteration is acceptable and whether the change to the fabric of the building is such that could be considered in this instance. Therefore an application for consent will be necessary.

Generally, with such work it is advisable to send a letter to the local authority conservation officer advising of the work intended and seeking clarification of whether consent is needed. This should then provide assurance to yourself and to any future purchaser if or when you decide to sell the property. The officer would hopefully identify the works that could be undertaken without consent and those for which consent would be necessary, if any.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
Go back to the top
SUBJECT:
What lime mix do I grout floor bricks with?
FROM:
Juliet Rayner
(Essex)

I have just exposed buff (pinky/yellow) bricks under a concrete screed as you suggested. There are joints of about 3-9mm between with loose or absent mortar. I am sure that they are laid on earth. You mention week lime mortar. What is the recipe please? Just to be cheeky. I have some kitchen wood blocks laid in a kind of tar in the kitchen. A few have rotted. What could I use to stick them down? I imagine that they were originally pushed into hot tar?

Juliet Rayner

With regard to the lime mortar a standard mix of 1:3 should be appropriate for such work. Bearing in mind where you live I would suggest you perhaps speak to Anglia Lime who might be to supply the material and advise on its use.

From your description of the kitchen floor it does seem likely that the wood blocks were simply pushed into the hot tar. If some have rotted I have to raise the question-why? Are they simply worn through use or is there a problem of dampness causing rot? If the latter you may have a more widespread problem that requires further investigation and perhaps taking up the floor. However, in situations where a few individual wood blocks laid originally in tar need to be reset it is often appropriate to simply reset wood blocks in a bitumen based material not dissimilar to the original method.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
Go back to the top
SUBJECT:
Advice needed on unauthorised works
FROM:
Lynne Powell
(Suffolk)

I have just purchased a Grade II listed house listed in 1977 I was aware it had been cement rendered and assumed it was done many years ago. This has caused immense damage to the entire property which didn't show up until the builders began to strip out all the plasterboard etc. I have since discovered this work was only carried out 8 years ago along with the removal of 4 crittle windows without planning permission. The previous owner (now dead) came to an arrangement with the builder to sell him a 16th century barn for conversion and to do this work as part of the deal. Will the council be prepared to take action against the builder or do you think the listing protection is not worth the paper it is written on.

Lynne Powell

This is a difficult question to answer definitively and as there is a possibility of legal action it would be better that I do not comment specifically on your case.

The law allows for prosecution against anyone who allows or causes work to be undertaken to a listed building without consent, where consent should have been obtained. Therefore the builder involved could be prosecuted as well as any other party such as architect, surveyor, engineer, owner, etc.

The above simply sets out the situation as far as the law is concerned, but in reality a Council would need to consider whether a prosecution is in the public interest and whether the cost of pursuing the prosecution is worthwhile. They would need to consider what would be achieved from it. This is something that you might wish to discuss informally with the Council in the first instance but is not something that you can really influence.

The other matter you need to consider carefully however is the possibility of enforcement action. This is not the same as prosecution but is a provision whereby a Council can require an owner to reverse works that have been undertaken without consent. In such instances the present owner may not have been the person who undertook the work, but could suffer financially as a result. As a new owner you are open to such procedures if unauthorised work had been undertaken in the past. Again however a Council will need to consider very carefully what it hopes to achieve by pursuing enforcement action. Again it involves costs on the part of the council and this will feature in any decision the Council may make.

When you purchased the property if you only had a mortgage valuation then it is unlikely that you could reasonably claim that the valuer could and should have identified unauthorised works and advised accordingly. However, if you had a more detailed report such as a homebuyers report or a building survey there is a possibility that you could consider action if the report does not comment or advise upon such matters.

The other thing you could consider is whether the conveyancing solicitor has any liability. When conducting local searches information should have been provided about what consents were obtained in the past. Some advice on implications of not obtaining consent etc., should probably have been given by the solicitor. However as the solicitor would not have inspected the property it would then be for you to compare what you knew of the property with what the solicitor provides as information. You would then be in a position, perhaps, to ask further questions of the solicitor if you suspected any unauthorised works.

When buying a property and when considering the issue of whether past works may or may not have been authorised you therefore need to bear in mind the following:

  • a mortgage valuation is unlikely to normally raise these issues and should not be relied upon with regard to such matters;
  • a more detailed report such as a homebuyers report or building survey should provide some further guidance on whether there might be unauthorised works and certainly with a building survey on would expect a surveyor to comment if there is a suspicion of unauthorised works;
  • the conveyancing solicitor would normally obtain a planning history and provide some comments and advice about what consents have been obtained in the past and what the situation maybe if no consent has been obtained for works carried out;
  • quite often the surveyor and solicitor would need to communicate either directly or through the client to establish whether there is a real risk of unauthorised works having been carried out;
  • if unauthorised works are identified there are two possibilities in terms of action to be taken by the Council one being prosecution and the second being enforcement;
    as a purchaser prosecution should not concern you as only those involved in the works would normally be prosecuted but enforcement is something of concern and is something that you would need to factor into your consideration to purchase or your negotiation of the purchase price.

As an aside on this matter I mention above the possibility of a more detailed report in the form of a homebuyers report or a building survey; in reality I would always say that for a listed building a homebuyers report is not usually suitable and anyone buying a listed building should seek a building survey.

 

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
Go back to the top
SUBJECT:
Advice needed on thatched property insurance
FROM:
Kim Porter
(Suffolk)

Is there an insurance company out there that would consider insuring my listed thatched property, Couple of problems - it has just been rebuilt after a major fire and is empty (it is on the market with an estate agent). I have contacted a broker and they are also having problems. Surely there must be a company out there that someone knows about? 

Kim Porter

As far as I am aware there are several companies that might insure a thatched building. One such company is the Thatched Owners Group.

Another possibility is to speak to the Listed Property Owners Club.

I do not know which broker you have gone to but a broker I know that deals specifically with listed buildings and may be able to assist you is La Playa:

[Note: La Playa is Period Property UK's independent broker partner. You can read lots about insuring period properties on this website and you can make an enquiry by completing the enquiry form at www.periodproperty.co.uk/ppuk_insuring_enquiries.php . Many readers of the Period Property UK website have found La Playa very helpful as they have sought insurance that is sympathetic to their particular needs.]

I know that companies such as Chubb, Ecclesiastical Insurance and even Aviva do insure thatched buildings, but they would look at each proposal individually and assess risk. I hope you find someone and suggest you keep looking.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
Go back to the top
SUBJECT:
What is the acceptable moisture level for a clunch wall?
FROM:
Gaynor Calnan
(Hertfordshire)

I am attending a period property that has suffered water damage to an internal Clunch wall. Can you advise what an acceptable moisture level would be in this wall as I am concerned that we do not over dry the wall?

Gaynor Calnan

The term Clunch is sometimes used for compacted earth structures containing clay, but is also used for a soft chalk stone often used in construction in the East of England. Your question does not make it entirely clear which you refer to. Nonetheless, my answer would be much the same.

There is no "acceptable moisture level "as such. Absolute moisture levels in walls such as this are difficult to determine without extracting samples and testing them. Use of handheld moisture meters is extremely unreliable and the figures given by these should be considered merely as a guide rather than an absolute reading. Therefore, under normal circumstances the actual moisture level is not something that one would normally be overly concerned about.

If there is ongoing moisture causing damage there is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. The question here is what sort of damage is being caused? If it is moisture causing failure of the material itself then clearly the source of moisture has to be found and diverted, eliminated or managed in some manner. If the moisture is simply causing aesthetic damage to decor it may not be at a level that is necessarily a serious problem and you could find that it is merely a matter of dealing with finishes. However, if the moisture is causing timber to become damp and therefore vulnerable to rot it is again something that needs to be considered carefully. For timber to rot it is normally said that the moisture level needs to be around 16 to 18% Wood Moisture Equivalent using a handheld meter. However, in reality rot spores generally do not germinate until the moisture level has reached over 20% and often closer to 25%.

A handheld moisture meter is more accurate when assessing timber than when used on masonry or any wall structure as such. Therefore if you test timber and have readings of around the figures mentioned above there is a risk of deterioration.

How you tackle damp will depend on the circumstances. As you may gather from previous answers on this website and discussions on the forum, modern chemical treatment is regarded as a last resort and avoided wherever possible. It is far better to try to get the building to function as originally intended and therefore back to a breathable structure.

You are concerned about creating a situation that dries out the wall too much. This can sometimes be a risk particularly if it is an earth structure, but the question itself implies that you are intending to completely eliminate the dampness. This may not be the best approach to the problem. If you can get the building to function as originally then whilst there may be some moisture passing through the wall it should not be too much to cause any major problem and should be just enough to ensure that the integrity of the wall is retained. There is no specific moisture level at which a material goes from being sound to failing, it is a gradual process and the moisture levels are usually only one factor. It is not something that can be assessed simply by taking readings.

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