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:
Will my neighbours rethatching be bad for my health?
FROM:
Claire Hardisty
(Oxfordshire)

I live in a barn conversion, the front wall about 3' from the former barn track, now a private lane and owned by us. Opposite is a delightful cottage with nice residents, who have a large garage with a forecourt. My neighbour's period cottage needs a new thatched roof and they are proposing to use the lane as access and garage forecourt as skip and working area for removal of old thatch and general loading of materials. I do NOT want to cause trouble or make enemies as this is a very small village and these things matter. However, I have health condition- basically a 'bad chest' which reacts severely to irritations. I am not happy at the thought of old thatch being removed and loaded so near my main living room window - I sit 9' from traffic lane! So, how dusty is re-thatching? How long does the process of re-thatching a cottage take? Is it going to be safe for me, even if I go out a lot and/or shut my windows? I am senior in age, and am worried about this. Can anyone who has been through such a process advice if I am worrying unnecessarily?

Claire Hardisty

Without knowing the size and nature of the building (and therefore roof to be re-thatched) it is difficult to give an indication of time, but I would assume at least one month of works and perhaps longer. This is best addressed by speaking with the neighbours and asking them for an indication on the basis that you would like some idea of how long the general disruption will last.

Stripping off the old thatch depends on whether this is a case of taking off the upper layer and getting down to a sound base coat, or whether it is to be completely stripped off. If the former, there will not be so much 'dust' as such, but there will be pieces of air borne straw (sometimes small pieces including some dust). It may depend on the weather as to how far it drifts. However, if the whole thatch is to come off, including base layers, there is a greater risk of dust, from the dry undersides of the thatch and roof space being released into the air. Again, weather will determine how far the material might spread.

A concern you should think about is the fact that deteriorating thatch is a form of 'compost' and the degradation process can produce mould spores. There is something called 'Farmer's Lung' (sometimes also 'Thatcher's Lung'), which is a disease that affects those working with or near rotting straw, hay, etc., and this can include thatch. It is not common, but can occur.

The greatest risk from dust or mould spores is during the stripping of the old thatch. The act of re-thatching is less likely to produce any mould spores and not so much dust. Realistically, the greatest risk is during the first phase of works, during the stripping process.

I have no medical training and cannot comment on how any of this might affect you. Keeping doors and windows closed should reduce the risks for you. You could even consider using a face mask temporarily whilst outside the house (when going in and out or to a car, etc). However, I strongly suggest that you speak with your doctor. Could you arrange to go away for a week or two during the stripping of the thatch?

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:
Floor covering for lime ash/plaster floor?
FROM:
Graeme Jones
(Staffordshire)

I live in Uttoxeter Staffordshire and have a lime ash or plaster floor (the alabaster mines are nearby) in a room which is due to become a bathroom. The floor is probably 200-300 years old. What would you recommend as a floor covering? We would like cork but as the floor undulates I expect it will need to be levelled - can anybody recommend a suitable levelling product which is compatible with a lime ash/plaster floor.

Graeme Jones

Whilst a lime ash floor is quite robust, it is not difficult to cause it damage. The first thing I would be concerned about is the load imposed by a bathroom. Home owners often forget how heavy a bath full of water might be. The floor must take the load of the sanitary fittings, as well as someone in the room AND the weight of water in a bath, etc. A lime ash floor could crack and begin to break up if the loads are significant. This needs careful consideration.

As for covering, you need something that will prevent leaks and spillage penetrating through to the lime ash, because this would cause a lot of damage. You also need to avoid a finish that needs to be stuck down, because in later times when it is lifted it will bring the floor with it and the floor would be destroyed.

My preference would be to leave the floor without levelling (unless a lime ash mix could be created and trowelled over to improve the level of the floor). I would suggest a form of vinyl, perhaps even the high quality materials used in wet rooms. You could have a 'seamless' form to ensure that water does not get through.

If you really want to lay tiles (or similar), I suggest that a separating membrane be laid first so that any finish is isolated from the lime ash floor. The problem you may find is that because the tiles are not then so firmly stuck to the floor there is a greater risk that they come loose over time.

Bear in mind that some floor coverings (such as tiles) impose a significant load themselves and must be factored in when assessing loads.

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