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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Buying an old terrace house? Fore warned is fore armed!

Old terraces in South Wales look great and they can be a really good buy, however they can also bring their fair share of headaches as your keen-ness to improve the house and make it your home takes hold.

Many of the houses' past 'improvements' can cause a multitude of problems. Who is going to tell you about this? The estate agent (they would not tell you even if they knew!)? The surveyor (they are not trained in 'historical' buildings unless they a specialist conservation surveyor)? A builder (they are not trained either, unless you get a specialist conservation builder)? An architect (not trained .....)?

So what do we do?

We rely heavily on our existing knowledge / experience of houses, ignorance and a large slice of luck. Not always the best combination.

So here are some pointers to look out for when viewing.

Render - start with a biggy!! Many old terraces have been rendered using cement render. This can be catastrophic for the house. Avoid houses with these renders as it may be trapping in damp, especially where you can see cracks in the finish etc. Blown render also is a warning sign, so tap the walls to see if they sound hollow. Take a damp meter with you and check around the ground floor. (The remedy for this is to replace the render with a good lime render).

Replacement concrete floors - another No-No. Concrete floors often focus moisture from the soil into the walls, including the inner walls. Expect damp to appear. Just check under the carpet, of if a laminate is down etc, just by jumping on them you should be able to tell if they are solid or suspended timber floors. Use your damp meter to test inner walls up to around 1.2m high. (The remedy here is very difficult and really only an inject and hope job).

Dry lined walls - Expect a horror story behind these. Dry lining is there for a reason. The reason being that the house has damp and the previous owners could not be bothered to fix it properly. To test for dry lining tap the walls to see if they sound hollow of not. Your damp meter will not show the damp, but it is still there lurking behind the plasterboard. (The remedy here is to take off the dry lining and sort out the real problem with the walls).

uPVC windows without trickle vents - uPVC does not really fit with old houses, but nevertheless they are there. An absence of trickle vents means that you are more likely to have condensation problems, especially in bedrooms and other high moisture areas. (Remedy is either to install trickle vents or to replace with some nicely vented wooden windows!)

Pointing done with cement mortar - many stone and brick houses have been re-pointed using cement rather than lime mortar. This again traps moisture in the walls and will fail. (Remedy is to re-point using the correct lime mortar).

Bricks and stone painted using conventional masonry paint - masonry paint is designed to be water proof, but old buildings need to be able to breathe and this paint stops this. Expect that the paint will be blown off over time. Look for peeling, bubbling and flaking paint. (Remedy - take the paint off and repaint using a breathable paint).

Bowing roof with tiles on - many houses have been re-roofed using tiles rather than slates. Often the extra weight of the tiles can put excessive pressure on the roof timbers and hence bow the roof. A bowing roof can also be a sign of rot in the timbers. (Remedy is to inspect the timbers and ideally replace the tiles with slate).

These are the big problems that can expect to create a major hole in your finances, so best to be aware before you buy (remember that you can always ask Eco Home Centre to come along to a viewing). This information can help you to avoid a lot of headaches, tears and an empty bank account. Or ideally, it can help you reduce the asking price and have some money set aside for the necessary appropriate repairs.

I am always wary of the houses that are advertised as 'newly refurbished, ideal for first time buyer'. i.e done up as cheaply as possible to look OK for someone who has no experience of what lies beneath!!

If you want help when viewing a property Eco Home Centre can help. Have a look at our pre-purchase inspection service page.

Good luck!!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Where do breathable solid walls fit into Building Regulations?

In Wales we have a glut of solid walls. Lots of buildings built during the mid and later stages of the nineteenth century to home the workers in the mines and docks. The urban areas of Wales are notably these old terraces that we made from a mix of local and imported stone, brick and the old lime mortar. These houses are so common in Wales that we have forgotten that they are actually classed as Historic Buildings.

Part F (Ventilation) of the Building Regulations classifies Historical Buildings in a number of ways, but the web version crucially includes the definition (see 3.11):

'buildings of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both aborbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture'

It recommends that with regard to Historic buildings (3.22 c.) that it might be beneficial to include:

'making provisions enabling the fabric to breathe to control moisture and potential long term decay problems: see Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings Information Sheet No.4 The need for old buildings to breathe, 1987.'

SPAB have a range of books and publications that all state that buildings should have the correct materials used in their refurbishment (although they don't go into the use of stone dust rather than sand!)

However this part of the Building Regs refers to ventilation and so most of the advice on how to deal with breathable structures will come down to venting it more so that humidity in the building can be removed. Not by using the inherent nature of the wall to do this for you!

So is there better news elsewhere?

Short answer is no. All the other building regs (and the paper version of F) do not include 'buildings of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both aborbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture' as their definition, they all harks back to Conservation areas, Listed buildings, Historical Interest...

Part C of the building regulations looks at Resistance to contaminants and moisture. By its very title it is not going to be pleasant reading for anyone with an Historic Building. Firstly, there is no mention of breathability in the definition of Historic Buildings. However, there is a slight glint of light at the end of the tunnel, namely:

The need to conserve the special characteristics of such historic buildings needs to be recognised. In such work, the aim should be to improve resistance to contaminants and moisture where it is practically possible, always provided that the work does not prejudice the character of the historic building, or increase the risk of long-term deterioration to the building fabric or fittings. In arriving at an appropriate balance between historic building conservation and improving resistance to contaminants and moisture it would be appropriate to take into account the advice of the local planning authority’s conservation officer.

So if you have a Local Authority Planning Officer who understands breathability and the possible structural damage that can be caused by using non breathable materials etc - see SPAB and others like us, then you might stand a chance.

Any more luck in Part L - Energy Efficiency?

One might hope that the recognition that damp walls are 30% less efficient than dry ones might show its face in Part L, but alas no.

OK, BRE know what they are talking about and they have a new BREEAM Domestic Refurbishment Standard. I have had two looks at this. Firstly a quick overview to see if there were some references to damp (after all we are talking about refurbishment of old buildings here). No category.

A search for damp on the website, brings up some info on Historic Buildings again, but with the definition being more linked to the one without 'buildings of traditional construction ...'

Under Compliance Note 4 (Historic Buildings) -Historical buildings typically have high levels of air infiltration leading to discomfort and heat loss. Historic buildings however also typically require a higher level of infiltration to remove structural moisture in the absence of impermeable damp proofing. The refurbishment should be designed to meet the requirements of Building Regulations Part F section 3.11–3.16 and reference is made to the guidance provided in:
  • The guide to building services in historic buildings, CIBSE, 2002
  • BS 7913: Guide to the principles of conservation in historic buildings
  • Building Regulations and Historic Buildings, English Heritage 2004
  • Guide for Practitioners, conversion of traditional Buildings, application of the Scottish Building standards, Historic Scotland, 2007
One credit is awarded:
Where an assessment is carried out to establish the current levels of air tightness and structural moisture prior to the specification of fabric measures and heating systems. The assessment should establish the appropriate level of ventilation for the building, based upon:
  • the balance required to achieve a healthy, comfortable and draught-free environment whilst allowing appropriate building breath-ability in relation to structural moisture levels.
  • a minimum requirement of 0.4 air changes per hour (or 8 litres/second per person) should be assumed. This may be greater where the structure needs higher levels of ventilation in order to deal with structural moisture levels.
  • ventilation rates are sufficient to allow structural moisture to be dealt with effectively.
Two credits are awarded where:
The first credit is achieved and where the following testing was also carried out in order to develop the ventilation/air tightness strategy for the building:
  • pressure testing was carried out before and after refurbishment in accordance with the appropriate standard
  • temperature and humidity is monitored before and after refurbishment
The only other grain of comfort in the new BREEAM comes with:

Under Compliance Note 7 (Design Aims)  - The design aims should be formed following a discussion and/or a site inspection with reference to a surveyors report (where available) which highlights any problems with the existing dwelling (e.g. rising damp, excessive condensation, thermal comfort etc.)

So within BREEAM Domestic Refurbishment there is a mention of damp, but it's remedy is ventilation and it also relies on surveyors to notice it in the first place. Worrying again for all those believers that damp should be dealt with using materials so that it is a permanent solution.

I think that the system is definitely against the growing number of people who recognise the need for appropriate solutions for our aging stock. The shame is that it will be future generations that will suffer along with the very nature of the buildings that we are trying to improve.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fitting new wooden doors

I have been having some work done at home and one of the main areas of improvement has been the fitting of new wooden doors. The old doors were rotten, single glazed and draughty, so it has been a job worth doing. So what have I learned.

Getting a good wooden door is difficult. I wanted an FSC hard wood door that had good insulation, but every door retailer I spoke to could not give me a U value for their doors. In fact only one of them knew what a U value was! All the doors were only 44mm thick and so getting any good double glazing into the frame was impossible. In the end I had to settle for an 8mm spacer.

Getting a pre-treated door is effectively a waste of time. I got untreated doors as I wanted to use Osmo products to treat them, so I knew what to use in the future for extra treatments. I primed them, painted them and went around with a close eye to ensure that all the relevant sections were painted inside and out. However, because nice square new doors do not go into lopsided solid wall holes the frames and doors had to be trimmed. This of course, removed the treatment, so I had to go around once all was 'square' to ensure that the wood was all treated again, especially behind the frames etc. If I had relied on a pre-treated option there would have been the issue of what they had used, how it was applied, colour etc. Nightmare!

Fitting new doors in old holes is difficult. It took two experienced carpenters a whole day to fit one door. Admittedly they did it well, but all the same when you hear of companies fitting a full complement of doors and windows in a day then you must question how they are doing it.

Sealing the door is difficult. Using an expanding tape is the best way of getting an airtight seal, although good airtightness tapes can help on the inner edge. I will be using Auro Cork filler.

Insulating the doors can be difficult as well. I used InsOwall insulating plaster between the frame and wall. This works well in dry locations and could fit into tight spaces.

It is worth remembering that once the doors the right size etc there is even more painting to do - in the lock cavity, behind the hinges, in any holes drilled for keys etc.

Bearing all these things in mind and the pressure of time etc felt by builders you really need to be there to ensure that all the treatments are applied correctly etc. This is, of course, very difficult to achieve. We all have work to do.

Ideally I would recommend that it is worth getting a pre-hung door set that is fully draught-proofed, fitted with all the ironmongery, treated etc. This means that there is less that can go wrong and because it will be made to measure there should be little to no planing, trimming etc. So the frame should last longer due to its treatment remaining intact. This also reduces the risk of swelling etc, thus making the door set last longer. Pre-hung doors can also be installed with better hinges and lock systems, thus making them more secure. All in all a much better job.

Eco Home Centre can provide you with high quality wooden pre-hung doors from ARU - and part of me really thinks that I should have hung the expense (they are around £800 each). However, because I was able to draw on free labour it made economic sense to do it the long winded way.

A lesson learned!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Eco Paint Chooser

Paint seems like such a simple product. Just some colour for your home surely? Not at all!

  • Paint can ruin your building projects if you get it wrong. 
  • It can cause damp where damp never was before. 
  • It can cost you an arm and a leg if you get it specified incorrectly.
As you might be starting to gather, getting the right paint is really important. As you might have read already in this blog, breathability of materials is key to the success of refurbishment of older buildings. Well modern conventional paints are not breathable, hence the link to damp and also to the fact that in many situations conventional paint will just blister, bubble and fall off of walls.

So getting the right specification of paint is really important. However, the eco-paints are products of their ingredients and so their character changes depending on the manufacturer and type of paint. Some paints are great for hallways, others for bedrooms, some will go over metal, others needs to be applied to bare wood to function correctly. This is where the new Eco Paint Chooser comes in.

Have a look at: to find out what sort of paint best suits your particular situation, sensibilities and needs.