Winter is coming – but is your house ready?

Today is National Gutters Day. Not the most glamorous date for your diary but it is an important one. We close this year’s National Maintenance Week with some top tips for taking care of your gutters, as well as the rest of your old home:

Our key suggestions to give a property a basic Maintenance ‘MOT’:
Water damage is the prime concern when it comes to maintenance. November is the time to start trouble-shooting because that’s when drains and gutters could become blocked by autumn leaf fall and debris like twigs and old bird nests.  If any of these obstruct the easy flow of water away from a building – damp and other serious problems can follow. It’s relatively easy to check and clear accessible sections of drain and guttering yourself.

Blocked gutter

Check the roof for damaged or slipped tiles. Even a relatively small gap can let in damaging amounts of water.  It’s much easier and cheaper to have a tile fixed than replace trusses rotted through years of neglect.  You can check your roof from the inside – looking for chinks of daylight in the attic. Outside, you might find that using a pair of binoculars helps you get a good clear view of potential problem points.

Slate Roof damage

Windows are another important area. If you really want to protect your investment then looking after your wood windows is vital.  It’s a good idea to wash down the paintwork. This not only prolongs the life of the finish, it gives a good opportunity to check for decay.

Vegetation growing on or near a house needs monitoring. It’s quite easy to check all growth against the building especially trees bushes and ivy. This should be removed, cut back or pruned carefully where necessary as these items growing on a wall can also cause dampness and structural damage.

Vegetation in gutter

Top 10 tips for National Maintenance Week 2015

– Look for blocked downpipes (best done during heavy rain to see water coming from any leaky joints – in dry weather look for stained brickwork).
– Check ground level gullies and drains to make sure they are clear of debris like leaves, twigs and even things like balls and toys – and have them cleaned out if necessary.
– Every autumn, clear any plants, leaves and silt from gutters, hopperheads, flat roofs and drainage channels. It’s a good idea to do this in spring too.
– Remove potentially damaging vegetation from behind downpipes by cutting back or removing the plant altogether
– Use a hand mirror to look behind rainwater pipes as splits and cracks in old cast iron and aluminium often occur here and are not easily noticed
– Fit bird/leaf guards to the tops of soil pipes and rainwater outlets to prevent blockages
– Have gutters refixed if they are sloping the wrong way or discharging water onto the wall
– If sections are beyond repair, make sure that replacements are made of the same material as the originals (on older houses, this is sometimes lead, but more usually cast iron)
– Regular painting of cast iron is essential to prevent rust – and keeps your property looking good!
Don’t – undertake routine maintenance work at high level unless you are accompanied and have suitable equipment.  If in doubt always seek help from a professional


Rusty rainwater goods

The SPAB runs a free technical advice line, open weekdays 9.30am – 12.30pm. Call 020 7456 0916 for impartial, expert advice.

National Maintenance Week 2015

National Maintenance Week, the SPAB’s campaign to encourage owners of all sorts of buildings (not just ancient ones!) to be aware of the importance of regular care, begins today. This week aims to remind everyone of a few simple steps they can take to ensure their home is prepared for the cold, harsh winter weather.

Broadcaster, writer, historian and archaeologist Neil Oliver is leading this year’s campaign to make people aware of the importance of property maintenance. A familiar face from popular programmes including, Coast, The Vikings, A History of Ancient Britain and The One Show, Neil keenly aware of the changes that the passage of time can make to a building, but he knows that whatever the age or condition of a structure, good, regular maintenance can play a role in its future.

Neil Oliver at St Andrews, Holborn

Neil Oliver at St Andrews, Holborn

The SPAB took Neil to the beautifully maintained, Christopher Wren–designed church, St Andrews, Holborn to give him a bird’s-eye view of the tricky nooks and crannies that can cause problems if leaves, twigs, nests and other seasonal debris are left uncleared.

Neil said of St Andrews: “It’s a wonderful old building. Even though it’s relatively modern compared to many of the places I’ve visited and written about as part of my work, it’s easy to see how vital it is to make sure it’s maintained. As an archaeologist I’m very familiar with the care challenges faced by significant, historic buildings which don’t conform to a standard pattern. Planned and regular maintenance is vital to ensure that they have a future as well as a past. That message is equally applicable to buildings of all types and all ages.  When I travelled round the country for BBC’s Coast series, the importance of protecting a building against the ravages of the wind and the weather was very apparent. I could see it was a constant battle.

Neil adds: “ ‘Stave off decay by daily care… prop a perilous wall…  mend a leaky roof’  It’s amazing that what SPAB’s founder William Morris wrote nearly 140 years ago is still sound, practical advice. Faulty gutters and blocked drains don’t repair themselves – the longer you ignore a problem the more costly and difficult it becomes to put it right, and that’s true if the place you care for is an ancient ruined broch, a medieval church in a village, a Victorian terraced house or a modern apartment in a town or city. Maintenance makes a difference. Never put it off.”

Leaves blocking a gutter

Leaves blocking a gutter

Neil is right about maintenance making economic sense.  If you turn a blind eye to cracked pipes, faulty drains or broken/missing roof tiles you might as well throw hard earned cash to the winter wind.

Stay tuned for our top maintenance tips from our technical team.

SPAB and Historic Royal Palaces partnership turns 5

In 2016 we will celebrate the 5 year anniversary of our Masterclass partnership with Historic Royal Palaces. We kick-started celebrations this year with a competition for past delegates. They were invited to write a short piece on how a Masterclass influenced their work. Congratulations to James Crick, senior architect at Donald Insall Associates, for his winning entry describing how what he learnt on a ‘Conserving Historic Buildings: Repair of Gauged Arches’ masterclass helped him during a condition survey of the Crystal Palace Subway in south London.

The masterclasses are limited to a small group size to allow for the hands-on workshop element, and have so far reached over 120 delegates. Since 2012, we have run masterclasses to cover these popular topics of conservation and repair: gauged arches; cut and rubbed chimneys; free-standing walls; metalwork; stonework; timber; historic finishes. They offer a unique learning environment through case studies, demonstrations, hands-on workshops and access to live conservation projects. The masterclasses are delivered by experts in their fields and presented at the magnificent HRP sites – Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London and Banqueting House.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

James Crick’s winning entry:

Courses, such as the Repair of Gauged Arches which I attended in 2014, offer a wonderful opportunity to engage with materials and the experts who work with them. Following a day of practical teaching by Emma Simpson, my zealously rubbed brick slotted into a perfectly formed gauged brick arch especially created for learners. It was clear to all that my brick was rubbed too small, demonstrated by the surrounding thick white putty lines. Not the perfect brick repair but my enjoyment was not diminished. The process and teaching was by far the greatest reward of the day.

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

Working as a young architect in conservation, I have often felt that university and subsequent practice can fail to unite designers with the process of ‘doing’. That is to say, we are prepared with a wealth of invaluable theory (supported by years of personal research and interest), which can assist us immeasurably in developing construction proposals, yet often this education fails to teach the on-site reality. There is an education gap between those that do and those who instruct, which is clearly no good for either party, nor for the poor buildings we work on.

In professional practice hands-on courses rapidly find relevance in daily work. The knowledge gained from my course was immensely useful during a condition survey of E. M. Barry’s Crystal Palace Subway in South London. Hidden under a main road, with little above ground presence, a startling array of columns and polychromatic brick vaults remains one of the last remnants of the the Crystal Palace High Level Station (circa. 1864).

Crystal Palce Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Crystal Palace Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Although long closed, the relatively good condition of the the brick vaults is a testament to the qual-ity of the original construction. Sadly, in various locations, localised decay of the brick has occurred due to water ingress. Damage ranges from minor spalling and efflorescence, to limited areas of deeply eroded brick.

Supported by the knowledge gained from hands-on experience, we were able to make informed judgments regarding the practical aspects of repairs. For instance, it was apparent that cutting out for brick replacement was likely to have a consequential impact upon surrounding undamaged masonry (either through disturbance, or necessity in enabling bedding of replacement brickwork). Understanding this was essential in appraising the financial cost of these repairs. Knowing that limited funds may restrict future repair options, it was important to identify damage that was likely to affect future structural stability, to enable these areas to be prioritised.

Working closely with a structural engineer, an assessment of the structural implications of brick loss was undertaken. This allowed repairs to be identified as ‘necessary’ or ‘preferable’. Due to the risk associated with repair methods, it was also identified that some areas could remain un-repaired (subject to resolution of the origin of the decay) in order to protect adjacent sound brick-work.

Crystal Palace Subway, James' survey notes

Crystal Palace Subway, James’ survey notes

I implore all professionals (perhaps especially those entering conservation, having just left university) to take the opportunity to engage with hands-on experiences such as the masterclasses. For myself the workshop not only reinforced and expanded upon previous experiences, but also offered a friendly forum in which to meet people from differing disciplines within the construction industry. Shared experience and knowledge between parties is, surely, essential if we are to successfully care for our historic environment.