Every month I’m downloading onto my computer readings from half a dozen data loggers that I have distributed around the property – five inside and one outside. The idea is to identify any locations where the fabric might be at risk of deterioration due to condensation, as well as to obtain a clearer picture of how the building is performing in order to help guide me with the changes I make to the levels of thermal insulation and ventilation as part of my renovation project.
I purchased the loggers online from http://www.tomsgadgets.com (Lascar EL-USB-2). They record air temperature, humidity and dew point (the temperature at which water vapour in the atmosphere begins to condense). The devices, which are battery-operated, are currently set to sample at hourly intervals. The data stored is downloaded by plugging the logger straight into a computer’s USB port and running the purpose-designed software that comes with it. The data can then be graphed, printed or exported to other applications.
The monitoring has already enabled me to establish that I need to improve the conditions in one of my roof spaces to reduce the likelihood of condensation and associated timber decay.
The SPAB frequently cautions homeowners who have just purchased an old house to wait until they’ve become familiar with it over a number of seasons before proceeding with major work because their ideas often change. The advice is to concentrate your efforts instead on the garden first. I don’t have a large garden so have been developing thoughts about my forthcoming building project whilst re-limewashing the external timbers.
In my view, it’s best to limewash rather than blacken the timbers of an old building such as mine since the black-and-white ‘magpie’ effect only became fashionable in the eastern counties during the Victorian period. It appears that the dark coatings on my timberwork were stripped in the 1970s.
Limewash is a simple type of matt paint comprising lime and water (sometimes with additives, such as pigments). It’s inexpensive and easy to make from lime putty (01652 686000; http://www.singletonbirch.co.uk). I’ve included a little casein power from Ty-Mawr Lime Ltd (01874 611350; http://www.lime.org.uk) for better adhesion on the smoother joinery. Limewash needs building up in several thin coats. Luckily, I’ve been assisted a friend and the three young construction professionals, or Scholars (pictured), currently undertaking the SPAB’s training programme in practical building conservation.
The two giant plasterwork figures on one of my gables have been sporting new hairdos lately, thanks to the messy deposits from pigeons that have taken to roosting beneath the barge boards. We’ve therefore resorted to blocking the points where the birds were perching with compressed wire mesh. If this works – and so far it seems to have done the trick, touch wood – we’ll use the same technique for the other gable.
My neighbours, the Reeds, kindly loaned us their ladder but due to the fragility of the decorative plasterwork (pargeting) I’m going to play safe in the future and use a mobile tower scaffold. As the front of the house abuts the pavement, though, I can only erect this outside normal working hours if I’m to avoid obtaining a scaffolding licence from the county council. I’m now looking into buying my own scaffolding, which will also be useful when I redecorate.
Thirty members of the Stansted Mountfitchet Local History Society descended on my house the other day.
Once again, I’ve leapt at the chance to be a tour guide, having already hosted visits by several SPAB parties.
It’s a good time for people to see the property whilst it is still in a fairly untouched state and I believe that the visits will help increase the awareness of old buildings and the heritage of the town generally. The more that people appreciate the historic environment, the more likely they are to care about it.
There’s much concern locally at the moment about the need to protect the area and its unique character from over-development.
My visitors from Stansted were particularly anxious about the possibility of a second runway at the nearby airport, which is opposed by 89% of people in the district and would involve the callous destruction of at least 35 historic buildings.
As elsewhere, there’s also unease about the impact of hundreds of centrally-imposed new houses and more out-of-town supermarket provision. A campaign has recently been launched to save Saffron Walden Town Centre (www.savewaldentowncentre.org).
It’s very tempting to get stuck straight into work on site after taking on an old building but I am taking time to understand my property’s history and construction first. My house has survived for 500 years remarkably unscathed and I’m acutely aware that by acting in haste I could inadvertently cause serious damage in literally just a few minutes.
The more you know about an old building, the more successful a project is likely to be. For example, a good understanding of my house’s history will, I hope, help me to make sensible changes that respect its historic fabric. And an appreciation of the way it is built should assist me in seeing why any deterioration has set in and how it might successfully be put right.
I must emphasise that the knowledge I gain about my house won’t be used to restore it back to some former point in time, which would be anathema to the principles of the SPAB and could create an unsatisfactory fake. I’ll also use non-destructive survey techniques in addition to documentary research to avoid harming the building.
Essential maintenance will, of course, still be required pending the start of major work. One of my immediate jobs has been to reinstate the odd slipped slate on the Victorian extension (pictured) to keep out the rain.