Step by Step

RoofIt’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.

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Friends and Family

Street viewI’m keen for my building project to be good fun and not become overly onerous. This means taking the occasional short break to keep up with friends, family and other interests.

Last Friday evening I attended an intriguing lecture on ‘The Origins and Use of Mediaeval Cloisters’, held to raise funds for repairs to Strethall Church in Essex. This tiny, enchanting flint building is one of the oldest in our county – parts date back to Saxon times and this year the church celebrates its 1,000th anniversary. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

I was away for mosAnother street viewt of the weekend in Suffolk with friends, two of whom, Mark and Mags, put us up. Mark is also passionate about old buildings so I’m planning to enlist his help with the work to my house once the action hots up. Our excursions took us to Snape Maltings (pictured, above; http://www.snapemaltings.co.uk), as well as the ancient and picturesque village of Hoxne (pictured, left).

On Sunday evening, I travelled down to London for a family birthday celebration at La Cucina in Farringdon, one of my favourite Italian restaurants (020 7250 0035). Now I need to work off the excess!

Energy Performance

It is important that we all strive to cut our carbon dioxide emissions but I am taking the recommendations in the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) that I received when purchasing my house (below) with a pinch of salt. Unfortunately, they are less than helpful and bear out concerns expressed by the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) when EPCs were introduced as part of Home Information Packs (HIPs) in 2007.

Energy efficiency diagram

No previous experience is necessary to train as a domestic energy assessor to produce EPCs and those who qualify frequently display a worrying lack of understanding when dealing with old buildings. This is compounded by the fact that the software used can discriminate against older, more complex properties. Consequently, the recommendations given in EPCs are too often for work that would not only be damaging to historic fabric but result in little, if any, environmental benefit.

Even so, I was aghast at the assessor’s recommendation that the thermal efficiency of one of my two cottages could be improved by applying external wall insulation and the claim that this “might improve the look of the house”. So much for the building’s grade I listing and the national significance of its pargeting! Fortunately, there are many other, more appropriate ways in which I could cut my energy use and I plan to incorporate a range of these into the forthcoming project.

Good advice on reducing energy consumption in old buildings can be found at www.climatechangeandyourhouse.org.uk and www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.

Coping with the Cold

Snow covered roof topMy town has suffered burst pipes and potholed roads after winter tightened its icy grip. Just around the corner from home, firefighters were called after the feed pipe to the water tank in the loft of an empty listed building split and caused extensive flood damage.

I’ve been more fortunate, though it’s been so cold that pieces of vitreous china have broken off the rim to one of my outside WCs! I took the precaution of closely inspecting the supply pipework in the nearby outbuilding and this revealed a fragile joint – a disaster waiting to happen. A quick easing of the stopcock with WD-40, then turning it open and shut a number of times, permitted a solder repair to be made.

The SPAB has some tips for protecting old buildings from cold weather at http://www.spab.org.uk.

Living History

Saffron Walden Pargeting in the SnowI was leaving the house the other morning when I became aware of a passer-by waiting in the snow for me. It turned out to be an elderly lady, Mrs Selby, who had lived in part of my property from the 1920s right up until just before I took possession. I knew she was now in sheltered accommodation in the town but this was the first time we had met.

Our chance encounter was timely. As well as handing her a Christmas card that had arrived at her old address, I was also able to raise the possibility of us getting together over the next few months to talk about her memories of living in the house. In line with good building conservation practice, I’m hoping to investigate the building and its history thoroughly before commencing any significant work.

Mrs Selby evidently has much to tell me. She has already mentioned an occasion in the 1940s when a lorry collided with the oversailing first floor wall, narrowly missing her but breaking a cast iron window frame. Fortunately, the pavement has since been widened to keep traffic further away.