Maintenance Matters

Rhyd-y-car Terrace in St Fagans Museum of Welsh Life

For those, who have not been to St Fagans in Cardiff, it is worth the trip. Great place and an ideal way to start to understand how buildings have changed over time.

One of the key elements of the museum is Rhyd-y-car Terrace. It illustrates how one style of property (in this case a Welsh terrace of houses) has been altered over time to address the cultural needs / desires / aspirations of the residents. (click on the photo for a link to discover more)

The original terrace house is represented by the home on the left and the team has made alterations to each subsequent house to reflect the changes to terraces in Wales. So when you reach the last house it has a covering of render on the walls rather than limewash, tiles on the roof rather than slates, modern casement windows rather than sash, large window panes rather than small etc. The internal layouts and services have also changed. Fascinating, but intuitively we sort of know this. However, what is not really explained on site is whether these changes were positive or not.

Of course, we do not want to live in houses anymore that have open coal fires, draughty doors and windows etc. However, neither do we want to live in houses that suffer from trapped moisture in the walls, rotting timbers and poor internal air quality. Unfortunately, some of the ‘improvements’ that are illustrated in the terrace have caused problems like this in the real world.

In time you could add another cottage to this terrace, with its original stone walls now clad in polystyrene (EPS) external wall insulation. This is a reflection on where we are blindly heading without due regard for the original structure. Again we shall then have a warmer property that is at high risk of overheating and likely to suffer rot and mould issues from penetrative damp and condensation.

Designing improvements to buildings is important, but we must get it right. So again, I urge you to read the STBA documents and guidance on retrofit of older houses. See

However, this article is about maintenance. So where does this fit in with the retrofit agenda?

Well, when you read all the underpinning documents about retrofit, they all say that any building should be in a good state of repair and stable before any work starts. So before even contemplating any improvements the house should be damp free and well maintained.

This is where much of the trouble has started. Organisations like the Government have targeted their initial efforts on those properties that were in urgent need and these tend to be the ones in a poor state of repair. So they started putting a load of retrofit measures on properties that weren’t ready for it. Putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall, just seals in the damp. This would be bad enough, but putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall badly so that more water can get in, well, you can guess what has been happening!

So, we need to ensure that our buildings are in a good state of repair first and then we need to ensure that we do any retrofit works well. The second element is starting to be addressed (slowly and still with little real knowledge of the characteristics and pathology of traditionally built houses), but the issues of maintenance is less attractive to business.

Large companies delivering large scale projects are not really interested in minor works, or leaving buildings to become stable over time before starting with the big tools and toys. They just need to crack on, come rain or shine, cold or heat and get the job done ASAP and as cheaply as possible.

So we need to take a step back. Assess what we have, understand it, fix it, let it settle and become stable and then start to improve it sensitively and with the right amount of care and caution so that we don’t mess it up.

So the first rung on this retrofit / improvement ladder for traditional buildings is not EPS wall insulation, it is Maintenance and Building Pathology.

CADW have produced some guidance on maintenance, but people see this as being for conservation areas and heritage buildings. We need to make maintenance relevant to the 34% of buildings in Wales that are traditionally built. This means all the terraces and stone / solid brick built homes that litter the landscape that we are so familiar with and proud of. After all it is these buildings that define the character of our inner cities and valleys.

Maintenance in itself is relevant to the retrofit agenda. A wet wall is 1/3 less efficient than a dry wall for example.

Building pathology is equally important. The recent Each Home Counts report for the UK Government highlights the recent case in Preston where the race for energy efficiency and the lack of understanding of older houses has left a trail of catastrophe. The details are being repressed by those concerned inc the Government as it really is a tale of woe, but suffice to say the underpinning issue was the lack of knowledge on traditional buildings within the mainstream construction and retrofit industry.

So we need to understand our homes, their history, how they work. This means getting to grip with material science and building dynamics. A good surveyor should be able to tell you these things, but most just refer on to ‘specialists’. Unfortunately most of these are not really specialists, just glorified sales people. So we need ‘Power to the People’. These are your homes and you are the ones paying for works to be done. So I urge you to understand older buildings and look after them well. Most of the things that I see when visiting homes are simple maintenance issues that can solve many ills.

As a starter for ten, have a think about the following:

A hole in the junction between a window and a sill. Water running down the window above the hole will go into it. What then? Well generally a damp patch and potentially a rotten floor joist. Solution? Fill the hole with some silicon sealer. Cost? 10p in silicon? 10 minutes in time. Potential savings? £350 for a damp report, £1,000 for DPC injection and replacement plaster, £2,000 for replacement joists,….

A crack in render on a west facing wall. Water above the crack will flow down into it. It cannot get back out if it is a modern cement render. So a damp patch. Rotten timbers maybe… Solution. Fill the crack. Cost? DIY solution, maybe £10. Contractor, maybe £100. Potential savings? Well, see above.

Dislodged guttering pouring water down and into a wall. Replacement bracket cost, maybe £1. Cost of leaving it? Easily into the £1,000’s of pounds.

So check things like seals around doors and windows, leaf build up in the gutters, cracks in render, mortar and stonework. Make sure external ground levels are kept 15cm below internal floor levels, that extracts are working properly, that floor vents are not blocked by litter and dirt, that pipes through the wall are sealed up properly, that slipped tiles are replaced quickly, chimney stacks are in a good state and that any repairs are made with lime mortars etc etc.

I could go on. But I hope that you get the message. Preventative maintenance is cheap, relatively easy and essential both in terms of keeping you and your home healthy both now and into the future.