for People with a Passion for Period Property
Ask an Agony Uncle!
Stephen Boniface - Stephen Boniface specialises in building conservation providing multi-disciplinary consulting services. He is Chairman of the Building Surveying Faculty and member of the Residential faculty. He serves on the RICS Building Conservation Forum Board and is the 'Agony Uncle' on the Period Property UK website (www.periodproperty.co.uk).

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SUBJECT:
Do you need listing building consent for a re-thatch?
FROM:
Michele Mountstephen
(Wiltshire)

We are in the throes of purchasing a Grade II listed property in Devon which was re-thatched four years ago with the same wheat straw materials and design as the original roof. Is it necessary to have had listed building consent for this re-thatch? I was of the opinion that a repair if done like for like on a listed property did not require building consent.

Michele Mountstephen

Your question raises the issue of like-for-like repair or replacement. Past conservation guidance suggested that like-for-like works would not normally require consent. However, this raises a number of issues. One of my prime concerns with such an approach is where the existing material is inappropriate for the building, for example cement render on a timber frame, and where the replacement is to be like-for-like. In this example it would mean an inappropriate cement render going back onto the building. Clearly this is not desirable and generally speaking conservation officers would require an application for major re-rendering and would refuse consent for use of an inappropriate material even if it simply replaces what previously existed.

When it comes to thatch, the guidance issued in the past by English Heritage is that the traditional material for any given region needs to be understood in the first instance In most instances a conservation officer will encourage the retention of, or reversion to, what is regarded as the traditional material for that particular region. The problem is most pronounced where there may be a proposal to use reed in an area where the predominant traditional material might have been long straw. Such a major change is usually resisted.

Your question refers to a material of "wheat straw", but what is not clear is whether you refer to long straw thatching or combed wheat reed. The latter uses straw but laid in a manner similar to reed, hence its name. The latter is a more recent form of thatching, but even so has been around since the late 19th century. In the region your property is situated, there tends to be a variety of different thatch materials. The use of straw itself should not be a problem.
The issue that needs to be considered in your particular instance is what thatch existed prior to rethatching four years ago. If it was long straw and this was then replaced with combed wheat reed, it is likely that consent would have been required and in some instances I would have anticipated a conservation officer refusing consent and insisting that long straw be reinstated. If this is the case then you could face problems with regard to enforcement action, et cetera.
However, if the previous thatch was combed wheat reed or perhaps even water reed, there is a possibility that a change to straw, even if combed wheat reed, would not be resisted.

Without going into the history of the specific region and the property itself, I cannot give further specific guidance. However, I strongly urge you to read the English Heritage guidance note (6.85 Mb).


Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.

The Whitworth Co-Partnership LLP - Chartered Architects and Surveyors

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SUBJECT:
Council dislikes the ridge on my thatched cottage
FROM:
Miranda Parry
(Northamptonshire)

We live in a thatched, grade 2 listed cottage. We are in the process of the ridge being replaced by the same thatcher that totally re-thatched it 15 yrs ago. We have received a letter from the council complaining that they are not happy with the appearance of the new ridge. Their argument is that it is deeper than before and more decorative. We have assumed the thatcher is working within the recommended guidelines and he is also very upset with the complaint.

Previously the thatch had a block/pattern/block style which he has done again but instead of a block/point he has done a block/ scallop in keeping with the cottage adjoining, and others in the village. What would you recommend we do? As far as we are aware we have not changed the 'style' or thickness, or material. just the pattern and it is slightly deeper. The council are suggesting we rectify it to look like it did before, or submit retrospective planning consent.

Miranda Parry

This is a tricky situation because your question does not relate to the materials or even the nature of the ridge itself, simply due to an aesthetic finish. In your situation you tell me that even the thatcher is the same person.
On the basis of what you tell me in your question, I believe the council are being somewhat heavy-handed. Whilst it is true that the appearance of a building can be altered by changing the style of the ridge, the fact that it was a block cut ridge and is now the same but with a slightly different pattern is very questionable as to whether it really affects the character of the building. It is likely that the ridge style of the roof has changed virtually every time the ridge has been replaced and almost certainly whenever complete rethatching has taken place.

What ought to also be borne in mind in this instance is that the ridge is a temporary finish, because it will generally only last between 12 and 15 years when it will need to be replaced again. If, for whatever reason, the council pursue the matter you could offer to change it to a different appearance when re-ridging next takes place. In terms of the life of the building, waiting another 12-15 years to make this change is but a short period.

If the property had previously had a flush ridge and this was changed to a block cut ridge, I would be far more understanding of the council's concern and complaint. However, if it had previously been a block cut ridge, it seems to me that a complaint about the style of the ridge is excessive.

At present you mention that the council have complained, but you are not clear as to whether this is threatening more formal enforcement action. If so, on the basis of the information you have so far provided, it seems to me that you may have a good chance of success in arguing against enforcement in this instance.

My answer should not be taken to suggest that ridges to thatch can routinely be changed without any thought given to the effect on appearance and therefore character. Some changes to ridges can significantly affect the appearance and therefore the character of the building, particularly if a building previously had a flush ridge and now has a block cut ridge. What is important is in understanding what previously existed and what is now present. As with my answer above, I would refer you again to the English Heritage guidance note on thatching (6.85 Mb).

Over the years I have come across various methods.  Rope/string with a form of binder.  You will need a glue that does not cause permanent damage and I suggest white glue might be most appropriate.  You could try wax, but I am not sure it would stay in place for long, especially if there are heating or hot water pipes under the boards.  An alternative filler is to use papier mache (not too wet), carefully pushed in place.  The risk is that as it dries it might shrink back slightly.  Either way, you may want to finish the filler by careful staining.  If so, I suggest trial patches first on the filler material (not whilst in the floor).  When it is in the floor, mask either side (so that the stain does not get on the original boards) and then stain.  You may need to finish it by waxing in any event.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.

The Whitworth Co-Partnership LLP - Chartered Architects and Surveyors

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SUBJECT:
My husband hit the roof. Can we lower the floor?
FROM:
Sarah Alderton
(Berkshire)

We are considering offering on a 16th century thatched cottage which is grade 11 listed. The floors appear have had a concrete screed of around 6 inches. We would like to take up the screed to allow headroom in the lounge for my very tall husband. We are worried though that this could lead to problems and the need for under pinning. If it's not possible to lower the floor (in order to preserve the beams) then we will walk away from our dream cottage

Sarah Alderton

The lowering of floors in historic buildings is a common issue and depends upon a number of factors.
If the existing floor is historic, the chances of being granted consent for the lowering of the floor diminish. However, if the existing floor is modern there is a possibility that lowering of the floor would be permitted. This does depend on whether there might be an older historic floor beneath the present surface or whether the historic floor is long gone. If the latter is the case then lowering the floor is not necessarily a major problem in terms of obtaining consent generally. However, if there is a chance that an older floor exists beneath the concrete screed, there is a possibility that lowering the floor would not be granted consent.

The other issue, the which you rightly raise, is whether the perimeter walls to the floor will need to be underpinned. This will depend on how far you have to excavate to lower the floor compared to the depth of the surrounding footings. An historic building would generally have quite shallow footings and if the floor is to be lowered by any significant depth it is likely that the excavation for lowering the floor will extend beneath the level of the base of the footing. This could create significant problems and risk of movement. Not only would you need consent to undertake such work, but an engineer would need to assess what other works might be necessary, including the possibility of underpinning.

I cannot say for certain that you would need to underpin the perimeter walls, but if the excavation for the floor goes to a greater depth than the present base of the footing, there is a high probability that underpinning of some description will be necessary.

It is not possible to answer your specific question as to whether you can or cannot lower the floor. As you will see from my answer above, it is dependent on a number of factors. These can only be determined by site inspection and may need some limited excavation of the floor to determine the nature of the floor beneath the concrete screed and the relative depths of the floor and the footings, etc. Only by such investigation would it be possible to determine precisely what will or will not be necessary. Once this has been carried out you will be able to establish what consent may be required and whether the conservation officer will grant such consent.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.

The Whitworth Co-Partnership LLP - Chartered Architects and Surveyors