Living under Thatch
From Anglo-Saxon times thatch was used universally to provide a waterproof roofing material for farmstead huts. While during the early and mid 20th century it was perceived as a poor man's lot with many country dwellers using whatever material was cheap and available at the time to thatch their homes. Indeed, it was common for thatched roofs to be replaced with more durable materials such as pantiles and corrugated iron. Surprisingly, it is still not uncommon to find derelict thatched cottages with corrugated iron roofs and the old thatch beneath.
But things are changing. Thatch has become the chocolate-box icon of country living and increasingly builders are constructing new houses in thatch to take advantage of their increased popularity and premium prices when sold.
But despite this renaissance many people are still nervous about the prospect of living in a thatched home. From fire risk, increased insurance premiums and the costs of associated with its upkeep many mis-conceptions exist. The aim of this piece is to address these issues. Allowing you, the proud new or potential owner of a thatched property, to enjoy your home with the other estimated 60,000 thatched property owners in Britain.
Types of Thatch
Throughout the centuries practically all types of grass and shrubs have been used to roof dwellings with the occupants ignoring aesthetics in favour of what was most abundant and to hand. But today, three thatching materials are predominantly used in Britain.
Water reed is the most durable of all thatching materials. It is often called 'Norfolk reed' but the majority of reed used in the UK now comes from a host of different countries. Water Reeds thatch has a compact, even texture with clean cut edges and are normally topped with a block ridge using sedge grass. As reed is not susceptible to bird or vermin damage, roofs are seldom wired except for the ridge. In deed, the wiring of a reed thatch causes debris to collect, which in turn prevents water from being freely dispersed, resulting in dampness and the build up of moss.
Commonly called Devon wheat reed, it is, not reed at all, but winter wheat straw. The confusion is caused by its appearance and application being similar to water reed. The straw is cut with a binder and comb-threshed which removes all ears and leaves. Because the thatching bundles are prepared with all butt ends facing downwards it has a 'clipped' appearance. Combed wheat can be topped with either a block or flush ridge of the same material and is often wired overall.
Long straw is the favoured material of conservation officers in much of Southern England and East Anglia and has been the cause of some heated debate between local councils and thatchers. In some cases the battle has reached the national press as many property owners choose the durability of imported reed rather than sticking to regional aesthetics. Many thatchers argue it is very difficult to pin down the most appropriate material for any region due to the variety of materials used to thatch a house during its lifetime.
In appearance a long straw roof has a much softer, rounder shape and is generally deeper than reed or wheat straw. It is also decorated on the surface with liggers of hazel or willow in a criss-cross pattern. The key difference between long straw and wheat reed is while long straw is being threshed both the ears and butts of the straw are being jumbled together which is how they are applied to the roof. Wheat reed has all the ears and leaves removed.
How Long Will it Last
The durability and life expectancy of your thatched roof is affected by many factors. For example: ·
- The ability of the roof to shed water is dictated by the pitch of the roof. Roofs with a more shallow pitch will retain moisture more readily and decay will be accelerated.
- Climatic conditions from high humidity and the wind also have impact. In some parts of Devon high humidity in weather patterns shortens the life expectancy of thatch. While parts of East Anglia benefit from North Sea winds which aid drying.
The above factors' impact is reduced or increased by the quality of the material used, the skill of the thatcher, proximity of trees and correct and regular maintenance. Generally speaking if the thatch is not exposed to extreme conditions the following figures can be used for guidance until the advice of a respected local thatcher is sought.
Water reed 55-65 years
Combed wheat 20-40 years
Long Straw 15-25 years
But of course, there are exceptions. There are examples of long straw lasting over 40 years and reed over 100 years.
Type of Repair
Before describing the basic repairs for thatched roofs it is important to stress that if a property requires total re-thatching listed building consent is required. The owners should also seek advice on how to record evidence of old work or techniques such as woven reed matting before they are removed.
Thatch deteriorates gradually causing the thatch to loosen slightly from its fixings. In dressing up, the thatch is knocked evenly and securely back up in to their fixings.
The surface of the thatch may at the same time be brushed down to remove loose material and moss, which can retain moisture and gradually damage the body of the thatch.
Thatch which is well-laid and maintained should not normally be damaged by wind or develop holes. If isolated holes do appear they can be repaired provided they are not associated with major underlying problems such as major general slippage.
Checking New Work & Repairs It is difficult to check the quality of thatching due to regional differences in the craft and personal working styles. This is made even more difficult by the quality of the work being underpinned by not only the visual appearance of the thatch but the standard of work hidden from view. If you are in any doubt over the quality of workmanship consult your local Master Thatchers' Association for an opinion.
Cost of Thatching
The cost of thatching depends on many factors, these include:
- Size of roof
- Shape and design of roof
- Height to ridge
- Height to eaves
- Types of features
- Access to the site & roof
- Types of thatching material to be used
- Existing thatch & timber condition
- Coat thickness required - depending on thickness of existing thatch
Hidden costs exist because a thatcher, when estimating, may not be able to determine the condition of the roof timbers or the existing thatch. Therefore it is important to seek at least three estimates of the work to be undertaken with additional notes outlining the costs associated with any timber repairs. Be wary of accepting 'off the cuff' estimates over the telephone or thatchers who are not prepared to provide additional costings for any additional work.
On the cost front thatchers work in 'squares' (around 10ft by 10ft) costing between £600 and £800 pounds per square.
Building For Thatch & Extensions To Thatched Properties
Before designing a new thatched home or extension to a thatched property its is important the following points are considered.
- Consult with a good, experienced thatcher at the early design stages on roof construction, pitch, shape and overall design
- Decisions of an informed nature will need to be taken on where any intended joins to existing thatch can be made.
- Present thatch levels, will be due to the age of the thatch and the existing number of coats of thatch. Because of this it may be impossible to match the existing thatch level with the application of a new coat.
- Make sure any person has true expertise before accepting any comments related to the use and performance of thatch.
Thatch & Fire
Fortunately for our safety and the preservation of our heritage thatch fires are not as prevalent as many ordinary people think. The illusion that thatched houses are continually burning down results from the media giving such high profiles to fires when they occur. In fact, only one death has been recorded during the 20C in a thatched house fire. UK fire brigade and insurance statistics suggest only 1.5% of the total thatched property stock in the UK are likely to suffer a thatch related fire in one year.
Until recently it was thought that the majority of thatch fires were caused by sparks. Research by the fire brigade and RHM Technology indicates the problem may lay further down the chimney stack. Even chimneys which appear in good order may have defective pointing or cracks which allow hot gases to escape from the flue into the thatch. The leaking of hot gases creates hot zones which in time may combust and cause a thatch fire.
Therefore faced with the difficulty of repairing a chimney where cracks and holes are incredibly difficult to discover it is advisable to line the chimney. Avoid using metal liners with insulating wool and stick to ceramic type liners with the open area surrounding the liner backfilled with clay fireproof granules. If you choose to install a wood burning stove the installation of a chimney liner is imperative due to the high temperature of the gases generated by the stove.
As with thatch fires, thatched homes have a reputation for costing the earth to insure. But with the rise of specialists insurers and an increasing understanding of the physical characteristics of thatched homes this is not the case. You can gain specialist adivse on how to insure period properties through the insurance section of the Period Property UK website (click here), or through one of the three specialist insurers listed below.
Advisory Service - 01256 880 828
Thatch Owners Insurance Agency - 01403 321245
Country Insurance Services - 0345 660 063
All three companies specialise in insuring thatched homes - as their names depict - and because of this they are able to help you protect your home and make life easier due to their contacts with specialist contractors who undertake work if you have to make a claim.
The Vocabulary of Thatching
Spars: Split Hazel or willow sticks sharpened at each end and twisted in the middle to form a staple. Spars are used to secure new thatch to an existing roof.
Liggers: Split Hazel or willow rods used to form a decorative pattern on ridges and around the edge of long straw roofs.
Sways: Rods of wood or metal between 1 to 3ft in length used to secure each course of thatch laid horizontally across the thatch and fixed using crooks.
Crooks: Metal rods some 20 to 30m in length which are driven into the rafters to secure the sways.
Flush Ridge: Literally a ridge applied to the same level as the roofing thatch. Found on long straw and combed wheat thatched roofs.
Block Ridge: A ridge applied to stand proud of the roofing thatch. Normally thatched in sedge on a reed roof.
Leggett: A wooden bat shaped tool with a flat face. The face is ridged or has nails driven in it and is used to dress water reed and combed wheat into place.
Finally As with all things in life, real quality shines through. If you want your thatch to look its best and last you need to use a well established and respected thatcher. When making enquiries for thatching work be careful. If they say they can start work straight away seek further information and view their work both new and old. From my own experience, the best thatchers have waiting lists stretching to years. Therefore planning ahead is essential.
Although we have taken great care to ensure that our information and advice is correct, we cannot accept any responsibility for any loss or damage incurred arising from the use of the information published on our web site. Before committing yourself to any expenditure, you are advised to check any details and costs beforehand.
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