04 Jan 2016

Undertaking repairs or alterations to listed properties

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Peter Bell, Conservation Advisor for The Listed Property Owners Club, offers some guiding principles to owners of listed properties who are looking to undertake repairs or alterations to their home.

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England and Wales boast half a million listed buildings and each one is unique. The Listed Property Owners Club is an expert in dealing with the challenges that owning a listed building presents and has put together some guiding principles to help those owners who are looking to undertake repairs or alterations to their home.

William Morris said ‘these old buildings do not belong to us only: … They are not our property to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us'. Morris was founder of the conservation movement as it is known today. It is in this spirit that a philosophy of conservation and a legislative framework has developed aimed at preserving the nation’s historic buildings.

Altering a listed building without consent is an offence. The legal consequence of not applying can be serious so we always recommend that when embarking on a building project, large or small, the first steps are to take professional advice and to seek to engage with the local authority conservation officer at the earliest opportunity.

Here are the conservation principles which apply to most repairs, alterations and extensions to listed buildings.

• It is always best to rely on tried and tested technology. Experience has shown that using modern technologies alongside traditional building technologies frequently create tensions which are harmful to historic buildings and have caused irreversible damage. One of the most vivid and widespread examples is the use of cement mortars for pointing, rendering in solid wall buildings and infill panels in timber-framed buildings.

• Historic buildings tend to be constructed of soft permeable materials such as lime mortar soft bricks and stone. The introduction of hard impervious mortars encourages moisture to dwell in the brick or stonework or in the timber frame all of which will suffer from accelerated deterioration and decay.

• Waterproof membranes can be harmful to the building as well as its occupants. Inserting a waterproof membrane of any description in any traditional wall, floor or roof will prevent the building from breathing and result in concentrations of moisture. Traditional solid wall buildings were constructed of permeable materials which absorb moisture when the weather is wet or humid and give it out by evaporation when it is dry. This is referred to as ‘breathable’ construction. Methods used in modern building constructions such as damp proof membranes, vapour barriers and any impervious layers should be avoided.

• Make sure that all the alterations to a listed building are totally reversible. In practice this means fitting the new around the old rather than altering the old to accommodate the new; avoid the loss of historic fabric of whatever age; avoid physically or visually invasive alterations; leave historic wall, floor or ceiling finishes unaltered, they tell an important part of the buildings story and the patina of age is valuable and cannot be replaced once lost.

• If you are simply carrying out repairs, such as repointing or window repairs, try to keep as much of the historic fabric as possible and the repair to the minimum required. Only repair when it is necessary to do so as ‘over-restoration’ can result in a new looking building and a loss of historic fabric and character.

• Finally, before embarking on any project learn about what makes your building significant: try to understand its story and why it was listed in the first place. Read around the subject and speak to the experts. Remember that Listed Buildings are irreplaceable so we need to make sure that we look after them properly for future generations.

The Listed Property Owners’ Club is Britain’s only advice service dedicated to helping members get the most from their homes by providing detailed advice, information and support for just about every conceivable issue associated with ownership.

Members benefit from a dedicated telephone helpline where you can speak to a panel of experts on conservation, VAT, law, and listed building matters. The LPOC Suppliers Directory of professionals, builders and tradesmen is the first port of call for many listed building owners across the country.

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