Understanding Traditional Buildings

Understanding traditional buildings and what issues they may present.

A traditional property mid conversion, a before and after shot

Although the UK seems fast to be filling up with new build residential estates of cookie cutter homes, most of the population live in older properties from residential developments erected by generations past. The scope of renovations and development for these homes are different to those made with more modern materials and in areas with new infrastructure, but that isn’t to say that their qualities can’t be worked with and for in times of change. 
A traditional style property and front garden

What are ‘Traditional’ Buildings?

Traditional buildings are usually defined as those built before 1919 with solid and not cavity walls. The natural materials used at that time tended to be stone, brick, earth, wood and lime (which was used for mortars, paints and renders). Many buildings erected before 1919 are listed or protected from development in some way and are deemed to reflect the social and cultural history of the area they sit within. 
Traditional buildings are still very common in the UK, although their proportion of the housing market is in decline. In Wales, traditional buildings still make up over a third of all homes! They do present unique challenges in their upkeep and care but there are plenty of ways in which they can be looked after and kept liveable – and enjoyable – for many years to come.

The most common issues with Traditional Buildings

The most common problem with traditional buildings being used for residential properties is that the materials used to construct them are not as adequate for long-term use as those used in housing developments today. They are, therefore, considerably more susceptible to damp than modern homes and are often difficult to keep warm through inclement weather due to poor insulation. 
The solid walls used in the construction of traditional buildings rely on the thickness of them to form a sufficient barrier, but usually use vapour-permeable materials – allowing some moisture to pass through, but also allowing it to evaporate away. This evaporation prevents the walls from becoming completely saturated and damp all the time, but rarely works well enough to prevent it entirely. In modern buildings, impermeable materials are used on walls to form a barrier stopping moisture passing through it at all. 
Often, the insufficient use of vapour-permeable materials in the solid walls of traditional buildings results in rising damp, rotting timbers and crumbling plaster. This causes significant damage over time.
A house with cracked walls and guttering

Managing damp in Traditional Buildings

It is almost impossible to waterproof traditional buildings with their solid walls in a conventional way because there is no one source of entry for the moisture. 
For ground water, traditional buildings are often constructed with eaves trenches around them; dug to channel excess water away from the walls. However, this is no competition for modern drainage. Although drainage experts and plumbers are able to install modern drainage systems into and around traditional buildings, this can be costly and complicated depending on the buildings’ surroundings. 
The movement of traditional buildings both seasonally and over longer periods of time means that the cement often used in the render of these properties cracks and provides further entry points for moisture. Combined with poorly maintained roofs and guttering, a recipe for disaster with running water down walls ensues. Cement can be filled or covered to avoid this, but must be done so regularly to avoid it happening again.
Once moisture has entered the home (which it almost definitely will have done given the age and vulnerability of traditional buildings), adequate ventilation is crucial to allowing it to evaporate and escape. Modern solutions often result in making buildings air-tight rather than well ventilated, so the capping of chimneys and installation of double glazing that many homeowners consider could exacerbate the problem rather than improve it. Instead, the opening of windows, doors and open chimney flues provide essential ventilation and air flow throughout. 
The most effective, albeit also the most time consuming, method of managing moisture and avoiding damp in traditional buildings is the regular maintenance of them. Gutters, downpipes and drains should be cleared and any leaks fixed. Broken or loose slates and tiles should also be fixed, and debris cleared away from the base of exterior walls to necessitate adequate drainage. Windows and doors can be opened in periods of warm and dry weather, and in bathrooms and kitchens extractor fans should be fitted if possible. Original vents should be cleared often (they frequently attract dust and grime) as well as eaves vents.
Over the years, many traditional buildings have been subject to repairs using modern and more conventional materials rather than older ones. These repairs, particularly if carried out a while ago, can compound issues and cause new ones. Any necessary works should be done using the most appropriate materials for the property – even if they are not new. Lime mortars, renders and washes are vapour-permeable and accommodate building movement well and can still be sourced easily. 
Where possible, the original fabrics and materials of traditional buildings should be retained and used. Where replacement is unavoidable, the nearest alternative should instead be used – and professionals will be able to advise on what is the closest and most suitable.
A converted room with bare brick exposed

Carrying out major works on Traditional Buildings

Local planning authorities should be consulted before any major works are begun on traditional buildings. Planning permission requirements can vary with older properties, and they are more likely to be faced with restrictions and limitations than their new build modern counterparts.
Traditional buildings are still so mainstream in the UK that most construction and trade professionals have significant experience with them and so will be able to make recommendations and provide specialist services to manage renovations within and to them. It is always recommended that homeowners work with professionals throughout the renovation journey of a traditional building in order to achieve the best and most appropriate improvement works possible.
Traditional buildings are often seen as difficult to work with but this is perhaps a disproportionate response. These important properties are part of the UK’s history and with careful renovation will continue to play home to happy families for many, many years to come. 

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To find out how Refresh Renovations can help you maintain or improve your traditional home, get in touch today to speak with one of our renovation specialists.

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