Caring & conserving

Blocked gutter


Sara Crofts By Sara Crofts Published 11 February, 2013

Sara Crofts is Head of Historic Environment at the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Historic buildings are constructed from natural materials, which will eventually begin to decay.  For some materials such as stone and brick the decay process may be very slow but for others, such as timber and thatch, the process may be much quicker.  It therefore makes sense to try to ensure that the fabric of the building survives as long as possible by carrying out regular maintenance and dealing with small repairs as the need arises.  Preventative maintenance therefore encompasses two activities – looking and doing.

Looking: Inspecting the building to assess its condition, noting any problems and seeking advice to determine whether it might be necessary to carry out repairs.  Learning how to spot problems is a vital step towards ensuring the long-term care of historic buildings.

Doing: There are some practical tasks, the ‘doing’ element, that can easily be carried out by building owners with some basic skills.  Such maintenance tasks might include cleaning drains, clearing debris from gutters and rainwater goods and checking that pipework is free from leaks.

Annual Inspections

Maintenance is most effective when it is carried out in a timely and methodical manner.  You should try to develop the habit of looking critically at your building as often as you can and at the very least, you should aim to inspect all of the essential areas once during the year.  In addition, it is always worthwhile carrying out an inspection of vulnerable areas before the winter weather starts and also after heavy rain, wind or snow.  Look closely for damage to roof coverings and metal flashings as problems in these areas may provide a route for water penetration into the building.  If possible, inspect accessible roof voids for any sign of water ingress after heavy rain too.

The best time to carry out an inspection is during or immediately after heavy rainfall, as this will allow you to see clearly if the rainwater goods are functioning properly.  Remember to think about your own safety and the safety of others whilst you are working.  You should also make sure that you have the correct equipment.  It is generally sensible to wear old clothes and stout footwear.

You may also find the following items helpful:

  • A pair of binoculars to help you see problems at high level.
  • A pocket mirror to help you look behind downpipes.
  • A flashlight for looking into voids and to illuminate the underside of ceilings or eaves.
  • A digital camera to allow you to make a photographic record of the building’s condition.

When you carry out an inspection, it is best to begin outside.  Many people find it easiest to inspect each face of the building in turn, starting by looking up at the roof and working downwards.  You can use your binoculars to examine any areas at high level if you cannot otherwise gain access to them safely.  Next, you can turn your attention to the inside.  Begin your inspection at the top of the building and work down through each floor, finishing in the basement if you have one.  Don’t forget to check out of the way places such as cupboards and under stairs.  If there are parts of the building that are inaccessible or areas that you do not feel competent to assess yourself you might consider enlisting professional help.

Remember to use a checklist to make sure that you don’t miss out any areas and record your observations as you go along.  Once you have completed your inspection you may wish to contact your architect or surveyor for advice if there are matters of concern.  Your professional advisor will be able to help you draw up a plan to tackle any problems that have arisen.

Ten Top Maintenance Tips

Simple regular maintenance is the best way to ensure the long term survival of any building.

Here are ten suggestions for tasks that you should carry out each year to keep your building in good condition:

1. Rainwater goods: Check gutters and downpipes for blockages and leaks.  This is best done during heavy rain to see if there is water spilling out from faulty joints.

2. Roofs: Loose or missing slates and tiles may mean that water is getting into roof timbers.  Putting back a loose or missing slate or tile is much cheaper than repairing or replacing roof timbers.

3. Junctions: Holes, splits and other defects in metal flashings may not be obvious but can let water seep through and cause dampness internally.

4. Walls: Check mortar joints and render coatings for signs of decay.  Repairs should be carried out in materials compatible with the building.  In older structures, mortars and renders are likely to be based on lime, not cement.

5. Ground levels: Avoid any build up of earth at the base of walls as this may trap moisture or breach a damp proof course and cause decay.

6. Ventilation: Make sure that any air grilles and ventilators are kept clear.  Open windows on dry days to let moisture escape from the building.

7. Gullies: Check that gullies and drains are cleared of debris so that they can carry water away quickly and efficiently.

8. Plants: Shrubs and bushes can enhance buildings but consider removing trees or climbing plants if there is evidence that they are damaging walls or blocking gutters and drains.

9. Services: Check heating systems and plumbing for leaks and ensure that pipes are lagged to avoid bursts in winter.  Electrical and gas installations should be inspected regularly.

10. Safety: Employ a reputable professional builder if you are in any doubt about whether you can carry out maintenance work safely.

Further information