In honour of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings’ (SPAB) National Maintenance Week, our Mentoring Officer and resident buildings expert Jamie McNamara is sharing his building maintenance top tips! Here’s what he had to say:
What is building maintenance?
Maintenance is the routine work needed to keep a building in good condition. Good maintenance is about spotting problems before they become too serious and taking early action to rectify them. Preventative maintenance is work that will reduce the probability of decay, and corrective maintenance is when decayed material is renewed. Without preventative maintenance, a structure can quickly deteriorate.
Although there are many small, practical fixes that you can do to maintain your building (unblocking vents, cleaning gutters), be sure to seek advice from your architect or surveyor if there are any matters of concern. Keep in mind that you may need to apply for permission to carry out repairs – check what rules apply to you before you start work.
Why maintain my building?
Well-maintained buildings improve the quality of life of their occupants and the community. Beyond preserving the intrinsic heritage value of these buildings, carrying out regular maintenance to your building has significant economic benefits:
- Conducting regular maintenance costs less than repairing a large problem that has worsened over time.
- Maintenance will extend the life of your building and support the preservation of its resale value.
- Communities that maintain their buildings improve the property values of all.
Why do buildings decay?
Understanding the major causes of decay in old buildings can help you take action against them! The principal decay agents for old buildings are:
- The weather (especially where causing damp – the main enemy of buildings!)
- Fungi, plants and animals
- Human factors
- Fires and flood
How can I maintain my building?
When maintaining a building, you can take a two-pronged approach of looking and doing.
- Looking: Inspecting the building to assess its condition, noting any problems or areas of concern and seeking advice to determine whether it might be necessary to carry out repairs.
- Doing: Carrying out specific tasks such as cleaning drains and clearing debris from gutters and rainwater pipes.
We’d recommend using a maintenance checklist for your routine examinations. We’ve made an example one to get you started:
Have you checked your air bricks/vents lately? Look below floorboard level! Older buildings were built with vents below floorboard level to allow moisture in the ground beneath the floor to be carried out of the building in the air. Vents should be cleared regularly, as blocked vents can lead to dampness in your building.
Old buildings weren’t generally built with synthetic materials, so beware of using ready-mixed/bagged mortars or renders, especially if they promise waterproof qualities. Unless you are replacing cement pointing or render, the mortar/render should be like-for-like, matching the original material. Failing cement pointing or render should be replaced with an appropriate lime-based mortar.
If you notice a new crack in render it is a good idea to monitor it over a number of months, especially if it is wider than 5mm. To do so, put a thin piece of masking tape neatly across the crack. If a tear appears, it is a sign that the crack is growing and you may need to contact an engineer to address the problem. If there is no tear and no movement, the crack should be sealed with an appropriate mortar to keep moisture out and prevent future damage.
Many roofs in Scotland are made with slate. Slate is a natural stone cladding material which is very durable, but needs regular maintenance. Missing or broken slates or tiles should be replaced immediately using tingles (slate straps), and should match the original material, size, colour and thickness of the roof tiles. Missing mortar should also be replaced. Also, be sure to securely fix any loose flashings and replace any damaged flashing. Flashing is the material used to form the watertight junction between two different materials – for example at the junction between a slate roof and a stone gable wall.
Be sure to check your gutters! You can reduce gutter debris by cutting back any overhanging branches. Overhanging branches drop leaves and promote the growth of moss over the roof.
Vegetation near buildings need to be regularly trimmed or removed to ensure that it doesn’t cause any damage to the building. One way to remove vines and other large plants is to cut them off at the roots. To kill the roots, use a “cut-and-paint” technique: cut the plant and then paint the surface of the cut with an herbicide.
You should take special care with ivy because even if its stems have been cut, the ivy at the top of the wall can form its own roots and keep growing! To remove ivy, you should start peeling it away gently from the top of the wall. Moss and lower order plants can be effectively removed with an appropriate biocide and a soft bristle brush.
Once the vegetation is removed, the wall surface should be checked for any repairs needed. Often masonry will require repointing, and wooden elements may need repair.
5. Rain Water Goods/Drains
Firstly, make sure all downpipes, gutters/rhones, drains are cleared of debris! If you have parapet gutters, take care when clearing as they are usually lined with soft materials such as lead.
You should check that gutters are sloping the correct way towards the downpipe, and not overflowing at the ends. If the gutters are overflowing, this will wet the wall below and soften the ground around its base. Downpipe outlets should be fitted so as to direct water away from the building and not against the wall.
Also, ensure that gutters and downpipes are adequately fixed and that gutters do not sag between brackets, particularly when full of water.
Any metal on the outside of your building needs to be protected from the weather to stop corrosion. When metals corrode they expand, with some metals growing up to seven times their original size. Over time this expansion can even crack stone and cement.
Protect your metal from corrosion by sealing it with paint. Outdoor metal should be repainted at least every 5 years, but you should check for signs of cracking or peeling paint every year. When preparing metal to be repainted, make sure to remove all rust before applying your primer with a wire brush or rust remover/converter – otherwise the metal can continue to corrode under the paint.
Outdoor wood should be repainted at least every 5 years, but you should check for signs of cracking or peeling paint every year.
When repainting wood, it’s a good idea to give the surface a good sand first, especially if it has been painted many times before. This prevents paint from obscuring any nice original details. Do make sure to use a primer as well as a top coat when repainting, as this will ensure your new paintwork will last for many years.
If a piece of your timber window or door has decayed, fear not! You can easily appoint a carpenter/joiner to splice a new piece of timber in to replace the decayed timber, without having to replace the whole thing.
Want to learn more about building maintenance?
Check out these helpful resources:
- Maintenance of Traditional Buildings, Historic Environment Scotland: An overview of maintenance of traditional buildings, from how to draw up a plan and types of maintenance to saving energy.
- Tenement Talks, Under One Roof: Listen to panels of leading maintenance experts in tenement care.
- Historic Home Guides, Edinburgh World Heritage: Edinburgh World Heritage has compiled a series of guides to enable property owners to properly and appropriately maintain their traditional buildings within the World Heritage Site.
- Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) believes old buildings have a future. They offer training schemes, courses, advice and research to help buildings and the people who care for them.
- Under One Roof: Impartial advice on repairs and maintenance for flat owners in Scotland.