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Sustaining terraces?

Sustaining terraces?A bit of history

Anyone coming into south east Wales will be struck by the uniform terraces that cling to the hill sides and adorn the inner towns and cities. Their character is one of the features of life and living within this old industrial landscape. They are an integral part of the area as their features and style help to the illustrate the history and also help to define the communities that live here.

The housing stock, though, has been under pressure for a long time and the fundamental character of the housing is steadily changing as \’improvements\’ are made. Colourful wooden doors and windows are replaced by white uPVC, chimneys are disappearing as gas central heating takes over coal, cement render and pebble dash adorns many of the old stone and brick walls and once productive gardens are paved over for convenience. On the inside, suspended wooden floors have been replaced by solid concrete, walls are painted with impermeable kitchen and bathroom paints, other walls are knocked through to create open plan living and plaster has been hacked off to accommodate \’damp proof\’ courses.

Many of these changes are seen as progress, surely it is better to create structures that are waterproof, more airtight and hence energy efficient and with our increased wealth we no longer need to grow our own food, we just pay for some one else to do that and deliver it to our out-of-town supermarket that we drive to for our weekly shopping. Civilisation itself, and life is so much easier than before.

Housing associations have been part of this movement as they \’improve\’ their stock and get carried along with the vision of \’progress\’ that affects us all. However, we are now entering a new era in the history of the human race and its relationship with the natural world. There is no need to go into the detail of climate change here and how it is predicted to alter the type of weather that we experience in Wales, but suffice to say, there is a growing realisation that we must start to respect the planet and its natural processes again and learn to adapt to the inevitable changes that will be foisted upon us.

So now is a time for reflection, but also for some pretty quick action. To do this at the same time is a tough call, for it brings the inevitable knee jerk reaction. Already we see the focus on carbon and other greenhouse gases being the overarching theme. We are naturally doing this as it is seen as the number one thing to tackle, but will we do this at the expense of other factors? I think that this is probable, but not necessary. A little more understanding of the nature of the issues and we could be saving ourselves a lot more unnecessary remedial work into the future. What we need to avoid is doing things now to our houses that we will need to go back and undo in a few years time. This would be a waste of money and resources, the two main things that are in short supply at the moment (and will continue to be into the future.)


So to start with reflection. 45% of the housing stock in Wales is solid walled property, but they vary in character across the country. The most difficult types to address and understand are the Victorian and Edwardian terrace of SE Wales. Most of the rest of Wales\’ solid walled houses were built using local materials. Stone from local quarries, lime from the local limekiln, earth and sand from the local resources like rivers, beaches and land. So by understanding the local area you can get to grips with the materials and techniques used in construction. However, SE Wales\’ building materials are a mix of local and distant resources. The many ships carrying coal and iron out of the ports came down laden with migrants and stone. This stone was then sold at the docks as a building material for the ever growing demand for new housing in the expanding towns and cities of the region. So houses ended up being made of a random blend of granite, sandstones, local produced bricks all being held together by a mix of lime, dust and ash from the factories and furnaces.

So it is no wonder that hanging a shelf in these houses can be a little bit frustrating as the drill bit suddenly goes off on an odd angle as that bit of Irish granite appears in just the wrong place. This character reveals another underpinning aspect of the houses, that being that many of them were not built particularly well, certainly not by today\’s standards, but they are a product of their time. So it is important to embrace and appreciate the processes and factors that are inbuilt into them. These importantly include the following:

The houses were typically built on very minimal foundations using waste from industry (clinker etc.)

They used lime putty renders and mortars to bind the stone and brick together

The rubble filled stone walled houses did literally have any old stone and broken bricks thrown into them to fill the void and hence they are filled by holes and gaps

The houses were built, like today, as quickly and cheaply as possible and hence despite being \’massive\’ in nature they are not necessarily always solid.
The fuel of the time meant that draughts were necessary.

Over time we have sought to remedy some of these issues and also to bring the small terraces more into line with our increased expectations of life. We have done this using the most ubiquitous and understood materials of the time, hence the use of cement, uPVC, silicone and plastic. However we have applied these materials onto old structures to which they are alien.

So rather than improving the terraces and bringing them up to date in a sympathetic way we have cloaked them in a impermeable strait-jacket. By doing this we have created a whole host of problems.

The most common issues are those of damp and mould, but we also have lowered the thermal performance of the walls and not really solved the problems of energy and water efficiency in the whole building.

By understanding the structure of the buildings we can see where mistakes have been made.

The lime and stone / brick nature of the buildings mean that they \’breathe\’ i.e. they let water vapour pass through and thus act as a balance to extremes relative humidity (and in turn create a very healthy internal environment). So any moisture that is either produced in the house (cooking, breathing etc.) or that comes into the house (rising damp, water ingress) is gradually passed from the inside to the outside via pressure differentials and the osmotic and capillary action of the lime putty mortar. The lime and white wash paints allowed the moisture through into the walls and the thermal mass of the structure kept the houses cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter. The old suspended wooden floors were well ventilated so that any moisture from the ground was taken way by the flow of air under the boards.

The renovation / improvement work that has been applied over the past couple of decades has been based on the misapprehension that you can seal up the houses from damp by cladding them in waterproofed cement render, removing the old floors and pouring in concrete over a waterproof membrane and by injecting the walls with a silicone based sealant to stop any rising damp.

However, as we have found out from experience (and more recently from Doctor Who), water is patient.

The poor foundations mean that the houses move, but the cement render does not, so cracks appear and water can get behind and into the structure. We puncture through the walls and render to fit new appliances and do not seal them up again. We fit narrow plaster rainwater goods that crack, leak and block and commonly introduce water into the structure from above. We forget that the liquids that we pressure inject into wall will only follow the voids and cracks and not create a level and consistent water proof course. We neglect to think that the water under the new concrete floors will diverted along and up into the walls (both internal and external). We also allow for new thermally efficient doors and windows to come with built in vents to allow the cold air in during the winter and when we install them we think that a bit of foam will suffice to make them draught proof. We paint our walls with \’plastic\’ paints believing that it is better to have rivulets of water running down the walls in our bathrooms and then to install more ventilation in the form of extractor fans (which as social landlords you know commonly get switched off or blocked up because of the draughts, noise and perceived expense of running them).

The list of common ills that come out of these improvements, must be all too familiar to you all. Damp patches in odd places on external walls, mould growing in bathrooms and other parts of the house, paint falling off of walls about a meter off of the ground, constant repairs to rainwater goods, structural damage from water ingress, blown renders, cold and wet north facing walls in buildings leading to condensation problems, leaks around windows and doors, concreted and paved gardens raised above the damp proof course etc etc.

Unfortunately the industry tend to fight these fires with fire. We add more waterproofing measures, we replace like with like because of the perceived expense of alternatives and we carry on doing things the way that we have always done things.

Action – doing things differently

So, can we do things differently that will address both the needs of now and the issues of tomorrow? Can we sustainably refurbish these old terraces and make them fit for the society of the future?

The answer, is of course, yes.

\”It will cost more and so we cannot do it\” is the automatic response to this statement. Well, I think that this is an area that has two responses. Firstly, using a 30 year business plan, there is an opportunity to look strategically at the costs of planned maintenance and reactive maintenance. Do all the additional works associated over time of more regular repairs and maintenance of plastic rainwater goods and their associated leaks and complications outweigh the additional capital costs of, say a steel system? Cardiff Council think that they do. Secondly, can we afford not to? By using materials that will create additional maintenance requirements into the future (and that also carry a high embodied energy) as opposed to using complementary materials that will effectively solve a number of maintenance and repair issues we are condemning ourselves to ongoing waste disposal issue. This all involves the use of additional carbon and so merely exacerbates the problems of climate change.

So what are the solutions?

Key to the sustainable refurbishment of the terraces is the term \’sustainable\’. This is not just about looking at the carbon footprint, it is about the ecological footprint, the social pressures and the economic requirements.

So within these possible options (for we must accept that all properties and different and hence require a range of solutions rather than a one-size fits all approach) we must look at issues of appearance, materials, history, water and energy efficiency, cost, training and skills.

One of the key issues is that we must preserve the breathability of the buildings, this will allow for the moisture to escape and it will hence solve many of the problems of damp, mould and poorly preforming walls (after all, a wet wall is an inefficient wall since water transmits heat very well). So the use of lime putty renders and lime plasters is a major factor in getting the houses back into shape.

Breathable paints also then need to be used to maintain this function, so care needs to be taken when supplying paints for tenants.

Suspended floors should be maintained but improved, by ensuring that the vents are working and that the floors are insulated using breather membranes and breathable insulations.

Solid walls can be insulated using breathable techniques like insulating lime based renders or woodfibre insulation.

Where reassurance is required to damp-proof measures the use of cream injections rather than pressure injection is likely to be more reliable. There are also alternatives like the Dutch method for solid brick walls, or the electrostatic methods for large stone and rubble walls.

The look and feel of the terraces can be maintained by the use of high efficiency wooden doors and windows. These could also be installed properly to stop draughts and preserve energy efficiency. Secondary glazing is also an option to preserve old leaded windows.

Chimneys can be preserved by using retro-fit devices to stop water ingress on disused ones, or water tight chimney pots can be installed for those that are occasionally used, or provide ventilation for room heaters.

Heating systems should be designed with the future in mind, so the preservation of hot water tanks is an essential part of future proofing for solar panels to be fitted (where appropriate). Condensing boilers as opposed to condensing combi boilers tend to be cheaper to buy, maintain and service and get over a number of issues of pressure drops and thermostatic mixing valves that again I am sure that you are familiar with. The addition of reflective radiator panels to any external wall mounted radiator will also improve the response and efficiency of the heating system as does the insulation of hot water pipes.

With the plans to produce over 100% of the electricity needs of Wales from renewable sources over the coming years and the socio-political pressures that might arise from our growing dependence on the finite resource that is gas, should we not be looking at air source heat pumps. Also on larger street wide refurbishment schemes is there the possibility of community heating?

When undertaking a major refit could the installation of a draught lobby be introduced.

Low energy lights are ubiquitous these days, but still halogen down lighters are being fitted. There are CFL alternatives and these require special fittings and so these could be used to ensure that they are used into the future. LED lights are also available for retro-fit.

If re-wiring, is it not sensible to fit the circuits necessary to a PV panel or micro turbine (dependent on aspect, location etc.) so that in the future you don\’t need to hack off plasters to install them. A simple conduit with pull strings would also help in the long term.

Heat exchange single room ventilation systems controlled by humidity levels could be fitted into bathrooms, but care needs to be taken as they require fitting to east or north facing walls (the westerly winds will just blow them shut all the time and lead to them not working properly).

Water use can be reduced dramatically without the need to replace goods. Retro-fit devices for toilets, showers and taps are readily available and cheap, especially when compared to the cost of replacement.

If replacing kitchens look for high quality carcassing as the doors and tops can be replaced easily and relatively cheaply. Cheap chipboard innards will pose a range of future problems that will lead to damage and a short lifespan for all of the units.

Creating gardens with water butts is important. Not only to get people in touch with nature, but also helps to reduce water demand and also to slow the run-off of water, thus reducing the risk of flooding.

As you can see, there are a host of solutions that are available and of course these then represent a smorgasbord of options not all of which are appropriate / affordable / required for any particular property. However, some of the major factors like breathability, energy and water efficiency are fundamental to the sustainable refurbishment of these historic buildings that surround us. So if the terraced housing stock is to be preserved and improved then an informed and clever management system needs to be in place.

Underpinning principles need to be identified and maintained, so that as work is required on these houses, sustainable solutions can be put in place so that there is no replication of tasks, waste is minimised and resources maximised. Training and awareness of the issues is paramount with the staff and contractors across the organisation. The people answering the phones need to know what is meant by breathability, airtightness, energy and water efficiency so that they can field questions from tenants, the maintenance and development staff need to know how buildings work and the contractors also need to be directed to use the correct materials and techniques. The managers need to be able to direct funds around the organisation to re-address the priorities and needs to doing things differently, for this they need to have the underpinning knowledge of why this is important.

These old terraces therefore have suffered much at the hands of an ill-informed construction industry, but there are ways of making them better and preserving the character of south Wales for generations to come. As pressure mounts for better energy efficient housing and year on year reductions in carbon emissions, surely it is better to refurbish our existing stock to a high level in a way that is sympathetic to its origins, using low impact materials and a bit of care and attention to detail so that the old terraces become beacons of excellence.

Further information

Peter Draper can be contacted at info@rounded-developments.org.uk

For more details on home renovations, sustainable building and individualised building advice and support, please contact the Eco Home Centre in Canton, Cardiff. See www.ecohomecentre.co.uk.

Eco Home Centre is a Rounded Developments Enterprises project. RDE is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to sustainable building in Wales.

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