Timber Framed building surveys

For the vast majority of building surveyors, timber framed construction is beyond their capability.  We know timber frames - Pete has restored enough of them - there are examples dotted around this site that he has worked on.  He contributed to the Haynes Manual of repairing heritage buildings.  He's probably the only conservation surveyor in the country with this kind of hands-on knowledge.  We understand what goes wrong with them, and why.  We know how to fix them. We know the technologies available these days to rebuild infill panels in a warm, modern way, but keeping them looking traditional.  This knowledge doesn't come from studying - it comes from doing it - from pulling frames apart and re-building them for years.

Timber framing is one of the oldest surviving methods of construction.  Working with these buildings is not only a pleasure, it's a great privilege.  The big problem for buyers is that it is a dream which all too often turns into a nightmare.  As with most things in an old building, it comes down to the great God of Breathability.  If the timber frame has anything on it, in it or near it that traps water, it will rot.  Modern impermeable materials, modern plastic paints, tar, silicone - anything that doesn't breathe is death to a timber frame.  

If you are considering buying one, it will almost certainly pay you to get us to survey it first. I cringe when I see a brochure that says "..... undergone extensive modernisation and renovation".  At that point I know it's going to be a nightmare of cement and gypsum plonked onto a structure stripped of character and features, with the exception of a few blasted, deeply scored oak beams in the lounge..  

This is a typical day in our life of timber frames:

Surveys of timber framed houses are difficult.  Quite often, we really NEED to be invasive.  We need to take that cement off to see how much timber is left behind. We need to dig, and poke, and scrape.  Obviously if the owner is padding along behind you, this is hard. Frequently, said owner has just filled all the holes in the timber, and repainted everything a nice gloss black, hoping we won't notice - We Do!  

I head straight for the sill beams first - are they still there? Do they hold the posts, or can these move at will, with no sill to restrain them?  Is the frame full of brick?  It was never designed that way - and if it's leaning, the added weight of brick can pull it apart..  Are the bricks laid in cement? If so, it's going to be rotting the frame.  How is the brick held in place - often its old nails driven into the frame which then rust and split the brickwork. Have the joints pulled apart?  Are the mortises rotted?  Are the pegs still intact or does it need re-pegging?  How much rot to the surface of the timber - do we need to allow for face plates, and how many, how deep?  Have the tie beams to the crucks been chain-saw massacred in an effort to squeeze bedrooms in - so the frame can flop outwards.  What timber is it?  Are we dealing with elm, fragile, prone to sudden cracking and splitting, full of beetle holes, or is it good solid old oak?  Can you tell the difference?  How are the rafters jointed at the ridge - is there a ridge purlin - or do they meet and held by pegs? Was it thatched - can you tell - How? Why?  How was the building used - can you see candle burns, witching marks, carpenters construction marks?  Tie beams, Girding beams, collar ties, wind braces - all these things are part of the rich history of these amazing structures, and we try to bring them to life in our surveys.  Most importantly, what will it cost?  What repairs are needed? Can we afford them, do we revise the offer, or do we walk away?  Serious decisions - but that's our job - we are here to make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew - chocolate box it may be - but it could be a dark black hole.

We see a lot of nightmarish houses - beautiful chocolate boxes rotting beautifully under layers of gloss black paint, cement render and gypsum plaster.  Concrete smothers the sill beams and rots them. It is the source of more legal challenges to surveyors and insurers than I care to think about. It need not be a nightmare - but you really need to know what is happening, and to make informed decisions about what may need doing.  With a budget that is appropriate, and access to the right skills, it can become a journey of discovery, historical delights, and produces a beautiful home to treasure.

This is a good example of what we can find - it's Grade 2:

 As you will see, high ground levels, and thick coats of paint have caused a substantial part of the frame to rot away.  It's not immediately visible, and most people would not know it's rotted until the cottage starts to slump down on itself as the rotten posts give way. Hopefully this one was caught in time!  It now needs new owners with a vision, to restore it sensitively.

This is one of the best books on timber frames:


A Grade 2* Timber frame

We surveyed this lovely Grade 2* Listed building to identify any problems with the timber frame. Unfortunately something in the region of £200,000 worth of work was needed to get it into good structural condition, after years of neglect.  One of our Listed Building Surveys was the starting point. We produced a schedule of defects which then led to a Listed Building Consent application for the repair work.  We also identified illegal works to a Listed Building as well - walls had been removed, and even a swimming pool installed with no archaeological suvey having taken place.  

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