Basic House Construction

Your home is quite a complex assortment of materials and constructional techniques. In general terms a wider range of skills is needed to repair and maintain the house interior than is necessary for work on the exterior. However, there are two big advantages with indoor repairs: they are easy to get at, by and large, and you are at least working under cover.

The major features

Most homes are built in a fairly traditional way. The shell of the house is divided up into rooms by interior walls and floors. The walls may be solid and load-bearing — meaning that they carry the weight of floor and ceiling joists and other walls — or may be simple partitions carrying no load other than their own weight. This distinction is important if you intend to modify the layout of your home by removing interior walls or creating new door openings.

Solid walls have their surfaces covered with a layer of plaster, which provides a smooth basis for interior decorating. Non load-bearing partition walls may be of lightweight blockwork, also plastered, or may consist of a framework of timber covered with sheets of plasterboard.

Plasterboard partition walls can be easily damaged, and fixings to them must be made into the timber frame behind the plasterboard if they are to support any weight.

Floors are formed by timber joists that span each room. Floorboards of natural timber or man-made board are nailed to their upper surfaces, and at first-floor and second-floor levels ceilings are fixed to the joist’s undersides. In old houses the ceiling will be formed of laths and plaster — narrow strips of wood are nailed across the gaps between the joists, and plaster is forced up against them to form the ceiling surface. In modern homes, sheets of plasterboard are used instead. Older homes usually have timber ground floors, with a gap between the joists and the ground beneath them; in most modern homes the ground floor is solid concrete.

So much for the basic structure. Window and door frames are set into openings in the walls; inner sills complete the window frame, while architrave mouldings conceal the edges of door frames and cover the join between them and the plaster. At floor level, the plaster is protected by another wooden moulding, the skirting board. At ceiling level the angle between wall and ceiling may be concealed by a decorative cornice or coving. Storeys are linked by a timber staircase — one of the most complex bits of joinery found in most homes.

Within this framework run the various services to the house. Plumbing and heating pipework is largely concealed under floors, and is surface-mounted only where it runs to appliances and equipment. Electric wiring is usually completely concealed — under floors, above ceilings and buried in the plaster — emerging only at light-switches and socket outlets, but may be surface-mounted in channelling or conduit in buildings, such as flats, with concrete floors and ceilings.

By taking a careful look around your own home, you will be able to identify many, if not all, of these features. You will also become aware of the scale of the repair work needed — from minor patching of damaged plaster to the refixing of loose floorboards.

The outside shell of a house is also a complex assortment of features, built with a variety of materials and techniques, with but one practical purpose: to protect its occupants from the weather. However picturesque the building may appear, it has to keep wind and rain at bay, and if it is not given its fair share of maintenance and repair it will soon deteriorate.

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