Your house may be detached, semi-detached or terraced. It may be a bungalow, two-storey or three-storey — or you may live in a flat in a multi-storey block. The external construction may be of brick or stone, timber-framed, timber-clad or be a combination of materials. The roof may be pitched or flat or mansard (providing an additional storey in the roof space). Your house may be more than 100 years old, half that age or have been built only a few years ago; indeed you may be looking forward to moving into a completely new house.
These are very general categories. Except superficially, no house is wholly identical to another. Even on an estate of houses where pre-fabricated components have been employed, there will be some dissimilarity between one house and another.
However, it will help you to achieve mastery of your own house, whatever its age, style or size, if you get to know something of structural principles and how a house is built. With this basic knowledge you can not only save money and delay by personally tackling a whole range of routine but essential maintenance tasks; you can also confidently carry out a number of projects that will improve the comfort of your home and increase its attractiveness.
How house structure is stabilised
- Normally a traditionally built house has three main lines of structure: the front and back walls and a central internal spine partition.
- These walls are structurally restrained by being connected to the side walls and/ or party walls which are, in turn, restrained by the front, back and spine walls.
- The walls are also restrained by the floors and roof, which tie the walls back to strength-giving corners, chimney breasts and to partitions or walls running at right angles. Without horizontal support by the floors, the walls would be prone to buckling along their length. The floors act as beams-on- edge.
- The roof connects the front and back walls of the house together and ties the side walls to each other by means of purlins and tiling battens.
Many older houses have solid brick walls. Their strength is adequate but there is a risk of water penetrating to the inside of the walls and heat loss from the house is high.
- These comprise two brick skins with a cavity in between. Wall ties mortared into the joints hold the two skins together. These apart, the two skins must be kept isolated from each other to avoid water penetration — a point that requires special care at door and window openings.
- Cavity construction provides better thermal insulation than a solid brick wall. This can be further improved by injecting mineral wool or urea formaldehyde foam, a job for specialist firms. Holes are drilled at intervals in the brickwork and the insulation material is pumped in. Often building blocks with better insulation properties than ordinary brick are used for the inner skin of cavity walls.
- Keep the pointing of external walls under constant observation. Defective or crumbling mortar pointing will allow water to lodge in the joints of the brickwork, causing damage to the bricks, especially in frosty conditions.
Internal walls (or partitions) are either load-bearing or non load-bearing. When planning for conversion purposes to take down or cut into an internal wall, make sure which role it has of the two. In a load-bearing situation the wall construction is usually “wet” (e.g. bricks, concrete blocks, clinker or lightweight insulating slabs bonded with mortar). In non load-bearing situations, timber studding is mostly used. The most common finish for load-bearing “wet” walls is plaster. The most common finish for non load-bearing “dry” walls consists of studding and plasterboard.
In constructional terms, roofs are of two main types — gable and hipped. A gable roof may be trimmed by timber planking fixed diagonally (barge boards) at points where the walls of the house meet it. Faulty roofs can cause extensive damage to the fabric of a house. Broken or dislodged roof tiles should be immediately replaced, as should faulty flashings. Older flashings have mortar fillets which are liable to crack and leak water. Modern flashings are made of materials such as lead, zinc, aluminium and bituminous and mineral materials.
The damp-proof course (DPC) in a brick built house consists of a layer of bituminous felt inserted into the brickwork during building. It forms a barrier to rising damp and should never be bridged or obstructed. The DPC should be 6 in. (or 150 mm) above ground level.
Air bricks, which allow air circulation between suspended timber floors, should ‘always be kept free of obstruction.
- Ground floors are either solid or suspended.
- Solid floor. A solid floor has a hardcore base. Concrete is laid on this, topped with a fine concrete screed to DPC level. A damp barrier, consisting of liquid bitumen or a sheet of heavy-gauge polythene, is cut into the damp-proof course of the house.
- Suspended floor. This consists of timber joists laid on low support walls covered with bituminous felt. If the air bricks set in the external brickwork are blocked, there is the possibility of fungal attack on the flooring timbers.
- Flooring in upper rooms is usually of the suspended type, laid on joists and consisting of timber planking or sheets of flooring-grade chipboard, which is easy to put down and easy to lift.
Guttering and downpipes
- Guttering and downpipes are known as rainwater goods (RWG for short). Here cast-iron and, in some cases, asbestos, are largely giving way to plastic systems.
- Plastic guttering and downpipes have many advantages. They are easy to cut and assemble, need comparatively little attention by way of maintenance and cannot rust and crack as can their metal counterparts. However, irrespective of the material, the guttering of most houses accumulates debris and leaves which will block it unless cleared. Blockage can prove particularly tiresome in the case of a house in an exposed position or overlooked by large trees. You should keep the guttering frequently under observation. It may need to be cleared in the late autumn and perhaps again in the spring.
- Guttering and pipes may leak if they have faulty joints or, in the case of non-plastic ware, they are cracked or holed. Water leakage can saturate brickwork and do considerable damage to the fabric of the house.
Water, electricity and gas
These are mains services that are connected to the house. Every adult in the household should know exactly where in the house the water stopcock and the electricity mains switch are situated so that in any emergency (e.g. a water overflow or a fire) supplies can be quickly shut off.
You should know too the internal runs of water and gas pipes and electric wiring to avoid damaging them when making alterations to walls or floors — even if all you are intending to do is to drill a hole in the wall to take screws for a shelf or pictures.
Timber infestation if unchecked will cause costly damage to the fabric of a house. The possibility of its presence is one of the main points to have checked before you purchase and move into a house, particularly if it is an old one.
- Constantly keep watch for any signs of timber infestation. Dry rot is the most serious form. This feeds on damp timber, reducing it to a dry brittle state of uselessness. The primary causes are intrinsic dampness within the house, the seepage of damp through the fabric and lack of adequate ventilation.
- Wet rot begins when wood contains 20 per cent or more of moisture. The spores can spread to attack sound timber. Woodworm is the other timber menace. Tiny flight holes show where the woodworm have emerged after feeding on the timber. Nevertheless, the timber may still contain grubs.
- If you suspect timber infestation, call in a firm that specialises in preventative methods or antidotes.
Maintenance and improvement
A knowledge of the anatomy of your house will ease your maintenance of it and better enable you to determine what is and what is not practicable in the way of improvement. Perhaps most important, it will help to guide you in deciding which maintenance jobs and improvement projects you can confidently tackle yourself and which are better left to the professionals. Maintenance. Painting and papering, renewing floor surfaces, filling cracks, repairing damaged fitments, concreting, re-pointing brickwork and simple plumbing repairs are among the many jobs you can undertake yourself even if practical craftsmanship is not your strong suit.
Try to adhere to a planned programme of maintenance year by year according to the time you have available. Many routine jobs are best tackled at an early rather than a late stage (e.g. badly deteriorated paint-work is that much more difficult to prepare and repaint).
The frequency cycle of major renovations depends on such factors as the size of the house and your family (heavy human “traffic” makes for wear and tear) and the site of the house; a house much exposed to the elements or, in town, to dirt and pollution may need to be externally redecorated every third, or even every second, year, while a sheltered house in a quiet suburban terrace may only need redecorating fully once in every five years. Improvement. Living in a house is to see its possibilities and almost every house is capable of some adaptation over the years to meet changing family circumstances or changing tastes.
Enlarging the living area, streamlining the kitchen, partitioning rooms, creating storage units, making an outside patio, extending the driveway: all such possibilities are within the capacity of a do-it-yourself enthusiast.