Saturday, 18 January 2014

Bathroom - an Inception moment

I'm not sure what I expected to find behind the bathroom walls. I suppose I had readied myself for something half-built and hideous. Or perhaps a doorway long forgotten. 

But no. Behind the bathroom tiles are more bathroom tiles, and they're on solid walls by the sound of it.

Presumably someone's battened, boarded and tiled the room as a quicker-fix than removing all the old tiles.

There was one little surprise, so far, in the shape of a random terminated electrical wire. One can only guess where that used to go.

Land drain trench

Not an awful lot of progress has been made due to work and dark nights, but I've finished the length of the simple French Drain at the front of the house. The good news is that water flows down it nicely. Next step will be to amooth off the bottom of it, cover it with geotextile membrane and fill it with pea shingle. Then wrap the membrane over the top of the gravel-filled trench and cover with more gravel... Then finishing aggregate. We haven't decided what finish to use yet but I'm thinking local chippings to match the house.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Drainage around the house - revised opinion

We've had about a week of non-stop rain until today which is a bright and sunny day. What I've noticed is that, despite what must have been several inches of rain, there hasn't been a huge build up of water around the house, and even the areas to the East which are a thick clay soil close to the surface have only experienced a small amount of pooling.

This is an unexpected and interesting result. I'd expected much more puddling and pooling around the house, and some evidence of damp inside - which there hasn't been. Compared to the tarmac driveway around the back of the house, the front appears far less wet.

So, that brings me back to the French Drain we had thought about putting in around the house...

The soil itself seems mainly to be a very sticky red clay which isn't going to drain particularly well in Winter, and will dry out and shrink in Summer. More important than dealing with any excessive surface water in Winter is not encouraging it to dry out TOO much in Summer, which could lead to some structural headaches in a house with very shallow foundations.

So what I'm thinking of doing is digging a fairly shallow trench, the bottom of which is at least 8 inches lower than the internal floors of the house but always at least 2ft from the walls so I'm not affecting the foundations, and making this a basic French Drain - a gravel filled trench. I'm concerned that the inclusion of a 4-inch perforated drainage tube will take away too much water from the ground at time when we don't want it to.

I also have to factor in the 3ft high stone retaining wall for the garden (seen on right-hand side of the photo above). This has no foundations at all and I don't want to undermine its structure so that it washes away during heavy rains. I've left a few inches of the concrete pathway abutting this wall in place to help with the structure, and tried to keep the trench a further 4 inches away from it.

I think that more important than any drain at all here is the general lowering of the ground level to below that of the internal floors, which we've done by removing the 3-6 inch thick concrete pathway itself. Hopefully the combination of that, with a small amount of additional drainage, will produce results that reduce the dampness in the house gradually.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Dangerous Fireplace - Carbon Monoxide poisoning risk from Rayburn

Bedroom 3: The soot marks on the wallpaper mentioned in the previous post rang big alarm bells. The fireplace in the bedroom had been bricked up using breeze blocks sometime in the past and what looked like some sort of airbrick in the middle had also been covered at a later date. I started to peel away the layers to reveal what lay beneath the surface.

As I removed the wallpaper and plasterboard covering the breeze blocks there was more evidence of soot and scorch marks around the edges of the fireplace.

For some context on this fireplace, immediately below it, in the kitchen, is a very old Rayburn cooker which we are told by our neighbours that the previous owners of this house used frequently and burnt "Anything and everything". Indeed, there is a piece of treated wood and some coal briquettes still in it ready to light.  

[We decided when we moved in that it was not in a condition to safely use. There is a hole in the right hand side of the cooker itself and various splits which have been sealed by putty in the flue. I thank the Gods that we hadn't taken to using it.]

As I removed the first breezeblock from the bedroom I revealed the horrifying truth that the chimney and fireplace behind the blocks was full to the brim with old coke and tar. 

The breeze blocks themselves had become part of the flue rather than just a cover, and were covered in a thick, sticky black residue which stinks of old chemicals and smoke. I assumed at this stage that the Rayburn's flu had somehow failed and this coke and residue had been falling back down the chimney. 

However, as I removed more breeze blocks, I revealed the truth to be far more worrying.

The top of the flue from the Rayburn, complete with a port for cleaning the flue, is not connected to anything beyond the second level of breeze block. It has been flueing the waste gases and immense heat from the Rayburn below directly into the open fire place behind a single block layer. And even more horrifying the flue itself is completely blocked with old coke and tar.  Only the access port for cleaning the flue, having failed and fallen off, was allowing the exhaust gases to exit the flu at all.

It is as if somebody has either removed or never fitted the top half of the flue.

I do not know whether it was standard practice to flue a wood burner into an open fireplace above (I doubt it) but everything about this construction strikes me as incredibly dangerous.  The arrangement must have been spewing carbon monoxide gas into the bedroom as the previous occupants slept in it.  Perhaps it was only the fact that this is a very old and very draughty house that prevented them from being killed by these gases. Or maybe it was just good luck.

I continued to remove various bits of breeze block, cement and broken brick which had been used as a fill around the flue, and will be removing the flue completely tomorrow. 

We had discussed purchasing a modern wood-burning Rayburn stove to replace the derelict one, and during those discussions we had planned to run new the flue up the existing chimney. However, having seen the state of what lurked behind this breeze block wall I am not so sure that this would be a good idea.  I think I will probably leave this fireplace open until we can get a HETAS stove engineer in for a consultation on the safest way to run the new flue. It may be safer and simpler to run one externally.

Third Chimney Stack is leaking

I decided to start stripping off the wallpaper in the Bedroom 3 today. This is the room which we have been using as a bedroom since we moved into the house and until today it had been untouched in terms of investigation work.

I knew that there was a problem with damp walls because we could see that the wallpaper was peeling off near the top of the chimney breast. What lay underneath the wallpaper was however a bit of a surprise.

You can see the extent of the damp on the above picture where the wet patches on the wallpaper backing are clearly visible. The textured wallpaper has been painted in a thick coat of silk paint which has acted like a waterproof barrier, trapping moisture from a leaky chimney behind it.

There is more of the blue sealant which we have seen used downstairs on this chimney breast towards the ceiling. However, so much water has been trapped behind the wallpaper that the blue sealant itself is peeling off the wall.

I had not expected this chimney breast to be quite as bad as the one in Bedroom 1, but in fact once the waterproof wallpaper and paint had been removed it became obvious that this was in fact worse than we had discovered in the other bedroom. There was a stench of old smoke, and the plaster - which looks like the original lime plaster - is falling off the wall. 

I have easily removed the blown plaster from the brick structure of the chimney breast revealing some extremely wet bricks. Once the chimney stack itself has been rebuilt next spring we will allow these bricks to dry out properly and then replaster using lime again.

However, much more worryingly than the blown plaster was what I uncovered towards the bottom of this chimney breast...

You can see on the picture above that the piece of wallpaper I've removed from above a breezeblock plinth - which has been installed to block up the fireplace in this bedroom - is covered in a dark soot. This is a very worrying sign because it suggests that the fumes from the appliance using this chimney flue have been leaking into the bedroom. Further investigation in the next post documents one of the most worrying things I have ever seen.

Old houses and health problems

Many, many things in old houses can pose an injury risk. From rusty nails bearing tetanus, to asbestos-filled but innocent-looking floor tiles. And living in an old house during renovations is certainly having a tangible effect on our bodies.

Glands are up, lung capacity is down and sleep is harder to wake from than ever before. If you're reading this before embarking on your own renovation project, we can't recommend living in the house as you do it. We're considering getting a caravan as an escape pod for when we do the more dusty work.