Time is of the essence with historic building conservation

Greig Fenton

By Greig Fenton, associate director, Thomas & Adamson

GALE force winds, torrential rain and freezing temperatures – welcome to winter in Scotland. Almost two years since we experienced theBeast from the East, which shut down lifeline services and shops, the country is preparing for another wave of snow and ice in the wake of Storms Ciara and Dennis.

There’s an old saying in Scotland: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’. For homeowners and landlords, however, the poor weather presents a plethora of more serious, damaging, and long-term issues.

With winters in Scotland averaging a low of 0°C, freeze thawing – a process of erosion which occurs when water seeps into cracks in building masonry and then freezes, thus expanding and widening cracks – can become a major issue if stonework is not regularly inspected.

For correctly designed and maintained new builds, freeze thawing shouldn’t be a problem. However, for Scotland’s vast number of historic buildings – 467,000 of which were constructed before 1919 and subsequently exposed to harsh weather conditions for over a century – these natural mechanisms can cause structural issues that can lead to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in repair works.

The state of Scottish housing

The issue was recently laid bare in a report by the Scottish Parliamentary Working Group on Tenement Maintenance. The report found that nearly a fifth of all our housing dates from pre-1919, of which 68% show evidence of disrepair to critical elements and, of this portion, as much as 36% are in need of critical and urgent repairs. In Glasgow alone, the local council authority estimate that the cost of these repairs could be as high as £2.9bn.

The issue is uniquely Scottish for a number of reasons. Firstly, Scotland’s cold climate means that buildings are prone to freeze thawing. Secondly, Scottish law currently places no obligation on owners of these ageing buildings to undertake any form of pro-active checking, maintenance or repair work. As a result, simple repairs often go unnoticed or unchecked, resulting in a gradual worsening of the issue. However, even if the issue is highlighted early on, owing to a lack of communication and co-ordination between tenants in non-factored properties, building owners often can’t afford, or are unwilling to pay, the cost of repairs

What’s next?

Whilst a Scottish Parliamentary Working Group is currently exploring legislation – as well as potential government subsidies and penalties – time is of the essence for landlords, factors and housing associations. Not only is it financially prudent to remedy building fabric issues before their costs spiral out of control, but there is also a duty of care owed by landlords towards their tenants to ensure that buildings are in a safe condition.

Once legislation lands, getting the skilled workers in place will also be increasingly difficult and costly, with a lack of specialist stonemasons meaning they are often already stretched to the limited. On top of this, if buildings continue to be neglected, there may be an added risk to the general public.

Now, more so than ever, landlords, factors and housing associations need to proactively manage this issue. By enlisting the early assistance of specialist and experienced surveyors who understand the intricacies of properly maintaining stonework, stakeholders will be in the best position to uncover and remedy issues before they become unrepairable. Not only does this financially responsible approach represent best practice, it also allows for landlords to maximise the longevity of their investments and for factors and housing associations to reduce the cost of future claims.

By implementing a similar approach, building owners can more easily budget for future maintenance costs by taking account of specialist findings in the form of Planned Preventative Maintenance schedules. These documents also act to highlight any potential health and safety concerns related to the condition of the premises.

We work in a similar capacity with landlords and investors operating high-profile hotels, offices and residential premises across Scotland. From our perspective, in delivering specialist condition surveys and repair schemes, it’s reassuring to see stakeholders continue to treat this important issue as a higher priority and work to limit costly repairs further down the line.

As one Glasgow-based housing association put it; “the condition and potential deterioration of the existing stock within all sectors is a major issue for Glasgow. The term ‘ticking time-bomb’ is over-used but in this case is appropriate.”