A stitch in time…Makes good sense and saves money

General Safety


Safety is paramount. ‘More accidents happen in the home than anywhere else’ (ROSPA Facts and Figures). Attention must be paid to the nature of the environment you are working with and the condition of your tools. Preparation is important. Limitations must be respected. There is good advice available online from the Health and Safety Executive. Search the HSE website entering the relevant term as information lies under topic headings. For example, advice on ladders can be found within the topic ‘Work at Height’.

Be aware too that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires the building owner to provide a safe place and systems of work to its employees, contractors and members of the general public when on their property.


Common Sense Safety

Check the location of your First Aid Box and that its content is up-to-date before embarking on any exploration or work to your building. It may have been raided unbeknown to you for your son’s fancy dress party and that Frankenstein’s monster outfit.

Wear appropriate clothes and arm yourself with useful equipment as this can prevent accidents.  You will need to wear old, loose clothes.  Goggles and dust masks are useful additions to your toolkit / wardrobe as they shield eyes and chest from flying material disturbed- or created - during certain types of inspection, maintenance or repair. 

You should carry a range of practical accessories.  Consider which of the following would be useful in your work:  a notepad or clipboard, pencils, torch, binoculars, pocket knife, hand mirror, a magnet for identifying iron and steel, and a small camera with a flash. 

When working inside, whether investigating or carrying out repairs, dust sheets and polythene sheets are an invaluable component in the armoury to protect surrounding fabric and possessions.


Hazardous Substances

Working with external lead requires specialist training, protective clothing and particular skill.  It can produce lead dust, fumes and vapours which are injurious to health.  If your body absorbs lead it can cause headaches, stomach pains and anaemia, or more seriously can lead to kidney damage, nerve and brain damage and infertility. The HSE leaflet at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg305.pdf  expands on the risks and the desirability of obtaining expert attention to the repair and maintenance of lead.

Pre-1960 paint work may have a percentage of lead in the mix.  If you find white lead paints in your home, you are advised to paint over them or get them safely removed.  SPAB advise that: ‘Old lead paint frequently has a creamy or soft colour. Rather than splitting and peeling, it may develop a fine, oblong pattern of cracking. A chalky surface can provide a further clue, but is not exclusive to lead paint. Detached samples feel heavier than with other paints’. Advice on this is also given in a government leaflet, see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/advice-on-lead-paint-in-older-homes .

The permeability of lime-based materials (mortar, render and lime-wash) makes them a regular resource for the repair and maintenance of traditional buildings as they allowing moisture to evaporate from masonry and reduce problems of condensation.  However, processing the raw commodity to achieve the appropriate formula requires experience, protective clothing and skill.  Slaking lime is a traditional building skill: the heat created and levels of alkalinity are such that it requires considerable care. Slaked lime is now easily obtainable and suppliers can help determine the appropriate recipes for your needs and mix it for you. 

Asbestos can sometimes be found in such as corrugated roofing, partition walls, textured wall and ceiling plasters, insulation around pipes and tanks.   When damaged, invisible asbestos fibres are released and, if inhaled, may put your health at risk. 

The health consequences of disturbing asbestos when drilling holes into the building fabric or replacing panels can be severe, as can the clean-up costs involved’ advises the HSE. Accordingly, the Executive provides advice about encounters with asbestos in your home: see http://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/index.htm.  

If you are planning to carry out work that will disturb Asbestos-containing materials, you will need further information, instruction and training.

Surprisingly perhaps, feathers, nesting birds and the dust from bird droppings (guano) can cause lung infections.  It is advisable first to wet any dropping to dampen any dust and then dispose of them in polythene bags. 

Electricity and Gas

When working near electricity and electrical equipment, remember to turn off the power supply before your investigation.  Check the area for trailing cables that can cause people to trip or fall and unplug appliances.  In wet surroundings, unsuitable equipment can become live and make its surroundings live too.  Remember that electrical cables may be within walls, floors and ceilings (especially when drilling into these locations).   Do not touch old electrical cabling or attempt any maintenance yourself:  leave it to a qualified electrician to determine its condition. 

Remember too that rodents can chew through cables and expose live wires.  They are not discerning, rubber, PVS, inner and outer insulation can be removed with damaging results.

Gas leaks can lead to fire, explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning.  Make sure there is adequate ventilation before working near a gas supply and in your investigation or repair, do not block air inlets or obstruct flues and chimneys.  Beware of the smell of gas and should you come across a leak, turn off the gas supply immediately and call a Gas Safe registered engineer or competent person.  

Many rural properties have an oil fired boiler, and many of which have an external tank with an underground pipe line to the home. It is important to be aware of where the pipe runs to prevent damage.

Oil and gas installations can be dangerous if mishandled and any repair should be left to a qualified technician.

Working at Heights (with Ladders)

Working at a height may be perilous and there are simple precautions to take.  Using the right access equipment is imperative.    You should use work equipment or other means to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall in case one occurs. http://www.hse.gov.uk/work-at-height/wait/index.htm

Before using a ladder, whether to reach those eaves or paint that window frame, you should ensure that it is safe for use.  The ladder may have been dropped or leant upon adversely since you last used it, or been resting in a pool of slippery oil.  Check the condition of the rungs, any fixtures and the stability of the feet.  Ideally too, do not scale a ladder without another person present nor without securing the feet.  See HSE gives guidance on step and leaning Ladders http://www.hse.gov.uk/work-at-height/using-ladders-safely.htm.

For taller buildings, or jobs that take time, consider hiring portable scaffold towers, or a cherry picker from a reputable hire company. 

Falls of Objects

Looking out for objects that may be affected by your exploration or the consequent works in and around the problem area is an essential part of good preparation.  HSE advise that: ‘Heavy items sometimes have to be moved, or get disturbed, during maintenance work. If one of these falls, the results can be fatal.’  Consider carefully the implications of investigative work and secure or remove any potential elements whose position may be changed by the work.  Do not underestimate the ‘pack of cards’ effect even when undertaking small scale maintenance.


Related Publications

Many local authorities provide guidance on how to look after historic properties and it is advisable to see if this is available in your area.  It could address subjects specific to your locality, such as materials, vernacular methods of construction and building types and may identify local contacts, constraints and advice. 

In addition, there are accessible, key general publications on repair and maintenance available in hard copy which you might like to have to hand. 

The IHBC database on Technical Publications helps categorise these for ease of access and includes assistance across the range of issues relevant when caring for your home.  See [Link to IHBC Technical Publications as re-homed under Resources].

Here are some examples: 

Maintaining Your Home: short guide
ISBN 978-1849171823
Author:  Historic Scotland
Published by: Historic Scotland (2014)
This guide focuses mainly on external features with some attention to internal conditions where indicating problems elsewhere.  It is aimed at homeowners.

The Pattern of English Building
ISBN 0 571 13988 4
Author: Alec Clifton-Taylor
Published by: Faber and Faber (1962 to 1987)
A respected illustrated guide to regional materials and techniques found in historic buildings in England.

The Care and Conservation of Georgian Houses
ISBN  978-0750618601
Author:  A Davey, B Heath, M Ketchin, D Hodges and R Milne
Published by: Butterworth (1995)
This practical manual describes and illustrates every aspect of conservation work and will be of particular interest to anyone responsible for the care and upkeep of a stone-built 18th century building.

The Tenement Handbook: A Practical Guide to Living in a Tenement
ISBN  978-1873190142
Author: J Gilbert, A Flint
Published by: Rutland Press (1993)
A guide for those involved with traditional Scottish tenements, including how to manage and repair the property and what the law is for common ownership.