Over the course of the pandemic our personal health – and that of those around us – has been our main focus. With the extreme winter weather we had in the UK a few weeks ago, suddenly my focus has moved to that of my house. I came home from a few days with my family bubble to find that my main roof valley (my gutter) had failed and that litres of water had come in through my daughters ceiling – and then continued on down the radiator pipe runs to the bathroom below.
My house was built in the 1860’s and from the front it would appear to have a flat roof. What it actually has is an inverted pitched roof with a central valley that collects rainwater from both sides of the roof and falls from the front parapet wall (the so called flat roof) to the rear hopper and down-pipe, making its way to the drain in the back garden. The big problem with a roof like this is that you can’t see the roof! So when it snows heavily, without getting up onto the roof, you can’t tell if the valley is clear or, as was the case this time, frozen.
I had actually been up on the roof a few weeks ago – my tv aerial had to be repointed – so I took the opportunity to follow the tradesmen up and have a look. (It’s not actually as intrepid as it sounds because there is a roof hatch inside my loft space… but I’m not great on ladders…) To my inexperienced eye (let’s be honest how often is it that we look at a roof close up?) the roof and valley appeared to be in pretty good shape: no split slates, no slipped slates, smooth flat lead on the valley and no standing water at any point. So I could only assume it was the volume of snow and the fact that it was starting to melt.
I went up armed with rubber gloves and dishwasher salt to find that the whole section leading to the hopper and down-pipe was a solid block of ice. The water from the melting snow had nowhere to run to, so it had risen high enough to come over the top of the valley and underneath the slates – and from there down into the bedroom below…
Water, we all know, will find its way. It will find the lowest point and make its way down from there. I’m just lucky I wasn’t away for longer because it could easily have run down from the bathroom to the front room below!!! What this has done though is pushed forward my need to get workmen on site to do my building works. If we get more snow this winter, this could easily happen again and in a year when life it totally upside down anyway, the daughter that is usually at university, is at home and her bedroom is now out of action.
Maintaining the fabric of your home is a hugely important aspect of protecting the value of the property. It’s not the exciting part, because most often you can’t even see the results, but if your roof isn’t sound or there are issues with damp for whatever reason, decorating is pointless because the health of the building will compromise whatever surface treatment you choose. Understanding why things are going wrong is the crucial part and where water is concerned finding the source isn’t always as easy as looking at the roof valley. The point it enters the building is what first needs attention – and that can take months of investigation. In this case it was extreme weather, but the valley has steps: wide and shallow at the front and narrow and deep at the rear as it falls to the hopper. After I had sprinkled dishwasher salt on the valley and scooped out all the snow that was covering it, I went and filled hot water bottles and lay them on the ice blocking the rear part of the valley. It was nice and sunny at that point and the view is pretty too, so I sat and watched what happened to the melting snow.
The problem with lead is that it can warp and it can split. There don’t appear to be any splits in this case, but the fall in the rear section closest to the hopper no longer appears to allows the water to keep moving in cold weather, especially if it’s just a trickle – and if the stars align and the wind is coming from the right direction – as it was then – it actually forces the water back towards the lowest step, so if the weather is freezing it never gets as far as the hopper. Both roofers who inspected the roof said I was just unlucky that the conditions had been so extreme, but the fact remains if the water can’t get away properly, it’s only a matter of time before it finds another access point. The weak spot of the valley is that final step, it’s where the full volume of water flowing towards the hopper needs free access but because the shape of the lead appears to have changed over the years, in extreme cold weather, it is no longer doing its job the way it should.
You are the eyes and ears of your home. In the same way that you notice changes within yourself, you need to take notice of every little change in your property. And if you don’t understand what they mean, don’t just ignore them. So often simply clearing leaves from gutters is the first step in preventing moisture from penetrating brickwork and causing damp. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a damp proof specialist! Over the years a property can change a lot, many ‘upgrades’ are covered over or inaccessible, think of rewiring or plumbing and not every contractor is conscientious or highly skilled, especially since so many homeowners will have a go at something armed with a YouTube tutorial and a motivation to save money. They may not have the follow through to finish the job as it should be and where water is concerned, the knock on effect can be extremely expensive to rectify – you may not be saving yourself money in the long run! Any building of age needs maintaining, they don’t get to go to an old folks home for specific care and attention, so you have to be their carers and their custodians at the same time as living there. Tenanted properties are highly likely to have changes go unnoticed and unreported, which can see the value of your most expensive asset impacted considerably. As a landlord simply remembering to do an inspection at least once a year can be the difference between ongoing problems or protecting the value of your bricks and mortar, so in your own home, think of yourself as the tenant and the mortgage as the landlord.
I have had to face the sobering fact that my building works this year will also have to encompass a wider view of my property’s weak spots including the roof and several original sash windows. For those of you doing buildings works this year, I urge you to think beyond the original project you employed your contractors for and take the opportunity to inspect any areas that can’t otherwise be accessed without scaffolding or specialist tools. Even if the work doesn’t need to be done now, a health check of the fabric of your property will cost you nothing if you already have contractors on site.