Tottering Towers & Listing Buildings
Todman (Theo)
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Write-up2 (as at 20/07/2018 16:30:43): Tottering Towers & Listing Buildings

Theory
  1. Background and policy
    • Back in the 1960s, planners had the idea that modernism and the need for progress justified the wholesale destruction of what is now known as England’s “heritage” – basically the vernacular buildings that had survived from earlier ages, possibly because those who owned them, and the communities they lived in, had not been able to afford to replace them earlier, as the prosperity that had enabled their construction had moved elsewhere.
    • This short-termist error – what is totally destroyed cannot be recovered – has been replaced by a contradictory approach, which is to make it very difficult to change – and certainly to replace – any building that has been listed as requiring conservation. This seems a necessary corrective. However, it needs to be managed so that there will continue to be those willing to take on the pleasurable burden of maintaining these buildings.
    • It is important to note that most listed buildings are not Great Houses, but fairly humble dwellings that have historically been inhabited and maintained by humble people who had the skills – or who had neighbours with the skills – to keep them in a reasonable state of repair. No doubt there’s a Darwinian element as well – those ancient buildings we still have are those it was possible – maybe because their initial construction was sufficiently well-done – to keep standing with the continual repairs so necessary on any building, but particularly those timber-framed structures made of material particularly subject to decay.
    • To some degree, anyone buying an old building knows what they are letting themselves in for. Friends will have warned them not to do it. They will see evidence with their own eyes of movement within the structure over the years, the sloping floors and leaning walls, the numerous ad hoc repairs, and be amazed at how the building is still standing.
    • However, they will have taken the usual precautions. They will have had a full structural survey undertaken, which will doubtless have generated a shopping list of repairs, but which will have assured them that the structure is basically sound; or if it isn’t will have given them the ammunition to get the property at a knock-down price. They will have checked that no illegal changes have been made since the listing, and may even have insurance to cover the costs of enforcements that they could not have reasonably been aware of. They will know that they have a duty to maintain the property and will have persuaded themselves that they have the funds to undertake whatever maintenance or authorised development projects they have in mind.
  2. Insurance
    • Then there is the matter of insurance. Maybe the new purchaser will have been warned before purchase, but as this is still a relatively small cost, will have been unperturbed. Property insurance is geared towards rebuilding cost, and the likelihood of an insurable event arising. The rebuilding cost of most houses is much less than their market value, but this tends not to be the case with listed buildings, where specialist craftsmen – a rare breed charging a premium – are required to make repairs, which have to be made using traditional methods and materials and approved by the local Conservation Officer. So, you need a “specialist insurer” who understands this, and will pay out for the work should it be required.
    • In general, self-insurance is best if you can afford to bear the loss, as it avoids the frictional costs – admin and profits – that insurers necessarily add on. It also avoids the inflated premiums brought about by serial claimers who like things “just so”. So, you insure against perils that – should they transpire – would lead you unable to bear the cost of repair or replacement. As I have contents insurance, my premiums are based partly on claims made by those who throw red wine on their carpets when they feel like a change. I’d never claim in such a situation as it’s disruptive having carpets changed, and then I’d worry about the cat scratching them and both the cat and the dog occasionally sicking or pooing on them. Eventually, of course, carpets wear out and have to be replaced – but that’s “wear and tear” and quite rightly you can’t claim for that.
    • The real issue is not so much with the premiums, but with the cover, in particular the weasel words “wear and tear”. When we come to whatever perils you might imagine your property is insured against, that’s where surprises may be in store. Clearly, both house and contents have elements that wear out and need repair or replacement, and you wouldn’t expect insurance to cover that. But the purpose of insurance is to cover you for rare events that you can’t self-insure for. Some of these are clearly defined and insurable – namely fire, flood (outside of flood-plains), heave and subsidence and the like. What is not covered are catastrophic events that are caused by “wear and tear”. Old timber framed houses are knitted together so that they hold together, just about, but over the years things move about and a tipping point may arise and the whole building might fall down like a pack of cards if a key element fails. Such an event – which might result in a total loss that the owner has a duty to put right – would not be insurable.
    • For example, my house has a chimney up one side that leans out somewhat. A succession of structural engineers and surveyors have expressed confidence that it’s not going to fall over any time soon. But no-one knows whether it’s being held up by a tie to the main frame, or whether the main frame is pushing it over a bit. But if it were to fall over, that’d just be hard luck; insurance wouldn’t pay out unless it happened in a storm, earthquake or fire. If the tie finally rusted away or whatever gradual process reached its end, that’s not insurable. It seems that if the chimney fell over and landed on someone; that would be insurable, though I have my suspicions that “failure to maintain the property” might be raised as an escape-clause. But how are you to know that such an event is secretly going on?
  3. Funding

Practice
  1. This tale of woe may be of little interest to, and invoke even less sympathy from, those struggling to meet their mortgage payments, or paying exorbitant rent while queuing for the property ladder, but I think it raises some important questions about the maintenance of our ancient heritage. It’s to do with the structural surveys, insurance and maintenance of listed buildings.
  2. At the end of 2010 my employer – HSBC – and I parted company on amicable terms when I took early retirement with the intent of pursuing my interests in analytic philosophy. I was left with a fairly comfortable pension after an earnest though not particularly distinguished career in the IT department of the HSBC Investment Bank and Head Office. Having extracted the tax-free 25% from my pension fund and added it to my various investments, I noted that this pile of cash was about twice the value of the rather humble dwelling that I’d been too busy to worry about while working. So, rather than fret over the ups and downs of our investment portfolio my family and I agreed to find our dream home in the country – or as near the country as Billericay affords – and purchased the main house and some outbuildings of Coxes Farm at the end of 2011, though it took another 6 months to sell our old house and make our “new” one habitable.
  3. Coxes Farmhouse is a Grade II Listed timber-framed building that – according to the Listing – hails from the 16th century, with an extension at the front added on in the 17th century and a kitchen at the back in the 1980s. The oldest part looks rather crazy, with leaning walls, and the upper floors either ski-sloping or with a hump in the middle. “Too many beams” according to some, but we fell in love with it immediately, and spent quite a sum over and above the purchase price strengthening floors, replacing the electrics and plumbing, making the attic and the spare bedroom habitable, converting the stables into my library and a guest suite and generally sorting out the half-acre garden and pond. We had a full structural survey undertaken prior to purchase, and retained the surveyor as architect to effect the repairs and improvements and manage the relationship with the conservation officer at Essex CC.
  4. All was going well, more or less, until the end of last year, though there had been the usual niggles with such properties: one of the back walls let water in if the wind was in the wrong direction – fairly standard for timber-framed houses with infill panels that don’t consistently fit well throughout the seasons. Unfortunately, just before Christmas a crack appeared in the corner at the front of the building.
  5. This 17th century extension, we’re now all too painfully aware, is basically a fairly flimsy timber-framed structure with brick infill that had been plastered over with cement render on an iron mesh matrix presumably sometime in the 1960s. The iron mesh had started to rust and the timber frame had basically rotted away. This wasn’t raised as an issue by our surveyor whose report – while pointing out many items requiring attention – failed to mention the risks associated with covering timber frames with impervious membranes.

Policy Changes Required



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018



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