Maintaining a Historic Building

Advice on maintaining historic homes.

Our home is the most significant investment we are likely to make.  It is therefore important to safeguard this investment by undertaking regular inspections of your property and ensure it remains wind and watertight.  Water ingress into a building if the most significant cause of damage and decay in any building.

There are a significant number of different sources of advice which are free and impartial; you will be able to link to many of them through these web pages or the links on the right under More like this.  Historic Scotland's Website is another excellent resource.

Spend early Save later!

All properties irrespective of age require general maintenance. Slipped and broken slates, blocked or broken gutters are all simple to maintain and resolve.  However if they are left, they can quickly cause enough damage to result in problems that may seem so costly they feel insurmountable.

Annual inspections and dealing with small issues quickly will help avoid significant and costly works being required in the future.

It is good practice to regularly set aside funds for repairs and to plan for these in advance.

See this video guide about how to maintain a property (external link - opens in new window).

5 reasons to carry out repairs

  1. Properties in better repair sell faster and are worth more – especially now every potential buyer sees the Home Report.
  2. You are doing your legal duty to maintain your property.
  3. Minor repairs not dealt with quickly lead to far more costly major repairs.
  4. The same repair will cost more next year than this year.
  5. You could be sued, for instance, if a slate falls off your roof and injures someone.

What to do

The illustration below is a guide to good maintenance practice, (click on the image to enlarge).  The best thing to remember is to look up and take note of what’s happening with your property.


When to do it

The schedule below is a general guide as to when different elements may require work, (click on the image to enlarge). 

Shared Ownership and Maintenance

It can often seem daunting to set about organising common repairs, understanding everyone’s responsibility is a start and the Council has a dedicated section on its web site to assist those who have shared maintenance responsibilities.

Avoid Damp

It is essential that all buildings can manage rainfall properly and are properly ventilated.  Historic buildings were originally designed with adequate rainwater management and ventilation, however later interventions over the years often impact on their ability to function properly.  Examples of this could be applying internal or external finishes that are not vapour permeable (e.g. cement renders, dry lining or an inappropriate insulation), removing chimneys, blocking up flues or blocking up original vents.  These are all integral to providing the necessary ventilation and moisture transfer to prevent damp problems.

Rainwater needs to be taken away from the building by the roof, gutter, down pipes and drains, if any aspect of the route is damaged or not functioning properly water will make its way into the building and start to cause damage. 

Use the right materials

All historic buildings irrespective of any designation are designed and constructed using traditional techniques and materials.   Their maintenance and successful redevelopment or conversion can only be assured by understanding these traditional skills and how to work with them in a modern context.  Historic buildings are often readily adaptable; however this requires a different approach to that used for modern buildings.. 

Lime or Cement

Pointing and rendering play a key role in managing water ingress.  Traditionally stone built buildings were pointed and rendered with lime renders, this is a permeable material that is intentionally prepared to be softer than the stone used for construction.  This allows water to be absorbed through the pointing during rainy periods and released during dry periods.  Being softer than the stone means that the mortar and render act as a sponge transferring the majority of the water though them rather than the stone, this in turn ensures the structural stonework does not decay or become saturated which would lead to the decay of structural timbers.

With the loss of many traditional skills through the first and second world wars, along with trends in the construction market, the use of lime declined considerably and was replaced by the increasing use of cement.  Unfortunately it was only years later that building professionals realised the damage this can cause to historic buildings.  Cement is not a permeable material and is generally always harder than the different stone found in traditional construction.  What this means is that any water getting into the building, from the ground, through joints, cracks or the wall heads, cannot evaporate out through the render.  This results in the structure of the building becoming saturated leading to the decay of the structural stone work and timbers.  It also means most of the moisture transfer in the building passes through the stone rather than the joints, this causes the stone to decay at an accelerated rate.

The image to the right shows how a building breathes, both the internal and external faces of the wall are able to absorb and release moisture, air is able to circulate so moisture isn’t trapped in the main structure of the wall. 

Use the right people

Contractors:  It is always worth asking contractors what experience they have with traditional materials and buildings. Many contractors can be very skilled in working with modern buildings and materials but haven’t had the appropriate training or experience with traditional buildings.  

Questions to ask:

Do they have any particular training in working with traditional buildings?  There are special courses run by the Scottish Lime Centre and by the different regeneration schemes happening in the region, you could ask if they have attended any of these.

Do they have any specific traditional skill accreditation; an example of this would be accreditation through the Lead Contractors Association, The Lead Sheet Association or the National Federation of Roofing Contractors.  It is worth noting that the latter of these organisations quality checks its members and operates a formal complaints procedure, so owners have some recourse if one of the federation’s members delivers unsatisfactory work.

You should also ask to see examples of their work or speak to past clients.

Architects: As with contractors, Architects will have different areas of interest and expertise.  The Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland maintains a register of Architects who have conservation accreditation or advanced conservation accreditation.  Using a conservation accredited Architect should not incur any more cost than using a non-accredited architect; however it should help deliver works that are appropriate to the construction type and period of the property, leading to repairs and alterations that are compatible with the existing materials longer lasting.  It should also deliver quicker determinations when it comes to Planning and Listed Building Consents.  This is because conservation Architects are more familiar with the nature and quality of submission generally required by planning authorities in relation to Listed Building Consents.

More pages: 

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