When renovating a period property you are likely to find yourself faced with floors that are less than ideal in terms of our modern expectations. They can be uneven, damp, cold or just plain ugly. In some cases they may be one of the original features that attracted you to the property in the first place, but are hard to live with for one of the reasons above.

So, whether you want to cover over the old floor, replace the floor entirely with something new, or restore it, there will be a solution available out there.

The Sub-base

Very often the problem with old floors is not what they are made of or even how well (or otherwise) they have been looked after — the main issues surrounding old floors are what they are laid on top of.

It was very common for quarry tiles and parquet, as well as flagstones, to be laid on nothing more than earth, ash or sand. While this in itself is not a huge problem, it makes for a very cold floor underfoot as there is rarely any insulation and, in the case of parquet, can mean damp can sometimes come up through the floor, particularly if a covering such as a thick rug is laid over it.

The thing about these floors is that they were designed to be ‘breathable’ and to absorb and evaporate moisture from the whole surface area with no damage to the materials used. Problems here only generally occur when they are covered over with a non-breathable material, or an unsuitable insulation is laid beneath them for warmth. So a solution is usually required for those unwilling to wear slippers all the time.

One solution is to take up the tiles, stone or parquet and dig out the floor to a level that will allow for insulation, a damp-proof membrane, concrete and your new floor covering. The problem is that the majority of insulation materials for solid floors rely on an impervious damp-proof membrane to keep the insulation dry.

The insulation materials used also need to be able to withstand the weight of the concrete slab or screed being laid on top of them, limiting the choices of insulation to those which are basically impervious to air and moisture, which will disrupt the moisture balance in quarry tiles and flagstones or any other original permeable materials you might find yourself with, such as brick.

Taking up your floor and relaying it on a concrete sub-floor with a damp-proof membrane can cause salts within the old floor to come to the surface and these, in turn, can absorb moisture from the air and result in a damp floor. Of course, you could just cover them with a floating engineered wood floor and keep your fingers crossed, but you’re likely to run into problems with damp in the future.

Applying a self-levelling compound

A self levelling compound available from DIY sheds is a key ingredient in ensuring a good base to work off

Insulation Solutions

Most modern homeowners want some kind of insulation and many also like the idea of underfloor heating too. The good news is that there are now methods for insulating under these floor coverings which won’t interfere with their ability to breathe and, in the case of insulation, require 100mm+ build-ups that are impractical in many cases.

One such method is based on a mixture of natural hydraulic lime binders (NHLs — try Mike Wye) and insulating aggregates (Mike Wye do them, as do Weber amongst others).

Both of these materials have the ability to absorb and emit moisture — which is the disadvantage of most modern impermeable systems. These materials can also be laid successfully with underfloor heating.

Finally, using a breathable natural floor covering can make things more comfortable and should not mess with the floor’s ability to harmlessly shed moisture.

How to install this type of insulation:

  1. The floor will need to be dug up to the required depth before the ground is levelled and compacted.
  2. A breathable membrane is then laid, before the insulating materials.
  3. The flooring can now be relaid.

Of course, digging up the floor is disruptive, but it does allow you to keep the original flooring material if that was your aim, as well as have a much warmer home and underfloor heating if required — and no future damp issues to worry about. Finally the slippers can be stored away.

A brick floor in a glazed walkway

Adding insulation to a floor base is key to it performing to modern standards, but the additional build-up required can be hard to accommodate

Repairing Wood Floors

  • Reviving old wooden floors is not usually a lengthy task — there are plenty of companies offering the service, while many people choose to carry this job out on a DIY basis. The work involves making gaps good, sorting out squeaks and scratches, and varnishing.
  • Professionals will charge in the region of £20-35/m², meaning a typical 16m² dining room might cost in the region of £400. If you are a confident DIYer and fancy having a go yourself, you should be able to do this for around £150.
  • If you are planning on laying a floating floor – an engineered wood floor, for example – it will simply be a case of rectifying any squeaks and screwing down any loose boards before laying underlay and your new floor. If it is tiles you are after and have a suspended timber floor then you can simply take up the boards and screw plyboard to the existing floor joists to get a nice level floor to tile on.
  • In the case of parquet flooring, sanding and finishing can be carried out fairly easily. If sections are badly damaged or loose, they can be taken up and replaced with new before the whole thing is varnished or sealed.
Renovating parquet flooring

Restoring Quarry Tiles and Flagstones

Often laid on nothing but earth, sand or ash, part of the beauty of these tiles is that any moisture that comes up through them can simply evaporate into the air. Traditionally they were usually treated with boiled linseed oil to make them more resistant to stains. Over time, however, this wears off and they become porous once more.

Close up of sealant between floor tiles

If you plan on keeping the tiles, sealing them with a modern sealant can be a bad idea — moisture will become trapped beneath them and try to find another way out, often up the walls. Try breathable stains like Tile Doctor and some of the Lithofin products.

If you find the tiles are badly stained or covered in adhesive or paint, they can be cleaned using a mixture of natural stone cleaner and water.

Paint can be removed using something like Nitromors or a similar recommended paint stripper, but be sure to treat them with boiled linseed oil after they have been cleaned.

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