The phrase ‘structural repairs’ is often the final nail in the coffin for many house purchases, its designation complicating insurance and mortgage approvals. The definition of a house is a structure that keeps out the elements and is safe to live in — which are also the fundamental criteria for getting a house mortgaged and insured. So why would anyone buy a house that is not ‘structurally sound’?

When we purchased Mabel’s it was pretty clear that there were some issues. There is a significant crack running down the west elevation of the building, wide enough to fit your hand in, the window seat in the living room is bowed beyond comprehension, and there are various other bulges and cracks too.

bowed window seat requiring structural repairs

The window seat in the lounge has been bowed by the movement of the house, with the Crittal Windows now providing structural support

Of course, it is an 18th-century farmhouse, and something that has been around that long is bound to show a few signs of age. However, the movement that is evidenced at Mabel’s is an indication of a larger problem than old age and, in fact, is one of the reasons we bought her in the first place.

The need for structural repairs puts a lot of people off and means properties like this are often to be found at auction. We were excited about the challenge of a building that needed such a degree of repair and hopeful that the scale of the problems would create the opportunity for us to own a beautiful building at an affordable price.

We were confident that given the age of the property, the ease of access to the site and its detached standing we would overcome the structural issues. We considered the likely solution was to completely underpin the building and we budgeted accordingly, although we remained open-minded about the approach and recognised the need for comprehensive structural repairs.

We knew just the person to help us understand the underlying cause of Mabel’s issues: Neil, our trusty structural engineer, who has extensive experience with listed buildings and older properties.

a crack in the external wall requiring structural repairs

The crack on the external wall of Mabel’s Farmhouse is wide enough to fit your hand in!

Neil came over last spring and gave us an initial appraisal of Mabel’s movements. This involved a site visit of several hours where he explored the building, inside and out, and carefully documented its condition. He recommended a comprehensive engineered approach, balancing the principles behind the NHBC (National House Building Council) process with his own observations on site, diagnosing the structural issues and adopting specific structural repairs to address them. Fundamental to this approach was to understand the root cause of the movement.

It was pretty clear that Mabel’s issues lay in the ground so Neil called on the services of Tom, a geotechnical engineer, to investigate the conditions around the house. Tom dug a selection of trial pits around the house and bagged up various soil samples for testing. What was clear was the presence of a clay seam and non-existent footings, which are both common causes of structural movement. The proximity of large trees around the site also results in seasonal movement due to shrinkage of the clay caused by thirsty roots.

The results of the soil tests, plus Neil’s assessment, will help us find the right structural solution for Mabel’s. One thing is clear… it’s going to get messy.

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