079 Thatched Properties and Fire Safety Concerns

Recently we had a conversation with Neil Hewitt and Charles Chalcraft about surveying thatched properties and fire safety concerns involved in those surveys.

Neil Hewitt is a Suffolk-based independent residential building surveyor who offers the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveys) Building Survey. It is the highest level of survey offered under the RICS format that is particularly recommended for older properties. He specialises in older period properties, in particular local Suffolk timber frame and thatched houses.

Charles Chalcraft is a retired Master Thatcher who is trained as a Home Inspector. He now trains property professionals including surveyors how to survey properties with thatched roofs. He specialises in building surveys on older properties – cob & stone rubble that are thatched. He is also the technical advisor to the Devon and Cornwall Master Thatchers Association.

A Brief History of Thatched Roofing in the UK

Neil gives a brief background about thatched roofing in the UK and talks about the attributes of common thatching materials.

“I think the earliest building regs was in 1212 when London banned the building of new such properties because of fire risks,” Neil says. “There is a water reed which is Norfolk Reed, but the best Norfolk reeds stay in Norfolk. The rest of the country uses imported water reeds that could come from all over Europe, the Far East and Turkey.”

“Then you have wheat reed which is used for two different types of thatching,” he continues. “One is combed wheat reed where the straw is cut with a binder. And you’ll have longstraw in East Anglia and up into the Midlands, but you don’t find long straw hatching in the West Country. Those are the three principal methods of thatching.”

The Appeal and Costs of a Thatched Property

Both Neil and Charles weigh on the appeal of thatched properties and the costs of maintenance and risks. 

“Most buyers think of that chocolate box image, especially at the moment with so many people moving from the big cities,” Neil explains. “Half of my time, I’m trying to talk to people on the telephone and to explain to them the realities. There are various online sources or information that they can also refer to. It’s the same really with any period property, they must understand what they’re taking on. They must genuinely fall in love and appreciate the property for what it is and that they’re buying into a slice of history.”

“I think the Daily Mail has an annual competition to have such a cottage. So many people dream of it,” Charles continues. “Where I am in Devon, we have either stone rubble built or cob. If you’ve got a lot of thatch on the roof, it is very good insulation. It’s a big mistake for people to fill their walls with mineral wall insulation, because it changes the whole atmosphere in the roof from a warm roof to a cold roof. That’s just one of the hesitations I have with thatched roofs.”

Surveying Thatched Property 

From a surveyor’s perspective, Charles talks about why not all surveyors should take a job involving thatched properties. 

“I would say that surveying thatch is a specialist job,” Charles says. “No one who has not had sufficient training or guidance should be surveying such property. There are probably many cases where incompetent surveyors have surveyed such properties, and  they’ve come to the wrong conclusions, and the sales fell through because of it.”

“Probably the average age of Thatchers is the late 50s, into the 60s, and there are younger people coming in,” he says. “But quite often, they’re not prepared to put up with the dust, it takes a long time to learn.”

Fire Safety Issues

Charles and Neil discuss the causes of thatch fire and what surveyors can do to help homeowners avoid such accidents. 

“Over 90% of the thatch fires are caused by poor burning stoves,” Charles explains. “You have situations where you’ve got a big input in a fireplace in quite a small room. The NFU and Historic England concluded that the majority of the fires were caused by heat and embers coming out of the top of the chimney. I would prefer to say it is the chimney problems, rather than pointing to any particular one because it all comes down to how often you light the stove.”

“Yes, there is an obsession with solid fuel fires,” Neil agrees. “Most people tend to put vastly oversized units in their living rooms. In a lot of cases, homeowners are increasingly aware, and many insurance companies are making it much clearer about stipulations with a solid fuel fire, height of the chimney, etc. 

“Initially, you’ve got to have that telephone conversation with a client, to begin with. I always send them links beforehand – local thatching association and timber framing as well. That way, they are aware in advance of what’s out there, what they’re looking for. Then it’s a question of interviewing the owner of the property to gain good knowledge and their understanding of property,” Neil concludes.

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