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Low Maintenance Design

the Forth Bridge, a symbol of constant maintenance. (however the latest paints claim to last longer)

the Forth Bridge was infamous for its never ending maintenance

The ecological cost of constantly repairing and maintaining houses is enormous and it makes sense from all angles to build with a view to low maintenance. At the most basic level it means you have more money to go on holiday. At a macro level it reduces the impact of the huge house repair industry which consumes massive amounts of fuel and materials. There are two main ongoing areas of maintenance –

  • damage
  • occasional updating

Damage to the building

There are several factors which can cause damage even when a building has been built correctly according to the building regulation (bearing in mind that older buildings may have been erected under previous regulations which had much lower standards than apply now – or none at all).

  • ‘Natural’ hazards
    • rain,
    • wind
    • sunlight
    • frost
    • dry rot
    • tree roots
    • vermin
    • leaves
    • insects
  • Human damage
    • wear and tear
      • abrasion
      • tearing / breaking
      • leaks
    • vandalism

Damage can be reduced in a number of ways –


Rain damage is mainly concerned with decay of woodwork in doors, windows and outdoor items such as fences. The best way to prevent this is with generous roof overhangs combined with setting windows and doors well back into the walls. Most rain in the UK falls within 5 degrees of vertical so a roof overhang of 600mm on a two storey building will largely prevent rain getting to the woodwork. This should be combined with the treatment of woodwork with microporous coatings


Wind damage mostly affects roof coverings, particularly slates on roof edges where suction can lift them off their fixings. The risk comes when the slates and tiles are not properly fixed


Sunlight can cause degradation to some plastics. Particularly vulnerable are the transparent and part transparent polythenes used for damp proof membranes and expanded polyurethane foam which is sometimes used to seal around external holes for service. Polycarbonate is virtually unaffected.


Frost – Surprisingly, the UK has a very damaging climate in terms of frost. This is not because of particularly low temperatures but because of the frequency of freeze/thaw cycles. It is exactly during the change between freezing and thawing that the damage is done and this accounts for a lot of surface damage to masonry surfaces such as pointing and render. It is very important to get the mixes right for these sort of materials.


Dry rot (and wet rot) can become a problem when alterations are made to buildings. This can occur when the breathability of walls is reduced, possibly due to the application of some type of vapour proof barrier to the outside of a wall and the moisture gets trapped and causes damp.


Tree roots can be a source of problems to both walls and drains.


Vermin , particularly rats and mice pose little of a problem for modern masonry construction but timber frame construction which is not protected may store up future problems. Timber frame of all types is particularly vulnerable to being gnawed through and if rats and mice once get in they may be able to set up long runs which are difficult to deal with. At the same time they may compromise air tightness. This requires careful design.


Leaves can block gutters and valley gutters. Leaf guards can be fitted


Insects . Leaving aside woodworm (which will not occur if timber is kept dry) insects have only traditionally been a problem in the UK with the house longhorn beetle and then only in certain areas in the south of England mentioned in the building regulations (approved document A page 11). However since the termite outbreak in Devon and the increasing spread of termites across northern Europe it may just be a matter of time till they get a hold in the UK. This is probably linked to the speed of global warming.


Wear and tear falls into two main types – abrasion and breakage. The first and most obvious point is to use good quality materials as far as possible. The second question is whether repairs are easy to do (or in fact possible at all). Some materials are virtually unrepairable e.g. plastic laminate floors and worktops, whereas others can be repaired for hundreds of years e.g. hardwood floors. Some materials such as decorative tiles are particularly difficult because the manufacturers change designs frequently and one broken tile may spoil the look of a whole floor or wall. Although it is possible to keep a supply of spare tiles it may be better to go for enduring types such as quarry tiles and plain colours which can usually be matched.


Updating / improving the building

Ignoring the changes outlined in Flexible design that may occur to a house during its lifetime, there are occasional improvements which any building requires no matter how basic it is. Looking back on the changes made to very old houses, say from the Georgian period, there are two which stand out –

  • services need updating every few decades and this is easier if they are in service ducts from the beginning.
  • insulation and airtightness tend to need improving. This is extremely difficult to do properly after the house is built so it pays to get this right at the start. Building to Passihaus standard will probably be the optimum and sensible level to aim for. It hardly makes sense to go for a higher standard and any future  improvements will probably be technological additions (such as PV) rather than basic improvements to the fabric of the house.

1 comment to Low Maintenance Design

  • You sugges timber treatment may be of increasing importance due to global warming (eg longhorn beatle in london and termites now seen in Devon?).

    The world is changing!

    My point, quite simply, is what “are” we supposed to do when it comes to roof timbers?

    What species of wood is best for the uk climate?

    Treat or not treat them to avoid attack by insects/fungi/woodworm or whatever?

    And if so, with what?

    (Bearing in mind roof trusses want to last for centuries where possible and not just decades).

    Any guidance and advice appreciated.

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