Defects analysis or ‘building pathology’ as it is sometimes known is the glue which binds together all building surveyors. While some choose to branch off into the dark arts of dilapidations, party walls and rights to light, for most surveyors the draw of understanding buildings and what goes wrong with them, remains a constant thread and an evolving challenge throughout their careers.
When my young children used to ask what I did as a job, the easiest description I could come up with was that I was a ‘Doctor for Buildings’. Although a misnomer intended as a simplification for young minds, in many ways the analogy worked. As a surveyor at MacConvilles Surveying we inspect and examine, we look to identify the symptoms and diagnose what is wrong, we look at the overall health of the building to put the problem into context, and finally we seek to prescribe remedial action and cure the ailment.
A bit like a GP meeting a patient for the first time, we are not always able to identify the problem from the first examination. Sometimes it is necessary to undertake further exploratory works to confirm or rule out our assumptions or suspicions. The need for further tests or opening up works is sometimes unavoidable, but throughout the process of defects diagnosis there remains a need to be as analytical and systematic in our approach to buildings as a doctor would be to his or her patient. Action should be targeted and follow the chain of likely causation, not just involve saturation bombing in the hope of hitting the target.
The challenge for building surveyors of my generation is the sheer variety and range of defects that can affect buildings given the way methods of construction and materials have changed over the decades. In Brighton and Hove we are blessed with some classical Regency architecture dating back almost 200 years. Elsewhere in the city the architecture is diverse with Victorian and Edwardian influences, as well as emerging methods of modern construction.
All of these eras have their own inherent problems and therefore a broad knowledge base is required. Old buildings are thermally inferior and draughty, and yet they can flex and breathe like modern buildings can’t. Modern construction has many benefits – not least massive improvements in energy performance – and yet buildings are brittle and need careful management of ventilation and vapour control to avoid condensation and other associated problems.
Defects can arise through ineffective design, poor workmanship or a simple failure to maintain. Sometimes the very act of ‘improvement’ can inadvertently lead to defects as modern materials sit uncomfortably in older surroundings. Over the past year I’ve seen cavity wall insulation which has blocked air bricks and caused sub-floor timber decay; and loadbearing timber windows of sound condition removed and replaced with upvc, causing fractures around a bay window. Defects arising out of good intention to bring older buildings into the present day, but with adverse consequences.
With modern buildings come modern defects and the challenge for building surveyors in the future will be evolve with the new, whilst keeping an eye on the old. Buildings will never stop throwing up conundrums and there will no doubt be new generations of surveyors inspired to solve them.
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Kevin Bashford BSc (Hons) MA PgDip MRICS is one of our very experienced Building Surveyors. He joined MacConvilles in November 2006 having completed his Post Graduate Degree in Building Surveying and Chartered in 2010. He brings with him many years of knowledge and skills gained working as a carpenter and builder prior to becoming a Building Surveyor.
Kevin is part of the Heritage team providing specialist services for conservation, restoration and repair of historic and listed buildings.