Looking to use an old property for your modern office? 3 tips before you start

10 January 2017

Heritage specialist Bruce Clark from Nash Partnership gives some guidance.

In choosing a business address, the setting is an important consideration both as a workplace and for customer appeal. A well-looked after building portrays a good public face for your business and to clients, and good working conditions are required for staff.

Many SMEs don’t need large, modern, open-plan offices – they require smaller spaces of the type that can be provided by older properties. eg. an old town house. There’s a mass of under-used properties in every town which, if upgraded, could be good for many office-based SMEs and provide pleasant places to work, and for customers/clients to visit. Many towns have old buildings looking for tenants, which can be a cheap way in to the business property market.

If you are considering buying an old property from which to run your modern business, there are three important early considerations:

1) Ensure that the building is available for business use. Planning permission may be required.

2) Consider whether Listed Building Permission will be required for any alterations or ‘repairs’.

3) Ensure the building is structurally sound, waterproof and safe. Here’s some guidance:

Identify condition issues

It is important to distinguish between the works a property needs as opposed to the works you wish to do. A good place to start is to identify the issues with the building fabric and their causes. Unless the property has been surveyed by someone familiar with traditional building fabric, work advised and/or undertaken often uses modern methods or materials that may be inappropriate. This could have unintended side effects on the historic fabric. Historic England has issued some technical advice notes concerning works to upgrade Listed Buildings and the potential consequences with particular focus on the inappropriate use of modern materials.

Tackle problems at the outset to avoid escalating costs

Updating, re-fitting and redecorating an old property can involve treating a myriad of issues. These can range from damp, timber decay and beetle attack, spalling stonework or plaster to mould.

Small problems are often ignored, and multiply and are not addressed until they become unsightly or cause habitability issues. Even then, people often address the symptoms and redecorate or adjust how they use the property rather than address the underlying issue. Underlying conditions must be treated correctly to avoid causing greater problems (and more expense) later. Many of the problems that accrue with older buildings could be avoided with timely and often very basic maintenance.

Consider maintenance

The base cause of fabric issues is often water penetration, where neglect spirals until a simple problem becomes a major issue. This often starts from blocked and uncleaned gutters and rainwater pipes. It is important to understand that damp leads to timber and plaster decay as well as insect attacks.

Importantly for business owners, historic buildings are often very robust and can recover, but – like any structure – even the most robust will fail if maintenance is neglected over a long period.  By addressing the underlying causes, quite serious decay can be at least paused and works made less invasive.

Key maintenance issues include:

  • Gutters – keep clear to prevent blockages from vegetation growth, which can lead to drainage problems and leaks. Parapet gutters especially will cause damage to the roof and inside the building if not kept clear. Check joints are sound and that the gutters fall correctly. The underlying cause is often corroded or damaged fixings.
  • Rainwater pipes and gullies – these can leak if damaged. Rainwater pipe leaks onto the face of a building are a common cause of damp and timber decay yet easily resolved.
  • Roof – replace loose or missing slates/tiles and ensure flaunchings are maintained.
  • Lead work – torn or displaced flashings cause leaks typically around parapet walls, valleys, chimneys and bay windows.
  • Stone work – can need repair/cleaning due to lichen, moss growth and weather damage. Pointing can also need repair.
  • Paint work – its first purpose is to conserve the timber. Modern paints often crack and flake, allowing water behind.
  • Lead lights and glazing – secure, repair or replace damaged glass in windows/doors. Quarries become loose within the leads over time.
  • Basements and walls at low level – rotten skirtings and floor boards can signal blocked ventilation, raised ground levels or problems with the drainage system. NOTE: Many older buildings do not have a damp-proof course or damp-proof membrane. This is not necessarily a problem but the building fabric needs to be allowed to ‘breathe’. Or is the ‘damp’ the result of condensation?
  • Heating systems – misunderstanding them can lead to interstitial condensation.

Summary

Modern technology (eg. wifi) simplifies the possibility of using old properties for modern businesses because ‘hardware’ installations are greatly reduced. For example, whole floors no longer need to be rewired to accommodate IT needs with often unsightly and fragile Dado trunking. It is more likely that it is possible to continue to work within the property whilst any upgrading work is being done.

Property owners are often quick to treat the surface conditions and redecorate without looking at why issues have occurred. Without tackling the base causes of any problems results are likely to be short-lived.

Through tackling the underlying causes a basic maintenance can go a long way towards addressing even serious issues. Buildings need time to dry out properly, so don’t expect instant results – they respond slowly.

We’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in the subject. Please contact Bruce Clark at Nash Partnership on 01225 442424.