A great majority of residential homes within the UK have a chimney. As a nation, it is so important for us to have houses with chimneys that we even still build “fake” chimney stacks on brand new properties that have no function whatsoever, other than to look aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and satisfy our traditional view of what a house should look like.
Of course, with the introduction of central heating and more efficient ways of heating the home and cooking, the traditional function of the chimney is now obsolete, and when fires or more fashionable solid fuel stoves are lit, it is often for comfort and aesthetics rather than to provide warmth for the home. However, the great majority of chimney stacks still remain in place and many go completely unnoticed, particularly by prospective home buyers, and often owners. Not many people (except surveyors) turn up to a viewing with an estate agent and proclaim “wait! “I cannot look at the inside until I have checked the chimney condition”! However, the chimney stack is probably one of the most important parts of the property to look at. There are several reasons for this:
Firstly, bricks are heavy. Each brick weighs approximately 3.1kg. If we assume that an average chimney is built with approximately 200 bricks, that’s a total weight, on top of your roof, sitting above your head every night of 620kg, and often more. If the bricks or mortar to the chimney are so damaged that the chimney collapses, particularly during spells of high winds, this could be deadly for anyone sleeping below.
Secondly, chimneys are high up and are therefore heavily exposed to the weather, particularly in the Western areas of the UK. This means that the mortar becomes worn relatively quickly compared to other parts of the property and requires repointing regularly. In older properties, it is common to see repointing work carried out with cement mortar rather than lime. Cement mortar prevents moisture evaporating as it should from the masonry. If cement mortar is used, the masonry becomes excessively damp and begins to perish with parts breaking off, particularly in periods of frost. Add into the mix a TV aerial, attached and wrapped around with metal wire, which expands and contracts in the heat and cold, and this exacerbates the deterioration of the masonry further. If perished areas of mortar and masonry are not repaired relatively quickly, then this can quickly lead to structural problems and often a “hole” in the chimney where further water can enter and the whole process speeds up, eventually making the chimney stack structurally unsound. This is not a risk we want to take when our children are sleeping in the bedrooms underneath.
Thirdly, chimney breasts, particularly in Victorian and older properties, tend to take up a great deal of space in a room. Modern ways and trends have led to a significant amount of chimney breasts being completely removed to make way for bigger kitchens, living areas and flat screen TV’s. The chimney breast, which usually runs down through the loft, the first floor and to the ground floor, is what is holding up that 620kg of bricks that we mentioned above. If this is taken away without the correct support, then again, we are left with a dangerous and precarious stack of bricks above that could collapse at any time. The removal of a chimney breast therefore requires building regulation consent from the local authority to show that the work has been done correctly, and that the correct support is in place.
Lastly, the chimney effectively extends up through a “hole” in the roof. If the flashings around the chimney are not secure and regularly checked, then water will leak down the sides into the roof space and cause rot to the roof timbers and other internal elements. This can cause structural damage to the roof, damp inside the property and lead to other defects such as woodworm or rot, which can be costly to treat.
Making repairs to the chimney can be difficult, as it is a difficult part of the property to reach, and will more often than not, require scaffolding. This makes work to the chimney costly and so, not only do owners fail to notice that anything is required, they may fail to get the work done due to the extent of the problem.
So, when I move house, the very first thing I will be looking at will be the condition of the chimney.