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What Not To Do With Old Buildings and Inglenook Fireplaces

Can you cope with uneven plaster work, unlevel brick-work and sloping floors; and that niggling damp spot? If you prefer perfect surfaces, level lines, an old building-respectively inglenook fireplaces (and our service) may not be for you.

The most exciting old buildings are those where little has been done in the way of “modernisation”. Their original plasters, brick walls, fireplaces, finishes add character and are far easier to repair than those that have been inappropriately restored. Cement-rich renders, layers of plasterboard and recent additions potentially harm and disfigure. This is due to the lack of knowledge and misapprehension by builders and structural engineers unfamiliar with old buildings; they have a tendency to be heavy handed and to over-specify remedial repairs, leading to costly and unnecessary work.

With our most recent project in Dunsfold, Surrey of the restoration of three inglenook fireplaces and chimney in an old Grade ll listed building, which we regrettably quit after a couple of months working there, we witnessed exactly that. The main oak beam in the inglenook fireplace with a length of more than 13ft when checked if it is level was out by half an inch. The owners suggested that one end of the beam had to be lifted, to which the builders working there said without hesitation that they will do whatever they have been told from the owners! The the owners went on by pointing out that the side walls of the inglenook fireplace are not level and bulging. Cracks, bulges and out-of-plumb walls in an inglenook fireplace can look rather alarming but there is no need to panic – much of the movement will be historic. And, by underpinning the fireplace and putting damp-proof course (by the advice from their structural engineer) could lead to further problems. Whereas previously the whole structure would have shifted slightly, the underpinned section could part company with the rest of the fireplace, if it is held rigidly in position.

Our aim at Inglenook Restoration Ltd is not to hide imperfections such as bulges, bows, sags and leans but rather to respect them. The walls of an old inglenook fireplace will rarely be plumb or even flat. “Defects” such as bulging and leaning walls are often the very thing that gives our fireplace character. The old fireplaces simply need to be respected and any improvements that are made need to be sympathetic to the fireplace’s needs. The golden role is to do as little as possible and no more than is necessary in order to keep their “character” and the patina of age – history built up over many years.

The Role of the Fireplace in Heating Control

The most exciting old buildings are those where little has been done in the way of “modernisation”. Their original plasters, brick walls, fireplaces, finishes add character and are far easier to repair than those that have been inappropriately restored. Cement-rich renders, layers of plasterboard and recent additions potentially harm and disfigure. This is due to the lack of knowledge and misapprehension by builders and structural engineers unfamiliar with old buildings; they have a tendency to be heavy handed and to over-specify remedial repairs, leading to costly and unnecessary work.

The Inglenook means corners or nook by a fireplace; the early origins of the Inglenook fireplace can be traced back as far as the 12th century, with evolutions through the 16th century. Inglenooks were originally used to provide heat for cooking, and a hearth structure for warmth and gathering. In about the 12th century, the fireplace was moved from its central location to a perimeter wall and eventually the fireplace began to be enclosed by side walls and covered with smoke hoods with large hearths to burn big logs and benches (sitting places). The result was buildings of little rooms within large ones. The word ‘chimney’ was originally used for a hearth or fireplace, the central hearth of medieval open halls began to be replaced by huge fireplaces set in a side wall during the 15th Century. Cast iron fireback’s are designed to protect the brick (stone wall) at the rear of a fire and reflect the heat, and were very popular in the 16th/17th century.

The open fireplace was the only source of heating and cooking more or less up to the 19th century. Heat loss from old buildings was very high because the houses were very poor insulated and the heat escapes through doors and windows and through the roof. For that reason during the cold and winter months a fire would have been burning continuously 24 hours a day — with that the heat loss was reduced and it was more economical to heat up the building and maintain the temperature. Some of the fireplaces were build with a seat at one or two (on both end of the pillars) for people to be able to seat closer to the fire. These seating places were lime-plastered and lime wash in order to reflect the light into the rooms because in the absence of glass windows materials like wooden shatters and pieces of cloths were used.

In some of the fireplaces there we can find bread ovens on the back walls or on one of the sides walls and underneath them was the ash pit. So when they clean the bread oven rather throwing the ashes in the burning fire the use the ash pit. Some of the bread ovens were build when the fireplace was build but there is no exception that some were build on later - altering the fireplace. There were various in sizes alcoves for storing and drying salt, etc. And in some big fireplaces up in the chimney breast we can find the so called smoking chambers where they used to hang meat.

The old fireplaces simply need to be respected and any improvements that are made need to be sympathetic to the fireplace’s needs. The golden role is to do as little as possible and no more than is necessary in order to keep their 'character' and the patina of age — history built up over many years.