Water. We can’t live without it. Throughout history living near water has been important for almost every aspect of human life and for the resources and raw materials that rivers, lakes, wetlands and the sea provide. But living in close proximity to water is not without its challenges.
In 2009 The Environment Agency estimated that 1 in 6 properties in England (5.2 million) were at risk of flooding. There are 1.8 million people currently living in areas at significant risk of flooding and this is predicted to increase to 2.6 million people over the next 30 years.
In this first blog in a series on climate change and the historic environment, Hannah Fluck, Historic Environment Intelligence Officer at Historic England, looks at the impact on flooding on historic buildings and how clever design can reduce its damaging effects.
The flooding threat
Rainfall patterns are changing, with more rain predicted to fall in intense downpours in the future. The impacts of a changing climate in combination with our land use and settlement patterns mean that the risks are increasingly impacting upon our lives.
Buildings can be vulnerable to the effects of climate change but there are a range of features in both historic and modern buildings that help deflect rainwater away from the fabric. These are often decorative but also perform important functions.
Features such as pitched roofs ensure water is shed quickly, preventing it from sitting long enough to penetrate the roof material, whilst wide eaves and cornices keeps falling water away from the walls. Hood mouldings over windows also shed water quickly away from potentially vulnerable joins.
It is a common misconception that buildings need to be waterproof. The materials used in traditional buildings are often permeable, acting a bit like an old fashioned overcoat; the very top surface can become wet but providing the water is kept moving, it will offer considerable protection. If however the materials become sodden it will not perform as well in keeping the weather out.
Changing rainfall patterns present a challenge for buildings whose gutters, downpipes and drains can’t cope with increased volumes of water but simply keeping these clear and well maintained can make a big difference.
Lessons from our ancestors
When it comes to living in areas prone to flooding, we often find that traditional buildings are more resilient to flood damage thanks to adaptable design. In areas at risk of tidal flooding, the door frames are often constructed with slots for putting wooden ‘bargeboards’ or ‘washboards’ in place, such as in the houses in Langstone High Street above. These were often accompanied by raised thresholds and floor levels.
Where buildings were prone to flooding, flooring materials were often selected that were easy to clean down and would resist water damage. Stone floors are easy to clean out and are frequently seen in such traditional properties, such as at the Merchant Adventurers Hall in York which enabled it to recover within a few months of severe flooding in 2015.
Sink or swim
For many historic buildings, it’s not just how they were built but also how they were used that enabled them to resist or recover quickly from flooding. Basements and lower floors were used for storage or furnished in a way that meant that goods could easily be moved to higher levels, and buildings close to water were more usually used for trade and industry than as places for living.
On a final positive note, we should remember properties that benefited from their proximity to water. The Grade II mill at Langstone in Hampshire was built on pillars on the shore to harness the power of the tide and Cragside in Northumberland was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, thanks to the nearby lakes within the estate grounds.