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A Changing Climate: Water, Flooding and Historic Buildings

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

Merchant Adventurers Hall, York under flood on Boxing Day 2015. Photo courtesy of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York.

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.

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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.

blocked drainpipe
Blocked drainpipes can cause damage to the fabric of a building.

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.


Cottages in Langstone High Street, Hampshire, showing elevated doors. Photo H. Fluck.

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.

Photo courtesy of the company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York.

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.

The Old Mill, Langstone, Hampshire. Photo H. Fluck.

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.

Further reading:

Download our guidance on flooding and historic buildings 

Read our report on climate change adaption 

Find out about the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment for 2017 

See the National Assessment of Flood Risk 

3 comments on “A Changing Climate: Water, Flooding and Historic Buildings

  1. This is an interesting blog, and a call that we should definitely think towards the future regarding heritage buildings and their strength of ability to recover to changing climate conditions, is a must. Draft roofing does pay back; its thought by installing draught proofing around doors and windows you could save around £25 a year on your heating bills and reduce your emissions by around 130kg of CO2 each year.Installing insulation in existing roof voids is in many cases achievable and can help significantly in improving a building’s energy performance. Where a building has a historic timber roof structure insulation can be introduced between rafters, without any visual impact or harm to the historic building. Natural wool or rock wool insulation can be introduced into roofs and can help to minimise heat loss as well as mitigate acoustic problems.

  2. Valuable info. Lucky me I found your blog. Thank you for the good sharing.

  3. Awesome post, thanks for sharing this!

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