A Guide To Thatch


Why use thatch?

In days gone by buildings were lightly constructed of irregular materials such as wattle and daub with cruck beams. This type of construction did not lend itself to the use of heavy materials such as slate, clay and stone for the roof. Thatch was simply the lightest roofing material around at the time. In addition, thatch, in one of its various guises, could be supplied from local resources. In early times wild vegetation such as reeds, heather and bracken were used extensively. Later, these were superseded with the advent of cultivated barley, rye, straw and wheat. Wheat straw tended to be the most predominantly used material in the south of England with reeds being popular in East Anglia and heather in the north of England and Scotland.


During the Middle Ages, thatch was primarily used by the poor on buildings such as farmhouses and cottages. Occasionally, it also came to be used on more substantial buildings including churches and large halls such as the great 1300 a.d. Norman castle at Pevensey in Sussex. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the Victorians made it possible to move alternative, cheaper roofing materials and particularly slate, from the quarries of Wales via the burgeoning railway network to virtually all parts of the United Kingdom. This marked a decline in the use of thatch as a building material. Mechanisation in the form of the combine harvester further added to this decline since the action of the machinery rendered wheat straw unsuitable for use as a thatching material. Norfolk reed, already prized for its strength and durability, became more sought after. The choice of different thatch led to the introduction of distinct regional styles. This trend was consolidated as local thatchers developed individual detailing which was then handed down from one generation to the next. Thatched buildings are still common in almost every county in the United Kingdom but the greatest concentration today is to be found in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.

 

Thatching Materials


Today, only three types of thatching materials remain in general use in England; long straw, combed wheat reed and water reed. Long straw and combed wheat reed utilise the same material but differ in the method of construction:

Long straw, the threshing process for which leaves the material mixed and dishevelled, has a distinctive 'poured on' appearance when laid on the roof. This 'shaggy' look is retained throughout the life of the roof as, unlike the other two methods, the material does not compact when laid. Of the various types of thatching material in common usage, in rural England long straw was one of the first applications to be used in its different forms.

 

Combed wheat reed (Devon Reed) is applied quite differently and the finished article displays a much neater and more trimmed appearance. Popular in the south and west of England, wheat reed is dressed and knocked into shape whereas long straw is placed in position, then raked. A roof of wheat reed may be expected to last between 25 and 60 years with the duration being affected by a number of factors including roof pitch, material source, prevailing climate and region.

 

Generally regarded as a superior thatch, water reed - also known as Norfolk reed from whence it originated - is a completely different material in that it is a natural plant and not the by-product of an agricultural process. Famed for its longevity, the higher material price of water reed is to some extent offset by a reduction in labour and construction costs.

 

The appearance of a roof is determined not just by the choice of materials used but also according to the detailing of the eaves, ridges, dormers and surface decoration. Regional styles are apparent but often vary according to the methods practiced by a particular thatcher and passed down over the generations. In the South West for example, the 'tea cosy' look typified by cottages with single storey, whitewashed, thick cob walls support a roof of combed wheat reed piled in multiple layers, some of which may be several hundred years old. The sharper, more closely defined roof of water reed construction is widespread in Dorset and parts of the Home Counties. Water reed is coarser in texture, sharper in appearance and often displays a close cut, patterned ridge . Examples of long straw thatching will be found all over Southern England but are much in evidence in the cottages of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, characterised by their noticeably steep-pitched roofs where angles of 60 degrees are common. Long straw construction is easy to spot due to the fact that the eaves and barges are usually finished with 'liggers' ( criss-crossed lengths of split hazel or willow) seen on the pitch of the roof.

Specification ( new build)

When considering new build, the importance of taking into account the proposed roof pitch should not be underestimated. The choice of thatching material will often be influenced by factors such as the availability of indigenous materials and the desire to maintain sympathy with similar properties in the area. It should also be noted that local Building Regulations may dictate the material selection in addition to certain aspects of the building specification

 

 

Tools of the Trade

The woodworking tools used today in thatching have changed little since the Middle Ages with the only major improvement being the introduction of steel for the cutting edge instead of iron. Many and varied, the most common include saws, planes, chisels, hammers and screw-drivers. Similarly, hand tools for laying and trimming thatch would be instantly recognisable to an artisan of centuries ago.


Care of Thatch

Properly looked after, a thatch roof will require little maintenance and should give many years' trouble-free service. However, it is important to seek expert advice and to establish the condition of the roof in the first instance before moving on to consider any longer term maintenance issues.

 

Listed Buildings

Listed buildings are strictly protected by law and permission must be sought and granted before any alterations or additions are made. Seek the early advice of the Local Authority Conservation Department. This is particularly important if you are about to re-thatch or repair a thatched roof and there exist a number of pitfalls waiting to trap the unwary. Delays can be caused and work disrupted and work can even be stopped and reinstatement of existing features Insisted upon. This is best avoided by establishing a good level of communication between the owner, architect, thatch er and Local Authority and by obtain written confirmation of all agreed actions.

 

V.A.T

There is often confusion as to whether V.A.T. is payable on a thatch roof. Unfortunately, the answer is that V.A.T. is usually payable, including repairs to a listed building. Re-thatching, re-ridging and patching work normally attracts V.A.T. at the standard rate but sometimes at the reduced rate of 5%. A general exception to this rule applies to new buildings or, in the case of a listed building, where it involves an additional (new) structure being added. If in doubt, consult , your local Customs and Exise office who should be able to offer clarification and a precise ruling. Request that any decisions regarding your roof and any applicable V.A.T. are confirmed to you in writing.

 

Buying and Surveying

If you are considering buying a thatched property, obtaining expert advice prior to purchase will help avoid unexpected shocks and costly mistakes . Owning a thatched property need not be either expensive or maintenance intensive but establishing a sound starting point is vital.
With prices starting from just £45 plus VAT for a basic Condition Report, Cleeve Thatchers are able to offer a comprehensive range of:

  • House Buyers Reports
  • Condition Reports
  • Mortgage Valuations
  • Roof Structure Surveys
  • Insurance Valuations

Comparative Costs

Owning a character rich, distinctive property does come at a price. When compared with modern cement tiles or slates, thatching a roof will usually cost more. However, if the costs of carpentry and wood materials are also considered, then the overall cost comparison is much closer. For the modern roof it is also necessary to factor in the additional costs associated with gutters, soffit boards, soakaways and downpipes - none of which are required with a thatch roof. Thatching materials will themselves differ in cost. As a rough rule of thumb, the material cost of long straw is the least expensive, water reed the most costly with combed wheat reed lying somewhere in the middle.InsuranceTraditionally, home insurers have tended to load the premiums in respect of thatched properties but nowadays a more enlightened attitude prevails. It is usually advantageous to obtain quotations from a growing number of insurers who specialise in accepting this type of risk and whose premiums are therefore more likely to be competitive. See also LINKS

 

Fire Prevention

Although clearly the risk of fire cannot be ignored, the risk is frequently overstated with the actual number of thatch roof fires being surprisingly small. Statistically, the incidence of thatched houses devastated by fire in the UK is on average only half that of conventionally built homes. It is also estimated that 90% of thatch roof fires are chimney related. Heeding the advice of the local Fire Authority, adopting normal household safety precautions coupled with the use of fire retardants, barrier foils and 'thatchbatts' reduce the fire risk significantly.
(Note- a good, qualified thatch er will be able to offer detailed advice concerning the latter). Wood burning stoves present a particular risk in thatched property and requires special consideration.

 

Pest Control

Although the potential for pests to damage a thatch roof will always exist, in practice, properly maintained thatch should not present a great problem in this respect. Mice and rats are attracted to any holes or gaps in the roof structure. If these are not present, rodents do not normally find it of interest to have to battle through many inches of well bound thatch. Early action is the key when rodent activity is identified. Contact the local pest control officer or a commercial firm to deal with the problem. With the problem eradicated, ask your thatch er to implement repairs as necessary. Damage caused by nesting birds tends to be more common, particularly along the ridge line in roofs thatched with wheat straw. Netting in galvanised chicken mesh will usually provide an effective solution without detracting greatly from the aesthetic appeal of the roof. (Note - long straw thatching should always be netted - combed wheat and water reed may be). The importance of taking prompt remedial action makes a big difference in keeping maintenance costs to a minimum.

 

Comparative Costs

Owning a character rich, distinctive property does come at a price. When compared with modern cement tiles or slates, thatching a roof will usually cost more. However, if the costs of carpentry and wood materials are also considered, then the overall cost comparison is much closer. For the modern roof it is also necessary to factor in the additional costs associated with gutters, soffit boards, soakaways and downpipes - none of which are required with a thatch roof. Thatching materials will themselves differ in cost. As a rough rule of thumb, the material cost of long straw is the least expensive, water reed the most costly with combed wheat reed lying somewhere in the middle.

 

Insurance

Traditionally, home insurers have tended to load the premiums in respect of thatched properties but nowadays a more enlightened attitude prevails. It is usually advantageous to obtain quotations from a growing number of insurers who specialise in accepting this type of risk and whose premiums are therefore more likely to be competitive.

 

Grants & Finance

This will depend whether the property is a listed building. If so, it may be possible to obtain a grant towards the cost of re-thatching and sometimes for repair. Grants usually fall into two categories:

1. An Historic Buildings Grant

2. An Environmental Health Grant

 

For 1. contact the Conservation/Planning Department of your Local Authority and for 2. contact the Environmental Health Department of your Local Authority. The actual amount of any grant may vary from one council to another, taking account of factors such as rateable value and the most competitive received tender. However, it may still be possible to secure the amount of grant and to request that the work is carried out by a thatch er of your own choosing. A few thatched buildings are listed by the Department of the Environment as grade two star. In this case grant aid is sometimes available direct from English Heritage. Your local Council will be able to advise you in more detail. Note that even if you are not successful in obtain a grant, your thatcher is restricted to guidelines to which he will have to adhere as laid down by English Heritage. It is also a fact that thatching to maintain a strict historic style does not necessarily produce the most durable result. The regulations concerning grants change so it is important to ensure that your thatcher is fully conversant with the most up-to-date rules with regard to listed property.

 

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