Three Crowood Press Books review’d

Martin Godfrey Cook, Energy Efficiency in Old Houses.  This looked very promising, and just the thing I was after.  I need practical solutions to two houses, one a grade II listed Sussex farmhouse; the other, a Victorian Cambridge terraced house.  I was overjoyed to see a case study of the latter, but when I read further, I was none the wiser.  In fact, the whole book left me none the wiser:  I know all the basic energy-savingy-insulate-your-home stuff, and, sadly, this book did not contain anything you can’t easily find on Google.  Admittedly, I’m not a novice, but an experienced carpenter/ handyman:  if you’re new to the subject, this is a very good book to start with, although it’s slightly worthily written.  I’m sorry I bought it, but not sorry to have read it (though I did skim more as I progressed through it).

I still have no real idea how to tackle my problems, which many owners of old houses will share, viz. how to improve the heating and other energy consumption of the building without ripping the inside out and starting again (tens of thousand of pounds later).  I’d like to insulate a single-skin brick kitchen wall.  How do I do this so that there’s adequate ventilation?  Indeed, I’d like to draught-proof windows, and would love some ideas on controlled ventilation.  This book does not tackle that any more than extremely generally, and sentences such as ‘but the introduction of impervious modern insulation may be detrimental, unless very carefully considered and detailed’ is so unhelpful that it could appear on the English Heritage website.

Verdict:  a good beginner’s guide, but of limited use to the more experienced.

Janet CollingsFixtures and Fittings of Period Houses 1714-1939 looked very exciting, but was a huge disappointment.  I borrowed (and still need to buy) Linda Hall’s excellent Period House Fixtures and Fittings from a friend, and have used this extensively to help date various fixtures and fittings in the Sussex farmhouse I live in.  I hoped that, from the write-up, Collings’ book would be similar.  The pictures are indeed many and colourful and of good quality.  But the book is just a selection of photographs.  The captions are bland and neither descriptive nor specific enough to be at all useful.  I’ve just opened a page at random.  Here’s an outbuilding of brick with pantiles.  The description says:  ‘out-buildings may take many forms – this one has some illumination by means of glass pantiles on the roof.’  Or this one:  ‘The end building on the house was usually where the privy was located, until the arrival of internal bathrooms.’  (You don’t say.)

What I was particularly hopeful about was information on metal casement windows – I’d like to date ours.  From Hall’s book, they could well be from the 19th century.  There are a couple of photos of similar windows in Collings, but the captions hold no clues as to their date.  For example, ‘Iron and steel are stronger than wood and so the frames may be thinner, allowing more of the opening to be glass’.  (Really?  I’d never have guessed.)  Or ‘this is a more decorative style of cast-iron window frame’, or ‘the windows that open have a metal frame around them.’  Did she write this book in a tearing hurry?  Where are any dates?

The blurb on the back says that ‘This invaluable, lavishly illustrated book is essential reading for those who already own a period house… and wish to maintain it in a sustainable way and retain the building’s original characteristics and period charm’.  Which period?  ‘Original’ to when?  Lavishly illustrated, yes, but essential reading?  Sadly not.

Verdict:  Useless; a complete waste of £25.  I feel aggrieved and want my money back.  This book could be ‘essential reading’ if there were dates

Bevis Claxton, Maintaining and Repairing Old Houses.  Crowood Press, I forgive you for the previous two books (although I’d accept a discount for my next purchase following your poor trades description re. the Collings).  Bevis Claxton’s Maintaining and Repairing Old Houses – now this is essential reading.  In fact, I wish I’d had it much earlier.  In fact, I wish I’d bought it instead of, and not even in addition to, the much more expensive and not nearly so good SPAB Old House Handbook.

Claxton knows his stuff – he’s done it all, and that really helps.  The illustrations are all relevant and useful.  His drawings are instructive and full of humour (I love the cat in the cross-section of the French drain diagram), as is his prose.  I’m not going to quote from the book, because I can’t choose a particular passage to highlight:  all of it is excellent stuff.  The link above shows another, similar, book by him – I’ll probably get it.

Verdict:  if you are the owner of an old house or you are a builder or handyman or some other person working on an old house, GET THIS BOOK and read it cover to cover.  This should be standard issue to all local conservation officers.  They might learn a) something about buildings and b) how to be helpful and constructive.

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