Hodgson View: What is the future of the Preservation Industry?

As a ‘wet behind the ears’ youth on site working in Leeds, I asked my boss what would happen when we had finished sorting out all these houses with damp problems. The answer that came from the old lag who had taken me under his wing was typically pragmatic and decidedly Yorkshire: “As long as it rains you will have a job lad”. Well, almost 30 years on, it seems we are a long way from sorting out all those damp problems.

Has the Preservation Industry changed?

H2O is the eternal foe. It is rigour in inspection and the knowledge of the surveyor remains the clients best investment. Other than that, the industry I joined as a teenager has changed beyond measure. In this discussion we would like to think about the rate of change that is affecting our specialist discipline and think about the ways in which businesses may see opportunities in what is undoubtedly coming down the track.

Damp experts will be in demand long into the future

Well, Geoff (my mentor from the 1980s) was right. There is nothing more certain than the fact that so long as it rains, buildings will suffer from the effects of dampness. What is also certain is that many of the things we are doing to create new buildings and redevelop and improve the ones that already exist will ensure that the services of experts in dampness are going to be in demand for a long time to come.

Regular maintenance to preserve buildings is vital

A lack of regular maintenance, ignorance and our windy, precipitous climate will always result in defects to the external fabric of our buildings. If left unchecked these will result in water ingress and the deterioration of the structures forming the building. There will always, therefore, be a need for companies to undertake diagnostic investigations and well-conceived repairs. Similarly, human nature, poor insulation and the cost of heating means that the prevalence of mould problems resulting from moisture in the air is set to continue its increase.
In the past a specialist company would be expected to respond to an enquiry, provide a comprehensive evaluation of the faults and deliver a specification that, when delivered, would result in the issuing of a “guarantee” promising that dampness would not return for a least a decade.

A number of defects can all be occurring simultaneously

Unfortunately, life is seldom that simple. A property that has been neglected can be affected by a number of defects at the same time. Condensation, rainwater penetration and groundwater can all be occurring simultaneously – no moisture meter has been invented that identifies the means of transport adopted by the water molecule before it was deposited into a timber joist or an area of wall plaster. Invariably, therefore, any diagnosis that declares the “one true origin” in such circumstances is open to challenge and any single course of remedial treatment must work on the basis that it will be a ‘cure-all’ if a guarantee is to be offered.

It is ok to say “we don’t know”!

What the PCA would like to promote is the concept that it is ok for a surveyor to say “we don’t know” and then work with a client to find out! Why shouldn’t preservation surveyors be comfortable with the idea that they can give a list of possible defects, then create an action plan in partnership with a client? This approach results in a long term relationship based on trust. The additional benefit is that funds are spent more effectively, potentially, over a longer period of time. It may also show that some elements of work (thought to be contributing to a problem at the beginning) are simply not necessary.

Protecting the consumer’s statutory rights

If repair and remediation are knowledge-driven and there is both trust and familiarity between the parties, what extra value does a bit of paper that says “Guarantee” on the top deliver? Can we see a point in time where 10-year guarantees issued for work are at least – in part – replaced by the knowledge that the surveyor is accountable and any work, regardless of what this might be, has been carried out with skill and care and the consumer can count on the protection of their statutory rights.

Inspecting properties regularly should be implemented

It is unquestionable that effective upkeep of buildings greatly reduces the frequency and effects of moisture-related problems. To date, the only clients that have employed surveyors to inspect properties on a regular basis have been the very wealthy, the Church of England and some commercial property owners. The concept of long term relationships with diagnostic surveyors who return periodically to give advice on the condition of the building is almost unheard of in the domestic market. Should this not change?

Help people understand building maintenance

Anecdotally, younger people buying or renting for the first time are both less inclined and less able to take on repairs and DIY tasks. They may understand the importance of building maintenance but all too often, they lack the skills and confidence to pick up a tool bag and “fix it”. It follows therefore that a market may be emerging for a competitively priced reporting service aimed at helping people understand the condition of their buildings and sequencing and scheduling repairs and maintenance. This would help to protect investment and prioritise spending.

A register of ongoing repairs is valuable to all

In a world of big data, analytics, Client Relationship Management (CRM) and the internet; why do we not think about how a periodic condition report and a register of ongoing repairs would only be of value to a current owner? Would not such a thing be of value to a future purchaser, insurance companies or lenders?

This long term approach is not always welcomed

It should be acknowledged that this sort of approach and highly personable long term relationship stuff will not always be welcomed or appropriate. Often the homeowner needs or wants a very quick fix at the lowest possible cost. There are lots of situations where this is an inescapable reality and we should not discount or dismiss clients who are highly cost sensitive. Many older buildings are not particularly special, are relatively poor quality and change hands cheaply. These “normal houses” develop dampness issues that deserve fixing, not least because the occupants can benefit hugely from well directed and executed repairs.

Promoting sustainability

Sometimes this work may not be what you would think right for an important historical structure but they can improve lives, keep buildings in use and prevent further deterioration. Well considered and executed repairs using modern building methods can therefore be considered to promote sustainability. More expensive traditional approaches to repair are often too costly and uncertain and will therefore, never be adopted by highly cost-sensitive clients managing low-cost housing.

Working with the customer to make informed choices

Moving into the middle of the 21st century, customer choice will be increasingly important. Providing information based on knowledge, experience and good diagnostics, together with well-structured guidance and a range of appropriate actions, will be increasingly valued. Assisting the client to make informed choices and understand the implications of those discussions serves both the contractor and the property owner.

Embracing technology and homeowner expectation

Technology and innovation is catching up with property valuation, condition reporting and data collection. The expectation of homeowners and the way they do business is also changing. With these thoughts in mind shouldn’t we now be pondering ways in which to embrace the opportunities of what is approaching?

We are experts and not just ‘damp proofers!’

As a further thought, we must believe in ourselves and the value of knowledge that we possess. PCA members must remember that we are experts in the diagnosis and prevention of all forms of dampness in the built environment. We are not – and probably never have been – just “damp proofers!” This shift in conception has to be led by us and backed by the way we deliver service to our clients.

I hope to follow up these thoughts in another blog! Watch this space for another entitlement coming your way!

Find out more about dampness in the built environment: