Xativa house renovation part 5

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In the last part of this series we looked at ground floor refurbishment works and the transformation of the courtyard garden to a town house in Xativa, belonging to Alan and Pauline Higgins, here continues their story:-

Alan’s comments:

The men started to work on the outside walls of the staircase – within the courtyard. Like many similar houses our staircase is almost a separate building sitting on the back of the house – it even has its own separate roof. Rather like a square ‘lighthouse’, this then forms one of the walls of the courtyard. But the original walls were rather thin render and wattle and daub – these walls were steadily replaced – they are not ‘load bearing’ so ceramic bricks give more than adequate strength and a ‘square’ and flat surface. Windows were taken out as they were all ‘too far gone’ and this enabled us to fit larger new windows in many places.

Surveyor’s comments

Assessing stair condition and function

The condition of the stair structure is one of the most useful ways to ‘read’ the structural state of the building as a whole, as it’s solidity and height (normally running through all floor levels) will often record any significant movement in the form of cracks. The main stair was in good structural condition and the typical ceramic brick arched structure showed no significant signs of historic or ongoing movement. Most older town houses will feature this type of stair and it is important to understand the structure to be able to assess if cracking is superficial (e.g. due to shrinkage of plaster work, and minor movement) or more serious, such that the stair could actually collapse. In addition to movement related cracking, some stair risers are too high, and treads can be inadequate, also all treads and risers should be the same, as an odd one can be a serious trip hazard as users subconsciously expect each step to feel the same. If  a stair is too steep additional steps can normally be added by extending the foot of the stair and remaking all steps (a technique used for Alan and Pauline’s upper level).

Traditional stair construction

The construction of the traditional arched stair is an art in itself as the ceramic bricks are built up from the solid foot of the stair on a cantilever i.e. self supporting basis, using only the adherence of the wet mortar (the mix consistency is critical for this reason) to support the arch as it is constructed, the quick drying nature of a hot climate help to facilitate this. The top of the arch is supported laterally by a solid wall (thick stone walls are ideal for this purpose) or large beam. Once the arch is finished it is structural using an ‘egg shell’ principle, in that, the make up of material is quite brittle, but the load distribution makes it very strong as a whole. The steps are then built up over the arch in bricks and cement. Loads applied above the finished stair are distributed to the heavy stair foot and laterally supporting wall or beam (the floor joists give added lateral support to the main beam). All loading will effectively push the elements of the arch (which are in compression) back together, so only major movements (larger cracks normally over 5mm) will effect it’s structural stability. In contrast if the stair bricks were built as a ramp, the lower edge would be in tension and the stair would fail with very little loading.

Modern stairs use a different principle and use reinforced concrete beams or in situ reinforced concrete to cope with the tensile load, hence a flat ramp can be achieved.
Cracks up to 5mm should be filled as soon as possible, ideally by injecting the material well into the crack, to regain the load distribution of the arch. Larger cracks may call for complete reconstruction of the stair, though in contrast to opening up under stair areas, it may occasionally be necessary to infill such areas to allow for the addition of remedial support from beneath to shore up the stair structure. As most cracks will originate from lateral movement (a failing head beam or rotating/bowing lateral supporting wall) it is important that such defects are identified and remedied to ensure that the new or repaired stair structure will not develop further faults. Depending on the type of construction, stair bulk heads (the bits you often need to duck under) will either be a structural arch, or they may be a timber lintel or extension of a floor beam. Where timber exists, it should be inspected for rot and insect infestation as replacement may be required.

Use of under stair space

In Alan and Pauline’s house some of the original stair arches had been filled in with a thin block wall to create under stair cupboards, these were removed to expose the attractive arches and create a much wider landing / hall space. Under stair areas are ideal for sofas, bed heads, computer desks, wine racks, logs etc, even WC’s, in fact any function that does not require full standing room. Make sure power supplies are incorporated into these areas to allow for different usage options later.
Safety issues

In addition to ensuring that stair treads and risers are adequate and even, there are a number of other important safety issues to consider:-

Hand Rails

A variety of balustrades may be used from thin ceramic brick built / rendered walls to iron or timber ballustrading and hand rails, if fixings are secure, these can normally be retained, though it may be necessary to add additional hand rails especially if the stairs feel a little precarious. While open stairs (no hand rail) can be  attractive, they are not worth the additional hazard for occupants especially young children also children are at risk if the gaps between railings exceed 100mm. Many stair related falls result in serious injury or death and unlike our UK timber stairs, tiled and marbled steps don’t flex!

Any doors located at the head of stairs should open away from the stair drop and never towards it.

Bulk heads should not cause the stair user to duck or worse still knock themselves out! If you have to replace floors and bulk heads, consider gaining more height. If low bulk heads are retained a ‘mind your head!’ warning is best located on the riser of the step before the hazard rather than on the beam itself, as the later is normally read after the user has banged their head. If you want to be more subtle, stencil a silhouette of a duck onto the risers and tell your guests to look out for them.

Good stair illumination is both attractive and adds to safety, so remember to get your electrician to include wall or tread lights in the design. Increasing the size of windows and adding additional natural light where possible will add to safety and create an airy feel and better summer time air flow. If possible ensure there is a window at the head of the stair (even better a roof light) which can be opened in hot weather. The ultimate solution is a thermostat linked powered Velux roof light, which can be set to control summertime temperature, releasing hot air from the property as required.

Attention to detail will mean that your stair well is a ‘stairway to heaven’ because it is a glowing and inviting passage to the next level, rather than a death trap!

Outer walls

Where walls consist of only one leaf, they are best given a second lining and light weight ceramic bricks are available in a variety of widths, lending themselves to this purpose. The stability of the supporting floor should be assessed to check that it is OK to build from, a thicker block can be used at solid ground floor level, while thinner  (lighter) blocks are best used to reduce weight above.


Alan’s comments

The upstairs now had attention. The large bedroom directly above the ground floor reception room we wished to be the ‘master bedroom’ with an en-suite bathroom. Our decision was to ‘sacrifice’ the smaller bedroom next door to use 40% as an en-suite’ and the rest of the space as a ‘main’ bathroom. A new door way was made from the master bedroom and a dividing wall was built (with a ‘dog-leg’ for the bath) to form the two rooms. Having the bathrooms in that location simplified the water supply and waste water pipe work – for these services could run against the main wall to link straight into existing drains, and be hidden by the new (and extra) ceramic brick work on the ground floor.

Surveyors comments

Many older town houses may only have bathroom services on the ground floor and older multi storey properties rarely have them above the first floor level, it is therefore a common requirement to add WC and bathroom facilities to upper levels and a good way of adding functionality and hence value to a property. As replumbing, renewal of drainage and electric supply was needed throughout, the location of the bathrooms was relatively flexible, but the ideal location of a smaller bedroom lent itself to conversion into one communal bathroom and one en suite. Partition walls were confirmed as non structural and hence there removal and the addition of doorways was relatively simple. As the room sat almost directly above the main ground floor drain run, the waste pipe was also easy to locate, however, unlike most UK properties (were the waste stack and sub ground drains are run externally) the thick stone walls and rear to front internal run of waste drainage made and internal drop more viable (this can be easily boxed in as a false pillar).

Targeting your market

The bedroom versus bathroom decision is always a difficult one, and if you are going to rent or sell on, you will need to try and target the most likely type of buyer/tenant. A resident wealthy buyer may expect en suites for every bedroom, they won’t worry about maintenance costs and will probably employ a cleaner, but most resident wealthy buyers opt for Villas, penthouse apartments or grander town houses, so don’t put your more likely ‘mid level’ buyers off with a higher asking price (bathroom installation is expensive and will need to be recouped) and the risk of high ongoing maintenance and burden of cleaning. If more than two bathrooms might be in use at any one time, a higher capacity or additional independent water heating system may be needed so that, shower pressures etc are adequate. As a rule, unless the property size, style and location is likely to attract the very upper end buyer, one bath/shower room per two bedrooms will normally be adequate. If space is limited you may wish to opt for a WC and basin rather than full en suite (there are even corner sinks and WC’s for very small rooms). The addition of a ground floor WC will save using the stairs in the daytime, and reduce leg crossing at times of heavy occupancy.

In the next part of these series we will continue with the further development of the upper level bedrooms, bathroom tiling, lighting and choice of suite.

The house is currently for sale or rent with The Spanish Property Shop, Xativa .
Tel 96 228 2370

Information provided by
Mark Paddon BSc Hons Building Surveying. ICIOB,
property purchase advisor in the Valencia region. www.surveysspain.com  962807247

NB:- Information for advice purposes only.
Always consult an Architect for new works.

©Mark Paddon 2005

Additional information