A few months ago we posted a short video on Skill Builder’s YouTube channel showing a remedial product from Safeguard Europe which helps to stop rising damp in masonry walls. Admittedly the video didn’t discuss the many causes of damp in buildings and could have been a whole lot longer, but we felt that it targeted a specific cause of damp and gave a simple solution that is widely used and effective. What is more, it is a very easy job for a DIYer. So far so good but the comments that followed the posting of this video took us completely by surprise. Some people were not happy. It transpired that there is a significant body of people in the U.K who sincerely believe that rising damp is a myth. These are not scientists or people with any real knowledge of building technology, they are people who have latched onto a single simple premise and pushed it beyond its logical conclusion. They have gained traction on social media in the same way as people who purport the earth is flat and that Elvis, Kurt Cobain, and Prince are happily residing on some heavily guarded South Sea Island.
The anti-rising damp brigade is lead by a couple of gurus who, in keeping with most fundamentalist, are deaf to any argument but their own. I quickly learned that it is a waste of time arguing with such people or their followers. It seems that conspiracy theorists are not that discerning and once they believe in one conspiracy theory, they adopt anything and everything that falls under that heading. People who say that rising damp is a myth are more likely to see other scientific phenomena as myths. One such person even put forward the idea that the Moon doesn’t exist. Pressed on this he said that it was some kind of manmade illumination but didn’t know why it was put there let alone when and by whom. Yes, they really are barking mad.
This kind of thing is now just part of the rich tapestry of modern life and we could all just laugh it off if it were not for the fact that people who really ought to know better are persuaded that there is some substance in the claim that ‘Rising Damp does not exist’. The fact that all new building in the UK has to have effective damp proof courses to prevent this supposedly non-existent menace is to them all part of the conspiracy. Now I am entertained by a conspiracy theory as much as the next person but if you are going to have a conspiracy theory surely there has to be a more exciting one out there than ‘rising damp is a myth’? Imagine a weekend conference where people show each other photographs of rising damp and claim they have all been doctored in Photoshop.
When asked for evidence of the nonexistence of rising damp the devotees often cite Venice. For some strange reason, they believe that Venice does not have rising damp. It makes me wonder if they have ever been to Venice. Not only does Venice have significant rising damp, but the University of Bologna also has a whole department dedicated to research into the problems of rising damp in ancient buildings. It is government-funded because the Italian government knows all too well that rising damp is a real threat, not only to Venice but to many historic buildings in other parts of Italy.
The denial of rising damp is even more baffling when you recognise that it is everywhere and even has some beneficial properties. Damp rises through tiny capillary veins or tubes and through this process millions of gallons (or litres) of water move from the ground up through the less dense sapwood of trees and out through the leaves. If you cut a tree open, you will not find a pump or any moving parts. The capillary pathways in masonry and mortar have the same effect. Damp evaporates out of the masonry and more is drawn up from the ground. The whole existence of our planet depends upon the principle that damp rises either through capillary action or evaporation. The clouds in the sky are the most visible example of rising damp and if you look at the wick in an oil lamp you will see rising damp being put to good use.
With such overwhelming evidence, it is hard to work out why some people insist that there is no such thing? The answer may lie in the fact that rising damp has been over-diagnosed. People keen to sell damp treatments are, in some cases, looking at condensation or penetrating damp and calling it rising damp simply because it gives them an opportunity to sell a product. The term Snake Oil Salesman is often used to describe these ‘damp specialist’ but to dismiss everyone in the industry as a Charlatan because of a small number of rogues is unfair.
We are told by the detractors that all a building needs is to breathe which really means that it needs air passing through it to move damp to the outside. The idea that it might be good to prevent the damp entering in the first place is, for some strange reason, ignored. There is also a belief that damp is a modern problem that simply didn’t exist in the good old days. So there we have it, a modern problem that is caused by us.
It is true that newly built homes were once left unoccupied for six months to allow them to dry out. This was prudent because a huge amount of water is used to build and plaster out a house and that water has to go somewhere. These days we tend to dry buildings out by heating them but without ventilation all the heating does is to cook up a fugg. Even after the initial drying out process, if it happens, water is still generated by cooking, bathing, showering and breathing. That water needs to be moved to the outside often by mechanical extraction. This used to happen naturally in the time of open fires many rooms had a chimney, and with the fire lit, this produced as many as eight complete air changes to the room every hour. That is the real reason why homes did not seem to suffer from damp in the way they do now. Modern draughtproofing means, we are now looking at as little as one air change per hour and sometimes not even that. We keep the heat, but we also keep the airborne moisture and the result is condensation, which since the compulsory introduction of damp-proof courses, is now a lot more of a problem than rising damp, but that is not to say that rising damp no longer exists. It is perfectly possible to have more than one cause of damp in a home and that is why it needs to be diagnosed properly before any attempt is made to reduce it.
It also needs to be acknowledged that the less well off are more likely to have damp homes. If you are struggling to pay the heating bills you may not want to open a window or even switch on an extractor fan. If you are poor you may also be living in a home with higher occupancy. The more people living in a house, the damper it is likely to be. It may also be the case that the occupants are drying washing indoors and not heating every room which is just about the worst combination there is. Airborne moisture will move from heated rooms to unheated rooms and condense on cold surfaces which quickly produces ugly black mould.
Damp is not only a building issue it is also a political, social and health issue. The rise in asthma among children is undoubtedly due to poor air quality both inside and outside our homes. Mould is toxic and those who suffer most from such conditions are the young and the old. It is common for landlords to be blamed for damp houses and there are often news items demonising uncaring landlords. Of course, such people exist, and they need to be held to account but sometimes the tenant’s lifestyle (living habits) is to blame. A tenant may be looking at the black mould forming around the tops of skirting boards and blaming it on rising damp whereas the landlord is looking at the washing drying on the radiators and thinking it is more likely to be condensation forming on the lower part of the wall, which is always colder. In such a climate of claim and counterclaim, it is little wonder that people take up polarised positions. As with so many problems these days our first reaction is to find somebody to blame.