How to Deal with Floors in Old Homes

While orig­i­nal floors – be they tim­ber, stone or quarry tiles – can be a de­sir­able fea­ture, they can also be prob­lem­atic. The key to re­pair­ing an ex­ist­ing floor or adding a new cov­er­ing is all about what lies be­neath, says Natasha Brins­mead

Homebuilding & Renovating - - Contents -

We ex­plain what you need to con­sider be­fore re­pair­ing old floors or adding new floor cov­er­ings in our ren­o­va­tor’s guide

Orig­i­nal floors are of­ten damp, un­even or cold — or all three. Hap­pily, whether you wish to re­store th­ese floors to their orig­i­nal glory, or plan on re­plac­ing them with some­thing en­tirely new, there is a so­lu­tion out there.

The key to work­ing with old floors lies in in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sub­floor first.

The Im­por­tance of the Sub­floor

Com­monly, the prob­lems thrown up by floors in ex­ist­ing homes, no mat­ter what they might be made of, will stem from what they have been laid on top of — or the sub­floor. This sub­floor and its in­tegrity is all the more im­por­tant when it comes to lay­ing a com­pletely new floor cov­er­ing.

On the ground floor of pe­riod houses, it is not un­com­mon to dis­cover that tiles, flag­stones, brick and par­quet have been laid on top of noth­ing more than earth, ash or some­times sand. Left in their orig­i­nal state, there is no rea­son why this should cause too many is­sues other than cold feet.

Prob­lems only tend to arise when they are cov­ered with a new, non-breath­able ma­te­rial, or where a layer of un­suit­able in­su­la­tion is added. Old floors were de­signed to ‘ breathe’; to ab­sorb and evap­o­rate mois­ture from the whole sur­face area with no dam­age to the ma­te­ri­als used.

In the case of orig­i­nal tim­ber floor­boards, you might well dis­cover that the tim­ber joists that form their un­der­ly­ing struc­ture have be­gun to rot, while lit­tle thought is likely to have been given to in­su­la­tion.

What’s more, it’s not un­com­mon to find un­even con­crete floors in ex­ist­ing homes, which need be lev­elled be­fore a new fin­ish can be in­stalled.

Orig­i­nal Tile, Stone or Par­quet

In the case of tiles, flag­stones or par­quet floor­ing with a base of earth, ash or sim­i­lar, you have sev­eral op­tions.

One is to leave well alone and just ac­cept that old houses come with old floors — and then in­vest in some cosy slip­pers or mats in breath­able, nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als such as jute.

How­ever, for most, a res­o­lu­tion more in keep­ing with our mod­ern ex­pec­ta­tions of com­fort is re­quired.

If you are keen to re­tain the orig­i­nal floor fin­ish, one so­lu­tion is to care­fully take up the tiles, stone or par­quet be­fore dig­ging out the floor be­neath to a level that will al­low for in­su­la­tion, a damp-proof mem­brane, con­crete and, fi­nally, the old floor cov­er­ing.

Although this is a vi­able op­tion, there are sev­eral is­sues that you will need to con­sider. Firstly, great care will need to be taken when re­mov­ing the old cov­er­ing. What’s more, hav­ing been laid down many years ago, the like­li­hood is that there is only one way it will all fit back to­gether again, so keep­ing track of which par­quet block went where is vi­tal.

Sec­ondly, the ma­jor­ity of mod­ern in­su­la­tion ma­te­ri­als for solid floors rely

on an im­per­vi­ous damp­proof mem­brane to keep the in­su­la­tion dry. Us­ing th­ese can throw the mois­ture bal­ance of ma­te­ri­als, such as quarry tiles, brick, flag­stones and even par­quet, out of kil­ter. This means that damp could be­come an is­sue where it was be­fore kept un­der con­trol.

In­su­lat­ing Old Floors

There is good news for own­ers of old homes with cold, hard floors, keen to main­tain their pe­riod charm with­out com­pro­mis­ing on com­fort. There are now meth­ods for in­su­lat­ing un­der th­ese old floor cov­er­ings in ways that won’t in­ter­fere with their breatha­bil­ity. Th­ese new ma­te­ri­als have the abil­ity to ab­sorb and emit mois­ture — some­thing many mod­ern sys­tems fail to do. Plus, they can be laid suc­cess­fully with un­der­floor heat­ing.

One such prod­uct is Lime­crete. “Lime­crete floors pro­vide a mid­dle ground be­tween mod­ern con­crete floors, with damp­proof mem­branes and truly tra­di­tional ver­nac­u­lar floor con­struc­tion,” ex­plains his­toric build­ing con­sul­tant Peter Hayes (arch­build­ing­con­sul­ “They are made up of aer­ated ag­gre­gate mixed with a hy­draulic lime binder. The lack of fine ma­te­rial in the sub­floor re­sists the pas­sage of ground mois­ture through it. The ‘ hon­ey­comb’ struc­ture of floor ag­gre­gate also pro­vides good in­su­la­tion.

“De­pend­ing on the ag­gre­gate used, lime­crete floors can be thin­ner than mod­ern floor slabs, mean­ing re­moval of less soil from a site and re­duc­ing the po­ten­tial for dis­rup­tion or un­der­min­ing of the wall’s sub­struc­ture.

“Lime­crete needs a per­me­able floor fin­ish, such as flag­stones. I wouldn’t rec­om­mend tim­ber fin­ishes or car­pet.” Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion can be found at

An­other prod­uct of in­ter­est for those con­sid­er­ing this job is GLAPOR re­cy­cled foam glass from Ty Mwar (lime.

“Adding in­su­la­tion and a mem­brane be­neath old floors is a dis­rup­tive job, but well worth it”

You should be aware that adding in­su­la­tion and a mem­brane be­neath old floors is a dis­rup­tive, yet worth­while, job. The floor will need to be dug up to the re­quired depth be­fore the ground is lev­elled and com­pacted. A breath­able mem­brane is then laid, be­fore the in­su­lat­ing ma­te­ri­als. If you are fit­ting un­der­floor heat­ing, this will be done be­fore the fi­nal floor­ing is laid.

Listed build­ings will re­quire con­sent for this job.

Re­pair­ing Tim­ber Floors

In the case of tim­ber floor struc­tures, the most com­mon un­der­ly­ing prob­lems re­late to rot­ten tim­ber joists.

If only small ar­eas of tim­ber are dam­aged it is usu­ally easy enough to re­pair them like-for-like, but if the en­tire area is badly dam­aged it is worth con­sid­er­ing a com­plete re­place­ment. This can be a DIY job, but other­wise a skilled joiner or floor spe­cial­ist will be able to help.

An al­ter­na­tive to a tim­ber re­place­ment is a steel i-beam sys­tem, such as Fast­slab from CDI ( This is a steel web hy­brid sys­tem that spans from wall to wall and won’t rot over time.

“Prob­lems with damp can oc­cur when peo­ple take up a tim­ber floor and fill in the void be­low be­fore then plac­ing a con­crete slab over the top,” ex­plains CDI’S di­rec­tor Paul Lar­nach. “We repli­cate the ex­ist­ing tim­ber floor joist sys­tem with Fast­slab, main­tain­ing the void to al­low proper air flow.”

When it comes to the floor joists on the first floor, it pays to en­sure that they are re­in­forced. (Plus, if you hope to in­stall bath­room tiles, floors may need to ply-lined and an anti-frac­ture mat­ting used.)

“A prod­uct such as Lewis Deck is per­fect for re­in­forc­ing tim­ber first floors, although it is used on ground floors too,” ex­plains Paul. It is made up of steel dove­tailed sheets, 16mm in height. Th­ese fit to­gether over the ex­ist­ing or re­place­ment joists, be­fore con­crete or a free-flow­ing screed is laid on top.

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