House Doctor

HOW DO you get people to pay you to cover the outsides of their houses with pink and yellow imitation stone? Bethnal Green Eddie thinks it must be a competition for salesman of the year - the successful ones progress to the next round - persuading candidates for plastic surgery that they want the big nose.

Stone cladding is a curious phenomenon. It is hard to believe that so many people could have such a collective triple-bypass of the taste organs. Stone cladding is simply disgusting. It is applied with equal abandon to one half of a pair of 1930s semis and to an Edwardian cottage in the centre of a terrace of five. In each case it offends sensibilities and lowers house prices for the owners and their neighbours. So why does anyone have it done?

The answer lies in supreme salesmanship. Stone cladding is sold to confused elderly people by persuading them it will increase the value of their property. It is also sold to confused younger people by convincing them it will shield their homes from the weather. This image, of millions of British houses being ground to rubble by post-millennial dust storms, leaving only the candy-coloured ones standing, is too ghastly for words; what kind of impression would it make on the archaeologists who visit Earth from the planet Tharg in the year 3099?

But that is what salesmen are trained to do: take a frightening image and turn it into a sales opportunity. Have this done to your home or it will fall down and your children will be eaten by packs of feral dogs. Special half-price offer till the end of the month.

In a strange way, however, stone cladding may be an inevitable result of the uniformity of the British housing stock. In many other countries houses are built individually by or for their owners, and people express their individualities in the overall design. But if you live in a typical British street of speculatively built terraces or rows of semis, and you feel the need to break out, then for some the only way is to draw attention to your home with stick-on stone, Tyrolean shutters and diamond-shaped leaded window panes. The salesmen may be only tapping into an existing seam of psychological need.

And where are the local authority planning and conservation officers when we need them most? They are powerless. Unless a house has been listed as being of special historical or architectural interest, there is nothing to stop it being stone-clad, pebble-dashed or covered in green marzipan. Stone cladding can be removed. The success with which this is achieved depends upon the diligence of the bloke who originally stuck it on, as well as the condition of the bricks underneath.

If the bricks are soft reds, and the cladding geezer wetted them down before applying the mortar, then hacking off the stone may damage the face brickwork beyond repair. But even in the worst cases the surface can still be made good with sand-and-lime render, and colour-washed to blend in with the rest of the street.

On the other hand, if the bricks are hard and the cladding was done in a hurry, then it may come away leaving surprisingly little damage. Any metal fixings should be located with a metal detector as work proceeds and carefully unscrewed.

This work is tedious but worthwhile; there are only three man- made objects visible from outer space: the great wall of China, the Los Angeles freeway at night, and my neighbour's stone cladding.

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