Nothing to lath about

DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE; It was an intricate plastering job, lovingly done by a professional. But the amateurs thought they knew better, writes Jeff Howell

Bethnal Green Eddie is not a happy man. He has put himself out to do someone a favour, and then been told he has done the job wrong.

The job was a lath-and-plaster ceiling, cracked and sagging, but still worth trying to save, not least for the intricately moulded Victorian cornices still in place around the edges. Your average builder or plasterer would rip the whole lot down, tack up a few sheets of plasterboard and skim them with a pink gypsum finish coat. If you wanted to keep the cornicing it would have to be copied, at great expense, in new fibrous plaster or replaced by some tacky modern imitation.

The new plasterboard ceiling would look dead flat, changing the period feel and the acoustics of the room, and in time would crack along the joints of the boards - and yet another little piece of our dwindling building heritage would be lost forever.

But Eddie gave up his weekend to remove the damaged sections of plaster, clean and renail the riven chestnut laths and apply a fresh coat of lime plaster. It was a fiddly, time-consuming but ultimately rewarding job, a simple but worthwhile bit of building conservation in a world of ripping- out. The owner didn't know how lucky he was - just you try getting a specialist conservation plasterer to come and do your ceiling. You'll have to take out a second mortgage just to get one round to look at it; they're all working at Windsor Castle and being photographed for fancy interiors magazines.

So when, after the weekend, Eddie got a call from the owner of the new ceiling, he thought it would mean at least a few words of thanks. The last thing he was expecting was to be bawled out for ruining the house and endangering the lives of everyone in it. Seems the punter had been told by his mates that you aren't allowed to have lath-and-plaster ceilings any more, that they're not up to modern fire safety standards, and that it would all have to come down again and be replaced - with plasterboard.

Two questions here: why do people always believe what their mates at work tell them, and whence came the idea that traditional building materials, tried and tested over hundreds of years, should suddenly become unsafe? I can't answer the first one; office people seem to spend most of their time moaning about their colleagues - who they think are inefficient, misguided or just plain ignorant - until it comes to advice about building, when the colleagues suddenly become fascinating purveyors of the latest expert knowledge.

The answer to the second question lies, I believe, in a misunderstanding of the Building Regulations, the guidelines which lay down minimum standards for new building work. Now, 99.9 per cent of the population have never clapped eyes on the Building Regs. But they have heard them referred to, usually accompanied by a sucking-through-the-teeth noise, when some cowboy builder has been trying to cover up his lack of craft skills by using some ghastly new gadget or wonder material: "You don't want all this old rubbish, you want to get rid of that and put up some plasterboard - it's the Building Regulations, innit?"

For once the manufacturers are not to blame; they don't have to tell you to tear down your Victorian ceilings; they've got your mates at work to do it for them.

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