When a little mid-Victorian pub in Beckenham, south-east London recently had its brick frontage painted, many residents were up in arms, lamenting the disappearance of the "mellow brickwork ... a joy to behold" as one poetically put it.
Many people prefer to see their brickwork naked and unadorned, and with good reason. There is a beauty in the muted and dappled shades of brickwork in pristine condition. Too often, though, the reality is very different. Stains, fungus, cracks in the mortar - as with many things time can take its toll.
This country has a vast Victorian housing stock - it was a long era that saw vigorous house-building activity. Older houses tend to have mortar that is crumbly, which water finds more easy to penetrate. Cracks hold water, and ice can do serious damage to brickwork as it expands, for example causing "spalling" - where the outer face of the brick flakes off.
Beautifying and protecting your frontage can be done in a variety of ways, all a far cry from the stone-cladding solution a la Duckworths. Never be tempted to hide what is crying out to be repaired. Remember, we are talking here of probably your biggest financial asset.
If you are unfortunate to discover any big cracks in your walls, the Brick Development Association advises getting in a surveyor with engineering expertise post-haste. Defective pointing is a much simpler problem. Despite the understandable urge to be delicate you should boldly rake out dodgy bits and replace - it will only fall out later otherwise.
Spruce up brickwork that needs a clean by hosing it down and scrubbing with a stiff brush, rubbing stains with household cleanser and dabbing paint stripper on to splashes of oil-based paints from previous painting efforts. Fungus growth on brickwork is common, and many species of mould or lichens can make an appearance. They flourish in damp conditions, so check out possible causes - a common one is leaking pipes - and cut back any overhanging trees or large bushes exacerbating the problem by preventing ventilation to the wall.
Is your damp-proof course working adequately? Check it isn't bridged by piles of soil or general rubbish. Brush the fungus off with a stiff brush - but wear a mask, and take care to avoid fungus flicking into your eyes. You can kill remaining spores with fungicide, applied per manufacturer's instructions.
For near-minimalists an invisible water-proofer specially formulated for brickwork sounds ideal. Manufacturers claim they protect the brick from moisture and frost damage, while crucially, they do not stop your house from "breathing". Not all agree, however. The Brick Development Association argues that "this sort of treatment is unnecessary, and it can be detrimental to the performance of the brick". It may however, be more appropriate for older, porous bricks. This is a treatment that will probably need to be reapplied after two to three years.
Life can be contrary, and for those who want to add colour to the walls there is no guarantee that you will actually be able to - glazed bricks, for example, will not take paint. Spray the brickwork with water to see if water beads form or not. If it has been painted before, feel for any soft powderiness on the surface. If so, brush it down and use a stabilising primer before painting. Beware, do not kill the brickwork with kindness; using such a product on brick walls in good condition do more harm than good, and you can end up with a shiny surface, on which you will not be able to paint.
If the existing paint is flaking it could be a damp problem - sort that out as a priority. However, the flaking could merely be a result of too many layers of paint. Scrape right back - applying paint over a flaky surface will not work - stabilise, then paint.
Do not paint immediately either if you have white deposits, called efflorescence, on your bricks. These are caused by salt and other minerals surfacing in walls with above average moisture. It may be that old damp problem again which needs to be dealt with.
Fortunately, perhaps, manufacturers of exterior paints give you scant opportunity to opt for "unusual" shades. Subtle, understated colours, with names like like earthenware, portland or sandstone abound. You can even paint your own more modest stately pile with shades from the National Trust.
Many factors will determine how long the coverage lasts, including overall and industrial pollution, the presence of trees and proximity to the coast. For those who abhor anything but a smooth texture, smooth paints also have the advantage that they go further. Townies have an additional reason for plumping for a smooth finish: it stays cleaner longer. However, textured paints are better for hiding minor cracks.
Talking of textures, some builders recommend stabilising then pebble- dashing for walls that have been badly affected by spalling. Suffice to say, if you do undertake it, then consider it a permanent covering. The BDA can offer advice on alternative methods that don't involve covering your brickwork depending on just how widespread the problem is.
As for the bottom line, does the frontage of a house, all other things being equal, affect house prices? One estate agent in an area of London replete with brick terraces says that painted brickwork does not necessarily have a downward effect on price and, in some particularly sought-after roads, even a house that has been pebbledashed may retain its price.
What potential buyers will want to see however, is a house that looks like it has been well maintained. And long before eyes wander up to the roof, or see the fruits of your interior labours, the front will be the first and most crucial indicator.
q Contacts: Brick Development Association, 01344 885651; Dulux Advice Centre, 01753 550555; Farrow and Ball National Trust shades, 01202 876141.Reuse content