Dampness in Buildings: Key Insights

Dampness in buildings is a pervasive issue that compromises structural integrity and poses significant health risks to occupants. Sousa J.’s latest systematic review, published in Advances in Environmental Engineering Research (2024), delves into this critical topic with a detailed examination of how specific building characteristics contribute to dampness-related issues. This article not only sheds light on the prevalence of dampness linked to various building factors but also suggests effective remediation strategies.

Key Building Characteristics and Dampness Indicators

The review by Sousa J. highlights the intricate relationship between specific building characteristics and the prevalence of dampness.

Building Age

Older buildings often charm us with their historic aesthetics and architectural details. However, these structures also bring many issues, one of the most significant being their susceptibility to dampness. As observed in the recent systematic review by Sousa J (2024), the age of a building is a critical indicator of dampness-related problems.

Outdated Construction Methods

Inadequate Damp Proofing: One of the primary reasons older buildings are vulnerable to dampness is the lack of adequate damp proofing measures. Modern buildings typically include damp proof courses (DPCs) and membranes (DPMs) to prevent moisture from rising through walls and floors. In contrast, many older buildings were constructed before these technologies were commonly used, leading to a higher risk of damp ingress.

Traditional Building Techniques: Traditional construction techniques, such as solid masonry walls without a cavity, are prevalent in older structures. While these walls are robust, they allow for more significant moisture penetration compared to modern cavity wall constructions that feature a gap to prevent water from seeping through.

Insufficient Sealing: Older construction methods often did not prioritise thorough sealing of joints and connections. This lack of precision can result in gaps through which moisture can infiltrate, leading to dampness problems over time.

Poor Ventilation Planning: The importance of ventilation in preventing dampness was not as well-understood in the past. Consequently, older buildings frequently lack adequate ventilation systems, making them more susceptible to moisture accumulation and related issues like mould growth.

Outmoded Building Materials

Permeable Materials: Many older buildings were constructed using materials that are more permeable to moisture. While beneficial for flexibility and breathability, materials such as lime-based mortars and renders can also absorb substantial amounts of water, leading to dampness.

Natural Timber: Another contributing factor is the use of untreated or poorly treated timber in older buildings, a prominent issue in New Zealand’s leaky building crisis of the early 2000’s. Timber is naturally susceptible to rot and decay when exposed to moisture, and historic treatments were often less effective than contemporary solutions.

Brick and Stone Masonry: While brick and stone are durable, the mortar joints used in older buildings are often more porous due to weathering and age. This porosity can allow water ingress, exacerbating damp conditions within the structure.

Incompatibility with Modern Repairs: Over time, repairs and renovations using modern materials that are incompatible with original construction materials can exacerbate damp problems. For example, using cement-based mortars on buildings originally constructed with lime mortar can trap moisture within the walls, leading to dampness and structural damage.

Impact on Indoor Environment and Health

Older buildings’ susceptibility to dampness affects not only the structural integrity but also the indoor environment and the health of its occupants. Damp conditions promote the growth of mould and mildew, which are well-known allergens and respiratory irritants. Prolonged exposure to damp and mouldy environments can lead to or exacerbate asthma and other respiratory issues.

Mitigation Strategies: While older buildings inherently face more challenges regarding dampness, several strategies can help mitigate these issues:

Retrofitting with Modern Damp Proofing: Implementing modern damp proofing techniques during renovations can significantly reduce moisture ingress.

Enhancing Ventilation: Upgrading the building’s ventilation system can improve air circulation and reduce indoor humidity levels.

Using Compatible Materials: When conducting repairs, using materials compatible with the original construction can help maintain the building’s breathability and reduce the incidence of dampness.

Regular Maintenance: Proactive maintenance, such as regularly checking for and repairing leaks, can prevent minor issues from becoming significant damp problems.

Older buildings hold significant historical and architectural value, but their susceptibility to dampness due to outdated construction methods and materials is a critical issue. Understanding these vulnerabilities, as emphasised in the systematic review by Sousa J., can help homeowners, builders, and preservationists take appropriate measures to protect these structures. By addressing dampness through modern interventions and regular maintenance, it is possible to preserve the charm and heritage of older buildings while ensuring they remain healthy and habitable spaces.

weather map of New Zealand, building dampness | Rommel NZ

Geographic Factors Affecting Vulnerability of Older Buildings to Dampness in New Zealand

New Zealand’s diverse climate and geographical features can significantly affect the vulnerability of older buildings to dampness. From the subtropical regions of the north to the temperate climates of the south, various factors come into play.

Northland and Auckland

Climate Characteristics:

Subtropical climate: High humidity and warm temperatures year-round.

High Rainfall: Frequent and heavy rainfall contributes to elevated moisture levels.

Impact on Buildings:

Increased Moisture Levels: High humidity and rainfall lead to higher indoor moisture levels, exacerbating dampness issues in older structures lacking modern moisture barriers.

Rapid Mould Growth: The warm, moist environment promotes rapid mould and mildew growth, particularly in poorly ventilated areas.

Waikato and Bay of Plenty

Climate Characteristics:

Moderate Temperatures: Mild winters and warm summers.

Heavy Rainfall: Particularly in the winter months.

Impact on Buildings:

Rising Damp: Older buildings, particularly those without proper damp proof courses, are susceptible to rising damp from wet ground conditions.

Condensation: Fluctuations in temperature can lead to condensation issues, especially in poorly insulated homes.

Wellington and Lower North Island

Climate Characteristics:

Temperate Maritime Climate: Cool winters, warm summers, and frequent winds.

Moderate Rainfall: Regular bouts of rain throughout the year.

Impact on Buildings:

Wind-Driven Rain: The strong winds in the region can drive rain into building facades, exacerbating water ingress in older homes.

Corrosion: The combination of moisture and sea salt carried by the wind can accelerate the corrosion of older building materials like stone and exposed metalwork.

Nelson and Marlborough

Climate Characteristics:

Sunshine and Mild Climate: Known for being some of the sunniest regions in New Zealand.

Varied Rainfall: While generally lower than other parts of the country, certain areas can experience significant rainfall.

Impact on Buildings:

Localised Moisture Issues: Despite the overall dry climate, older buildings in areas with higher localised rainfall might still face moisture ingress, especially without modern damp proofing.

Temperature Fluctuations: Mild winters and warm summers can lead to issues with condensation in inadequately insulated and ventilated spaces.

West Coast

Climate Characteristics:

High Rainfall: The West Coast is one of the wettest regions in New Zealand.

Cool Temperatures: Generally cooler year-round temperatures.

Impact on Buildings:

Significant Water Ingress: The persistent and heavy rainfall can lead to severe water ingress issues, particularly in older structures with porous materials or inadequate sealing.

Persistent Dampness: Consistently high moisture levels can cause continuous dampness, mould growth, and material degradation without modern moisture mitigation measures.


Climate Characteristics:

Dry Climate: Generally less rainfall compared to other parts of New Zealand.

Hot Summers and Cold Winters: Significant temperature variations.

Impact on Buildings:

Ground Swelling: Changes in moisture content of the ground due to seasonal rainfall and dry periods can cause movement in older buildings, leading to cracks where water might ingress.

Condensation Problems: Cold winters can lead to condensation inside homes, particularly in poorly insulated or single-glazed older buildings.

Otago and Southland

Climate Characteristics:

Cool Temperate Climate: Cooler year-round with significant cold spells in winter.

Moderate to High Rainfall: Varies across different areas, with some regions experiencing heavy snowfall.

Impact on Buildings:

Frost Damage: The freeze-thaw cycle can cause damage to older masonry, creating pathways for moisture ingress.

Persistent Moisture Issues: The combination of snowfall and rainfall can lead to elevated moisture levels within older buildings.

The geographic diversity of New Zealand means that the susceptibility of older buildings to dampness can vary widely depending on the location. Understanding the local climate and its interaction with outdated construction methods and materials is crucial for mitigating dampness in older structures. Implementing appropriate maintenance strategies and modern damp-proofing techniques tailored to each region’s specific climatic challenges can help preserve these buildings and ensure healthier living conditions for their occupants.

Maintenance for building dampness | Rommel NZ

The Role of Maintenance and Occupant Behaviour

Maintaining a building and the behaviours of its occupants play crucial roles in mitigating dampness. The research underscores the importance of:

Regular Maintenance: Routine checks and repairs can prevent minor issues from escalating into significant dampness problems.

Good Ventilation Practices: Proper ventilation habits, such as regularly airing out spaces and using exhaust fans, can significantly reduce indoor dampness.

Common Risk Predictors

The systematic review identifies several common risk predictors across various studies. Recognising these predictors can aid in the early detection and prevention of damp-related issues:

Inadequate Insulation: Poor insulation can lead to condensation and subsequent dampness.

Structural Defects: Issues like leaking roofs or walls can contribute to moisture ingress.

High Indoor Humidity: Activities that increase indoor humidity, such as drying clothes indoors, can exacerbate damp problems.

Implications for Homeowners and Builders

For homeowners and builders, understanding these risk factors is vital in creating and maintaining healthier indoor environments. Implementing the strategies suggested in the review can lead to significant improvements:

Choosing the Right Materials: Opt for moisture-resistant materials during the construction or renovation phases.

Enhancing Ventilation: Integrate effective ventilation systems in new builds and improve existing ones in older structures.

Regular Inspections: Conduct regular inspections to identify and address potential damp issues early. Reach out to the team at Rommel to help you identify the location of any weaknesses in your building facade for air and water ingress.

Sousa J.’s (2024) systematic review provides comprehensive insights into how building characteristics influence dampness-related issues. By addressing these factors through proper maintenance, informed occupant behaviour, and strategic building practices, the prevalence of dampness in homes can be significantly reduced. This research is a valuable resource for homeowners, builders, and environmental health professionals aiming to create healthier indoor environments and mitigate the impact of damp-related health risks.

For more in-depth information, refer to Sousa J.’s full article, “A Systematic Review about Building Characteristics as Dampness-Related Indicators,” in Advances in Environmental Engineering Research (2024; 5(1): 008.

By focusing on these actionable insights and recommendations, we can collectively work towards reducing dampness in buildings and creating safer, healthier living spaces for everyone.