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Get to the root of any problem; house doctor Trees are beautiful and necessary. But they can cause big problems. house doctor Peter Fall explains.

Byline: Peter Fall of Clear Building Survey

BEING a boring sort of person, I was reading a speech the other day by the Master of the Rolls - the country's top judge, not an expert on luxury cars - and he quoted Winston Churchill as saying in 1941: "The British nation are unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst."

And so we are, you only need to read the papers or listen to the news and you will see how the number of bad-news items heavily outweighs the good news items.

On that basis I won't break with tradition. The other day I was talking to a company of arboriculturalists. These people are tree specialists. Not tree surgeons who do the pruning and such, but advisers on which trees to plant where and what effect they have or might have on your adjacent buildings.

This company is quite a big concern and they handle most of the insurance subsidence claims as a result of trees. Their comment to me is that when you examine the claims records, you find that for the past 30 odd years we have had an exceptionally dry summer every six or seven years. The last one was in 2002 so the next one is due this year or next.

This may be just what you want to know if you are fed up with the cold and rain of the last couple of summers.

On the other hand, those of you with reasonable-sized trees in your gardens may wish to consider the implications of this.

Good husbandry of trees means that you carry out regular pruning to remove any damaged or diseased wood, reduce the number of branches to let light in and encourage growth in the shape that you want rather than the disorganised manner of mother nature. Some of us regularly cut back our trees to keep them in check; unfortunately there are more who ignore our trees until they look as though they will cause damage. It's the latter group that this is directed at, as they "like to be told the worst".

Our recent wetter summers have been good for trees.

They have been able to obtain the water they need for growth without trying too hard. As a result they have increased in size without us noticing. When the next dry spell comes, these trees will have to work hard to find sufficient moisture to support their larger canopy of leaves.

This is when the problems can occur.

To obtain the water they need, the roots will have to draw it from a bigger area of the garden. This bigger area may be under or adjacent to your home and that is not good news because some of the soils in the North East can shrink in bulk when they lose the water.

These shrinkable soils, under normal circumstances, are very good to build off. However, as they lose their bulk they allow the building above to drop down. Not a problem if the whole of the building drops by even 10mm but a big problem if that drop is localised in one corner next to the tree. That we call differential settlement, an expression that should send the same cold shiver through homeowners as dry rot or rising damp.

But it doesn't have to be like this. We can have our tree, an extreme dry spell and shrinkable soil and not suffer from the differential settlement. What we need to do is recognise that we could have a problem. Firstly don't let the tree grow too big. Engage the tree surgeons on a regular basis to keep the tree to a smaller respectable size.

If your tree is a rapid-growing type, then it may be better to replace it with a smaller domestic-scaled tree. Talk to the tree surgeon about which type would be suitable.

Try to find out whether your sub-soil is a shrinkable type. Unlike London, we don't have vast areas of shrinkable soils but we do have pockets. A local soil mechanics laboratory should be able to advise from their records.

One thing you shouldn't do is nothing. A head-in-the sand approach could have major consequences. Sitting back thinking your building insurance policy will pick up the bills ignores both your excess and the horrendous mess the remedial works will create. Act now and relax when the warm dry summer comes.

'A head-in-the-sand approach could have major consequences.'
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 24, 2008
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