The intriguing case of the famous crooked house: insights from a subsidence expert

5th April 2024

By Greg Rees, Head of Subsidence

In the realm of architectural anomalies, like the leaning tower of Pisa, the famous Crooked House stands as a testament to the unpredictable nature of our ground and how it can affect structures on it. Many factors can trigger subsidence and land movement issues and as a subsidence expert, the story of this building not only raises curiosity but also serves as a cautionary tale about the relationship between human construction and the ground.

The Unpredictable Nature of Ground Movement

Subsidence, the downward movement of the ground causing buildings upon it to “drop,” can occur for various reasons. The commonly seen vegetation-induced clay shrinkage or leaking drains, but also we see more extreme examples due to past mining activities, or sinkholes. The Crooked House, offers a striking example of what happens when the built environment suffers sudden damage and an illustration I’ve used in many “An Introduction to Subsidence” presentations.

This iconic building, originally constructed in the 18th century, began its life straightforwardly enough. However, as the years passed, one side of the house started to subside. The cause of this isn’t 100% confirmed but has been attributed to coal mining in the area, which caused the ground beneath to become unstable. This potentially combined with the suggestion of softening of the underlying marls (earthy material rich in carbonate minerals, clays, and silt) during the site’s previous use as a water-powered mill. This differential settlement led to the distinctive tilt that made the house so remarkable.

Innovation in Preservation

What makes the Crooked House especially interesting from a subsidence perspective is not just its pronounced lean but also the innovative methods used to stabilise and preserve the structure. Engineers and architects have employed various techniques over the years to ensure the building’s safety and longevity. The Crooked House demonstrates how, with careful management, even the most severely affected buildings can be preserved and enjoyed for future generations.

Evolution of Expectations

However, if we were to see a similar case of subsidence arise today, I am sceptical that the repair would be deemed suitable. Standards and consumers have evolved and whilst we have wonderful repair solutions that could save a structure and make it safe, I think that expectations of a reasonable repair would be stretched and it would more likely be deemed ‘beyond economical repair’. I’m sure Consumer Duty and the Financial Ombudsman Service would have a view on this – though an interesting question. I think the Crooked House has done reasonably well with its resultant “character” and popularity since but a policyholder’s own home, may not benefit from the same notoriety!

The Crooked House’s story is a reminder of the importance of respecting and adapting to our environment in building and construction practices. It underscores the need for expertise in geotechnical engineering and subsidence mitigation to navigate the challenges posed on any given site.

Interestingly, news reports that the property firm that recently bulldozed this landmark structure have been ordered to build an exact replica of the property… now that is what I call a like-for-like replacement and not new for old!

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