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As unlikely as you may think this to be there are several thousand burglaries each year where entry into a dwelling has been gained by breaking through a wall or coming down through a ceiling or loft hatch. The following information covers the most common occurrences
The majority of ‘wall breakthroughs’ occur in older houses that have been converted into flats where the walls separating the dwellings from the common parts of the building (landings and corridors) have been constructed using a simple and cheap timber stud partition wall that often does not meet the sound insulation requirements of the Building Regulations Approved Document E and certainly would not comply with RDL’s Robust Details for a separating wall. (Robust Detail Limited (RDL) is a non-profit UKAS accredited product certification body that certifies wall and floor construction designs that exceed the sound insulation requirements of Approved Document E.)
A simple and cheap stud partition wall will typically comprise a number of vertical lengths of timber (common studs) fixed onto a horizontal floor or bottom plate and a top plate. There will also be horizontal timbers set between the common studs called 'noggin'. The noggin are usually spaced at a maximum of 1350mm apart meaning that there is often only one noggin in a normal height partition wall. Plasterboard is then fixed onto the studs on both faces and there will be insulation material placed in between. If the stud wall is dividing the dwelling from the common parts of a block, say a corridor, there might be two sheets of plasterboard fixed to both faces.
As you can see from the construction of a cheap stud partition wall it wouldn’t take much effort to break through a couple layers of plasterboard to bypass what might be a reasonably secured door.
What can be done?
In a practical sense not a lot can be done without some major upheaval and expense. Most of the problems tend to be in rented homes and I would be surprised if landlords would be that interested in making improvements. Should there be an opportunity to make improvements to an existing wall it might be possible to remove the internal or external plasterboard, add a layer of steel mesh or plywood and then reapply the plasterboard on top.
As I doubt these improvements will be made I would urge you and the other people living in the building to ensure that the common entrance doors and ground floor flats have been properly secured. Carry out a DIY Home Security Survey for either a Flat or Apartment in a Converted House or Block of Flats, or perhaps a Basement Flat/Apartment to find out more about your security needs.
If you are constructing a new partition wall you are advised to build it to the requirements of Approved Document E or preferably to Robust Detail Specification E-WT-2 and consider introducing an additional panel of mesh steel or plywood. Before you start the work a conversation with the Building Control Officer or Robust Detail Limited might be prudent.
Ceiling or Loft Hatch breakthroughs
Ceilings breakthroughs are more common in older, low rise blocks of flats that have both loft access hatches in common parts of the building, such as over a landing, and no compartmentalisation of the loft space to restrict the spread of fire. Even when there has been refurbishment work to restrict the spread of fire in the roof space it is likely that the constructed partitions will have been built using materials designed to prevent the spread of fire and smoke rather than materials to prevent burglary or both. If entry to the roof has been made via a loft hatch in a common area it is not unusual for the thief to break through the ceiling.
Older terraced housing has also experienced its share of ceiling and loft hatch breakthroughs, whereby the residents (or more often than not a ‘friend’ of the residents) has accessed the loft using the resident’s loft hatch, crawled along the roof space to the next hatch and dropped down into the neighbour’s.
What can be done?
Compartmentalisation of lofts seems to be the obvious thing to do, together with better loft hatch security. If your roof space hasn’t been divided up then any work intended to do so should be designed to prevent the spread of fire, smoke and burglars.
Loft hatches, which are often loose fitting, should at least be hinged and padlocked, but preferably locked with two hasps, staples and padlocks on two sides; fitting one on the hinge side and the other on the leading edge. A local housing authority in West London fitted purpose made steel loft hatches, which hinged downwards and were secured in place with very secure padlocks.
If the loft hatch is inside your dwelling and the hatch has sufficiently thick timber you could fit a pair of mortice rack bolts instead of the padlocks (See also Other door locks and bolts)
Preventing access through the ceiling from the loft can be achieved by boarding out the loft, but this is going to be quite expensive and you may instead be best advised to spend some money on an intruder alarm with detection upstairs to detect a breakthrough.
I took a call to the scene of a burglary one night duty. The occupiers were away for the weekend and the neighbour who'd called us said that he'd heard noises coming from next door. Me and my colleague searched the house thoroughly and even went up into the loft and into the back garden, but we couldn't find the thief, which was odd, because the neighbour swore blind that he and his wife had been watching carefully and had seen nobody leave. We decided to repeat our search and during it we found water dripping through a crack in the ceiling in one of the bedrooms. We went back up the ladder into the loft to find the thief emerging from a large plastic water tank. He accompanied us to the police station. He was a young lad, his first time arrest for burglary - probably wet behind the ears!