Jagjit Singh has recently won a six-year battle with his wife to throw away the carpets in his house. His persistence comes not from a minimalist aesthetic but because, as the man who virtually invented the role of building mycologist, he is hyper-aware of the problems that fungi and mites can cause to the health of building inhabitants.
He can rattle off the figures: 20 per cent of the uk population have allergies; 10 per cent of housing suffers from mould; figures for asthma have almost doubled since 1984. And the only reason the numbers are not even higher, Singh says, is because 'we have the leakiest buildings in Europe'. In Germany 30 per cent of buildings suffer from mould and rot; in Denmark, pioneer of energy efficiency, the figure is 50 per cent.
But Singh is no dry statistician. Having used his expertise for years in the service of engineer Oscar Faber, he has recently set up his own practice, Environmental Building Solutions, operating from his garage in Bedfordshire, and he couldn't be happier. 'I am like a building detective,' he says. 'I am very interested in trying to find the solution.'
He believes passionately that the answer to almost all infestation problems in buildings is not through chemicals but by changing the environment so that the pests can no longer flourish. The larvae of death watch beetle can live for 14 years, away from the reach of chemicals; common woodworm can survive for four. 'Spraying doesn't work, ' Singh says. 'It's a complete waste of time. And you are introducng lots of chemicals into the environment.'
For his tactics to work, it is necessary to really understand your enemy, and this is why Singh is one of the few people in the building industry who has a category of 'discovery' on his cv. In 1994 he tracked down wild dry rot (Serpula lacrymans) in the Himalayas. '4800m up in the Himalayas,' he explains, 'is equivalent to a house in England. There is high humidity. A joist with a carpet is like fallen timber with vegetation on it.' Having found his fungus, he now keeps going back to monitor it, and to see where it is dying off and what is killing it. 'I would like to spend the Millennium with dry rot in the Himalayas,' he says.
Singh also describes himself as a 'building doctor', which he says is 'wonderful - every building is a different patient'. But originally he intended to be a more conventional doctor. Brought up in a remote village in the Punjab in India ('I didn't see a car or a train until I was 11'), he did a BSc in medical biological sciences. Then the plant bug bit (his uncle was a mycologist) and Singh went on to do an MSc in botany, specialising in mycology and plant pathology. He came to the uk and took a PhD looking at the origin of the potato-blight fungus. From there it was a small step to tracing the origins of dry rot (in the infested ships' timbers that were incorporated in buildings), back to the Himalayas.
He is happy with his adopted home. 'The British building climate is a mycologist's heaven,' he says, citing the 20 different kinds of wet rot in buildings, and the various insects. Global warming and the Channel Tunnel are laying us open to new threats: the Longhorn beetle, currently concentrated around the Camberley area, already causes havoc in Germany and the Czech Republic. There have already been three termite attacks in the uk and 'it will be a problem if they spread'.
Singh has developed a method of sucking moulds out with a special vacuum, which he used on the National Museum of Scotland. He is advising the Post Office, which has problems with its 300-year old archives, and has worked on Plymouth's Royal William Yard and on the drying out of Windsor Castle after the fire. He took part in the investigation into the ductwork corrosion and contamination on the Lloyds building, and he advises several local authorities, which are increasingly being sued for problems of mould and damp. 'Solicitors are now targeting householders,' he says. Singh's advice is to spend money on remediation rather than litigation. But often the problems are the householders' fault. 'People block all the vents in the bathrooms,' he says; 'they block all the air bricks.'
Singh also works extensively on buildings abroad. He is active on the international lecture circuit, and has written a number of books. One of the reasons for setting up his own practice is to document the many buildings on which he has worked, and to continue his fight against the depredations of the chemical preservation industry. He was adviser to a recent television programme on rising damp when several chemical companies wrongly advised that a house with a damp problem needed a chemical damp course - and quoted wildly differing prices.
Environmental Building Solutions will, says Singh, offer the multi-disciplinary approach he believes all buildings need. He has a partner, Huw Lloyd, who is a wood specialist, while his wife, who acts as secretary, is also a nurse: 'She helps with the environmental health problems. She understands the patient's view.' Next on Singh's wish list will be an architect and a surveyor.
If 'know your enemy' is one of Singh's dictums, 'love your enemy' seems to be another. Despite his close acquaintance with the deleterious effects of fungi, he is a keen collector and eater of mushrooms. And he has identified an unusual source of delicacies. 'Oyster fungus grows well in floorboards,' he says.