30 Dec 2005

Half price kitchen, anyone?

The post-Christmas sales have started and nowhere is this more apparent than in the new kitchen market. I’ve just seen an advert on TV for Magnet — Half Price Sale starts today plus an extra 10% off — followed immediately by one for B&Q Kitchens — Half Price Sale starts today plus an extra 15% off. What is it with new kitchens at this time of year?

One of my regular golfing buddies works for one of these outfits and he tells me that what happens in the kitchen market is a mirror image of what happens in book retailing. With books, the market goes ballistic in the two months leading up to Xmas, and then cools off. With kitchens, November and December are completely dead and suddenly the market bursts into life after Xmas. However, when asked why this should be, he just shrugs his shoulders and says that’s the way it is.

So are there bargains to be had at this time of year? Are these 50%, 60% or even 75% off offers what they appear? I don’t think so. In fact I know so. These kitchens are always at least 50% off. I think that on one day each year they suddenly advertise kitchens at the full price in an obscure store like Runcorn, and then every store in the chain can claim to be at least 50% cheaper than this. And, in point of fact, when you are ordering a whole kitchen, the price is often negotiable anyway, especially if you have an offer of something similar for less from a competitor.

Three years ago I spent a morning with Wickes looking at one of their new stores. Wickes have recently been taken over by Travis Perkins but are still operating in much the same manner as they always have done, a sort of halfway house between a builder’s merchant and a DIY store. Their core strategy is to sell basic products very cheaply, known by business studies students as Everyday Low Pricing or EDLP. They don’t go in for promotions, 10% offs or 3 for 2 offers, they just like to sell stuff cheap all the time. It works for Wickes, across their entire product range. With one glaring exception. Kitchens! They couldn’t shift any if they advertised them at a low price so they now use the old 50% off% routine beloved of MFI, Magnet and B&Q.

So it seems us Brits require a little encouragement to buy our kitchens. Either that or a Swedish name. IKEA is one store you won’t see any seasonal promotions. That is because the business is owned and run by elves so imbued with a collective work ethic that they have no concept of bargaining.

23 Dec 2005

New benchmark house beats Govt cost guidelines

I have selected a new benchmark house for the 7th edition of The Housebuilder's Bible, which is due out in September 2006. It’s the smallest house I have yet worked with and in many ways it’s a back-to-basics structure, a four-square box with very little embellishment, finished to a pretty basic standard. It’s builder, Mike Capp, is working up some of the costings figures for me over the next few weeks but he assures me it cost between £60k and £70k to build.

I’ll be writing at length about this house in the next edition so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But it makes an interesting case study in itself in the year that the government has sponsored a House for £60k competition. To qualify, the house needs to be at least 76.5m2. My benchmark house is 110m2 internal floor area. It appears, cost-wise, that it would cream it!

19 Dec 2005

When to hire the neighbour's builders

I have often written of the similarities between choosing a builder and choosing a mate. Both are high-risk games of chance with no guarantee that things will work out OK in the end. I have always assumed that people spent rather more time and care on mate selection than on choosing a contractor but recently I have started to have my doubts. There was a witty little aphorism in this week’s The Week which stated that it doesn’t really matter who you marry because they invariably turn out to be someone different. Maybe it’s the same with hiring contractors.

To hear some people complain about their builders, you’d think they were talking about their estranged spouses. And as for going off and starting another job mid-way through yours — well, it’s adultery by any other name. But what is even stranger is to hear some men complaining about being “done over” by their ex-wives in ways that sound just like a good old building dispute.

The standard routine for hiring builders is something akin to an arranged marriage. You check them out, you ask them to tender, like inspecting the dowry, and you refer to your elders (architect?) for reassurance. This all stems from the fact that we have been taught not to trust our own judgement about builders and that somehow an assortment of other routines will make a better job of it than we will. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

But yesterday I took a call from Clive Fewins, a fellow journalist on Homebuilding & Renovating, who was telling me about an article he had written about a couple who wanted an extension built onto their house and they rather wanted the neighbour’s builders to do the work. These guys were working right next door so they could see what they were like and the neighbours themselves weighed in full of praise. The builders were interested and produced a quote that looked to be OK. But then the couple had an attack of the wobbles and decided that they really ought to check out some other builders, just to make sure they weren’t being ripped off. So they put their job out to tender to four other builders. One came back with a much higher quote, the other three didn’t bother to come back with any quotations at all. But they spent about three months waiting for all this to become clear. During which time, the neighbour’s builders had got busy on other work and instead of starting seamlessly on their extension after finishing with the neighbours, they now had to wait nine months for them to come back. Oh, and the price had gone up.

So the net result of all this tendering process was that the job was delayed by nearly a year and it cost more than it would have done if they hadn’t bothered with it.

There is a sneaking admiration for the institution of the arranged marriage among us Anglo-Saxons. We seem to be so bad at keeping marriages together these days, that we suspect that it would be better for all concerned if our parents chose a mate for us. But I have my doubts. If building disputes are anything to go by, your parents are just as likely to select a useless spouse as you are yourself. And if and when anything goes wrong, they’d be the ones in the firing line. I am not sure the chances of forming a lasting relationship can be made any more favourable by letting the head rule the heart in such matters.

The question is how much difference does due diligence and the tendering process really make to the successful outcome of a building job? There is ultimately no way of knowing because there is no way of measuring outcomes. But, as this little story shows, sometimes it must make sense to throw caution to the wind and just hire the obvious candidates, rather than phaffing about with all the rigmarole of a professionally run beauty contest.

15 Dec 2005

Does Part M apply to new extensions?

Tracey asks:

Do the Part M access requirements apply to extensions to properties?

Mark reckons:

Guidance on this issue is in the latest 2004 edition of Part M. Broadly speaking, the answer is NO.

This is unusual for building regs: normally they apply to material alterations, just as much as to new builds. However, Part M is attempting to make homes easier for disabled people to visit and it therefore doesn't make any sense to apply these regs to just one part of the house.

There are a couple of exceptions.

• If the existing house is already Part M compliant (and it will be if it's been constructed in the past five years), then of course the new extension must meet the same standards.

• You can't make the house worse, from an access point of view. By way of example, you can't take out the only downstairs toilet.

9 Dec 2005

Congestion charge OVER London, please

Two snippets of contrasting information from this morning’s Wake Up to Money on Radio 5.

1. BAA unveils plans to press ahead with a new runway at London’s Stansted Airport, home to the low-cost airlines, and 30 miles from where I live. They want to increase throughput of passengers from the current 21million a year to around 50million. It will be expensive and both Ryan Air and EasyJet are complaining about extra charges but it doesn’t appear to be making any difference as Central Government is “determined to press ahead.” Their logic seems to be, according to David Learmont, editor of Flight International, that without new runways at both Heathrow and Stansted, London will become a “no travel zone.” DL commented that Paris Charles de Gaul has more runways than all of London’s three main airports combined. He seemed to be suggesting that without more runways, people would choose to fly to Paris instead. Which is a bizarre thought. “Where are we going to go on holiday? I know. Let’s look for the city with the most runways, that’ll be sure to be worth a visit.”

2. Bus services were deregulated in 1986, twenty years ago. They are now run by private companies throughout the country, with the one exception of London. However, during that time, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 7%. The only place where bus journeys are up is in, you guessed it, London. Is this a coincidence? Unlikely. Apparently, bus companies are not allowed to work together to provide connecting services because this can be construed as “distorting competition.” During these twenty years, the price of both bus and train tickets have risen faster than inflation. Meanwhile, car ownership is cheaper than ever, in relative terms.

What have these two items got to do with housebuilding? Transport and housing are intimately linked. We have a government committed to a “sustainable” housing policy, based largely around the notion that the journey to work must be accomplished by any other method than a car. On this basis, they will allow an absolute minimum amount of development in the countryside or on greenfields, insisting that urban cramming (aka brownfield development) is the future.

But the root of the problem here is transport, not housing. You can’t have a sustainable housing policy without a sustainable transport policy. The residents of these new brownfield developments still want or need cars and consequently building in towns just adds to overall congestion. Providing better bus services would be one sensible way of alleviating this problem but this just hasn’t happened. The political will just isn’t there, outside London.

The government’s transport policies are anything but sustainable, as the two news snippets indicate. A sustainable approach to air travel would be to say “Enough is enough.” There are already flights to London from all over the world. If anybody wants to get here, they can, very easily and pretty cheaply. If the demand grows, then passengers should pay more for their seats, just as Ryan Air and EasyJet do so effectively. In effect, we should have a congestion charge in the skies over London, just as there is on its streets. Doubling the number of flights into London will not only double the CO2 emissions from all the extra air journeys, but increase congestion on the ground as all these new arrivals go about their business.

And buses? The fact that the bus services have been left to languish for so long since the mistaken privatisations of the 1980s smacks of the fact that no one really cares about them. Except, it seems, Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, and the man behind London’s innovative congestion charging. He has spent a huge amount of money on buses in London and the results speak for themselves. They are packed. People will use them, if the services are frequent and reliable. The added success of many Park & Ride schemes around the country also shows that people are prepared to make combined journeys, part car, part bus or train, but they have to be certain that the bus/train link will be working.

But when I want to visit London, I am faced by a dilemma. I live out in the wilds of Cambridgeshire so I am off the grid as regards sensible public transport options. My journey has to start by car. But, if I am going into Central London, which is only 60 miles away, I don’t want to be in my car when I arrive, as I will have to pay the congestion charge and find somewhere expensive to park. Question is where do I break the journey and switch to public transport? I have basically three options.

A I drive to Cambridge, 15 miles away (and due west, rather than south in the direction of London) and catch the King’s Cross non-stop train: it runs every half hour and only takes 45 minutes, so it’s an excellent service. But it’s expensive to park at Cambridge station and there is no guarantee that there will be a parking space there on weekday mornings. That’s a stress I can do without. Last time I took this option, they sold me an overnight parking ticket for £12 when the car park was already full!

B I drive to a station on the Cambridge-Liverpool St line, one of which, ironically, is Stansted Airport. The trains are slower than the other line and they head into the City rather than the West End which is rarely convenient for me and usually results in much longer tube journeys, which I don’t look forward to. But there is usually adequate parking, although Stansted parking is expensive and involves a three or four mile detour off the M11 motorway to get to.

C I drive into the outskirts of London and look for a tube station with a car park. Redbridge, on the Central Line, can be good as it’s at the end of the M11 and the parking there is cheap, as little as £2.50 a day. Hop on the tube there and you’ll be at Oxford Circus in 40 minutes. But arrive before 2pm and you won’t find a place in the car park and you have to look at car parks and stations further east, which is time consuming and stressful. Redbridge car park could easily have been developed into a Park & Ride node but no doubt that’s not regarded as a sustainable option because it sort of encourages people to drive part way into London and so it languishes as a relatively small 200-space car park.

In reality, none of these options is ideal. There is no easy Park & Ride option for London: you are left to fend for yourself and try to figure out which route will be the easiest and where the parking might be adequate and affordable. Added to which there is no way of knowing which car parks have space, let alone being able to reserve a parking space in advance.

Why is it so difficult? If I did the journey every day, I would develop a pattern or a routine and I’d be able to do the same thing each day without thinking. But because my time of travel and my London destinations vary, I often set off from Weston Colville with no idea how I am going to complete my journey. That speaks volumes for the lack of integration in British transport policy. For too long, it has been dominated by the Cars are Bad, Public Transport is Good dogma. The result is that you cannot drive your car where you want without congestion or parking problems and that consequently you struggle to find sensible ways to use public transport. Unless, of course, you want to fly somewhere.

Incidentally, there is more space given over to parking at Stansted Airport than there is to runways. And I think BAA makes more money out of its airport car parks than it does out of its landing rights. At least BAA understands the Park & Fly concept. I occasionally catch a Ryan Air flight for some ridiculously low fee, under £10, and when I get back to Stansted, I have to pay £45 to get the car out of the car park. Its expensive, but at least you know where you stand. The same cannot be said of our railway car parking.

7 Dec 2005

On Soundproofing Floors

If costs were the only criteria, every selfbuilder would choose a timber intermediate floor. However, the performance of timber floors in modern housing, particularly as regards sound proofing, is poor and, as a result, many selfbuilders have chosen masonry construction and pre-cast flooring. They undoubtedly perform well in this respect but they come with a cost penalty. What many people don’t realise is that timber floors can be “improved” to perform just as well as precast concrete ones. There are a number of features which can be designed in, each improving the decibel ratings a little bit: combine several of them and you have a vastly better performance.
• add insulation within the joist void (now mandatory) – adds 3-5dB
• thicker or heavier ceiling board – adds 3dB
• mount ceiling board on separating strips – adds 2dB
• add resilient strips between the joists and the floor cover – adds 2dB
• add a sound deadening layer under the floor cover – adds 4dB
• separate floor joists from ceiling joists – adds 3dB

If you were to do all these measures, you would improve the sound reduction levels from around 35dB up to around 50dB, which is close to the party floor standard required in flats and similar to the best pre-cast flooring systems. The cost? Similar to switching to pre-cast!

Whichever flooring system you choose, you should consider the effect of using hard floor surfaces and downlighters. Hard floor surfaces are noisy, especially as regards impact noise, which can transfer through the structure. If you are really concerned about noise indoors, then consider fitted carpets which are fantastic at sound absorption. Downlighters are another fashionable item which do little for soundproofing: however there are ranges which are rated for fireproofing and acoustic purposes, such as Snaplite, and you should consider fitting these under bedrooms.

Incidentally, there is a very rough and rather crude relationship between soundproofing costs and decibel reduction ratings. The simplest floor, the unimproved timber joisted floor with chipboard over and plasterboard underneath, costs around £35 per m2 and reduces airborne sound transmission by around 35dB. The very best soundproof solutions cost around £60 per m2 and gives just over 50dB sound reduction. Can you see where I am heading? It would be nice to say that each decibel of sound reduction will cost you around £1 per m2, and it’s not so far from the truth. But in reality, the decibel scale is not linear and the decibel rating doubles every 10 decibels, so it gets harder and more expensive to deliver soundproofing at the top end of the scale, so the neat relationship breaks down somewhat. But it’s not a bad guide. If you are prepared to throw more than £50 per m2 at your intermediate floors, you can build in pretty good soundproofing, whatever system of floor you choose.

At 35dB sound reduction, you will be able to hear all too much. Probably every word of every conversation. At 45dB, you will be aware that a conversation is going on but won’t hear more than mumbles, however music or TV will be very perceptible. At 55dB sound reduction, you should be vaguely aware that someone is in the room above or below, but the noise really shouldn’t give you any grief. Unless of course, they decide to hold a rave. Then I think you’d best forget about dB ratings and go out for the evening.

2 Dec 2005

47 ways to get stung

Fancy knowing about all the different ways you can get stung from crossing swords with the construction industry? Take a look at Transparency Internationals website and click on the Anti-Corruption Code of Conduct for Individuals, which downloads a free pdf.

It’s not all one-way traffic. Some of these items are things clients use to hit contractors. But as a catalogue of dodgy practice, this makes great bedtime reading. Here’s the table of contents.

Pre-qualification and tender
1. Loser’s fee ........................................................................ 13
2. Price fixing ....................................................................... 13
3. Manipulation of pre-qualification .................................... 14
4. Bribery to obtain main contract award ............................. 14
5. Bribery during sub-contract procurement ........................ 15
6. Corruptly negotiated contract .......................................... 15
7. Manipulation of design .................................................... 15
8. Specification of overly sophisticated design .................... 16
9. Inflation of resources and time requirements ................... 16
10. Obtaining a quotation only for price comparison ............. 17
11. Concealment of financial status ....................................... 17
12. Intention to withhold payment ......................................... 17
13. Submission of false quotation .......................................... 18
14. Falsely obtaining export credit insurance ........................ 18
Project execution
15. False invoicing: supply of inferior materials .................. 19
16. False invoicing: supply of less equipment ...................... 19
17. False work certificates .................................................... 19
18. Excessive repair work ..................................................... 20
19. Overstating man-day requirements ................................. 20
20. Inflated claim for variation (1) ........................................ 21
21. Inflated claim for variation (2) ........................................ 21
22. False variation claim ....................................................... 21
23. Issue of false delay certificate ......................................... 22
24. False extension of time application ................................. 22
25. False assurance that payment will be made .................... 22
26. Delayed issue of payment certificates ............................. 23
27. Concealing defects (1) .................................................... 23
28. Concealing defects (2) .................................................... 23
29. Set-off of false rectification costs ................................... 24
30. Refusal to issue final certificate ...................................... 24
31. Requirement to accept lower payment than is due ......... 24
32. Extortion by client’s representative ................................ 25
33. Facilitation payment ........................................................ 25
34. Overstating of profits ...................................................... 25
35. False job application ....................................................... 26
Dispute resolution
36. Submission of incorrect contract claims ...................... 26
37. Concealment of documents .......................................... 27
38. Submission of false supporting documents .................. 27
39. Supply of false witness evidence ................................. 28
40. Supply of false expert evidence ................................... 29
41. Bribery of witness ........................................................ 29
42. Blackmail of witness .................................................... 29
43. False information as to financial status ........................ 30
44. False statement as to settlement sum ........................... 30
45. Over-manning by law firm ........................................... 30
46. Excessive billing by lawyer ......................................... 31
47. Complicity by lawyer ................................................... 31

1 Dec 2005

Why build with lime? Why indeed?

Type smeaton project into Google and it brings up a series of interesting articles about the mixing of lime and cement in mortars. What is or was the Smeaton Project? John Smeaton (1724-92) was an eminent Georgian who is sometimes called the father of civil engineering. He built canals and bridges and, perhaps most famously, the Eddystone Lighthouse off the Devon coast. In order to do this he began tinkering around with lime mortars, trying to get them to be waterproof and this work led onto the invention of cement, as we now know it, in 1824.

In its early years, Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC) was expensive and it was used quite sparingly, mostly as an additive to lime mortars to help them set. The typical Victorian building site used lime mixed with sand for its mortar and whilst this was fine for internal work, it proved very slow to set in cold and wet weather and any additive which speeded up this process was welcome. Thus started the practice of mixing lime and cement.

In the 20th century, the use of lime declined and OPC started to be used exclusively for mortars and concrete. These days, lime kilns have become a relic of a bygone industrial age and OPC is king throughout the world.

But 15 years ago, a lime revival got underway and slowly but surely it has gathered pace and momentum. Conservationists got interested and bodies like the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings and English Heritage began beating the lime drum. However, the lime revivalists were split into two camps: on the one hand were/are the purists who believed that lime simply made better mortars than cement; on the other, the traditionalists who saw no harm in adding a bit of cement, or even mixing lime and cement half and half, so as to get the benefits of both.

And so a bun fight ensued. People began arguing about all manner of weird and wonderful properties that different mortars might or might not have. Advocates of lime mortars said that they were better because they could “breathe” and “self-heal” and that they were “simply beautiful.” Conservators became terribly enthusiastic about the use of lime to repair old buildings and terribly negative about the use of over-strong cement mortars. And arguments raged about sustainability: cement production was said to be responsible for 3% of the world greenhouse gas emissions. Or was it 6%. Or even 8%. In reality nobody has a clue, but it’s a big number, because cement production is a) very common and b) uses a lot of energy.

Not that replacing cement with lime would really help matters, because lime also uses a lot of energy to produce, but when a bun fight has started, who cares about boring little things like logic.

But whilst open season was declared on cement-heads by the limeys, the lime revival was still split down the middle by the disagreement between the purists and the mixers. This is where the Smeaton Project came in. Because this was a piece of research, funded by English Heritage, which looked at how the different mortars performed and it came to a significant conclusion. Just chucking a bit of cement in a mainly lime mix was not a good idea because there was a danger of something called segregation.

Here’s what Graham O’Hare, Conservation manager of Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, had to say about this topic

Segregation is a major hazard of gauging lime mortars with cement. As the mortar sets, the cement colloid tends to migrate into the pores of the lime mortar as they form, clogging them and leading to a greatly reduced porosity. If the proportion of cement is high enough, segregation is much less likely to occur, but the resulting mortar will be hard. If the cement proportion is low, the mortar will be less hard, but segregation is more likely to occur. The resulting mortar will be seriously weakened, with a poorly formed pore structure leaving it very susceptible to frost damage and deterioration, even after carbonation of the non hydraulic lime present has taken place.

It sounds just dreadful, doesn’t it. “Major hazard”, “clogging”, “greatly reduced porosity,” “seriously weakened”, “poorly formed pore structure”, “susceptible to frost damage and deterioration.” What a catalogue of woe! What we have here is an attempt to drive a wedge between the purists, who are delighted with the results from the Smeaton Project, and the mixers. But there is something just a little bit too alarming about these findings for my liking. Whilst they may have found segregation taking place on certain mixes, how can they be so sure that all these horrors will result? After all, the test of a good mortar is how it behaves after 50 years in place. The choice of language used by Graham in this piece is, to my mind, a dead giveaway that we are not seeing pure science at work here, with its understated conclusions and room for doubt, but an attempt to rubbish a practice that has been in widespread use since the 1830s.

What’s ironic is that Smeaton himself was pioneering the way for cement to be used in place of lime, whilst the Smeaton project seems to be doing just the opposite.

30 Nov 2005

Joist Span Tables

Ever wondered how far a timber joist will span before it starts to deflect noticeably? More than likely not. But if you are designing houses, extensions or loft conversions, it’s important stuff. You can look the info up on a Span Table (here’s the NHBC’s version).

So where do you find such a table? This information really ought to be in the public domain – i.e. available for free on some website – but it doesn’t appear to be. It’s not exactly a trade secret and I don’t think it has any valuable Intellectual Property Rights attached to it. But if you want to access the timber span tables, you have to pay.

What’s bizarre is that the span tables used to be embedded in the building regs, which are now in the public domain thanks to the internet. Get hold of a copy of the old Part A for England & Wales and there they are, in Appendix A, a 28-page blockbuster which covered every conceivable timber span you could ever think of, from humble floor joists to rafters and purlins.

But the new improved Part A, 2004 version, has seen fit to eliminate this useful information. Clause 2B1 states: Guidance on the sizing of certain members in floors and roofs is given in "Span tables for solid timber members in floors, ceilings and roofs (excluding trussed rafter roofs) for dwellings”, published by TRADA, available from Chiltern House, Stocking Lane, Hughenden Valley, High Wycombe, HP14 4ND, Bucks.

Very nice for TRADA who charge £17.50 for their span table booklet. You can find simplified versions of the span tables in the NHBC Handbook, which is also available at a price of £35, but obviously includes far more information than just timber span tables.

But it begs the question, why remove something useful from the public domain? What harm is it to have the span tables available for free?

Have just checked the ODPM building regs website and the 1992 edition of Part A is still available for free download, complete with the Span Table Appendix. So hurry and get yours before they hit the delete button.

If you can’t be arsed to wade through page after page of boring tables, here’s a really useful nugget you might care to remember. Halve the depth of the joist in inches and you get the span of the joist in metres. Thus a 9” joist will happily span 4.5m. And a 3.5m span will require at least 7” joists. Now you don’t even need a span table.

Condensing boiler waste pumps

Here’s a neat product I learned about last weekend at the HomeBuilding & Renovating show in Somerset. Saniflo are not a new name in the building industry; they produce waste pumps that enable you to fit loos in basements so that the waste can be taken up to a drain. If you want to pump poo, Saniflo is the way to go.

Naturally, Saniflo would like to sell us more than poo pumpers and their catalogue shows all manner of useful applications. However only one really caught my eye and that was a small pump which they call SaniCondens. It gets around a noted problem with the installation of condensing boilers. These energy efficient boilers, which are now becoming mandatory under our new building regs, produce small amounts of slightly acidic liquid which you have to dispose of. If you fit the boiler near a drain, you don’t have a problem. But not all boiler positions are handy for drains. Part L, the reg that deals with this, allows you dispensation to fit a non-condensing boiler if you haven’t got a drain point. But SaniCondens will get around this problem as it can lift the waste up to 4.5m, which should be enough to get to a drain off point. They retail at £88 plus VAT.

23 Nov 2005

On cavity wall insulation

Jeff Howell, the Sunday Telegraph’s resident builder, writes this week on the vexed subject of cavity wall insulation. Jeff is firmly in the non-believer camp: he reckons that cavities, if built empty, should be left empty because the original intention behind a cavity was to stop water penetrating from the external brick cladding through to the house. Well, that is what the cavity wall designers would have us believe.

But my researches tell me that the reason for the widespread adoption of the cavity wall design in the 1920s and 30s was nothing to do with builders wanting to improve construction standards. No, it was down to cost and speed. It was (and remains) much quicker and cheaper to build a single skin of brickwork separated by a cavity from a single skin of blockwork, than to build a double thickness brick-only wall, the way Victorians and Edwardians built brick houses. In today’s money, it costs around £50 per m2 to build a single skin of brickwork, about £20 per m2 to build a block wall, thus around £70 per m2 to combine the two around a cavity. In comparison, a solid double-skin brick wall is going to cost close to double a single skin one, i.e. £100 per m2. It’s a no-brainer. If you were a 1930s housebuilder, you would switch to cavity walls, and tell your customers you were doing it for their benefit.

What’s remarkable about the whole cavity wall story is just how useless the cavity has been. It’s only marginally better at keeping rain out of a house than solid brickwork. It seems to make little difference whether it gets filled with insulation or not. Wider cavities perform better than narrower ones and failure rates are highest where the rain falls the most: neither of these facts will startle you.

The question, which exercises Jeff so much, is whether you should or shouldn’t inject insulation into an empty cavity. The government is all in favour as it’s one simple and cost effective way of reducing carbon emissions. And there are tempting grants available for you to do this. Check out the Energy Savings Trust website . Jeff reckons it causes problems elsewhere, specifically making damp penetration problems more likely. His evidence is sketchy at best: he claims that he gets a bulging postbag when he writes on the subject from people who have suffered penetrating damp and condensation problems since having their cavities injected.

Jeff has a more specific beef than just compromising the cavity. He reckons that cavity wall installers’ favourite material is mineral wool because it’s cheap and it’s very quick to blow in. In fact, he writes that gangs can do five houses a day. And he also claims that the job is often rather poorly carried out. At five houses a day, I can quite believe that. This leads to a problem with voids, where they have missed bits of the cavity out, and slumping, where the mineral wool fails to hold its position. Both these will lead to cold spots. In fact work by Kingspan, the Irish insulation manufacturer, supports these claims. They have undertaken various thermographic studies that highlight the prevalence of cold spots inside cavities.

Now Jeff reckons that these cold spots are likely to cause condensation inside the house. I think he’s wrong. He writes because the house is now better insulated, the internal temperature can rise and with it, relative humidity. This means wall areas that are slightly cooler than the rest can be subject to condensation and black mould, which can give the impression of penetrating dampness.

I'm not convinced this is correct. Condensation requires temperatures to fall below a dew point: in most modern homes, that dew point is around 12°C. It varies with the relative humidity levels but in most homes in winter the internal temperature is kept at around 20°C and the relative humidity sits at between 50% and 60%. This air: moisture mix hits its dew point at 12°C. Now increasing the temperature doesn’t of itself increase relative humidity: in fact, without adding more moisture, it does the reverse. It certainly doesn’t affect the dew point temperature. If you leave a room unheated and the temperature falls below 12°C, you will find condensation forming on the coldest surface, which is often the window. If there is a cold spot in the wall, maybe where the cavity wall installers have missed a bit, then, yes, there is every chance that condensation will form next to it. But it is not the cavity wall insulation that is causing the problem, it’s the low internal temperature. In fact, cavity wall insulation should improve the situation because the room temperature will stay higher for longer, because the heat loss characteristics of the room have been improved.

So what’s my advice regarding cavity wall insulation? I say, go for it. If the installers reckon it’s OK, then I really can’t see what the problem is. And if it’s not installed perfectly, it is still better than nothing. But I do agree with Jeff on one thing. I think mineral wool is the worst option for this work: I’d go for polystyrene beads, everytime.

20 Nov 2005

Less is more: the story of Britain's big housebuilders

I’ve written about the UK building materials sector previously on this blog: see entries for August 4 and August 5. What occasioned that was the takeover bid for BPB by St Gobain. Nearly four months later and this bid looks like succeeding. And in the meantime another bellwether of the UK Building materials sector, Pilkington, the glassmaker, has also been bid for and looks like being taken out by Nippon Glass. If Pilkington goes, it will leave remarkably little in the way of UK-owned businesses operating in this sector. In fact, Hanson now stands out like a sore thumb as being the last meaningful mouthful left on the plate for foreign suitors to gorge themselves on. The purpose of this blog isn’t to do share tips but if you’ve got some cash under the bed looking for a home…

What’s remarkable about the resting of control of virtually an entire strata of British industry is a) how quickly it’s happened and b) how little attention has been paid to it. To be fair, all of the foreign owners continue to operate out of the UK so in some ways the change of ownership doesn’t have a huge impact on the local scene. But can you imagine the fuss if a collection of French, Germans, Mexicans, Americans and Japanese were to buy up 95% of our farmland? In some ways I am in awe of just how relaxed our nation has become about these matters. Or maybe we are just the world’s tart: you can have anything you want, Dearie, if you pay the right price.

But the subject of this particular blog isn’t the UK Building Materials Sector. No, that’s just occupied the first 265 words of this discourse. The subject is its cousin, the UK Housebuilding Sector. Partly because it makes an interesting contrast with the Building Materials Sector and partly because it too is subject to a takeover bid or two.

The first thing to note in this compare and contrast exercise is that there are no foreign owners in the housebuilding sector. None. There was one, the American Centex Corporation, which purchased the medium-sized Fairclough Homes and ran it for several years. But this year, Centex has off-loaded Fairclough to the privately owned Miller Group. They are Scottish, but that doesn’t actually rank as foreign. What the sector consists of, from the stock market’s angle, is around 15 quoted housebuilders. There are another dozen privately owned ones, which operate at a slightly smaller scale to the quoted ones. This combined grouping builds around 70% of all the new houses in Britain. Over the past six or seven years, there has been a lot of merging and taking-over in this sector but it’s all been carried out by the local hoodlums. No out-of-towners.

Why should housebuilding remain such a local activity?

The UK housebuilding scene is unique. Nowhere else do so few companies control so much of the market. Only the USA has anything remotely resembling the UK housebuilding scene — i.e. giant housebuilding companies — and, over there, it’s fragmented and regionalised. Elsewhere, housebuilding businesses are involved in certain large schemes, like urban regeneration, but they don’t do mass-produced housing for sale across their countries. Not the way we do. So I guess this explains the first part of the conundrum: there simply aren’t any equivalent businesses lurking around elsewhere that could sensibly gobble up a UK housebuilder or two. As I say, only in the USA is the scene remotely similar and the cross-border activity – both ways – is virtually restricted to UK-USA business. So whilst St Gobain or Nippon Glass feel entirely comfortable digesting a similar business to theirs based in Britain, they would feel distinctly queasy about buying a large housebuilding business because they have no frame of reference with which to judge it, let alone the skills required to manage it.

Therefore UK housebuilders have a protective shield wrapped around them by virtue of their uniqueness.

But there is more to it than uniqueness. There is also a weird and wondrous understanding between national housebuilders and the UK government, based around the use and abuse of the planning system. The problem here, at least as far as outside businesses are concerned, is that the UK housebuilding industry works hand-in-glove with government regarding allocation of land and that this relationship means that there isn’t really a free market here to be exploited. If you like, it’s a boys’ club and entry to it is more or less determined by who you know, and success is determined by how well you play your hand of cards, not by any innovative strategies or unique selling points. It’s a very difficult market in which to gain any competitive advantage and consequently it’s hard for consumers to know or identify with any individual companies. Brand loyalty is virtually non-existent. A foreign buyer would immediately risk loosing the all-important contacts that make these businesses tick-over and would find it very difficult to add value in any way.

Now historically, the less a housebuilder has actually got involved in the building process, the better they have done out of it. What they have been good at is doing land deals: everything on downstream from that has just been a hassle to turn the deals into cash, three or five years down the line. None of them has been particularly interested in the process by which they deliver homes to their customers and consequently design flair has been largely absent and construction standards have been, shall we say, unchallenging.

You’d have thought that with a captive market and little meaningful competition, the way would be open for young-Turk housebuilders to appear on the scene and blow the opposition away. Five years ago, three quoted housebuilders broke ranks with the status quo and decided that they would like to try something different. They began to experiment with actually making houses themselves in factories rather than just subbing out the whole process to the boys on site, in the time honoured way. We are really only talking about switching to in-house timber frame here, not exactly cutting-edge technology, but for a housebuilder to actually build houses was something novel.

So what happened to them?

The first on the block was a housebuilder called Beazer. They’d had a small timber frame operation in Scotland since 1993 and they decided they would start a larger one up in England to service a big chunk of their output. However, no sooner had they bought and tooled up their plant in Ipswich than they were taken over by Persimmon, run by the ex-rugby player and brick-and-block lover John White. End of experiment.

The second one up was Wilson Connolly or Wilcon, as they preferred to be known. Wilcon had big ideas, not just for off-site construction but for an entirely vertically integrated supply route with materials arriving pre-packaged in containers for quick on-site assembly. They spent £3million on a software package to run all this and set up a subsidiary called buildpack.com with the express intention of bypassing the merchants. Their plan was to have 90% of output built off-site by 2004. Results? Disaster. Teething troubles meant that quality control actually went down and margins took a hit. In 2001, a boom year for housebuilders, Wilcon were the only one to report a decline in profits. The board acted: the group MD John Tutte and Mr Innovation, John Weir, were ousted and an old hand took over, pledging to get back to the traditional methods of working. But it was too late for Wilcon. They were taken over by Taywood in 2003.

And the third? Westbury took a more cautious approach but still ended up building the biggest timber frame plant in Europe, Space4 at Castle Bromwich, just off the M6. They never planned to build more than a “large proportion” of Westbury homes at Space4 and in many ways their intentions were the least ambitious of the three. Nevertheless, Westbury’s margins began to suffer in comparison with the competition and this week, Westbury has become a bid target from none other Persimmon (again). If Persimmon wins Westbury, they will become the largest housebuilder in the UK and the fate of off-site construction in the private housebuilding arena will be effectively sealed for another generation because it seems unlikely that Persimmon will persist with the Space4 concept.

There is an old adage in housebuilding circles that less is more. The less you get involved in the building process, the more money you make. The conservatives in this business — and there are many — are secretly delighted that these builders with ideas have all been vanquished. It means that they can go back to the life they knew, of doing deals with landowners and planners, well away from the public gaze, and that they won’t really have to think too hard or get their hands dirty. It also effectively inoculates the entire industry against foreign competition because it’s returned to the gentlemens' club ethic where it’s hard to bring about significant changes, let alone improvements.

It also partly explains just why the UK housebuilding scene is so technologically backward in comparison with other similar cultures. Off-site construction has been shown to work well: the Scandinavians are masters at it, the Germans increasingly good and the Japanese, as you might expect, have taken it to a new level. It’s even widely used in Britain in the commercial sector. But there is this huge inertia just to leave things as they are in private housebuilding. For the reality is that the money is made on the land deals and the planning gains and that, whilst off-site construction can deliver houses quicker, it doesn’t actually make them any cheaper and UK housebuilders don’t really want quicker homes. They just want a steady drip feed of new houses coming onto the market so that they can sell them at premium prices to buyers who have little choice available to them.

As they say, less is more.

14 Nov 2005

Climate Change

“Not enough is being done to tackle climate change.”

This morning, it’s the World Wildlife Fund that is having a pop at Tony Blair: WWF are an active environmental lobbying group. It’s always struck me as a little strange that they should be so active in this arena but what the heck.

But what can Tony Blair, or for that matter any other democratic politician, actually do? Very little. They can encourage and cajole, they can subsidise various renewable energy and energy saving initiatives, but what they really need to do is to make us all wear a hair shirt. Like a swingeing tax on air fuel, big petrol-pump size carbon taxes on domestic fuel supplies, masses of road charges. But this stuff is way off the democratic agenda: if any politician tried to force these measures through, they’d be out on their ear.

What the climate change lobby desperately needs is a disaster, and one that can be unequivocally linked to global warming. This year we’ve had a tsunami and a huge earthquake, neither of which has anything to do with climate change. We’ve had a few nasty hurricanes coming out of the Caribbean, which may have been caused by the oceans getting warmer. But then again, they may not: no one can be sure. Melting glaciers? Tough on the skiers but really who cares! There has been nothing to knock us out of our complacency. We like life the way it is, we don’t want to give up our cars, our central heating, our holidays in the sun and our supermarkets stuffed full of exotica from all around the world.

For us to start thinking like that would take a major event of gob-smackingly awful proportions. And for us to be 100% sure that it was climate change that was responsible. Rising sea levels: where are you? Come and inundate Holland or submerge the Seychelles. Gulf Stream to vanish and give the UK continental winters? Come on then, wreak your worst.

Until such events occur, we will be left arguing about the textual changes in the next set of building regs. Should air tightness testing be compulsory, or can there be some sort of trade-off? And should the new U value for walls be 0.3 or 0.27? And how exactly should these U values be calculated? Do we really think this is going to stop global warming? I don’t think so.

Whilst it’s easy to make fun of the Emperor Nero fiddling whilst Rome burnt, the fact that his fire brigade couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed did rather limit his options. WWF aiming blows at Blair is going for the soft target: they need to get real and point out who the real culprits are. You and me. Or maybe they should just be patient and wait for the coming cataclysm.

8 Nov 2005

Bill Dunster's walls

Bill Dunster is, for want of a better word, an ecotect. That is an architect with a passion for green design. He sprang to fame with a project known as BedZed, a development of live-work units built on a disused sewage farm in Beddington, South London. It’s had acres of publicity and is rightly held up as an exemplar of how multiple housing units should be built in the future. But BedZed has now been finished for three years and Dunster has found it a hard act to follow. Developers and social housing landlords have not been falling over each other to repeat “the experiment” and he has been frustrated by planners who haven’t been prepared to loosen the planning corset just because a scheme is green.

But at last, Dunster has another scheme to showcase his talent. This time it’s a four-storey block of key worker flats on the St Matthews council estate in Lambeth, South London. It’s not quite as big or prestigious as BedZed but in some ways it’s more technically advanced. Building carried a feature on it this week, which caught my eye: in particular, the wall detailing. The outer walls are no less than 550mm wide, compared with just under 300mm in conventional housing. They are made up of 150mm blockwork inside 300mm of expanded polystyrene insulation filling the cavity, behind a 100mm brick skin, which is what them outside world sees. The plus point is of course that, with this much insulation, you have got a tremendously low U value – reckoned to be just 0.1W/K/m2. But against this, on a 60m2 apartment, you are loosing up to 25% of the footprint to walling.

Yikes. That’s a hell of a lot, especially considering we are being encouraged to build smaller and smaller units. Dunster is a big fan of heavy mass construction, which means little or no timber frame and little or no off-site pre-fabrication. He believes in the importance of thermal mass (concrete in other words) in regulating the temperature characteristics of a home and in reducing the effects of summer over-heating. But is thermal mass really such a wonderful concept that you have to loose 20% or more of your floor area just to accommodate it? If there wasn’t quite so much south-facing glazing — another of his betes verts — then perhaps the designs wouldn’t require quite so much thermal mass and the walls wouldn't have to be quite so thick.

Another problem comes with the adoption of a 300mm cavity, shown here in diagramatic form, (ref Building magazine). How do you manage the openings? In particular, how do you ensure that the water penetrating the outer brickwork is directed back out of the external wall rather than dripping down into the joinery? You’ve left the world of conventional construction far behind here: there are no off-the-peg wall ties this long and there are no pre-formed cavity trays this wide. Dunster’s solution has been to design a wrap-around cavity tray around each window. To me, it sounds just like the sort of detail which is likely to fall victim to sloppiness on site. Done perfectly, there should never be any problem but construction isn’t a perfect world.

One other feature of this article stands out. The costings. £1600/m2. This isn’t, in fact, far out of line with many other innovative social housing projects being built around the country at the moment, but it’s about twice the rate that selfbuilders hope to complete their projects for. Why the huge discrepancy? A good question, which will have to wait for another blog.

3 Nov 2005

On time, on budget

Ever thought why those two phrases go together? Just as late and over-budget do? In theory, a building job could be late and on-budget, or on-time and over-budget, but in practice such situations are as rare as hens’ teeth. No, there is a remorseless logic to building work that dictates that when a job is going well, it both keeps up with the timetable and it doesn’t stretch the costings.

Let’s look at some of the common reasons a job creeps.

• There were unforeseen problems.
Were they really so hard to predict? Sometimes stuff does crop up which was in retrospect quite unpredictable. This happens with underground work, naturally, but it’s rare that they completely derail the timing on a job. Normally, it’s covered by a contingency sum. But often unforeseen problems are just a reflection of poor forward planning.

• The client changed their mind about a number of design points during the build.
This is all too frequent and seems to be a particularly British affliction. You could say that the client was underprepared when the job started: they hadn’t thought through all the options, they hadn’t spent enough time or money on the design work.

• The work started before the design work had been finished and there were delays because of this.
This is another clear sign of an under-designed or rushed project.

• The building inspector insisted on some items being redone.
There are various reasons for this. The instructions may have been wrong (bad design), or they may have been right but never passed on (bad communication) or they may have been passed on but ignored or misunderstood (bad workmanship). Sometimes it can be attributed to all three causes. The basic reason for such problems is that you have people taking on work they are not familiar with or don’t fully understand: you have people working outside their comfort zone and hence making mistakes. Whilst you can rail against the general low standards of workmanship on building sites, you could also usefully take on board the fact that everybody knows that standards are pretty basic and that if you raise the bar, you will quickly expose this fact. However, the decision to raise the bar in the first place is usually the clients.

• The subcontractors were unreliable.
They frequently are. They are often juggling jobs and consequently end up doing none of them very well. Because most building work creeps, for all of the reasons we are discussing, timetabling for contractors and subcontractors is often largely a matter of guesswork.

* Fixtures were not on site at the right time. Or the wrong fittings. Or damaged goods.
A frequent complaint. The delivery system in the UK is pretty good, by and large, but it’s far from perfect. Whilst a mislaid mail order shopping item can be annoying, it’s not expensive. But a critical item on a building site that’s gone AWOL can have a very damaging effect on timetabling and therefore on costs. The reasons for this can vary: sometimes it’s simply down to the clients not making up their minds in time.

• The critical path was ignored, or was defective.
On simple jobs, you hardly even need to think about critical paths, everything happens in a set routine. But if you go out on a limb, you have to spend a lot of time building the structure in your head before you so much as lift a spade. Otherwise you risk going down blind alleys where parts of the work can’t be completed until other bits have been done. You get the order wrong. This is far more likely on complex jobs where the order-of-build is sometimes far from obvious.

• Because of some of the above delays, subcontractors had to return for extra visits. These took much longer because they had to fit them in with other commitments.
No one likes these. But they are a very likely result of the above two points.

• Because of these delays, the scaffolding/fencing/site loos had to be kept in place for far longer than had been anticipated.
No comment

• The clients moved into the house long before completion, thus slowing up the finishing even further.
It seems to happen more and more and it often happens in frustration at the delays suffered along the route. The clients have run out of time, run out of money, run out of patience. They move back in, leaving the building work going on around them, which makes it even slower and more painful.

Now, if the job is so unsatisfactory that it goes legal, an apportionment of blame will take place. The client is frequently surprised and appalled to learn that the learned counsel does not treat them as innocent bystanders being chewed up in a shark pool, but willing players in this game of roulette. And frequently, the blame for jobs going over budget is largely placed at the door of the client, for many of the above reasons. If there is an architect involved, the decisions get even more complicated because there are now three parties to the disaster and they all have a hand in what goes wrong and, usually, the blame is interdependent.

31 Oct 2005

Caspar: a Halloween nightmare

A flagship off-site construction project in Leeds is being evacuated because of fears it will blow down in high winds. Caspar (pictured here) was built in Leeds six years ago by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF): it was one of the first of the new wave of prefabricated housing projects which the government has been so keen to promote. Oh dear. Oh very, very, dear.

Where did it all go wrong, John?

One of the key selling points for using off-site construction methods is that the amount of snagging is minimised. The aim is to hand over the new building “defect-free.” No doubt when Japanese contractors Kajima handed over the 45 flats that make up Caspar to the JRF for them to rent out as affordable homes for swinging Leeds singletons, much was made of the advantages of all this.

But, according to a report in this week’s Building, something’s obviously been amiss there for a long time because Arup, our premier building consultants, were hired to look into things, and Arup have said “Yipes – get out of there before the next storm.” What they’ve actually said is that there is a 2% chance that the whole building will collapse in high winds. JRF have even admitted that, if the cost of repairing the fault is excessive, they will consider demolishing the whole structure.

Is this the beginning of the end for modern methods of construction, just as the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 marked the death-knell of system-build in the UK 40 years ago? It’s impossible to say. Caspar (stands for City-centre Apartments for Single People at Affordable Rents (neat or what!)) is just one of many such projects and, unlike Ronan Point, no one has been killed or even hurt. But the failure of Caspar does pose some very uncomfortable questions. Such as…

Why are so many of these schemes prototypes?

Why the curved roof? Doesn’t it look suspiciously like a wing!

Why the curved anything? I thought this was meant to be affordable housing.

Is this stuff really so very different to the 60s tower blocks?

Is it a design failure or is it, yet again, a workmanship issue?

This project was actually conceived as half-modular, half-flat pack. It was designed by Levitt Bernstein, an architects’ practice at the forefront of the new social housing, and factory-built by Volumetric in Bedfordshire. The superstructure was erected in less than three weeks. Each flat is 51m2 and cost £68.6k to build. That’s a typical outcome for these schemes. In other words, they are rather more expensive than conventional builds. They would become cheaper if we built thousands of them but we don’t. Every scheme is different. Every architect has a different spin to put on the concept of off-site construction.

And now here, in the brave new world of modular construction, we have an award-winning scheme about to be condemned.

26 Oct 2005

Why timber frame isn't always quicker

One of the biggest questions every would-be selfbuilder has to address is whether to go brick and block or timber frame. For me, it’s something of a hoary old chestnut, having built using both methods and having been writing articles around this issue for many years. You’d think I’d have pretty set views by now but I don’t. Partly this reflects my tendency towards hopeless prevarication in all things, but it’s also undoubtedly because it’s a question with no easy answers.

However, a site visit this week to a timber frame house in Cambridgeshire gave me pause to think afresh about the issue. This was a site in a conservation area and that meant that there were some quite prescriptive design guidelines: basically it had to match up to the house next door, which was a detached vaguely-Georgian style brick house under a slate roof.

However the new house design was L-shaped, a stepped L-shape no less. What I mean by that is that it consisted of a main rectangular-shaped box (or aisle) of two storeys, with a single storey rear extension. See my attempts at 3D house design (hopefully adjacent) to get a clearer picture. A common enough house layout, you’d think. And you’d be right.

The junction of the two parts of the house is what I wish to draw your attention to. It’s referred to as an abutment. However you do it, it causes problems because there are waterproofing details to be made between the wall of the main aisle and the roof of the extension. Lead flashings have to be fitted over the junction and the wall cavity has to have an effective barrier laid across it in order to drain any cavity water out onto the extension roof. If not, you risk the cavity draining directly down into the house below the junction. Messy.

The subject of cavity barriers can wait for another article. What I am driving at here is the disruptive effect this all has on the construction of a brick-clad timber framed house. On a simple rectangular-shaped house, or even a more complex one, as long as it has a single eaves level all the way around, the brick cladding is taken off the critical path and can be completed at leisure after the framers have departed. Indeed it can go on simultaneously with the roof covering and the fit out inside.

However, split the roof levels like this and the brick wall of the main aisle has to be completed before the extension roof can be covered over. Indeed, on the site I was on, space had to be left for the brickies to have access to the wall, which was being built-up off a steel beam over the opening. Not even the extension roof carpentry could be completed.

Result? Weeks had been lost waiting on the brickies. The roofers had been in and finished the main aisle but had to return for another visit to cover the extension. The scaffolding was gently racking up hire charges. The house could not be effectively waterproofed, let alone secured. All the supposed speed of construction advantages, which timber frame sells itself on, had been lost. In fact it would probably have been quicker to use brick and block on this house.

Had it been such, you would not have noticed that there was a problem here because the roof carpentry wouldn’t have started on either roof until the brickies had got to eaves level all around. And had the external skin been anything other than brick (or stone), the wall above the extension roof could have been finished off at leisure off some form of adapted scaffolding. Boarding, render on mesh, hung tiles, all fine: they are hung off the timber frame and wouldn’t disrupt the critical path. But bricks? They have to sit on something, be it a steel or a foundation: they can’t be ‘hung’ off the background timber frame and they can’t be built-up off the roof cover. So bricks have to be in place before the extension roof cover can be laid.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. To simplify it right down to basics, despite what the salespeople say, bricks really do work best with blocks behind them. And timber frame is really seen at its best when it’s clad in something other than brick or stone.

Ground source heat pumps

The ten-year payback is here

One of the things 2005 will be remembered for is oil prices. We’ve seen the biggest hike in prices since the 1970s and the signs are that it’s not about to come back down anytime soon, if ever. Oil is the key in determining all energy prices and if the oil price heads north, then sure enough, gas and electricity will follow along in due course. But how soon, and by how much?

It’s a subject I turned my attention to last week as I sought to update my now hopelessly inadequate table on comparative heating costs, on p208 of the 6th edition. This is a key table in my book, the one that is designed to be used to make that all-important decision about how a new house should be heated. The one currently in print is based on an oil cost of 19.5p/lt (equivalent to 1.9p/kWh), a mains gas cost of 1.5p/kWh and an electricity cost of 6.5p/kWh. Yet my last tank of oil cost 34p/lt, a 75% increase.

LPG, which tracks the oil price quite closely, is up by a similar percentage, so it remains about 30% more expensive than oil. But price rises in gas and electricity are much more muted. Making direct comparisons is not easy because of the opening up of the market to dozens of suppliers, each with their own tariffs and payment terms, but the basic drift is that gas is up to around 1.8p/kWh, a 20% rise, whilst electricity still seems to be widely available for under 7p/kWh. Energy analysts seem to think that significant price rises are about to come through in these markets but they haven’t happened yet.

So what effect will this have on comparative heating costs? Mains gas will continue to be a no-brainer for home heating, if you have access to it. But a large proportion of selfbuilds don’t and here the equations are changing. In my last edition, published late 2004, oil only narrowly beat electric ground source heat pumps (GSHP) over a 20-year timespan.

The equation isn’t difficult. The GSHP costs around twice as much to install as an oil boiler plus tank but is cheaper to run because it creates around three to four units of heat for every unit of electricity burned. With oil prices at 2004 levels, it took around 20 years to recover your investment in GSHP: but with current oil prices, this payback time has fallen to less than ten years. In addition to this, the installation prices of oil boilers and tanks is set to get more expensive (though admittedly more efficient) as new legislation takes effect, whilst the market for GSHP is expanding so rapidly that prices seem to be becoming keener. Plus GSHP is still eligible for the Clear Skies grant, worth £1200.

GSHP comes with a couple of other plus points. You don’t have an unsightly oil tank in your garden and the equipment is silent and has no flue. On the minus side, it works most efficiently at heating water to relatively low temperatures, such as you would use with underfloor heating (usually 55°C). It does therefore require a good-sized hot water tank to have a decent buffer of hot water on site. And it requires garden space of at least three times the heated footprint: thus if you are hoping to heat a 150m2 house, you will need 450m2 of garden in which to run the pipe.

Currently domestic heating oil is around half the price of electricity in the UK market. If this ratio holds, then GSHP will be the heating system of choice for all new off-mains gas homes Oil heating systems will only regain their competitive advantage if the price differential returns to its historical 1:3 (oil:electricity). For that we would need to see electricity prices rising to around 10p/kWh, or oil prices falling back to 2004 levels.

23 Oct 2005

I have just become a pre-architect

For my sins, I golf. Not terribly well. I play off a very moderate handicap of 16. Actually for someone who plays most weeks and has done for ten years or more, it’s a crap handicap. I don’t generate enough club-head speed to hit the ball very far. My good drives are maybe only 220 yards long, my average drive probably not even 200 yards. The very many better players I regularly compete with will out-drive me by 40 or 50 yards on most holes. It’s OK. I can live with it. It’s why there is a handicap system that allows total moderates like me to compete with champing young tyros. And compete I do, in the many and various competitions that my club runs.

One of the most interesting aspects of all this competition is that I get to meet new people. It’s a large club, with 1200 members, and though I have grown to know many of them over the years, the competitions regularly seem to pitch me in with perfect strangers. When playing with a stranger, the conversation usually turns to “What do you do for a living?” It’s one of the standard etiquette questions you use when playing golf, along with “Where do you live?”, “Have you got kids?” and “How long have you been a member here?” All very tame, cocktail-party sort of stuff. But for me the “What do you do for a living?” question causes me all sorts of angst because, to be truthful, I am not altogether sure what the answer is.

My regular golfing partner, Steve, if he is to to hand during a doubles match, usually interjects at this point with “What Mark does is work, but not as you’d know it,” which always makes us smile but leaves our opponents none the wiser. But when I am playing singles with a fresh face, as I was this past Saturday, it tends to launch me off into a potted CV of my life since leaving university in 1974. Which isn’t quite the simple answer I would like to give. It would be so much easier to say “I’m an accountant” or “I’m a taxi-driver.”

As it is, I make most of my regular income from writing about house building, but I don’t think of myself as being a writer. I am not really a consultant either. On Saturday, I tried “selfbuild guru” for the first and last time. It sounded pretty silly as I said it and it took me at least three more holes to explain what I meant, having to go through the “what I have been doing since 1974” routine once more.

Anyway, in the bar afterwards, as I nursed a beer to soothe yet another defeat at the hands of a longer hitter, my opponent had another go at tackling my employment status. He asked me if I had any relevant qualifications for what I did. “Of course not,” I replied, almost as a mark of honour, “other than six months learning to be a carpenter in 1982.” I am not an architect, not a surveyor, and what I do is in any event quite different to what any of them do. But I do do a certain amount of consultancy work, advising people about the routes that lie ahead and the options that face them. Glibly, I told him that I was in the business of reconciling aspirations and budgets. He liked that explanation. He was a management consultant himself and he could relate to this. He suggested that what I did was pre-architecture. Yes, that’s it exactly, I said. I am most useful to people if I can have a little time with them before they hire anyone. I am a pre-architect.

I liked the sound of this. Next time I golf with a stranger and the dreaded “What’s your line?” question comes up, I will try this one on them. I don’t expect it will do any better than any of the others but it’s worth a try.

21 Oct 2005

Importing Homes from N America

I'm looking at importing a house from America. Has anyone out there done this? Do you have any company sites or contacts that export to the UK?

You will find that many custom build companies in both continental Europe and N America are more than willing to build a house in the UK or Ireland.

Having said that, the ones that build the most are the ones that have local contacts on the ground over here. The Americans have proven rather poor at this - they build when they are asked but they don't put any effort into export or marketing. The Canadians are much more proactive - they took a large chunk of floorspace at Interbuild in 2004 for instance - and many of their custom builders are excellent. I have seen the results of two; Allouette who are building in West Malling in Kent for Sunley Homes, and Interhabs from Nova Scotia who have been building in Co Mayo and around Inverness (pictured here). Interhabs, I know for sure, are looking for individual custom builds. Find out more from www.super-e.com. Plus the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar is such that they are almost certainly going to offer better value than their neighbours to the south.

Alternatively, there are a number of UK builders who make a thing of building in the N American styles. Tim Crump of TJ Crump Oakwrights is an enthusiastic student of N American (and German) housebuilding methods and has recently completed a few N American style homes.

18 Oct 2005

My wife wants an Aga — can you help?

Edward asks:

My wife and I have recently bought a one-acre plot near Cambridge and have just started getting quotes for the timber frame. I'm also shopping around for everything else. One of the things on the list is an Aga.

My wife would `loooooove' to have an Aga, but this would mean I will have to build another chimney, and my concern is that as we are building a small 3-bed cottage an Aga will be too hot. Our house will be extremely well insulated and have under floor heating. I wonder if having an Aga will mean we have to leave the windows and doors open!!

What are your views about Agas?

Mark replies:

The Aga stands head and shoulders above all other gender issues in selfbuild land. 95% of women aspire to owning one, 95% of men just don't get it. I have seen many an otherwise well-thought out ecologically-slim footprint completely blown out of the water by a shiny new £5,000 Aga in the kitchen. Indeed I suspect that there are many husbands who have only managed to persuade wives to go through the four years of chaos and upheaval it takes to selfbuild by using the promise of an Aga in the kitchen at the end of it all. It's a powerful, if expensive, seduction tool, the ultimate selfbuild babe magnet. If it's the price it takes to get a selfbuild off the ground, maybe it's a price worth paying.

As a man, I am one of those who just don't get it. I have cooked in houses with Agas and about the best thing you can say for them is that they are quaint. But as a man, "What do I know?" as the current saying goes. Yes, the Aga will definitely be too hot for a three-bed cottage, but what’s logic got to do with it.

However I have to hand a possible cure, sent to the selfbuild list by Roger Browne, in Feb 2001. Show it to your wife: she won’t thank you for it, but it's the only known treatment for Agaphilia and it just might make a difference. However, be warned, there are sometimes some unexpected side effects for which the best treatment is Mercury - the range cooker, that is.

One of the prime pieces of self-build techno-lust seems to be an Aga cooker. I bought a house that happened to have one, and my advice is:
• don't bother.

Let's recall the history. Back in the days when a coal stove took hours to light and get going, the Aga would have been a godsend. A slow steady burn, 24 hours per day, produced heat which was stored in the body of the oven for use at cooking time. You "only" had to fill it with coal everyday, and turn the riddling handle twice daily.

If you are stuck with coal, I can see the value of an Aga. But if you are cooking with gas, what's the point?

I've had to live with the damn thing for a year now, and have formed the opinion that an Aga is useless apart from its value as a status symbol. It does impress the visitors - but that's not something I care about.

Consider this:

• An new Aga costs around £5,000, including installation. Even an old used one is, say, £1,500. On the other hand, for under a thousand pounds you can get some really nice gas ranges.

• The Aga needs a flue; most gas ranges don't.

• The Aga burns gas night and day, whether you need it to or not. In winter the "wasted" warmth is useful to heat the house; in summer it's like taking a match and burning a pound note every day (if you live in Scotland that is; in England you have to try to burn pound coins).

• In summer you can either open your kitchen windows wide, or turn off the Aga. Then you need a second stove for summer cooking (and many Aga owners do install a second stove for summer).

• If you go away for a holiday, and switch off your Aga, you can't cook with it for a day or so after you get back and switch it on, and it warms up.

• The Aga is supposed to be serviced every six months. Aga servicing costs a fortune. And you have to have the Aga cold for the service engineer. So that's another day or two without cooking every six months.

• If you buy an Aga more than a few years old, it probably has asbestos rope insulation in the lids (newer models have ceramic insulation).

• When you lift the lid, children can't see any indication that the plate is hot, and horrendous burns can result.

• For effective cooking, you need very thick solid cookware with flat machined bottoms. This is the very same criticism that gas snobs make of electric stovetops, yet the Aga has the same problem.

• The flat-bottomed cookware that comes with many used Agas is machined aluminium. Aluminium cookware is one of the suspected triggers for Alzheimer's disease.

• The cook plates have no temperature control. You have to work with what you've got. Sure, you can follow the instructions in the user manual and shuffle your pot half-on-half-off the cook plate. What a fiddle!

• The cook plates are large. Whilst you can juggle two pans on one cook plate, it’s hard to do this satisfactorily. Whether you have one or two pans on it, large amounts of heat are still wasted from the uncovered parts of the surface.

• The cook plate temperature drops during a heavy cooking session. When my wife boils up a batch or marmalade, we always end up finishing it off in the microwave because by then the Aga has lost too much heat.

• Sure, you can do other things with the Aga apart from cook. The Aga instruction manual suggests such bizarre rituals such as ironing clothes with it! It can be useful for drying clothes on top - but of course that's only if you don't want to actually use the thing for cooking at the same time.

• The ovens have no temperature control. OK, there are ways to adapt for that. "You just have to get to know your Aga" say some. Yes, there are workarounds for its quirks. The Aga cookbook is full of Aga versions of recipes. They can take a very simple conventional recipe ("Cook for two hours at 200 degrees C") and turn it into a major epic ("Put on the boiling plate for ten minutes. Cover and move to the simmering plate for 30 minutes. Transfer to a shallow pan and leave it in the simmering oven overnight. Finish off with 45 minutes in the baking oven before serving.") Gimme a break!

• The oven has no timer. You can't just set it to cook your supper in time for your arrival home. Even a £179 B&Q cheapie oven can do that kind of thing!

• There's no window on the oven door. You can't see how your cooking is browning, unless you keep opening the door to check.

• The airflow from the oven is up the flue - there are no baking smells in the kitchen to guide you to when something is "just right". Best way to cope is to go and do some gardening downwind of your chimney. You then have some chance of noticing when it is about to burn.

• Nothing is simple. You can't just "bake a cake" if you have the two-oven Aga. You either have to buy a special cake-baking accessory (I think it's an insulated container), or else you can follow some bizarre instructions to boil away three pans of water on the boiling plate so that you have reduced the temperature of the oven by enough to enable you to bake a cake. Really!

• The Aga can also heat your hot water. In summer, and in winter too, if you don't do too much cooking or use too much hot water or chant the wrong mantras (or expect to get the same efficiency as a boiler).

• Even the smaller Aga takes up much more space than a gas range. You really do have to allow for a bigger kitchen - which adds to your housebuilding costs.

• You also have to lay concrete reinforcement. You can't just put an Aga on a kitchen floor and expect to have any kitchen remaining afterwards.

Yeah, I really love my Aga!

OK, I know all of this is sacrilege to the true believers amongst you.
But when I get around to re-doing the kitchen, one thing is for sure -
the Aga will be sold to the highest bidder.

14 Oct 2005

Homemade wardrobe doors

Joy Geach asks:
What I need is advice on built-in wardrobes. We are rapidly running out of money but we certainly need somewhere to put the few remaining clothes that aren't totally ruined by builders' dust. The interiors won't be a problem but what is the best place for doors? Ideally, we would like floor-to ceiling but all the ones I've seen are very expensive.

Mark reckons:
Why not make your own wardrobe doors? I did just this and, twelve years on, the doors are still fine. What I did was to build them up from 18mm MDF panels, cut to size by the builders merchant. On the front, glue some 18mm edge strips: this gives you a fielded door panel effect, which you can further embellish by routing off the sharp edges, plus it gives you a 36mm hinge edge necessary to hang them. You could go for two 18mm panels stuck together but that's a very heavy door indeed. Once painted, you would have no idea that these were DIY doors.

You can then design doors to fit whatever space you want to cover up. We split the space so that the main wardrobe doors are 1750mm high and there are 600mm high-level matching doors over, useful for suitcases and hiding Xmas pressies. If you wanted floor2ceiling, then that would be no problem. Just build the frames, and make up doors to fit. But, be warned, they are heavy, though they work perfectly well hung off a pair of 75mm brass butt hinges.

13 Oct 2005

What is it with architects and contracts?

Can a blog handle a 3000-word article? It seems a tall order. Can a blog handle a 3000-word article about building contracts? That must be stretching the bounds of credibility. But this is what follows: a peep into the whacky world of the JCT Minor Works Contract. Does it really offer protection? Or is it a giant con perpetuated on the general public and the building trade by a bunch of bow-tied dandies?

I’ve never built under a formal contract and in all the years I have been writing and talking about building I have warned people off them, saying broadly that a contract is not a substitute for a well-designed job. But various architects I have come across over the years have been appalled at my slack stand and one or two have even suggested that I might be putting myself into sticky legal position for not defending the use of contracts. Late in 2004, I was emailed by an architect who wrote “it occurs to me that you might just be on very exposed ground if you advise people not to bother with a formal contract like the JCT. If things went wrong and they had no recourse because there was no clarity in a dispute, lawyers could very well direct the blame it on you. Ruinously.”

The architect went on to recommend that I took a look at the main contract used by architects to administer jobs up to £1 million, the JCT Agreement for Minor Building Works. He continued “The contract is a 32 page A4 document; it doesn’t‚t look that daunting and is very user friendly. It has footnotes and side notes to explain each clause; and the clauses are in no nonsense English.”

Now, I thought, it’s time for me to roll over and at least take a look at this contract business. So a few weeks later I actually got around to buying the aforesaid JCT Minor Works Contract. It is cheap(ish): it cost me £15 to buy mail order from the Building Bookshop in London; would have been £11.75 if I had picked it up in person. But I suppose cheap is relative seeing as it has so few pages, esp. as pages 2, 8, 10, 30 and 31 are utterly blank save for a helpful footnote which says “This page blank.” Immediately I am impressed by the user friendliness. I suppose on a price per page basis it actually works out very expensive compared to a book or a magazine, but what I am getting at is that this contract is not a bank breaker. You can’t argue that you haven’t used a contract because it’s too expensive.

But what of the rest of the contract outside the blank pages. Well the most important point about this contract hits you in the eye on page 3, a little box that says “This agreement is only intended for use where the Client has engaged a professional consultant to advise on and to administer its terms.” Immediately I understand just why I have never built using this contract. Whenever you see the word “Client” in something to do with building, you know there just has to be an architect involved because no one else in the building game ever refers to anyone as “clients.” It is such a strange word, isn’t it? In a shop you are a customer, on a train you are a passenger, in a hospital you are a patient, in a class you are a student, in the economy at large you’d be a consumer. But client? The only people who have clients are lawyers, architects and prostitutes, all of whom have to live with the reputation that they are simply out to screw you. Only the prostitute is honest about it.

It’s not a bad joke, if a little tired, but is it fair? I have it on good advice that an architect in practice on their own is likely to earn between £25,000 and £35,000 per annum, considerably less than either a lawyer or a prostitute, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to suggest that architects are feathering their nests at their clients expense. But it doesn’t stop them going through the motions. For tellingly, the professional’s fees are not covered by the JCT Minor Building Works Contract. No, the contract is between the Client, a.k.a. the Employer, and the Contractor. In fact, page 3 is taken up with writing in the names and addresses of the Employer and the Contractor, plus that little box which has so exercised me.

Turn the page and you are faced with the word “Whereas” in bold, in large print, a sort of floating headline. Whereas what? Suddenly we have left the realms of everyday English and gone to some Dickensian legal office where grey suited, bespectacled clerks write with quill pens. I fully understand what whereas means, though it’s not a word that falls into the vocabulary of my children (whereas mingin’, canin’ and fukin’ frequently do). But what does it mean as a headline? And why is a legal document more correct because it has “whereas” as the page title rather than “furthermore” or “mingin?” I have this strange feeling that this architect has been leading me up the garden path. Page 4 doesn’t get any better for it turns out that Whereas is the heading for five recitals. Or should that be The Five Recitals. Suddenly we are cast adrift into the world of chamber music? I fear not. In JCT terms a recital is a sort of declaration of intent. I think. The 1st recital appoints the architect or the contract administrator. Well which is it to be? Well there is a helpful footnote on this one and I have to quote it in full because it’s so much fun.

“Where the person named is entitled to the use of the name ‘Architect’ under and in accordance with the Architects Act 1997 delete ‘the Contract Administrator’: in all other cases delete ‘the Architect’. Where ‘the Architect’ is deleted the expression ‘the Architect’ shall be deemed to have been deleted throughout this Agreement: where ‘the Contract Administrator’ is deleted the expression ‘the Contract Administrator’ shall be deemed to have been deleted throughout this Agreement.”

So there you have it. It’s all about soothing the egos of the architect. All that training — seven years, wasn’t it? — just so that you could delete the words “Contract Administrator” from the JCT Minor Works Contract.

What might be more useful would be to tie the aforesaid Architect/Contract Administrator (henceforth A/CA) into this contract, not to simply appoint him or her. But that’s not what the 1st recital seeks to do. It does however require the A/CA to have prepared drawings and a specification before the contract is signed. Now that is useful. The 2nd recital requires the contractor to carry out the works for a fixed fee, or at least for a schedule of rates. The 3rd recital requests that the contract is signed on page 9. The 4th recital appoints a Quantity Surveyor, although there is an option to delete this if no Quantity Surveyor can be found and the 5th recital requires that the works be carried out in accordance with the latest CDM regs, the health and safety legislation.

Jobs for individuals are not covered by the CDM regs, but it doesn’t do any harm to fill them in and administrate them as if it was required. I could write at length about the CDM regs, but here is not the place otherwise we will never reach page 5, let alone page 32. On pages 5, 6 and 7 the recitals are replaced by a series of Articles, numbering 1 through 7. Article 2 is left mostly blank for the price of the job to be filled in. Article 3 names the A/CA (but no price). Article 4 names the Planning Supervisor, a role required by the CDM regs. Articles 6 and 7 name or at least provide a series of names of bodies that can be requested to be referees, in case of dispute. Page 9 is for the parties to sign up, page 10 is one of the blank ones and then, at last, on page 11 we are into the small print, the very meat of the contract.

From here to page 29 we are faced with dense type, two columns of 9pt Helvetica without a picture to break the monotony. Being a legal document it is naturally split up into numbered paragraphs. I have a feeling they will be known as clauses. The main conditions are in clauses numbered 1 to 8; these take up 8 pages. They are followed by Supplemental Conditions, also 8 pages but these are lettered clauses starting at A1 and working through to E7. And it’s all finished off with three pages of guidance notes.

This doesn’t really strike me as being at all user friendly. I can’t ever imagine sitting down to read this through for pleasure. I can just about see myself referring to some of its clauses when things have started to go wrong, but surely that’s not the point of a contract.

So just what are the main conditions of this JCT Minor Works Contract?

Main Conditions

1. Intentions of the parties - defines the rules under which the contract shall be administered. It is governed by the law of England, so tough luck you Celts who hoped to learn about contractual matters from this article. It states that the job will be run under the CDM regulations, involving the appointment of a Planning Supervisor and a Principal Contractor, and that the contractor will use suitable materials and, wherever possible, subbies who hold CSCS cards.

2. Commencement and completion:
leaves blanks to determine a start date and a completion date and then immediately qualifies this by putting in place a routine for determining an extension of the contract period. It’s adversarial: if the blame is due to the contractor, inc subbies or suppliers going bust, then the contractor is liable. If it is down to the A/CA, then an extension of time will be granted. 2.3 is a “liquidated damages” clause with a blank space to fill in the rate that money should be deducted per week overrun. Completion, or practical completion as it is known in these circles is defined by the A/CA. Cl 2.5 seeks the contractor to correct any defects at his own expense within three months of practical completion.

3. Control of Works: the work can’t be assigned to another builder, without the permission of the A/CA. Indeed, the main contractor can’t even employ subcontractors without written consent of the A/CA. In fact Cl 3.2.2 seeks to control the payments between contractor and subcontractor, and states that the sub contractor can charge interest on late payment from the main contractor. No mention is made of what might happen if the subcontractor’s work is in dispute. Cl 3.3 requires that the main contractor shall always have someone representing him on site. In contrast, the A/CA has the right to throw anyone off site that they don’t like the look of. The A/CA can also demand that instructions are carried out within seven days, or someone else can be employed to undertake the work at the contractor’s expense. On the other hand, Cl 3.6 states that mistakes made by the A/CA should be treated as “variations.” Variations and provisional sums are anticipated in Cl 3.7 and 3.8 but the gist of it is that the A/CA is the one who sets the price, based on a pre-agreed schedule of rates. This is a pretty dubious way of going about things and there is a let out where it states “instead of the valuation referred to above, the price may be agreed between the A/CA and the Contractor prior to the Contractor carrying out any instructions.”

4. Payment. The A/CA shall certify progress payments every four weeks, based on 95% of the value of work done. The employer should pay within 14 days of the issuing of the certificate and late payments attract interest at 5% over base. Upon practical completion, the A/CA issues a “penultimate certificate” for 97.5% of the work done. The final certificate should be issued within three months of practical completion and again late payment attracts interest. The contractor has to shoulder any changes in materials or labour costs which come into effect after the contract is signed.

5. Statutory obligations. The contractor has an obligation to meet all statutory requirements – cf building regs, etc. If the instructions from the A/CA conflict with the requirements, the contractor must notify the A/CA and then the ball is in the A/CA’s court: the contractor ceases to be liable for making good.

The sums in the contract are net of VAT. The employer is obliged to pay the contractor VAT on top of his regular payments. Interestingly, no mention is made of who is responsible for working out just which VAT rate is applicable to the contract.

There is an anti-corruption clause (Cl 5.5). The employer can cancel the agreement “if the Contractor shall have offered or given or agreed to give to any person any gift or consideration of any kind.” Bang goes Xmas, down at builder Joe’s house.

Cl 5.6, 5.7, 5.8 and 5.9 deal with the administration of the CDM regs and ensure that the planning supervisor role, the principal contractor role and the health and safety files are in order.

6. Injury, damage and insurance. Basically, unless the employer has been frightfully negligent, the Contractor has to take the rap for accidents on site. And needs to have adequate insurance cover in place – i.e. Employers’ Liability and Public Liability. Also requirements for the Contractor to have Contract Works Insurance to cover damage by fire, storms, whatever. Interestingly, the insurance of existing structures falls on the employer, which is logical. Both employer and contractor have the right to see documentary evidence that the correct insurances are in place.

7. Determination. How to end the contract if it goes wrong. The employer can end it if the contractor fails to proceed diligently or safely (the CDM regs again), or goes bust. The contractor can end it if the employer fails to pay, or becomes obstructive and difficult, or suspends the works for a month or more, or fails to comply with those CDM regs, or of course, goes bust.

8. Settlement of disputes: three routes outlined, being adjudication, arbitration and legal proceedings. What is the difference? Another article altogether, me thinks.

Then it’s into the Supplemental Conditions. Here the print really does get small and it’s very hard to take any of this in. I think the gist of it is that if taxes or levies change during the course of the contract, then the employer has to bear the difference. So if VAT is suddenly slapped on the job, or the rate goes up, then the change is passed on. There’s also a long section on adjudication and a shorter one on arbitration. They are slightly different: adjudication is cheap, fast track conflict resolution, arbitration is the middling option and going to court or issuing legal proceedings is cripplingly expensive.

The JCT contract ends up with three pages of guidance notes where it all, at last, becomes a decent, easy read. If you ever sign this JCT contract, I would recommend you start here.

But would I recommend that you use such a contract? Only if you are using an architect to administer your project. The contract is written specifically for this situation and, in reality, most small building jobs do not use architects or contract administrators. If you are an architect, you will be more or less obliged to use this contract, or one similar, if you are supervising construction, so you will foist it onto both the client and the contractor. It allows you to play God. Fine, if you are up to it, but feedback reaching me suggests that many architects are not up to playing God, and their attempts to merely create problems. A simple working partnership between customer and builder becomes much more complex when there is an architect in between and the builder becomes a contractor and the customer a client.

The architect often knows far less about the building process than the builder and designs impractical or unbuildable details that often have to be sorted out on site by the builder. Instead of the builder working directly with the customer in order to sort out teething problems, the process requires that everything has to go through the architect for both approval and pricing. Frequently, the architect has no idea what the problems are, let alone realise that they have been directly responsible for creating them. The contract is therefore, to coin a phrase, adversarial in that it is quite likley to set one party against another.

Worse than that, it’s a pain to administer and it more or less let’s the architect off the hook so that incompetent design is easily passed off as incompetent building. It also encourages the architect to ‘design’ without having to worry about how that design should be built. The architect’s fee is usually set as a percentage of the contract price. What sort of inducement is that to keep costs under control?

In a perfect world, the architect would be the builder and vice-versa. But that, of course, is never going to happen. So if you plan to use an architect to design and administer your project, then the selection of the right architect is the most crucial decision you will make. A formal contract like the JCT Minor Works will simply bind you into the working relationship you forge with your architect. This contract will afford some measure of protection if the builder doesn’t perform but if the architect isn’t up to it, then it’s probably more of a liability than anything else.