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.

11 Oct 2005

Which selfbuild magazine?

Dean Barrett asks:

I am considering a self build having nearly completed a general overhaul of our 1960's bungalow. I want to start by reading magazines, and the three I have found on google are:

Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine
SelfBuild & Design Magazine
Build It Magazine

I assume they are all covering the same ground, but wonder which is best?

Peter White reckons:
My favourite (and I think the most popular) is HomeBuilding & Renovating; that said, they repeat the same old stuff every 12 months, so I mainly use it as a source for adverts these days.

Of course, book-wise you must read the Housebuilder's Bible, of all the books that I read on self-building (and there's a lot of them) this was by far the most practical, and therefore useful.

Mark adds:

Thanks for that Pete. Little bit of background on the magazines. Let me first declare an interest. I have been a regular contributor to HomeBuilding & Renovating since 1997 so my comments are perhaps not as impartial as they might be. Nevertheless…

Build It was the original selfbuild mag, started in the late 80s and was for many years the undisputed No 1. It organised a major exhibition each year at Ally Pally and had dozens of little regional shows. HomeBuilding & Renovating was originally called Individual Homes and started shortly after Build It. It took a dozen years, but gradually HomeBuilding & Renovating overhauled Build It in terms of sales, content, photography and advertising. Whilst Build It's exhibitions dried up after 2001, HomeBuilding & Renovating has become undisputed selfbuild exhibition kingpin: it now puts on six exhibitions each year, the next being at Harrogate Nov 4-6, the largest being in March at the NEC. Build It in contrast has rather lost its way since being sold to Mirror Group in the late 90s. In contrast, HomeBuilding & Renovating has pretty much the same crew running it since inception and it shows - many of the staff have selfbuilt and most of the writers know at least something of what they are writing about.

Which leaves Selfbuild & Design, which is a latecomer, having been going since 1998. It's usually a pretty good read, not quite so polished as HomeBuilding & Renovating, but frequently something of interest in each issue, although it has a lot less advertising which, as Pete notes, is often one of the more useful resources in a magazine.

In fact for such a relatively small segment of the market, selfbuild is well served with magazines. Professional housebuilders have just one, the NHBC's house mag Housebuilder; jobbing builders have the freebie Professional Builder, given away at the counter in Jewsons and Travis, architects have a few like the AJ and Building Design, and "serious construction professionals" have Building. You might also look at the magazine from the AECB called Building for a Future, which has some interesting stuff on environmental issues related to construction and often features an eco-home or two.

How to organise groundworks

Darren Livesey asks:

I have a simple question, I think?

At the groundworks stage of a build, how do people decide where everything is going? I have an overall plot drawing to scale, which was needed for outline planning permission. Is it now up to me to tell the groundworker where to lay the services, drains etc and can he simply just work from my instructions and the overall plot drawing?

What will he need for the foundations - does this come in the form of a building regs drawing? It is all very confusing and seems rather daunting. We also need a pumping station installing as the house is lower than the private foulwater sewer. Who designs this? Can I just tell the groundworker to put it "there" for instance? I think I am getting confused with what the architect requires for submitting to building control and what the groundworker "works" off.

Mark reckons:

A few brave souls decide to build off planning permission drawings, but it's really not to be recommended, esp. if you have never done it before. It would be a bit like setting out to drive from Aberystwyth to Hunstanton with nothing but postcard of Hunstanton pier to guide you. You need a map.

The groundworker will do what you tell him to: he may get it right, he may not. If it's wrong, it will be up to you, not him, to rectify it. What you need is a load more drawings and a few specifications. Normally these form part of a building regs application. In the vernacular of the building trade, "the job needs to be specked up." First the house needs to be detailed so you at least know the dimensions and locations of the walls, and you need to decide which ones will be load bearing. Someone, usually the architect, has to do this work: it's absolutely standard practice. Only then can you proceed to a foundation/floor design, also usually carried out as part of the specking up. The drains and services should also be detailed
with reference to the house layout (where are the bathrooms?) and the site levels. You may find that the drainage suppliers will do this work for you for free, if you supply them with levels and a detailed floor plan.

Then you proceed to the setting out stage where you, in effect, transfer the details from the drawings onto the ground. Then when the groundworker comes to do his stuff, it's all a bit like painting by numbers. He has not so much a map as a paper trail guiding him where to go. It's also much faster, and much less prone to error. Believe me, when the excavators start moving earth around, you really don't want to be guessing where the wall should be or where the pumping station should be going.

>We also need a pumping station installing as the
> house is lower than the private foulwater sewer. Who designs this -
> can I just tell the groundworker to put it "there" for instance?

The position of the pumping station will be partly governed by building regs - Part H covers this in England & Wales - and partly by common sense. There will be a minimum distance you will have to place it from the house (I seem to remember it's 4.5 m min): after that it's up to you and your designer/groundworker. The building inspector will advise.

Don't rush. Remember that every hour spent in preparation saves at least three spent snagging at completion.

7 Oct 2005

On the Federation of Master Builders

It’s funny how you sometimes stumble across the most interesting things by accident, or they appear when you are least expecting them. Last week at the London HomeBuilding & Renovating show, I was presenting an afternoon seminar entitled Project Management together with David Snell, author of Building Your Own Home. It’s a gig we have shared together for four or five years now and we have a pretty well worked routine advising people what to look out for and what to avoid when choosing and later working with builders.

Now a couple of weeks before the show, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), Britain’s largest trade organisation for small builders, had been on to the organisers asking for some representation at this particular seminar. The FMB have sponsored talks at the HomeBuilding & Renovating shows before and they book stand space there to promote their website findabuilder.co.uk. I politely told them that I didn’t think they would add much to our presentation as we worked to a theme and all it would do is interrupt the flow and reduce time for questions at the end — this particular seminar always gets a shedload of questions.

But it came to pass that the FMB sent a delegation to hear what David and I had to say during our seminar. I sort of anticipated the worst. We talk about how there is a large gap between what should happen in theory and what happens in practice and that the vast majority of selfbuild jobs and small extensions take place with no formal written contracts and that if you start insisting on contracts, penalty clauses and withholding money for months after the job is finished, then you can expect to have a much larger quote in the first place. Oh, and don’t do anything silly like pay cash upfront. All good knock about stuff, and slightly different to the advice I would expect to hear from some organisation full of starch-shirted-stiffs.

I fully expected the FMB delegation to have ago at us for being too cavalier with our advice. They all sat there, two rows back from the front, madly jotting down notes. Sure enough, after the Q & A was over, a couple of them sidled over to us and started to ask subsidiary questions. But blow me down if the point they really wanted to get across to us was that they felt it was perfectly in order for a builder to ask for a deposit before the work starts and that we shouldn’t be advising people that this was not a good idea.

Hang on a minute. Give the bloke cash upfront before he’s so much as broken wind! You are having a laugh, aren’t you? No mate, we at the FMB think upfront deposits are a good idea.

Well, bugger me, I never knew that. Turns out that David and I have been the starch-shirted-stiffs all along and that our advice is far too pompous and unrealistic. Or had we just met the urban guerrilla wing of the FMB?

I logged onto the findabuilder.co.uk website to research further. It’s revealing by what it leaves out, rather than what it promotes. It has advice for homeowners on how to spot a cowboy that suggests that he will do the following:

• EVADE giving you references or details of previous jobs
• OFFER you a 'cheap' deal for cash-in-hand.
• SUGGEST you can avoid paying VAT for cash
• CONFUSE you with jargon and complicated explanations
• INSIST that a written contract is not necessary
• SAY they can start tomorrow (a good builder is usually busy)
• CAN'T give you costings because 'things may change'
• LAUGH when you suggest showing them plans
• GIVE you a surprisingly low quote
• CAN only be reached by mobile and don't have an address on their card
• ASSURE you the details are their problem and you don't need to worry
• KNOCK the opposition

All good stuff, but note there is nothing about asking for payment upfront, in my mind one of the true danger signals that you are dealing with a man of straw. The website, their consumer portal, also contains a code of conduct, which they expect their FMB members to stick to when dealing with the general public. Again, nothing is mentioned at all about the vexed issue of upfront payments. The only conclusion you can draw from this is that the FMB implicitly supports the practice of asking for upfront payments from the general public.

The FMB has a different website, www.fmb.co.uk, dedicated to their members who are all small builders. There you can see a different side to the oganisation. “The FMB is a trade association established over 60 years ago to protect the interests of small and medium-sized building firms.” By encouraging the practice of upfront payments, perhaps?

Coincidentally, our dear government is about to give a huge boost to the FMB by making them a lead player in their new scheme to “kick out the cowboy builders.” Their previous scheme, the ill-fated QualityMark, was finally put to bed earlier this year after five hopeless years in which a lot of our money was spent by central government and almost nothing happened on the ground. In its place we are going to have Trustmark, which is very much QualityMark-lite. In fact very-lite. Whilst QualityMark demanded that member firms paid 0.75% of turnover in order to join, Trustmark is free for the first two years and will only then cost about £10 a year to maintain membership, if the contractor is member of an accredited body (i.e. FMB), although maybe £300 a year if not. Trustmark will be an umbrella group, inc. all FMB members, and many other trade associations. It will offer warranties against defective work and protection against members going out of business during the job, but the warranties will have to be paid for as extras by the clients. In other words, there is protection if you choose to pay for it as an additional insurance policy. Which people just won’t do.

Like the FMB’s own findabuilder.co.uk site, the trustmark site also has some guidance about “protecting yourself from rogues”. And, of course, there is nothing about the dangers of paying upfront. Maybe the FMB had that bit surgically removed as its price for coming on board and giving the organisation some weight in the marketplace. But I can’t help feeling that the FMB will gain more from Trustmark — a DTI sponsored initiative — than vice versa. And the poor old consumer won’t be the least bit protected by either body, as far as I can tell.

So is it ever OK to pay upfront?
I reckon there are some circumstances where it’s fine for a builder to request an upfront payment. Notably where the client has specified some fittings which have to be paid for in advance, or at least require a substantial deposit and for which the builder is acting as a middleman. This happens with a lot of imported gear and it also happens with a large number of timber frame companies. There is also a case for demanding a small deposit on small jobs where the client needs to show that they are serious, say on a new kitchen or a bathroom. But for 90% of building jobs, the materials are (or should be) being purchased on credit and the labour is being paid for a week in arrears so there should be no reason for the contractor to demand an upfront payment, except to ease his cashflow. And a builder with a stretched cashflow is, in my book, one to avoid.

On the other hand, there is good reason to pay a builder in stages as the job progresses. It’s best to tie these interim payments in with landmarks so that everybody knows where they stand. A builder with a solid cashflow would be able to work on something like a payment once a month, maybe once a fortnight. Any less than that and the warning bell should be ringing. The very fact that the FMB doesn’t omit “demanding payment upfront” as one of its code of conduct points suggests strongly to me that many FMB members simply haven’t got the wherewithal to float a small building job. That’s not to say they won’t do a good job, but I personally would be far happier to employ a builder who belonged to no trade organisation who didn’t demand cash upfront than one who was a member of the FMB who did.

5 Oct 2005

Selfbuild at a crossroads

Whilst selfbuild is now fated on TV and in the press and has become an aspiration for hundreds of thousands of people, the supply of land needed to keep the ball rolling is in danger of drying up because government policy is set against low density housing.

As recently as 1997, 47% of all new homes were detached. By 2004, it was just 19%. This startling turnaround has been entirely due to changes in planning policies, resulting in hundreds of Poundbury-style high density housing sites springing up across the country. Whilst the demand for these new homes remains reasonably strong, nobody is complaining too loudly.

But in killing off the sterile and little loved “executive housing” estates, the new planning policies also threaten to stop the flow of innovative and experimental homes being built by today’s selfbuilders.

One of the side-effects of the new planning regime is to increase demand for single building plots. This, in turn, makes the whole process of homebuilding more expensive and results in the build budgets being cut. You already have to be fairly well-off to afford to buy building land: soon only the very rich will be able to build interesting houses on these plots.

Contrast this with the situation in the rest of Europe where land is often set aside specifically for selfbuild schemes, which most people regard as a sensible use of rural resources. Even in the more densely populated areas like Germany and the Benelux countries, you will regularly come across building plots for sale for the same price as a large car. The pair of plots in Belgium pictured here were on offer at €40k each earlier this year. In stark contrast, building plots fetch rather more than the cost of an average house in SE England. The painful truth is that the more we spend on the land, the less we have to spend on the building and as a result most of our designs and our building methods are decades behind what has been happening elsewhere. Whilst we seem to be collectively mesmerised by the gleaming efficiency of German-import Huf Haus, who have now built around 50 houses in Britain, the reality is that is how 30% of all houses are built in Germany.

The nearest we come to factory-made houses is our native timber-frame industry, which supplies just the skeleton of the house. In Scotland, where land is relatively cheap, it’s taken off in a big way and accounts for nearly two thirds of all new homes and an even higher percentage of selfbuilds. Scotland also has an extremely well-developed selfbuild infrastructure with hundreds of businesses competing to design, finance, insure selfbuilds, besides actually building them.

South of the border, the situation is rather more piecemeal. In areas where land is less expensive, selfbuild flourishes as a viable alternative route onto or up the housing ladder for people on ordinary incomes. But as you get nearer to London and land prices escalate, “normal” selfbuild, as practiced in the rest of the world becomes impossible. Virgin plots with road frontage are now very rare and what we are now seeing is that the majority of single plots coming to market have been formed by the subdivision of large gardens.

Whether this on-going densification of our villages and suburbs is something future generations will thanks us for is doubtful. This process is a direct consequence of the pressure, coming from amenity groups such as the Council for Preservation of Rural England, not to release greenfield sites around villages. But the side-effect of this policy is to destroy the siting and integrity of much of our most cherished housing stock by cutting swathes through long-established gardens and erecting fenced off entrances to backland development. Currently, this is only way that the huge pent-up demand for single building plots can be met.

Selfbuild should form part of the very backbone of rural life, enabling communities to grow organically from within rather than by having alien estates grafted onto them by master planners and national developers. But today planning matters are all dealt with by remote local authority offices whose wishes are, in any event, increasingly being overruled by central government. Selfbuild as an aspiration has taken root with the British public: but for that aspiration to become reality for more than a few, government needs to recognise that it has the potential to become a significant contributor to our future housing stock, as it is in most western countries.

4 Oct 2005

Spluttering SIPS

I have been writing about SIPS (Structural Insulated Panel Systems) building panels for five years now. In that time I have been on six sites where they have been being used. Each time there has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what’s being, or has just been, built. And yet each time there also seems to have been a catalogue of mishaps and delays. These are somehow never attributed to the SIPS building system itself, but seem to be caused by the shortcomings of the designs or the supplier.

This time last year I visited a site of six terraced houses being built by Nick Robinson in Hampshire. Nick is a professional housebuilder with a keen interest in new construction systems. I had previously seen a site he had built out using steel frame, which had worked pretty well. But when he enquired about using steel frame again, Corus, the manufacturer, told him they were no longer interested in supplying small sites so he had to look elsewhere. Nick chose Kingspan’s TekHaus, a polyurethane SIP panel made in Germany, and the main player in the nascent UK SIP market.

I had seen Nick a few weeks before visiting his site. Back then, he had already laid the foundations and he told me then that he hoped to have the structures of all six houses up for my visit at the beginning of October. The reality couldn’t have been more different. Two slabs were untouched and on the four where a start had been made, none had a roof panel on. Kingspan were using a middleman, known as a process partner, and he had screwed up badly. Deliveries were late, were in the wrong order, were sometimes damaged and some panels were cut wrong. A lot of time was wasted on site trying out to sort this mess out, and often rebuilding the panels. Brain Clark of IPC Erecting, who ran the site crew there, told me that they eventually finished the contract at Christmas. What should have taken six weeks took nearly five months.

Last week I was in Wiltshire visiting another Tek Haus (pictured) in the process of erection. Who should I run into here but Brian Clark. And what was Brian’s erection crew up to? Mostly snagging again, it would seem. This contract, a single house of just over 300m2 floor area, had started on August 1st and was booked for a three-week erection. Here we were, in Week 8, and the roof panels were yet to go on. The story behind the delays was familiar. Unresolved issues with structural design, panels being supplied that weren’t quite right, glulam beams being supplied which weren’t nearly right, crew waiting for cranes. All little niggly things, all very disruptive. If these two jobs were exceptions, all well and good, but the truth seems to be that they are not exceptions at all and that delays and overruns are in fact the norm with small SIPs projects.

I was first introduced to SIPS building in Britain by Tim Crump, proprietor of TJ Crump Oakwrights, a Hereford-based green oak housebuilder. Tim was an early adopter and had understood how and why SIPS were beginning to take-off in North America where they are frequently used to wrap-around custom homes. Tim built several houses incorporating SIPs but by 2003 he had fallen out of love with the whole concept. At the time Tim told me that he thought there was a big gap between theory and practice and that they always seem to spend far too much time sorting out snags on site that should have been designed away in the office, before the panels ever left the factory. Tim ended up losing money on a contract to erect two houses for an architect because none of the pre-cut panels actually fitted together as designed. After that, he has steered well clear of factory-made panels and carried out this type of work in timber frame with his own site crew.

So is the SIPS bubble about to burst? Far from it. Adam Holmes of Kingspan told me this weekend that the TekHaus system is making great progress in the social housing market and that the volumes they are doing are now enough to justify setting up a manufacturing plant in England. SIPs score highly on the EcoHomes ratings and housing associations have to take this into account when placing orders for new housing. It seems that with all the money the government is throwing at affordable housing, the future of SIPS is looking pretty rosy. Or at least it is for Kingspan’s TekHaus, which is out and away the most important of the UK suppliers.

However there must be a question mark over the use of SIPs in the selfbuild and one-off developer sector. The way Kingspan have organised this, the responsibility for design and erection falls onto a number of regional process partners who effectively quote against each other to supply essentially the same product. This creates some surprising anomalies; for instance, the house I visited in Wiltshire was being supplied from Northumberland, because the quote was 25% cheaper than the local supplier. The Northumberland supplier, SIPHome, might just have made money on the project if, as they had planned, it had taken three weeks to erect and had been all delivered in six loads. But of course, the job had overrun spectacularly. This of course was SIP Home’s problem but it doesn’t instill confidence in a delivery system that is so wayward and disorganised.

It’s not as though these SIPS systems are cheap. The Wiltshire contract for erection of watertight shell was valued at £68k. It’s hard to see the equivalent in blockwork, or a basic Taylor Lane-style timber frame, costing more than £50k, including all the insulation. Whilst the resulting home should be extremely energy efficient — there is no central heating system, as such, just a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery — it’s still an awful lot to pay for a finish standard, which could easily be achieved by other means.

The question is this. Is there something inherent in SIPS building methods that makes them prone to delay and cost overruns? Or is it just that the assemblers haven’t really worked out how to get the best out of the system. For what is clear is that the goodwill towards what promised to be a new, green building method is running low and that if someone doesn’t sort it out soon, it is in danger of evaporating altogether. Many selfbuilders I meet are very enthusiastic about using SIPS for their projects but it seems that they are not really getting the service they pay well for and hence deserve.

It may be that in the short term, SIPS are best suited towards very simple structures such as you would find in most social housing projects and maybe commercial sheds, but not for the more complex designs met in the selfbuild arena. In theory, the design skills needed for SIPS construction should be very similar to timber frame and there really isn't any reason to expect problems, but in practice there seems to be a skills gap somewhere in the SIP production stream which is proving costly and frustrating. What should be a simple, quick and efficient system is currently anything but.

3 Oct 2005

The lowdown on permitted development

I spent the weekend delivering seminars at the HomeBuilding & Renovating London show. The first one each day was entitled “Making The Most of Your Living Space” and it found me gently lulling the audience about the joys of loft living and loft converting. UK’s Mr Basement, Alan Tovey, then encouraged everyone to become troglodytes. But undoubted star of this particular show was planning guru, Ken Dijksman (pictured here rather unflatteringly), who took the stage for no more than ten minutes and regaled everyone with a synopsis of the ins and outs of permitted development rights and how, in the right hands, their correct application would lead on to wealth and happiness but, screwed up, would destroy you utterly.

Talk about spellbound. The audience lapped it up. And Ken managed to leave them hanging on for more because on each of the three days, all the subsequent questions were about one thing: permitted development rights. As the questions got more complex, Ken’s answers became more Delphic and he resorted to that old planners’ standby answer, “I can’t possibly tell you the answer to that as every situation is different.” Well he has only just resigned from his planning post to become a full-time consultant: 17 years behind a local council desk is enough to make anyone evasive.

So just what was it that he was saying that got the audience so excited? Basically this. If you still have unused PD rights on your house, you can apply for an uncontroversial planning permission which would take you above your PD rights allowance and then, should you win, you can still use up your PD rights allowance on some other project you have in mind as long as you haven't built out the bit you have just won permission on. In other words, the PD rights only disappear when the new structure is built, not when planning permission to build it is won. Neat huh? Well only if you want to extend all over the place in ways that the planners will think dimly about. But for some people this can be a very handy tip.

Another was in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. A couple weren’t allowed to extend their house by the planners: their PD rights had been used up on an ugly garage and the new extension they hoped to build was not appreciated by the powers-that-be. Then a knowledgeable friend suggested to them that if they demolished the unloved garage, their PD rights would be liberated once more and they could then use them to build the extension without the intervention of the planners.

Permitted Development Rights: a summary
PD rights come with most houses and they enable you to build a certain additional volume without planning permission. The cut-off point is 1st Jan 1948, when the Town & Country Planning Act came into effect. Anything built before that date is taken to be part of the existing house.

PD Rights enable you to extend up to 15% of the existing house in volume, or 70m3, whichever is the greater. For terraced houses, this is reduced to 10% or 50m3. In both cases, the maximum enlargement is 115m3. The volume is reduced to 10% or 50m3 within Conservation Areas. In Scotland, the figures seem to be 20% or 24m2. The extensions must be no higher than the existing house and if within 2m of a boundary, a pitched roof structure mustn’t be higher than 4m or a flat roof 3m.

It affects loft conversions as well. Loft dormers are allowed if the extension adds less than 50m3 to the volume of the house (40m3 in terraces); the roof extension must not face the highway, and the roof extension must not increase the height of the existing roof. If your planned loft does transgress on any of these points, it doesn’t mean that’s it’s prohibited, but you will have to apply for planning permission.

These rules go on and on in every decreasing circles. The application of them to real life situations is a jobsworth’s delight: the more complicated they get, the more exceptions you incorporate, the more planners you have to hire to work out what’s allowed and what’s not. I could go on for many more lines with even greater delights about the exceptions in the planning system but I would do far better to point you to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Planning portal which you can find at www.planningportal.gov.uk

Ken's email, should you want to know more, or even to hire the guy - he is now a fully fledged planning consultant - is dijksman@msn.com