28 Dec 2006

Alan Teal: the single-handed selfbuilder

I think I know a lot about housebuilding. I have been involved in residential building since 1980, I have worked on site as a labourer, carpenter and joiner, roofer, electrician, plumber, groundworker, even a bricklayer occasionally, in fact every damn job there is except plastering. I have managed small building projects, have restored old buildings and built new ones. I have been a developer and seen the highs and lows of the property market through the 1989 recession. For the past ten years or so, I have written about the process and visited hundreds of selfbuilders, suppliers, professional builders and architects, really broadening my horizons in the process. I have lived and breathed the whole process for all but five years of my working life.

But every now and then I meet someone who makes me think I actually know very little. One such person is Alan Teal who I had the pleasure of visiting on December 15th. I know him through his contributions to the selfbuild forum where he has been an active member for ages, but I had never met him in person until he appeared at the Smartlife Green Day event at the beginning of this month. It was there that I arranged to visit him in his lair.

And what a lair it is. Situated in a small village, just outside Huntingdon, Alan has built the entire complex himself. Even the doors and windows have been made on site, in his workshop. Sure, it’s taken him ten years but what’s the hurry? He has also been working as a joiner and kitchen fitter, working out of the garage block, which he built first back in the 1990s. He hasn’t borrowed a penny: everything has been funded out of cashflow from his joinery business. The only help he seems to have had is from his long suffering wife and that only on an occasional basis.

In his past, Alan built two houses for fun when he was a construction student in Yorkshire. He worked for Bryant Homes for a while as a setting out engineer and saw at first hand just how plc housebuilders go about their business. And he has worked in the USA as well, and knows just how differently the Americans build their homes.

Like many other bright people working in construction, Alan is close to despair about the low standards found in the UK. This in itself became a reason to take on the development of an entire site single-handedly. “You can either do things properly for yourself, which takes forever. Or you can employ others to do it for you and spend your time trouble-shooting instead.” He chose the slow single-handed route. “Never again, it just takes too long.” Actually, it doesn’t appear to have been that bad for the pair off them. They started by constructing a small flat above the garage where they lived in cramped comfort for the duration: it’s now a valuable self-contained unit. He then set about getting planning permission for a house on the site – it had been sold off by a Cambridge College as a derelict workshop. Then he undertook the entire construction project, including making his own scaffolding. It’s still not quite finished — the upstairs room-in-the-roof is yet to be fitted out — but even so the attention to detail is amazing. The photo here shows Alan pointing out the novel method he used to make his own ash doors, using countersunk angled screws to build the frame. “I haven’t got a morticer in my workshop so I thought I would experiment with what you can do with angled screws. I have filled the screw holes with a dark coloured wood (iroko) to highlight the effect. It’s been very successful – I haven’t had any movement from the doors at all. So I have made a houseful of solid ash doors for £60 each.”

I love this sort of attention to detail. And the infectious enthusiasm of the people who engender it. I also envy the level of skill involved. In the years I worked as a builder, I always worked as part of a team and used to rely heavily on other’s people’s knowledge and goodwill. I would never have had the confidence – or bloody-mindedness – to build a house on my own like this. And yet in the past few years I have met a number of people who have risen to this particular challenge and have usually achieved spectacular results. I think Alan Teal ranks for me as the most single-handed selfbuilder I have yet come across but he’s far from unique and, as I am finding, there are a more people out there who would love to emulate him. But it is always very slow, very demanding and can be pretty lonely as well: it’s not for the faint-hearted. But it can be done, as Alan’s example shows.

21 Dec 2006

Eco Bollocks Award: The Windsave WS1000

It is now two and a half months since I tried to buy a Windsave WS1000 wall mounted wind turbine from my local B&Q. Their surveyor turned me down because our house walls are timber, which isn’t regarded as a suitable material to take the strain.

One of the interesting things to emerge from me blogging about the experience was that Windsave themselves saw what I was writing and approached me with their comments. Firstly, Nathan Briggs, who describes himself as a consultant to Windsave, commented on my second blog piece (Oct 12th) that “I'm glad we didn't try to fit a windmill (to your house) and I hope you see the sense that we didn't. With just 5.1metres/second (m/s) I doubt you would have seen anything close to 1000kWh per annum so payback would have been terrible anyway.”

I replied to Nathan with the following observation. “My question back to you is this. My average wind speed, 5.1m/s at 10m height, according to the DTI windspeed database, is pretty typical of southern England and in fact is rather higher than most large urban areas. You are candidly admitting that at this windspeed my payback would be "terrible". So why are Windsaves being sold through B&Q across the country with the oft-stated suggestion that they could generate a third of your household electricity?”

But I never heard from Nathan again so the question was left unanswered. But a few weeks later, I received an email from Anya Gordon who is a sales manager at Windsave in Glasgow. She wrote: “As I am sure you can appreciate, being a new company launching an innovative product such as the WS1000 system into the UK market has not been without its trials. The product has been designed and launched on the basis that it will meet the requirements of the majority. As previously mentioned, we appreciate that it will not be suitable for every application.” Later in the same email, she added: “We have also noted your comments regarding windspeeds and effectiveness of the systems and we are currently upgrading our website and literature to further clarify some of the points you’re raised on your blog.”

There have been some changes to Windsave’s website. In particular a page has appeared called “Assessing Performance.” It says that the average wind speed across the UK is 5.6m/s at 10m above ground level. They also recommend “having our system installed in areas benefiting from wind speeds above 5.0 m/s.”

It’s hard to say what exactly this means. All places will get wind speeds about 5.0m/s at some point during a year but that is a very different thing to an average wind speed of 5.0m/s. Another critical factor that is often overlooked is the fact that the average wind speed data is given for a height of 10m above ground level. The typical Windsave will be mounted at less than half this height, in a location that is almost certainly going to prove to be turbulent. The projected power outputs are in reality amazingly low. They themselves are indicating that a WS1000 located on my house would have generated around 175kWh per annum.

Reports arriving from other sources suggest that even this sort of output is fanciful.
• The St Albans Eco House has a Windsave fitted. It’s first two weeks of operation produced just 500watts of electricity.
• Bill Dunster, the Bedzed architect and big wind turbine fan, has lived with a competitor to the Windsave, the Swift, for over a year and has yet to get any power out of it at all!
• The well-known green activist Donnachadh McCarthy found that his roof mounted turbine in London generated just 1.3kWh in two months. His comment to me: "It is a beautiful machine, it is silent but it vibrates and the output is miserably low. My view is that they are still experimental and have serious technical obstacles still to overcome. Buy them if you wish to support the research but not if you wish to save CO2.”

Which leads us to the big question that Nathan Briggs failed to answer back in October. It’s all very well Windsave selling a product of questionable provenance. But why, oh why, is B&Q pushing them out of its stores all over lowland England where they just will not work? Here is what it says on the B&Q website today: the Windsave wind turbine “could contribute to a potential saving of up to 30% for the average home if there is optimum wind speed at the site.”

It’s a very short step from that to “it can save around 30% of your electricity bill” which is what I was told in B&Q by an impressionable sales assistant. And an impressionable customer will of course hear exactly what they want to hear.

But it’s time they heard the real story. Unless you live in a very windy spot, a Windsave (or any other similar wall or roof mounted product) will not generate any meaningful power output at all. Come on, it’s time to admit that the roof-mounted wind turbine industry is a complete fiasco. Good money is being thrown at an invention that doesn’t work. This is the Sinclair C5 of the Noughties. As such, the Windsave WS100 becomes the second winner of my coveted Eco-Bollocks award.

18 Dec 2006

UK's largest green roof

If you want an example of just how stupid green architecture is becoming, take a peek at what is happening in Hemel Hempsted. Hemel Ski Centre is going to build an indoor snow complex. If you wanted to design an energy guzzling leisure facility to rival an Airbus, it would be an indoor snow complex. It’s a bit of hi-tech wizardry that would have been undreamt of a few years ago, but this one is set to be the fourth in the UK. It’s also barely 30 miles from the first one, Snozone in Milton Keynes, but what does that matter? In ten years time, we may well have 50 indoor snow complexes, because it looks as though there won’t be much snow anywhere else.

Now there were problems with the planners. They didn’t like version one which had an aluminium roof. “Too big and shiny”, they suggested. So the aluminium was ditched and instead….hey presto….version two has a green roof. Not just any old green roof, but the biggest green roof in Britain. Well it would be, wouldn’t it? I mean these indoor snow complexes are the size of a small mountain.

We are told the “revolutionary roof” will “blend in” with the horizon, it will help insulate and it will collect rainwater for re-use in the design. In other words, it’s been given a green makeover to add leverage to the revised planning application.

Call me an old cynic, but I keep seeing more and more of this stuff: developers shoehorning sustainability into projects that are essentially unreconstructed 20th century gas-guzzlers. Out-of-town shopping centre anyone? Fine, if it’s got a wind turbine. New hotel? Just make sure it’s on a bus route. Egged on by the government, the planners lap this stuff up. Dacorum Borough Council duly accepted the revised plan last week and the Hemel Snow Complex is set to fly. Dacorum Councillor Derek Townsend commented to the local paper: “One thing I do look at is the green roof — I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

The Stansted airport expansion plans were not so lucky. Last week Uttlesford District Council rejected plans for a second runway at the airport. Perhaps BAA, the owners and developers, ought to reapply with a version where the planes land on a limecrete runway laid out under a grass covered tunnel, to disgorge their passengers into a straw bale terminal building. You never know.

13 Dec 2006

Pellet Boilers: the Okefen examined

To Welshpool, to take a look at Europe’s most advanced pellet boiler. I am guest of Andy Buroughs and his company Organic Energy. Andy Buroughs has been in the renewables business for 20 years, mostly in solar panels, and has recently got interested in pellet boilers after visiting Austria and tracking down Okefen. He has become the UK agent for Okefen and also for another Austrian company, solar panel maker Gasokol.

Now the Okefen pellet boiler is a very impressive piece of kit. I instinctively feet that a pellet boiler is a sort of upmarket wood stove but I am surprised to see just how upmarket a wood stove can get. This is, as Andy points out, the Mercedes of wood-fuelled boilers. It doesn’t actually burn the wood pellets, it gasifies them and then burns the resulting gas at something like 93% efficiency. As there is as much heat value in a wood pellet as there is in heating oil, by weight, you can see that it is a very efficient method of extracting heat from wood. And, of course, the pellets aren’t shovelled in by hand: they are fed in automatically by an auger or a vacuum tube (you choose). And the grate doesn’t need riddling out every morning – the residue can be cleaned up once every few weeks. Indeed, on a forthcoming model, available sometime in 2007, things should have moved on to such a point that the proud owner of an Okefen pellet boiler can get by with an annual visit from someone who a) delivers a year’s worth of pellets into the hopper b) empties the ash can for the year and c) carries out the annual service.

Wow, that really is hi-tech. Renewables without tears.

However there is a big ask here. The cost of the kit comes to around £12,000. From this you can deduct a £1,500 grant from the Low Carbon Building Programme, but even so, that is a ball-achingly large amount of money for what is, after all is said and done, a boiler. This price would include the pellet hopper arrangement but doesn’t go anywhere downstream from the boiler itself. No hot water tank, no radiators or underfloor heating system.

The Okefen is competing with such kit as oil boilers — cost maybe £2,500 including storage tank— and ground source heat pumps — perhaps £8,000 up to £10,000. OK, you get to burn a green fuel, unlike the alternatives, but even if pellet supply turns out to be as cheap and as plentiful as promised, it is never going to stack up financially. One of the very first things Andy said to me was that the Okefen “was very much an aspirational product.” I didn’t quite understand what he was on about until I got home and processed all the cost information. Now I see what he means. It’s a hell of a big ask.

But I have no doubt that there will be a number of well-heeled selfbuilders who will see the Okefen and fall in love and just have to have it. It’s a bit like that. It may even become the Aga for the Zero Carbon generation.

Although I wouldn’t try cooking on it. But then, I wouldn’t recommend cooking on an Aga either.

6 Dec 2006

Renewable Energy Subsidies

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP) has been running since April this year. It’s a DTI funded grant scheme to encourage people to fit renewable energy technologies into their homes. It replaced an earlier scheme called the Blue Skies Grant.

It’s been heavily oversubscribed. It was anticipated that the funding for the scheme would be £3million over three years but this figure has already been surpassed and they have had to raise monies from other kitties to keep it going. Renewables are fashionable, as never before.

This table is drawn from the LCBP website. It shows just how the money is being distributed. It is interesting because it shows which technologies are the most popular (the No of Projects) and which are attracting the most money (Money Committed). They are not one and the same.

Quite why PV cells should be so heavily subsidised is a good question. In terms of bang per buck, they are easily the most expensive of the options. They account for just 11% of grant-aided installations and yet account for 55% of the grant money. Even with these large grants, they are still a hell of a long way from having a sensible payback.

I have ignored the UK outside England. This is because both Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate— and more generous — schemes that are available for some technologies but not all of them, so their inclusion would tend to skew the figures.


Low Carbon Buildings programme for all UK

Action Renewables for grants in Northern Ireland

• Scotland has a grant programme called the Scottish Community and Householder Renewables Initiative (SCHRI). They like snappy names in Scotland. It handles grants for everything except solar PV. They don’t appear to have a website, or at least I can’t find it, but there is a very helpful lassie on 0800 138 8858.

• VAT position on renewables: On new builds, solar panels are zero-rated, as are the great bulk of fixtures and fittings. If fitting solar panels onto an existing house, the VAT rate is 5%.

• Subsidies: the government pays a subsidy to all generators of renewable electricity, whether grid connected or not. This is known as the Renewables Obligation Certificate or ROC. The value is driven by market forces but is currently around 4.5p per kWh or unit of electricity, equivalent to £45 for a megawatt hour.

5 Dec 2006

Runway battle is taking off

Airports are where the debate about global warming will be fought most keenly. Of all the aspects of modern living, flying is the one that seems to be completely unreformable. It’s not simply that planes use masses of fuel — they do — but the existence of commercial airlines offering relatively cheap flights across the world encourages us to travel. And we have become a world addicted to travel.

Interesting then to see Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, complaining about the eco-lobby “doom-mongering” over global warming (Daily Telegraph 5 December). Willie’s idea of airport heaven is Dubai where they are currently building a six-runway airport that will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No whingeing residents there to stop night flying, then!

He also moans about the UK slipping down the route network league. Apparently, dear old Heathrow is down to 5th place in Europe behind Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Munich. Sounds awful, but I think what he is saying is that you can fly to more places from these airports than you can from Heathrow, not that they are busier – they aren’t. Heathrow remains the World’s No 3 in terms of passengers processed, some way behind Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta.

Then Willie goes on the offensive. “People are not going to invest in the UK if the transport infrastructure continues to fall behind.” That sounds a bit rich coming from a Dubliner who has seen hi-tech investment pour into Ireland despite it having a transport infrastructure that has barely changed since independence.

It’s very hard to reconcile this bluster with the government’s stated aim of reducing carbon emissions. Willie Walsh accuses the eco-lobby of ignoring the realities of modern economics. But whilst a few years ago I would have had a lot of sympathy with such a view, I can’t help feeling that it’s maybe Willie Walsh who is now out of touch with reality. Whilst there are potential techno-fixes for many aspects of our carbon usage, there is nothing much we can do about the carbon emissions from flying except doing less of it. That is a conundrum that the capitalist world, built on the nostrum of continuous growth, has yet to confront.

But only yesterday, my brother-in-law’s family of five flew off to Colombia to spend Christmas with their extended family. If we hadn’t been living in the era of mass air travel, I doubt he would ever have met his Colombian wife. But having done so, and having had three children together, they are set to make numerous transatlantic trips to keep both sides of the family in touch. Yet the carbon-free future, which is what the scientific community is beginning to demand, more or less rules out discretionary air travel like this. In theory, it sounds fine, but in practice it will cause a lot of hardship and disruption. That in turn is a conundrum that the eco-lobby hasn’t really confronted either.

So when the battle lines are drawn, it won’t just be Willie Walsh and the unrepentant growth monkeys on one side and George Monbiot and the green utopians on the other. It will be much harder than that. It will divide families and split communities. There will be a few winners and lots of losers. In short, we will return to an era where politics really counts.

29 Nov 2006

Spluttering SIPS: Chapter 2

Structural Insulated Panels or SIPS: quick to build, fantastic performance, building system of the future. Or so we hope. But so far the UK experience of SIPS has been checkered, and that is being very polite. There are some very successful SIPS developments, for sure: I visited one in September where everything had gone splendidly. But a good number have run into problems.

Here is an affordable housing scheme currently underway in Bugle in Cornwall. The builders have thoughtfully placed a webcam there so we can monitor progress. Not that there has been a lot. This image was taken off the webcam today (29 November). These 23 apartments have been going up since March and the roof still isn’t on. And the OSB is only just being covered up now. OSB isn’t designed to be left outside to withstand the elements: with SIPS, OSB is an integral part of the structure. Apparently there have been a lot of wranglings going on behind the scenes with building control and warranty providers. It doesn’t look pretty, does it?

My advice remains the same. I don’t want to put people off SIPS but if you do want to go down this route don’t try and do it on the cheap and make sure that your design and erection team know exactly what they are doing. Check their track record and speak to previous clients.

17 Nov 2006

SmartLIFE Green Day, Dec 2nd 2006

Green Day update, complete with timings. We have 50 bookings and there are places for a few more, but bookings close on Thursday Nov 30. It's at the new Smartlife training centre, located at the Cambridge Regional College campus. There will be a full day of lectures and demonstrations plus information on grants available for environmental schemes and renewable technologies. The day features:

• Mark Brinkley at 10.15: I’ll be giving a talk about some of the many interesting projects that have gone on around Cambridge over the past thirty years. It’ll give me the chance to go and photograph a few of them. I might even revisit my first house, a detached Victorian brick structure that we externally insulated back in 1980.

• 11.00: Ralph Carpenter, Suffolk architect and hemp building expert

• 11.45: Eithne Flanagan, Sustainable Construction Co-ordinator for Cambridge Sustainable City

• 1.15: Meredith Bowles, award winning green architect and builder of the Prickwillow Black House

• 2.00: Chris Gooding, of Solar Energy Alliance, a reseller and installer of wind turbines and photovoltaics

• 2.45: Jean Roberts from the Energy Savings Trust with information on low energy building techniques and microgeneration grants

The event will run from 10 till 4 with a buffet lunch provided. Cost is £15 per head, payment by cheque only. Places are limited so please book in advance with Smartlife online or on 01223 712238.

13 Nov 2006

Interview: Ray "Mr U Value" Williams

On the last day of October, I went to the National Physical Laboratory to interview Ray Williams. He runs the department that measures the thermal performance of materials and structures and, as such, he is probably Britain’s leading expert on measuring U-values. Despite having such an important job, at the cutting edge of building science, he had never before been interviewed by a journalist. “It’s a sign of the times,” he joked. I think he was delighted that someone was at last showing an interest in the work he does.

I wanted to talk to him about the multifoil debate, in which he has been deeply involved. But I also wanted to see how they go about their testing work and in particular just what a guarded hot box actually looks like. It is the industry standard equipment, used for measuring U values, and it has played a crucial role in our understanding of how building materials hold onto heat.

The hot box (pictured here with Ray inside) is a much bigger piece of kit than I had imagined. It’s about 3m tall and it weights 3.5 tonnes: it’s also a very expensive. Ray reckoned that it would cost around £300,000 to replicate it. Because of this, there are now very few of them around. He only knows of two others in the UK, both at the BBA test site.

“Anybody can build a simple hot box,” Ray told me, “but the results they get from it will be subject to a huge margin of error, so much so that the results are worth very little. Here we have been refining and developing the apparatus (which complies with BS EN ISO 8990) and the techniques for measuring heat transmission over many years. This is probably amongst the most accurate guarded hot boxes in the world but, even so, our best measurement uncertainty is still only about ± 4.5%. That’s a large measurement uncertainty for scientific testing. It shows just how difficult measuring heat transmission through structures is.”

Thermal performance testing of building products was pioneered in the 40s and 50s when scientists began to systematically study the thermal resistance of all kinds of materials for the first time. However, the evaluation of the insulation properties of building materials and structures was given a boost by the energy crisis that developed in the 70s. The Thermophysical Properties Group at the NPL was established in the late 1970’s, brought about by the need to verify the claims of the manufacturers of low density aerated concrete that the thermal performance of these new materials were actually superior to traditional concrete blocks. A more recent surge in demand for these services came when the 2002 revision to Part L of the Building Regulations set a low U-value criteria for windows, making double-glazing incorporating low-e glass almost mandatory. It was important for manufacturers to have the U-value of their windows measured using the procedures specified in a then new hot box measurement standard known as BS EN ISO 12567-1 and many of them came to the NPL to have these measurements carried out. A hot box measurement at the NPL cost around £2,500 and takes about a week. The NPL hot box can measure element up to 2m wide by 2m high and is fully rotatable, so that it can work vertically, horizontally or at any chosen angle, which is important when the test element contains air cavities.

The question I really wanted an answer to was this: “Just how good are hot boxes at indicating what goes on on site?” Ray Williams wasn’t really in a position to answer this, as he doesn’t carry out site tests, but he did point out that there was really no reason why a structure should perform better on site than it would in a hot box. Which brought us on to the subject of multifoils, of which he has tested quite a few. What struck me was that he wasn’t at all dismissive of them, which I had half expected, but was really interested in the whole debate and was keen to devise a test that might show multifoils off in a better light, if at all possible.

“I have had a number of multifoil manufacturers here talking to me and while some are quite prepared to accept that hot box testing is the best way of quantifying the thermal performance of their products, others are not. Some really seem to believe that multifoils behave differently in dynamic temperature situations than when tested with a constant temperature difference across them (as in hot plate and hot box measurements) but they don’t have any data to support those views. I keep getting results that indicate the thermal resistance of an air cavity insulated with a multifoil mounted centrally, is the equivalent of between 50mm and 80mm of mineral wool, but no more.”

It is partly these continuing negative results which have finally persuaded Local Authority Building Control and the NHBC to issue guidance to their members to only use thermal performance values obtained from hot box measurements, at least until further notice. Even so, Ray is still open to carrying out further tests. “Some multifoil manufacturers want me to test dynamically. Thus far, every test I have done in the hot box has been steady state. That is to say that we test for the heat loss of a wall or roof with a steady 20°C temperature drop across it; designed to mimic the difference between internal and external conditions in winter. A dynamic test, in contrast, would look at total heat transmission through an insulated structure over an extended time period whilst the temperature difference is being varied, just as you might expect in the course of a day. The BRE have carried some in situ (hence dynamic) measurements of walls insulated with multifoil insulation and those results were broadly in agreement with hot box results. The DTI have now funded a small project for NPL to look at identifying the best way to evaluate these kinds of products. I have already had extensive contacts with many people involved in this debate and I must soon decide how best I can help to resolve these issues. I am of a mind to include carrying out some dynamic testing, either in a hot box or a hot plate apparatus to see if I can determine if different insulation systems can behave significantly differently in those circumstances. But I am at a loss to explain just how it could give a markedly different result. Dynamic testing takes longer and it’s far harder to interpret the results, but in principle I don’t mind having a go.”

Whatever your feelings about multifoils — if you have any feelings at all that is — I find it reassuring to know that the government’s chief thermal performance tester is open-minded about trying alternative testing regimes. Because if, in the future, we want to address issues such as solar gain, quality of on-site workmanship, building anomalies and dynamic thermal performance, in a truly rigorous way, the guarded hot box apparatus is unlikely to be able to provide all the answers. But in the absence of any widely accepted and validated alternatives, it remains the best testing method for comparing products that we have for now. Whilst it is easy to see why a product might not perform as well on as it does in a lab test, it remains a puzzle as to how exactly it could be persuaded to improve.

8 Nov 2006

Men of Straw

These two young men want to build houses out of straw. David Menell (pictured left) and John Ogle have started a business called Conscious Construction and they have a mission to make straw bale building mainstream. Or at least, a little more mainstream than it is right now. Which wouldn’t be difficult because there are only ten straw bale houses in the UK.

Thus far, if you want to know about straw bale building, you beat a path to the door of Barbara Jones, the diminutive dynamo behind Amazon Nails. Barbara learned about the technique in North America and brought her knowledge back to the UK where she has refined it and almost single-handedly driven it into the public consciousness. But her work is often community-based and is usually at the non-profit end of things. She is more teacher and guru than businesswoman.

John and David are approaching it from a different perspective and are hoping to move straw-bale building onto another level. Not surprisingly, they have learned about straw bale building techniques from Barbara and she is apparently keen to support their new venture. They want to develop straw bale as a viable alternative to rival other non-standard building systems, such as SIPs panels or ICFs (both of which have featured in the blog over the past few months).

I must admit I had never considered this to be a likely development before. Straw bale seemed just too….whacky. For a start, there are a whole bunch of fears to work through. Fire. Rodents. Moisture problems. Asthma. You name it, people worry about stuff like this. When you are investing your life savings into a house, you want to minimise your risk, not take part in some construction experiment. You need a comfort zone and straw bale ain’t there yet. But it’s also fair to say that it’s not that far off either. Amazon Nails’ pioneering work over the past 15 years has addressed all these issues and although the number of straw bale homes in the UK is still tiny, there are enough around to know that, as a technique, it works. And in North America and Denmark, there has been loads more development work carried out which further enhances the credentials of straw as a walling material.

And once you get past the fears, there are lots of things going for it as a building method. It’s cheap and abundant – it requires no manufacturing at all. The walls are wide – typically 450mm – but they provide good insulation and they can be easily made into interesting shapes. Covered with flexible lime renders, straw bale walls look fantastic. And they can accommodate all aspects of modern living like double-glazed sealed units and cabling. In many ways, straw bale has similarities with ICF construction but without having to use truck after truck of readymix. I can see that there is real potential here, but I can also see that unlocking that potential is going to be a long hard sell. Thanks to exposure on programmes like Grand Designs, there is an awareness that you can build structures using straw bales, but that’s still not quite the same thing as building your own home out of them. That’s still an option for the brave, but maybe, just maybe, it’ll move mainstream much quicker than might be expected. Maybe, just maybe, Conscious Construction have timing on their side.

1 Nov 2006

Eco Bollocks Award — Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is a very good writer. She hit the big time with her first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which won the Whitbread Prize in 1985 and went on to our TV screens five years later. I remember it. It was compulsive viewing. What does she write about? Wikipedia says her novels explore the boundaries of physicality and the imagination, gender polarities, and sexual identities. I’ll leave it at that.

But Jeanette also writes about other stuff that interests her and, in particular, she sometimes muses on property. An article on extending her thatched cottage which appeared in the Times last week is so bad that I couldn’t let it pass and have decided to award her with my first Eco Bollocks award for A1 rubbish written in the name of greening the planet. So Jeannette, I hope you don’t mind too much in collecting another award — you seem to have quite a few already.

Why has Jeanette been so honoured? She writes:

Any idiot can make a square out of breeze blocks — I know, I’ve done it myself. Yet breeze blocks are not just ugly, they produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide in their manufacture and require heavy cement mortars to hold them together. The things may be faced with stone or brick, but once your inner shell is made of cement blocks you might as well be in a concrete apartment in the former East Germany.

What a load of crap! Breeze blocks don’t produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide in manufacture. They may be ugly but then they are not designed to be seen so what difference does it make. If you are building an extension with a stone facing, as she appears to have done, living as she does in the Cotswolds, then concrete blocks are easily the most sensible way of building a structure. But no, she chose to do her walling in timber frame. Or, as she likes to call it, eco-timber.

Yes, this cost more, but even if you leave out the environmental pluses of using eco-timber and no cement, there were two further advantages: while the kit was being built elsewhere, the men were able to get on with renovating other parts of the house — so the process is economical on time.

Sounds like she has been spoon-fed some spiel by a very good salesman. Yes, timber frame can and sometimes does reduce the critical path. But not on a stone extension. Give us a break.

Just as good, and much to the disbelief of building regulations inspectors, we have achieved four times the required insulation (U-value) by packing the cavities with Tri-Iso Super 10, an insulating material that looks like layers of coloured Kleenex and shiny cooking foil. It is far superior to blown foam, and unlike using sheep’s wool you won’t find your whole house full of moths next spring.

Where does she get this stuff from? Building inspectors have just been told to no longer accept Tri-Iso Super 10 because it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It only ever claimed to be as good as blown foam, not four times as good. And it has been unable to prove that it’s even half as good. As for the comments about sheeps wool….I am no particular fan of using sheeps wool as insulation because it’s bloody expensive but the comment about moths is bizarre. Especially from a woman who owns an organic food shop in London’s East End.

I have to say that building regulations make anything green or eco as difficult as possible. Most inspectors know little about green building, and mostly don’t seem interested in learning more. In the years and years that I have been renovating property, I have never met a single one who even wanted to talk about what we were trying to do, let alone offer any help or advice.

I wonder why, Jeanette, I wonder why?

Here’s Jeanette on her ground source heat pump. This wonderful, simple idea, developed in Sweden, works like a fridge in reverse, and converts low-grade heat from the ground into high-grade heat for radiators and hot water. For every one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity used to boost the earth-core temperature, 4 kWh are generated; in other words, you cut your carbon dioxide emissions and your heating bills by a whacking 75 per cent.

Actually, that’s fine until you reach the last bit about heating bills and CO2 emissions. Not even the most ebullient heat pump manufacturer (and there are lost of ebullient ones out there) would make such an outlandish claim. The true figures are subject to much debate but essentially there is very little difference between a really efficient gas or oil fired boiler and a ground source heat pump on either heating costs or carbon emissions. Search this blog for ground source heat pumps for a more detailed explanation.

So there you have it. This blog has launched into new territory by starting an award scheme. The Eco Bollocks award may not yet carry quite the cachet of the Whitbread or the Booker, but all awards schemes have to start somewhere. Anyone else fancy trotting out some complete tosh?

26 Oct 2006

The Condensation Chart

Autumn is taking an almighty long time to get underway this year. Global warming isn’t all melting glaciers and rising sea levels; there are some benefits to be derived from it as well, at least thus far. But the temperatures are dropping and the space heating systems are beginning to crank up again all across the UK.

And always at this time of year condensation starts rearing its mouldy head once more. Across the country, there are outbreaks of dripping bedroom ceilings, rank clothes in cupboards and smelly, dank carpets.

In an attempt to shed a little light on the matter, I have included a free-to-download psychrometric chart, which enables you to predict dew points. If you can’t actually see it too clearly, click on the chart and it should open in a separate window, which should allow re-sizing.

So what is a psychrometric chart? What it shows is the amount of moisture that can freely float around in the air at any given temperature. The topmost curved line represents the saturation point, or the 100% relative humidity level. If there is more water vapour than the air can hold at the given temperature, then the vapour condenses. That is the basic mechanism behind condensation.

Now most homes aim to be around 20°C, at least when the heating is turned on. And most British homes happily subsist at relative humidity levels between 40% and 60%. These are what we would instinctively call comfortable. Now, if you turn the heating off and let the temperature fall, without changing the air in the room, the absolute amount of water vapour in the room is unchanged but the relative humidity level starts climbing. As the room gets colder, the RH level gets higher and higher until eventually it reaches saturation or dew point. On the chart, you draw a line westwards from the nice comfy 20°C, 60% RH, and you can use this to predict at what temperature condensation will start happening. The blue lines show two scenarios for a cooling room.

If you are suffering from condensation, I suggest that the first tool in your armoury should be this chart. Next get a cheap hygro-thermometer from someone like Thermometers Direct. This will tell you what is happening in each room in terms of both temperature and relative humidity. Armed with these, you are ready to become a moisture sleuth. You yourself can work out just why exactly you are getting condensation. And what you need to do to avoid it happening in future.

Keeping the room warm enough to prevent any surfaces reaching dew point is an obvious way of stopping condensation. But some badly insulated walls and ceilings can be difficult to keep sufficiently warm– remember condensation usually starts on the coldest surface. The other method used to eliminate condensation is to reduce the amount of water vapour in the room: at its simplest, this means opening a window and exchanging the warm moist air inside with some cold damp air from outside. Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive, the chart shows that the cold air outside holds far less water vapour, even though it may be close to saturation. More expensive options include whole house ventilation systems that can be an almighty hassle to fit into an existing house.

There may be some very simple solutions staring you in the face such as keeping all the internal doors open and thus evening out the humidity levels across the whole house rather than letting them build up in one place.

24 Oct 2006

Timber frame wins on airtightness

Housebuilder magazine (Oct 2006) has published a short article by Graeme Owen of BSRIA about how new homes are doing in the airtightness stakes. The tests were carried out before the new requirement for airtightness testing came into effect but nevertheless the results are dramatic.

The pass rate, set out in Part L1A, is 10m3 per hour per m2 of heated envelope at 50 Pascals of pressure, which is such a mouthful that it is now being reduced to 10 q50. Energy wonks don’t regard this as very demanding: the best practice low energy homes score as low as 1.5 q50. Nevertheless, many of our new homes struggled to make it through the new hurdle.

All but 3% of timber frame homes achieved a pass and as many as 73% of timber frame homes tested achieve a score of 5 q50 or less. In contrast, 28% of masonry homes failed the new standard and only 6% met a score of 5 or less.

Why the huge difference? Well there is a clue given in the article. Apparently, the masonry build data was further broken down into houses which were wet-plastered and those which were dry-lined, using plasterboard stuck on with dot and dab. The wet-plastered houses achieved a pass rate comparable with timber frame: the dry-lined homes most certainly didn’t. To build airtight with dry-lined walls, you need to seal around all the edges, something that has very rarely been done till now.

If you want to download BSRIA’s guide to airtight building and the new testing regime, click right

18 Oct 2006

Channel 4 Beckons

I get contacted on occasion by TV producers wanting me to source chaos and disaster on the nation’s building sites. Sometimes I can’t be arsed to do anything about it but, if the idea sounds like a good one, I’ll do what I can to summon interest. This idea sounds like a good one.

Trouble with your Building Job? — Work not quite going to plan? — Do you need help managing the project?

Channel 4 TV is currently producing a primetime series about domestic building jobs that have gone off the rails. We are looking at cases where a stalemate has arisen between builder and homeowner and both parties feel they’ve reached a deadlock. Our aim is to put the project back on track with the help of a leading building industry mediator – free of charge. The series will address the common pit-falls that arise and promote good building practice.

Are you an unhappy builder who just wants to get the job done or a desperate client locked in a stand-off whilst living on a building site? If so we’d like to hear from you:

Please contact Dan Marshall on: 0207 907 0894 or email dan@bettytv.co.uk All calls will be treated in the strictest of confidence.

12 Oct 2006

Rejected by Windsave

Following on from my last post, the Windsave surveyor came today, took one look around the house and said “Sorry, no can do.” The reason our house fails the Windsave test is that the upper storey is covered in timber clapboarding and that isn’t felt to be strong enough to hold onto a windturbine. I can get a full refund but I have to go back into B&Q in person to collect.

There were lots of questions I wanted to ask this guy but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point. “Will it be noisy?” or “Will it attract lightning?” seem a bit pointless if you aren’t going to have one. And, to be honest, I am not sure this guy would have known the answer in any event. He was just there to make an assessment. I don’t think he had been working for them for too long and I suspect he wouldn’t have known the answers.

But I did manage a couple of questions. One was “Do they need planning permission?” He reckoned not, unless the house was listed or in a conservation area. This conflicts with my local council: I phoned them earlier in the week and they didn’t sound very sure but advised me that it would fall outside the normal permitted development rights and would therefore require a planning application.

I also asked him how busy he was. The answer was very busy. He has done 30 visits in the last two weeks. He also said there have been 28,000 enquiries logged via the Windsave website.

Finally, I asked him how much electricity I could hope to generate. “They reckon that you could save up to a third of your electricity bill with one of these.”

Now I haven’t been entirely somnolent since my visit to B&Q last week. And I expect that this casual claim is the reason that Windsave is attracting so much attention. The payback suddenly looks pretty attractive, especially when installtion grants are taken into account. But is it accurate? Just how much power can something like this produce?

There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to this. The biggest factor affecting it is the amount of wind you get. The power output increases exponentially with windspeed:
• at a windspeed below 3metres/second, it doesn’t produce any output at all
• at a windspeed of 6m/s, you get about 100 watts
• at a windspeed of 12m/s, you get 1,000 watts

So you go scurrying around looking for average wind speed data. It’s there, on the DTI website, if you can handle converting a postcode into a Landranger co-ordinate. Ours is just 5.1m/s, on the low side but pretty typical for lowland England. The likely output is calculated from the average wind speed — Windsave seem to suggest you get a little bit more than you might expect. Their website is fairly helpful in this respect. But there can be no guarantee that you will get what it says on the tin and thus, even with the most sophisticated calcs, you can really only make a rough approximation of likely output.

Nevertheless, you can see that at an average windspeed of just 5.1m/s, we were never going to get that much power out. Possibly 1,000kWh per annum, if we were lucky. Probably rather less. Enough to power the proverbial 60w light bulb but not much more. Having said that, if we lived somewhere where the windspeed was higher, even by just 1m/s, we could be getting three or even five times more power out of it over the course of a year. But I suspect that such locations are few and far between. I hadn't realised just how crucial the average windspeed data is in analysing the cost effectiveness of a wind turbine, but it is the No 1 critical factor. It's something that Windsave don't highlight, but arguably should.

9 Oct 2006

God help me, I’ve gone and bought a rooftop wind turbine!

Well I was in B&Q last week looking for a curtain rail and I saw this
roof mounted wind turbine on display. I got talking to a bloke called Malcolm, who was sort of in charge (it was the first day of this promotion) and the next thing I knew, I had bought one. It's only £1498, inc VAT and installation. I figured there wasn't that much to lose. I mean, what are credit cards for if not the odd spontaneous splurge?

I got home. Then the doubts really started to kick in. How can it possibly generate any sensible amount of electricity? Will the neighbours think I am being a poser? Or a Tory? Will it make a noise and keep us awake at night? Will it attract lightning and blow all the power out? Will it pull the gable wall down? What will the insurance company make of it? Have I gone stark raving bonkers? The Mrs was not best pleased.

D-Day is this Thursday when "an assessor" comes along to take a look at our house. I am rather hoping that he says we are not a suitable case for treatment and that I can have my money back and that I can write the whole thing off to experience. But another part of me is secretly hoping that it works as advertised. Wouldn't it be brilliant if it does? Then I can leave the computer in sleep mode all night long and not feel guilty.

I am none too happy about paying in advance for anything. Paying in advance for a wind turbine that may be unsuitable and, even if it is, will probably require planning permission seems pretty outrageous. But on the other hand, it is so cheap, I can't quite see how Windsave could possibly make any money out of it without taking cash upfront. And I feel much happier about trying to get a refund from B&Q than I do from a small business in Scotland.

Will report more after our Thursday feasibility study.

2 Oct 2006

Multifoils banned

Two weeks ago the government moved to prohibit the use of multifoil insulation in roofs. They wrote to all the local authority building control departments and to bodies like the NHBC, concerned with the policing of our building standards, and told them that they could no longer accept the use of Actis Tris Iso Super 10 and similar products as an adequate method of insulating roofs. In future all insulation must meet the standards laid out in BR 443, requiring hot box tests to be carried out. Multifoils do not perform well in hot box testing and instead have relied on comparison testing, where the material is used head-to-head with other insulators in similar roofs and measurements are taken of energy usage.

Mutilfoils have had a very good run in the UK. Most other countries – at least the ones that take these things seriously — have given them short shrift. But Actis gained a toehold in the UK by gaining third party approval from BM Trada, who witnessed the comparison roof tests and verified that the performance of their multifoil was as good as 200mm of mineral wool. This test, carried out nine years ago, has been the subject of much heated debate ever since: there have been many sceptics who suggested that the mineral wool was pulled well and truly over the eyes of the witnesses. Yet, on this basis, Actis and others have sold hundreds of acres of their multifoil products. Builders like them because they are no more than 25mm thick and are very quick and easy to fix and are especially good in situations like loft conversions where headroom considerations make other thicker insulation problematic. And indeed, I have spoken with several customers who have been delighted with the thermal performance of their multifoiled roofs. But this doesn’t prove anything, as it is notoriously difficult to measure the thermal performance of just a part of a structure.

Aware of their precarious position, the multifoil suppliers formed themselves into a Confederation of Multifoil Manufacturers with a brief to persuade the powers-that-be that multifoils were as good as they claimed and not some elaborate con. They did very well. They were given an extension till Jan 1st 2007 to prove their case. But sometime in September, the position of the legislators hardened and this extension has been removed.

27 Sept 2006

What is a one-and-a-half storey house?

I was posed this question by a guy from Essex at last weekend’s Homebuilding & Renovating show in London. I said I had an idea that it was something like a bungalow with a loft conversion, although on reflection it seems strange to count a loft conversion as half a storey. So in turn I asked him why he wanted to know.

Turns out, of course, that he was in dispute with the planners over just what he could and couldn’t build in his garden. He’d won planning permission, at appeal, for a one-and-a-half storey house and had subsequently drawn up plans for a house where the eaves lines intersects with the bottom of the upper floor windows, in effect turning them into dormers. It’s a common enough design, a sort of English country cottage look. But was it one-and-a-half storeys or two?

Guess what the planners thought? They are insisting that he redraw his plans with the eaves line about 1500mm lower so that it was immediately above the top of the ground floor windows. That, to them, was a one-and-a-half storey house. He felt it made for an inferior design and he showed me a sketch of both options. I tended to agree with him. The low eaves version was in fact exactly the same floor area but headroom was lost on the upper floor and he reckoned he would lose a bedroom in the planner’s preferred arrangement. Also the planners’ preferred version was much more roof-dominant, which he felt just didn’t look as good. Basically he wanted a country cottage look whilst the planners were insisting on….a bungalow with a loft conversion.

Of course, nowhere in any planning guidance is there a definition of what is meant by a one-and-a-half storey house. No, that would be far too helpful. So the very vagueness of the term allows lots of room for planners to make up arbitrary rulings. The planning inspector who had granted permission for this house on appeal hadn’t seen fit to mention any specific ridge height, which would have introduced a little clarity to the situation. In fact, there was a difference in ridge heights — 8m for our man’s preferred version as against 7.1 for the planners. However, the position of the house hardly merited any height restriction and none of the neighbours had expressed any concern about the design of the house.

So just what should he do? He had yet to put in a detailed application for either version of the house. Should he go for the easy life and get permission for the version the planners had given the nod to. Or fight for the version he wanted. The planners would recommend refusal on that but that would give the final say to the committee who, he thought, might just see sense. His best bet was probably to apply for the his preferred version and be prepared to take in to appeal if it was turned down, whilst subsequently making a second application for the uncontroversial design so that he would be sure of at least being able to build something before the whole planning application went dead after three years.

But what a palaver? Why should anyone have to jump through such an extraordinary set of hoops in the first place. In ten years’ time, whatever gets built there will have become accepted as part and parcel of the neighbourhood and no one will bat an eyelid if the house is 8m high or 7.1m high, or where the eaves level is. So why the compulsion to meddle in the minutiae of house design like this? Why not just let him get on and build what he thinks of as a one-and-a-half storey house?

25 Sept 2006

Florida property scams

I spent about an hour on Saturday browsing around the International Property Show being held at London’s Excel exhibition centre. These types of show have become very common in the past few years but it was my first visit to one and it was certainly an eye-opener. There must have been 400 or 500 stands all appearing to sell much the same sort of thing — holiday apartments and houses — at a bewildering choice of worldwide locations. The places you might expect were much in evidence: Florida, Spain, Portugal, Dubai, plus a smattering of East European developments with Bulgaria very much to the fore.

But these shows aren’t just shop windows for overseas estate agents. What it’s all about is property speculation. Putting deposits down, buying off plan, and then either selling on for a quick turn or holding on for holiday lets. Most of the visitors have, I understand, already done one or two deals and they are there hunting out the best returns for new investments.

I sort of ambled about looking at various stands, trying to avoid direct eye contact with the many pretty girls employed to pull the punters into a dialogue with the sales teams. Then I got trapped by an earnest young Englishmen who wanted to tell me about his flip scheme. No, I’d never heard the term, either.

Apparently, it’s a guaranteed method of turning $20k into $29k. Sounds good. What I have to do is put a deposit down on an as-yet-unbuilt 3 bedroomed bungalow in Port Charlotte in Florida. The finished bungalows have been “appraised” at $364k and will be bought at this price when completed. If the market won’t bear it, the developer will, via something called a Guaranteed Buy Back Guarantee. That’s two guarantees for the price of one! They are currently offering the bungalows at just $335k, and you only need to put down a deposit of $20k to secure one: you don’t even need to pay any interest on the mortgage you take out because that appears to be rolled up into the price by the developer. You pocket the difference, $29k, when the deal is completed. You don’t even need to go to Florida.

“It sounds too good to be true,” I commented to him, trying to sound just a little bit sceptical.

“I guarantee you that it works,” he said, without any hint of irony.

“But I have just been reading that the Florida property market is in freefall.”

“Oh, the media loves to scare people, doesn’t it? It’s really only falling in one of two over-blown hot spots where development has run out of control. I can assure you that Florida as a whole remains the fastest growing property market in the world. And this site is really well positioned. We do an incredible amount of research before we select the right properties for our schemes.”

“Well I wouldn’t invest without at least visiting the site.”

“No need to do that,” he said. “We’ve undertaken all the necessary due diligence already.”

At this point, I think he saw me sucking my teeth and decided I was not really much of a sales catch and so the conversation sort of petered out. I went away clutching his distinctly unglossy handout.

But it set me thinking. Lots of people obviously do go for all this stuff, otherwise this show wouldn’t have been taking place. And I have no doubt that, if the market keeps rising, they may even make some money out of these schemes.

But Florida isn’t a rising market. And why do they need to guarantee a guarantee? Maybe this sort of thing is for you but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Take a peek at their website, see if you can make sense of it…www.propertyqc.com

21 Sept 2006

Who'd be a pressure tester?

I spent yesterday morning with Keith Bartlett who runs a business called Air Leakage Testing based in Saffron Walden in Essex. Keith had a pressure test booked on a renovated house in Greenwich, SE London, and I was getting to ride shot gun with him, picking his brains as we travelled down the M11 in his van with all the kit in the back.

Keith’s background is running a building business erecting steel structures as industrial units. A requirement for air pressure testing for buildings larger than 1000m2 in floor area came into effect in 2002 and Keith took a view that this was the start of a trend and decided, with two partners, to start this new venture to get in on the beginning of a new business opportunity. Together, they have invested something like £150,000, not to mention thousands of hours labour, to get things up and running and they fully expected to be rushed off their feet by now, since the requirement for air pressure testing was extended to new homes in April this year, under the changes to Part L of the building regs.

But it hasn’t worked out quite that way. At least, not yet. Building inspectors have yet to get to grips with the changes in Part L and there is still only a tiny trickle of work coming their way, despite their being less than a dozen firms offering a similar service. In theory, when the new Part L bites, air pressure tests should be carried out on every dwelling type used in a development. That’s a difficult figure to put an exact number to but it must be of the order of 10 to 20 thousand a year throughout the country, not to mention a significant increase in commercial work as well as here the size limit for testing has been reduced from 1000m2 to 500m2. If Keith’s business is typical, it appears that the actual number of air pressure tests being carried out is less than 10% of this figure.

What appears to be happening is that as many as 80% of qualifying commercial buildings are passed by building control without a pressure test. It seems building control are happy to accept “robust details” as an alternative method of compliance, despite there being officially no allowance for this in Part L. This may also prove to be the case with domestic work as well, although the reasons here for slow take-up of pressure testing are to do with the delayed adoption of the 2006 Part L regulations by local authorities.

Thus far the main take up in the domestic sector has been from architects and interested clients who are testing the water and trying to get to grips with the concept air pressure testing. Keith told me: “Architects are in fact often their own worst enemies because the buildings they design are over-complex and full of junctions, just the type of structures that perform badly in an air pressure test.”

The actual test normally takes a couple of hours but there is usually a costly transport element to be taken into account because testers are thin on the ground and one test frequently takes up a full day. So the cost is typically around £300 plus transport for a single house, though it can be much less if there are multiple houses ready to test on the same site. “Most builders feel that they have carried out a reasonable job and are deeply suspicious of pressure testing. If the readings suggest that the house is leaky, they start questioning the accuracy of the equipment. So then we do a smoke test and this shows precisely where the leaks are. Then they believe.”

I was hoping to witness and photograph the test in Greenwich. But the traffic around the Blackwall Tunnel was gridlocked and after sitting in the van for two and a half hours without even reaching our destination, Keith aborted the mission and rescheduled for another day. With more than a touch of irony, I reflected on how the intention of an air pressure test is to save energy consumption, but London’s chaotic road system had ended up with us wasting rather a lot of fuel, achieving precisely nothing. That’s the politics of energy for you.

8 Sept 2006

The Demise of Outline Planning Permission

If you want a good example of how our reforming government manages to make most things worse than they were before, you need look no further than what’s just happened to outline planning permissions.

Planning applications have traditionally fallen into two distinct categories, outline and detailed. You can’t build without detailed permission, but you can use outline to establish a right to build. Thus if you wanted to work out whether you could build a new house in your back garden, you could apply for outline permission and, if successful, that would give you three years to submit a detailed application for exactly what it was you wanted to build.

Now, traditionally, all you needed for an outline permission was a location plan at 1:1250 and a site plan at 1:500, with the site in question outlined in red. Anyone who could handle a photocopier had the skills to submit an outline application. If the site was difficult, there might have had to be some attention paid to things like parking or access but mostly it was just a red line on a map.

No more.

In future, outline permission will have to include information on the footprint to be developed, together with upper and lower limits on height, width and length of each and every new building. You will also have to submit information about the access arrangements. Now you can’t realistically do this without drawing up some sketches at the very least. Not only is this time consuming and expensive but it also restricts your options if and when outline planning is achieved.

One of the beauties of the old system was that you could start with a blank sheet of paper when it came to siting, sizing and detailing your house. OK, you would get involved in interminable discussions with the planners about what you could and couldn’t get away with, but at least you had the luxury of choice. Now you have to commit yourself to a shape, size and situation just to win outline permission. Just about all that would be left after this would be a few arguments over windows, bricks and roof tiles, the sort of details that used to be called reserved matters.

It’s hard to see who gains by these new rules.

The applicant is severely disadvantaged because they now have to undertake most of the design work on spec, without even knowing whether the scheme as a whole is even acceptable. Which, in turn, means that the resulting designs are likely to be much more timid and less challenging. And a lot of time and money will be wasted.

The other side of the coin is that the planners have much more negotiating power because they have the threat of throwing out the entire scheme now, where previously both sides knew that something could be built and that a compromise would have to emerge. But do the planners actually want or need this added elbow room? They are already snowed under with the workload from domestic applications, of which 90% get passed. This will only increase their workload because they will now have to make value judgments about whether the application in front of them merits approval based on God Knows What criteria and this in turn may well involve several applications on each site.

They might just as well have axed outline planning permissions altogether and be done with. But no, the pretence that the outline planning stage still exists is held onto, thus making a difficult task — obtaining planning permission — even more difficult, risky, time consuming and expensive. In other words, another classic New Labour reform. How do they do it?

6 Sept 2006


There is an ingenious way of building walls using polystyrene and concrete. You use the polystyrene as formwork to build up the walls into the shape you want, then you pour concrete into the formwork and, voila, you have a structural wall with insulation already built in.

These systems, and there are several, are known generically as Insulated Concrete Formwork (ICFs). They are not new and they haven’t really made the splash that their proponents had hoped for, but there are signs that the market for ICF systems is at last coming alive. In the UK and Ireland, there are now about a dozen active promoters whereas five years ago it was basically just one. And there are indications that the crucial developer market is at last coming on board and seeing the potential of building homes with ICFs.

What are the plus points?
• It’s a quick building method – comparable with timber frame
• It’s semi-skilled
• It’s simple: the number of elements needed to make up an external wall are greatly reduced
• It can be cheaper – if you restrict your choice of external wall cladding to pre-coloured renders
• You get fantastic insulation levels
• Other benefits include good airtightness and soundproofing

And the negatives?
• The headline price, usually around £30 per m2 for the polystyrene formwork, plus £10 per m2 for the readymix to fill it, puts a lot of people off. You can construct a blockwork wall, labour included, for around £20 per m2, so why would you want to start with a wall system that costs twice as much? I know one or two people who have got as far as this and no further. But if you compare finished wall costs, it looks very different. A fully finished brick and block wall with insulated cavity costs between £80 and £100 per m2. An ICF really shouldn’t be any more than this and if finished with an external render should be less than £80 per m2 overall.
• Pouring the concrete is critical and can be a little bit scary. Building with ICFs may be “semi-skilled,” but it’s definitely not unskilled. There is a knack, which you have to learn. The walls wobble about and you have to be confident that you have your bracing just right.
• Bursts. It’s not difficult to overstress the formwork when pouring concrete. This can cause the formwork to split open and for the readymix to spill over onto the ground. It looks worse than it actually is and it’s part of the skill to know how to handle the odd burst without panicking. But it doesn’t look good and it contributes in no small part to a negative perception of ICFs.
• Concrete. Although all the ICF promoters sell their systems as a green method of building, they can’t get away from the fact that concrete is not perceived as a green building material. Far from it. It is regularly subject to scathing attack from environmentalists and is blacklisted from many deep-green projects, along with all cement-based products. Personally, I think this is a ridiculous state of affairs, especially as these projects almost always promote the questionable use of lime as a replacement for cement. But nevertheless, these perceptions count. Concrete is just not sexy, in the way timber, glass or handmade bricks are sexy.
• Neither, for that matter, is polystyrene!
• Not so much thermal mass as thermal mish-mash. I have written recently on the blog about the perceived joys of thermal mass as a method of storing passive solar heat and evening-out temperature fluctuations. I remain somewhat sceptical of the wilder claims made by thermal mass advocates but the problem for ICF walls is that the concrete is insulated by the polystyrene casing both inside and out, so it’s not readily available to admit heat radiation. Thermal mass fans find this incredibly frustrating, so much so that I know of at least one project where the architect instructed the builders to peel off the entire inside layer of polystyrene after the concrete had set and to then stick it onto the outside. Inelegant or what?

I have written at far greater length about the negatives than I have about the positives. If word counters measured opinions, you would surmise I am therefore broadly negative. But that’s not so. It really doesn’t bother me that ICFs are made of concrete, or that the thermal mass is compromised by the insulation, or that headline price looks high, or that they are not quite as easy to build with as you might initially think. In July and August, I visited two ICF sites, one a selfbuild and the other a 25 unit development, where the respective builders were both chuffed to bits with their decision to use ICFs. The selfbuilder was particularly instructive as he was a carpenter by trade and you would have thought he would naturally have gravitated towards a timber house. But no, he wanted full control of the project and he wanted to undertake virtually every trade himself. As he put it, “I’d rather just do it myself than spend time explaining to someone else what I wanted them to do, only for them to do it wrong.” In fact, the skills of a carpenter are far more appropriate for ICF builds than the skills of a blocklayer, which they are designed to replace.

It remains to be seen just where ICFs go from here. As the regulations demand more and more insulation, it becomes increasingly challenging to work this into the standard cavity wall routine and builders become more open to novel format like ICFs and SIPs. At the moment, you can still build with a 100mm cavity and pass muster with Part L but the next version may require a 150mm cavity and that is stretching it some. At that point, we may suddenly see a really big switchover to ICFs, especially by those builders who instinctively don’t like timber based wall systems. Ireland has already seen a significant take-up of ICFs, but there it seems to be more about meeting the seemingly insatiable demand for new homes by whatever means available. In the UK, the new homes market is very different.

28 Aug 2006

The Shutters of Old Nice

Nice is famous for its shutters. They form an integral part of the streetscape in the old parts of town, as they do across much of southern France, but in Nice the intensity of the Mediterranean light plus the combination of the pastel shutter shades with the earthy wall colours makes for a quite stunning spectacle. Consequently, the shutters appear on the cover of guidebooks and in countless postcards and have become icons in their own right.

The shutters aren’t just for show. They are immensely practical and are a good example of what we once called appropriate technology, essentially a low-tech solution to a problem, in this instance how to keep cool in a hot climate. The Brinkleys have just spent a week in the apartment I part-own in Nice and, once we mastered just how to get the best out of the shutters, the rooms stayed cool and fresh all day and all night, despite the daytime temperatures peaking in the 30s.

The apartment has a high-tech Daikin air conditioning system and for the first couple of days we played with it incessantly, trying to get it to work perfectly. But air conditioning can be, and often is, frustrating to live with. To get it to work well, you have to close all the windows, but if you then leave it on for a long time, it is easy for the air temperature to drop too low. If you leave it on in your bedroom whilst you sleep, you risk waking up two hours later freezing cold. Even if you manage to get the temperature right — and there are temperature adjustments you can make on the handsets — it is still just a little too noisy to make sleeping easy and, additionally, the air quality isn’t that great because its being recirculated. You keep wanting to throw the windows open to get some fresh air, but of course that defeats the logic of air conditioning.

By Day Three, we had worked out how to get comfortable at night without any air conditioning, just by using the shutters. The shutters have three modes, as illustrated by my photo here, taken from the rear of the apartment.

Open: lets the light flood in. This also harvests solar energy and heats the apartment in spring and autumn. In the heat of August, this didn’t concern us.
Closed: keeps the sun out in the heat of the day, provides privacy and blocks out enough light to enable sleep. In addition, a metal hook locks the shutters into the closed position and thus provides security.
Closed but with bottom flap open: keeps the hot sun out during the day but maximises ventilation.

The trick we learned was to open all the windows and close all the shutters during the night. Additionally, the internal doors had to be left open. This created a controlled flow of air from front to back, enough to keep the apartment cool and fresh throughout the night. No night sweats and no freezing butts, just hours of uninterrupted sleep. In the morning, the fresh bread smells from the bakery downstairs wafted up into the apartment. Bliss.

I can’t say for sure, but I believe that most of the older Nice apartments have been built this way, designed to use the shutters to control ventilation in this fashion. My guess is that this natural form of air conditioning would suffice in all but the most extreme heat waves.

6 Aug 2006

House Price Crash?

This blog is currently being featured on an interesting website called House Price Crash. To me, it’s interesting that there even exists such a website, more so that it’s a very popular spot. Do these people want house prices to crash so that they can afford to buy one? Or are they warning existing home owners of nightmare times ahead? I don’t know, and I can’t say, but they have assembled a lot of statistics to show that house prices are very toppy.

I have been bearish on UK house prices for so long that I have almost forgotten to be bearish about them anymore. I was badly affected by the slump at the end of the 80s although in hindsight it changed my life for the better. As a direct result of the slump, I migrated from being a builder to being a writer about building. I started writing a guidebook to building homes, which is what I knew about, because a) there wasn’t any money to make out of building and developing in 1993 and b) because no one else had ever done it before and I sensed a market opening.

As my writing career took off, I put thoughts of getting back into developing on the back burner and by the time I started thinking about it seriously again, in Y2K, I was already convinced that house prices were too high. Since then, they have marched relentlessly upwards and the latest news is that they seem to be on the rise yet again, which may have been instrumental in getting the MPC to raise rates by a quarter of a percent last week.

There are good structural reasons for house prices to rise. The housing stock is increasing but only very slowly. We have the lowest rate of new housebuilding per head of population in the Western World. Incomes are rising. The City has been a phenomenal growth centre for the past twenty years and London has consequently become one of the world’s great honeypots. The population is also rising, with large numbers of immigrants pitching up on our shores. People want to live here, particularly in London and the surrounding counties. And if demand is high and getting higher and supply is restricted, you have a recipe for rising prices. Add to this, relaxed lending from the banks and the relatively low-interest rates we have enjoyed for many years: consequently, we are happier with huge dollops of debt, far more so than at any time in history. These are the bull points.

Against this is the feeling that something has to give. Or, in the immortal words of Jim Morrison, “I’ve been up so Goddam long that it looks like down to me.” What would it actually take to upset the applecart? One thing it won’t be is an increase in the rate of housebuilding. Any increase from our current dismal levels will be far too little, far too late and new housing will, in any event, probably fill up with immigrants long before it has a noticeable effect on prices.

However, a meltdown in the City is a real possibility. The share crash of 1987 was at least a contributory cause of the house price crash of 1989. It could happen again, although share prices are in truth currently not nearly as high as house prices. But if the Middle East gets worse and oil supplies become difficult, then it would cause a global financial meltdown. And that would ripple out to house prices, as jobs are lost, bonuses vanish and top-of-the-range London property stops selling.

Another possibility is a prolonged terrorist assault on London, large enough to dent confidence in London as a financial centre. It’s a distinct and terrifying prospect, although perversely it might just increase demand for properties in quieter neighbourhoods. The IRA tried to do it and managed to get through the steel cordon a few times but not enough to really disable the City. However, the use of suicide bombers is a new kind of threat that is much harder to design out. I guess it all depends on whether the tube bombings last July remain an isolated act of terrorism or just the beginning of a long campaign.

Finally, there is the prospect of the bubble bursting spontaneously. It happens more frequently with shares than it does with housing but happen it does. All bubbles are based on the availability of lots of cheap credit, and the UK mortgage market is certainly guilty of that at the moment. The justification for borrowing is simple: the assets you are borrowing against are rising in price by more than the cost of the money. Everybody knows that this can’t go on forever but it can go on for a hell of a long time and predicting the point where it stops is impossible. Sometimes it’s triggered by higher interest rates, sometimes it isn’t.

By way of example, remember back to the Dot Com boom at the end of the 90s. It was a classic bubble, and many people were saying as much at the time. But why exactly did it end when it did? I have yet to read a convincing answer to that one. The valuations placed on invoice-less companies coming to market was already ridiculous a full two years before the bubble burst, so it was hardly a case of the share sellers peddling over optimistic scenarios.

So it may be with UK house prices. There may just come a point when people say “Enough is enough, I am not paying that ridiculous price for a pile of rubbish anymore.” Some people have been saying this for a while. But not enough to change a market. And whilst I have been expecting the prevailing bullish wind to change for many years, the value of our house has trebled since we moved in 14 years ago. Right now, a house price crash seems a remote possibility.

3 Aug 2006

The Windy Nimbies: tilting at windfarms

If you are a fan of bizarre arguments, you’ll enjoy the cut and thrust of living in the lee of a proposed windfarm. I’ve long marvelled at the little wayside posters that spring up across the countryside to protest at some new wind turbine “bigger than Big Ben.” But it wasn’t until the windfarm business, Renewable Energy Systems, chose the next door parish to plonk a 13-turbine monster that I become aware of what a strange bunch the Windy Nimbies actually are.

I am really not that bothered what goes on in the countryside around me. It’s intensively farmed with cereals and lots of oilseed rape, which stinks the place out in April and May every year and makes most of us quite nauseous. We already have a line of huge pylons marching across the parish, so we are not exactly strangers to the concept of tall steel structures. The landscape is well-managed, for sure, but it is managed largely for the shooting of birds, which isn’t a pastime I care about. As a result, we certainly don’t have open access to the countryside and I certainly don’t feel precious about it in any way. If they want to put up a windfarm, good luck to them. Compared to what we already have, wind turbines seem pretty benign to me.

But that is not how the Windy Nimbies see things. No, they see each and every windfarm as a gross act of environmental vandalism. Their anti-windfarm campaign goes straight for the jugular, which in the countryside mean one thing. House prices. They announce in their newsletter that house prices fall by 20% in communities blighted by windfarms. It’s an extraordinary claim, the basis of which is an “authoritative” report by the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). However, if you read the report it says nothing of the sort. It was based on a survey of RICS members around the country and it asked them what, if any, effect windfarms had on house prices. Around 40% of respondents reported no detectable change, whilst the other 60% noticed a dip in prices when a windfarm proposal first surfaces, followed by a recovery once the windfarm is up and running and people realise it was all a fuss about nothing. No mention of any percentages anywhere. So where does this 20% figure come from? Certainly not from around here where the housing market remains as strong as ever.

The Windy Nimbies then go on to claim that this site (like every other site in England, no doubt) doesn’t have enough wind to sustain a wind turbine, let alone 13. Then they suggest that the windfarmers will be making vast profits from the development. If it’s the wrong location with too little wind, why have the windfarmers chosen it? And how will they make these vast profits?

Ah, they say, it’s all down to subsidies, “paid for by you and me.” Only problem here is that renewable energy doesn’t get any subsidies (unlike the owners of the “precious farmland” that they are about to “desecrate”). The economics of renewable energy work by the government forcing electricity suppliers to buy ever-increasing amounts of the stuff. Renewables are purchased at auction and the demand is kept high so as to encourage more producers to come on stream. It’s a neat ruse and it doesn’t cost the government anything. You could argue that as a consequence of this market rigging, we are paying a too much for our electricity and that the renewables obligation is a hidden subsidy. But you could counter argue that in reality we aren’t paying nearly enough for electricity emanating from gas and coal burning and that, compared to the taxes on petrol and diesel, electricity gets taxed amazingly lightly.

But their strangest argument concerns nuclear power. The Windy Nimbies claim to be “deeply concerned” about global warming, only to dismiss wind power as being ineffectual. Apparently both David Bellamy and James Lovelock, two odd-ball environmentalists, argue this point and their thoughts are trotted out as if to suggest that the whole green movement is against inland windfarms. Lovelock in particular argues that we should be building new nukes instead of wind turbines. It’s a cogent argument and maybe he is right. But do you really think they would be rejoicing if a nuclear power plant was being proposed two miles away? I don’t think so.

The next line of attack is to dish the dirt on the applicants. It turns out that the parent company behind Renewable Energy System, the Sir Robert McAlpine Group, has been carrying out work on some of Britain’s nuclear power stations. Hmm. So they aren’t as virtuous and green as they would have us all believe from their glossy brochures. However, the Windy Nimbies have already pulled the rug out from under their own feet on this one by having suggested that nuclear power is the future and is the sensible way to confront global warming.

So in summary, their case against the windfarm is that it will make too much money from too little wind, that it’s being built by a wicked private company secretly involved with our nuclear power programme, and that everyone knows that windfarms are too little, too late and that nuclear is the answer. Oh, and the value of my house is about to collapse.

And they want me to be frightened.

Which of course I am. Not by the prospect of large wind turbines pitching up on my doorstep, but by the knowledge that so many seemingly sensible people who live around here can get spooked by them.

29 Jul 2006

Nuclear Power: why we have no choice

Here’s an interesting map. It’s taken off the BBC website and it indicates just where France has built all its nuclear power plants. Alone in the western world, France has embraced nuclear power. France now produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear. It also makes France by far the lowest CO2 emitter of the rich Western countries. Whilst the rest of the EU produces around 10 tonnes of C02 per person per annum, and the USA produces as much as 18 tonnes each, France is throwing off just 6 tonnes.

If my maths is right, they now have a total of 54 reactors at 19 different sites. The map doesn’t even include France’s nuclear reprocessing site at Cap de la Hague, on the Cherbourg peninsula, close to Flamanvillle (No 1 on the map). It’s also close to the Channel Islands and not that far from the Isle of Wight.

Whilst neighbouring countries debate whether to restart their nuclear programmes, France just steams ahead with hers, never having even paused for breath in the first place. There are four sites across the Channel which could affect us in the UK in the event of an accident. Belgium has two right on its borders and ultra-green Germany two more. German policy remains implacably opposed to any new nuclear power stations and, because of this, Germany won’t agree to an enhanced carbon offset trading scheme because it fears this would give ammunition to the pro-nuclear lobby.

But is Germany just showboating? In the absence of any means of influencing French policy and with two nuclear sites sitting just over the Rhine, downwind of Frankfurt, Cologne and Stuttgart, who are they kidding but themselves in pretending that they can opt for a nuclear-free future.

And isn’t it strange to reflect that there is no pan-European energy production policy? In its absence, France has effectively made everyone elses’ decision for them.

Over the next few years, as you watch the pro- and anti- nuclear lobbies tear bits out of each, arguing about frankly unquantifiable risks, just remember that the Channel isn’t very wide and that, short of invading France, we have no way of avoiding the nuclear option. We might just as well build our own and be done with.

27 Jul 2006

Stairways to hell

During the past couple of weeks, I have been looking at new houses in Cambridge. The vast majority of new developments there are flats, which is fine if you have no kids or you are buying to let. But there are a few family homes which are, by and large, both incredibly expensive and incredibly tall. Four storeys seems to be the going height.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live in a four storey house. We once spent a week in a windmill in Norfolk and that was enough to convince me that multi-storey living is not something to aspire to. Yes, it may keep you fit but it’s also incredibly annoying when you have to traipse up and down all the time.

Pictured here is Countryside’s award winning Accordia development on Brooklands Avenue in Cambridge. These four storey semis are selling for just under £1million, for which you get bags of space, six bedrooms plus a garden about the size of half a tennis court and a studio over a double garage at the rear. The bedrooms are sandwiched on the middle floors with living space top and bottom. There are balconies and decking and lots of interesting sight lines but it’s not really a house I would want to live in. It would be like a re-run of the Norfolk windmill, only worse. Obviously the powers-that-be like it because it presses all the right sustainability buttons, but the housebuying public seem less enamoured because these big houses are not selling. I feel sure it’s the stairs.

On Monday, I saw another four-storey town house in central Cambridge at a development called The Greshams. Bit smaller than Accordia and a bit cheaper at £750k, but the same stair problem. They had built a sunken kitchen down at the bottom and they had a living room on the top floor “for the view.” You would spend your life going up and down three flights of stairs.

Can you imagine living in one of these with a toddler with a penchant for climbing stairs. You’d need six stair gates and you’d be forever going around opening and closing them. It would drive you bonkers.

And what about the elderly and infirm? How are they going to be accommodated in homes like these? Not that they don’t have level thresholds for wheelchair access, required by Part M of the building regs since 1999. At the Greshams, this level access enables you to visit just two rooms in your wheelchair, a downstairs loo and a small study next to the front door, probably amounting to no more than 10% of the floor plan. It makes a complete mockery of the concept of Lifetime Homes which was behind the introduction of Part M. These houses would have been far better reconfigured as single storey apartments, stretching across the terraces, rather than slicing through them vertically.