29 Mar 2006

The Green Electricty Illusion

For the past six years, I have been a customer of green electricity supplier Good Energy. Today I abandoned ship and signed up to nPower’s low price tariff. Why?

Three reasons.

One. Good Energy kept putting their prices up. It’s the most expensive electricity supplier in the country. At home, we use around 8500 kilowatt hours of electricity every year and their latest price hike, to over 11p per kWh, when taking standing charge into account, will bring our annual electricity bill to nearly a grand. Good Energy used to go out at a premium of around 10% to the mainstream suppliers. Now the premium has grown to 35%. The nPower offering will save us £350 a year. A kWh at nPower is still less than 8p. Good Energy keep saying that everyone else is about to put their prices up, but you can buy electricity now at 9p per kWh with the price fixed until 2009.

Two. I have gradually lost faith in the concept of green electricity and I now think that the extra £350 a year I would be paying to Good Energy will make little difference to the UK energy scene. Of course, I always accepted that green electrons, delivered over the National Grid, were never going to be anything more than an accounting nicety, but I bought into the idea that Good Energy would match everything I paid over to them with renewable supplies. And indeed I accept that they do this. I have interviewed several of them over the years, including Juliet Davenport, the chief executive, and I have no doubt that their intentions are entirely honourable. This is a feelgood business par excellance and it trades on this factor.

But it turns out that the realities of the renewable energy market are a little different to how I first imagined. Which was that you put up a windfarm, which cost a shedload of money, but then you sold the generated electricity in perpetuity and all you had to do to cover your costs was to recoup enough money to pay off the loans. I couldn’t see why the price should change at all from year to year, so it came as quite a shock when Good Energy started passing on price rises every few months and the price paid per unit shot up from 7p to 11p.

What really drives the renewable electricity market is government intervention. The government has a commitment to produce ever greater quantities of renewables and, in order to do this, they set purchase targets for the big suppliers. Each year, they raise the targets thus ensuring there is a growing demand for renewables. The renewable electricity actually changes hands by way of an auction and the price has become artificially inflated because the targets set by government are always a little ahead of the supply. This is good news for renewable suppliers because they see a rapidly increasing market and a healthy premium price paid for their product. But it’s awful news for a boutique supplier like Good Energy because they are committed to purchasing 100% from renewables so they have to pay a premium price at auction in order to get hold of the stuff.

What’s also apparent in all this is that the market is being driven forward by government subsidy, not by any well-meaning consumer purchasing power. So the way the market is set up (or should that be rigged?), buying green electricity is an entirely pointless gesture.

Three. What finally tipped me into my decision to ditch Good Energy was an article in the Spring edition of Building For a Future by Cath Hassell and David Olivier entitled the Green Electricity Illusion. They point out that there really is only one sort of electricity supplied through the National Grid and, whilst we can slowly change the production mix, it behoves us all to use this resource wisely and carefully. By pretending that we are buying green electrons, it actually encourages us to go out and be profligate with it. They point out that several supposedly green schemes have been built recently which have chosen to use electric space heating and justified the choice by signing the scheme up to a green supplier. They show that the demand for electric space heating is growing year on year. Whilst they can’t prove that the availability of green tariffs is a contributory cause, the implication that they are is clear. We should be concentrating our green efforts on reducing electricity demand: the existence of renewable-only suppliers only muddies the waters and makes this less likely. “Greenwash” they call it. I say “Ouch. Point well made.”

So today, I voted with my direct debit. Went online to UK Power and switched over all within the space of ten minutes.

Now to reduce that 8500 kWhs per annum.

25 Mar 2006

Masterframe sash windows

Sometime in 2002, I was out taking photos for a forthcoming edition of The Housebuilder's Bible when I chanced upon a Bellway estate taking shape in Burwell, Cambs. The picture is on p165 of the current edition, No 6. The estate is done out in very trad styling and most of the elevations use sash windows. What troubled me was that I assumed these sash windows were timber but on closer inspection I reckoned that they might be uPVC. So I took a closer look at one…in truth I wasn’t really sure what they were made of. I was stumped. As someone who makes a living out of knowing about building homes, I felt ever so slightly humiliated and was glad there was no one there to share my discomfort.

I had stumbled across the product of Masterframe, a very unusual window company based in Witham in Essex. The windows were uPVC but the uPVC itself has been through a process called foiling, a rough veneering, which gives the surface the feel and character of painted timber. I am not alone in my confusion. It’s very convincing and it fools a lot of people. Planning officers who are instructed from their first day at planning school that it’s “timber good, uPVC bad” have been known to have to eat humble pie after they couldn’t tell the difference.

On Tuesday this week, I got to visit Masterframe as guest of their owner Alan Burgess (pictured here). He is a very affable and enthusiastic guy who has been working with windows all his life. Something of a reluctant entrepreneur, he only started Masterframe because he had seen a brilliant example of a uPVC sliding sash window which no one wanted to put into production. He became convinced that there was a market for such a product and so began his quest to make the perfect sliding sash window – out of plastic.

Masterframe now produce several hundred sash windows a week. They don’t install; they are mostly selling to installers, including some of the big boys like Anglian. Much of their product goes into the replacement replacement market. That is to say houses where the original boxed sash windows have been pulled out and replaced by aluminium or uPVC casements which are now past their sell-by-date. You can see the architectural devastation brought about by the replacement window market on virtually every street in the UK where the housing stock is more than 30 years old. For many people, the culprit is uPVC, but Alan Burgess never believed that there was anything inherently wrong with the material and has gone on to show that it’s possible to create or maintain authentic British styles whilst using new materials.

If you want to know more, take a closer look at their website. There is a fascinating section entitled Glossary of Terms, broken down into 20 pages, which looks at the detailing that goes into their product, right down to the choice of the brush seal weather stripping and the placing of foam baffles. Every time an issue or a problem arises, they use it to improve the design. The attention to detail reminded me of one or two German businesses that I know of, but the desire to re-engineer a traditional product such as a sash window would seem to me to be something you might expect from the Americans. It makes Masterframe a difficult company to pigeonhole but, in turn, Masterframe make a mockery of the assumption that most of us Brits have, namely that we are hopeless at manufacturing.

17 Mar 2006

Garage Door Openers

One of the less commentated about but nevertheless interesting aspects of living in a house you built yourself is that you can monitor and muse on just how long it takes to start falling apart. We have been living in this house in Cambridgeshire for over 13 years and its long since passed the point where it can be thought of as a new house. The superstructure has lasted pretty well but internally all manner of things have started to fail or drop off and have had to be replaced.

On Monday, the garage door-opening device went kaput. Having operated flawlessly since installation back in 1992, it jammed halfway through an opening manoeuvre and suddenly started making a high-pitched wailing noise. Oh dear. It didn’t sound like the sort of fault that could be cured with WD40 or a tap with a hammer.

I called up Chris Brown of Cambridge Garage Doors. He appeared on Thursday and took one look at it and told me it had done well. “It’s a Stanley Slave Door. American. Very good too, but they have long since given up on the UK market. Too small for them, I’m afraid. They normally last around ten years so you’ve had good value out of it. It’s time you had a German one.” There are, of course, no UK manufacturers. Silly question.

Today I have his quotation to hand for fitting a Hörmann Supramatic E that is quiet and powerful with automatic lighting and a soft stop, cushioning the door during the last closing few inches. Our price to supply and install this new system is £395 plus VAT. This includes a two year warranty.

I have accepted. Back in 1992, the Stanley Slave Door cost £290 fitted, so that’s not too bad a price hoik, especially as I believe the Hörmann is superior in most respects. Gone is Stanley’s noisy old chain mechanism, to be replaced by a silent Kevlar belt. The Hörmann also comes with not one but two remote operators. Wow. Not that we ever use them. We haven’t parked a car in the double garage for ten years. But the boys always loved playing with them and doubtless this love is about to be rekindled.

Should the Hörmann Supramatic last as long as the Stanley Slave Door, it will be costing around £1 a week in depreciation. That’s a lot to open and close a garage door automatically. On the other hand, they are heavy beasts, these up-and-over double doors, so it’s hard to see just why you would want to do it manually.

14 Mar 2006

Utility Supplies for New Homes

Britain has been unusual in Europe in liberalising its utility supplies. Whether this opening up of the market has been a success is hard to say because, whilst we have a choice of 30 or so utility suppliers, the actual prices we pay for electricity and gas seem to be currently rather higher than we would be paying if we lived in France or Germany.

And whereas once we could be pretty sure of the name of the local electricity company, now we basically haven’t got a clue. Nowhere is this confusion more pronounced than in the area of new home supplies. This has always been a bureaucratic nightmare but at least in the past you knew which bureaucracy you had to deal with. Gas was always British Gas, telecoms was always British Telecom, electricity was your local electricity company, which was typically named after the region you lived in.

No more. Take gas. In 1997, British Gas was split in two bits, BG and Centrica. Centrica was the bit that looked after domestic customers and it retains the use of the trade name British Gas. BG plc looked after the North Sea gas fields and the pipelines running around the country.

Then, just three year later, BG plc, the infrastructure business, subdivided once more. BG retained the gas fields, whilst the pipelines bit became a new company called Lattice. I can only imagine that this name was thought up by a committee of name creators after one too many café lattés and patisseries. Because the name was silly, the business traded as Transco, which sounded much more businesslike, even if it meant very little. But hardly had Lattice/Transco been created, when it merged with the National Grid, the business that runs the electricity infrastructure around the UK.

You can sort of see the logic here. Managers, complete with MBAs from prestigious business schools, sitting around boardrooms, thinking out of the box, no doubt, and thus making the amazing link between gas pipelines and high voltage electricity cables. “Let’s put them altogether into one company! Yes!” Shortly after the merger, in October 2005, the trading name Transco was dropped from the gas supply business and it all became known as National Grid.

What this now effectively means is that if you want a new gas supply, you have to apply to National Grid, which everyone thinks of as an electricity company. That instinctively feels wrong. It could be great if you could take advantage of this corporate rebranding and use one company to connect you to both mains gas and electricity. But that would be much too easy, wouldn’t it. National Grid plc doesn’t handle electricity connections to itself. These are still carried out by the local electricity companies.

So I hope this guide is useful. In summary, for gas supplies, you need National Grid, (covers most but not all of the country) whilst for electricity supplies you need the business that used to be your electricity board but will now be known as something completely different, which means you will have trouble finding them.

Not that Google will help you out here. Try typing ‘new home energy or utility supplies’ into the search field and you get lots of links to companies wanting to sell you the stuff once you have it plumbed in, but absolutely nothing about who you need to contact to get a quote to lay a supply.

One ray of light I have managed to uncover in all this is the utility supplier nPower. They claim to have a one-stop shop for new residential supplies which will negotiate and gather quotes from both gas and electricity suppliers. They work closely with a business called Siteworks which undertakes much of the actual connection work. You can search the nPower website for any sign of this service and not find anything at all but I spoke to a helpful guy on 08457 906050 who said “Just give us a bell, we’ll sort it all out.” It’s tempting to believe him but I haven’t had any feedback as to whether the nPower service actually delivers.

11 Mar 2006

Why do we have to dig such deep foundations?

If you ever get involved in working around the foundations of some pre-20th century buildings, as you might if you were building an extension on to a Victorian house, you will be amazed at how shallow and how basic the existing foundations appear to be compared with what we have to build off now. ‘How come this house is still standing?’ will be your first thought. Followed by ‘If these foundations have supported this house for so long, what am I doing messing around a metre further down below ground?’ Both good questions. Neither has a simple answer.

The history of foundations is vaguely interesting and a little instructive. The current idea of building up off slabs of concrete at depths of a metre or more below ground level is relatively new, very much a 20th century innovation. The Victorians used to step the walls out at the base, pyramid style, over a depth of just three or four brick courses, that way spreading the load of the house across a wider area. These below-ground courses were known as footings and the footings were effectively the foundations. Today we still refer to footings but we put concrete foundations under them. 21st century footings are simply the brick or blockwork sandwiched between the concrete foundations and the damp proof course which is usually installed at 150mm above ground level.

When concrete foundations were first adopted widely, in the 1920s, they were sold to builders as being a cheaper and quicker method of building-in adequate load bearing. In fact, the load imposed by a typical house (which maybe weighs around 100 tonnes in total) really isn’t that great – it’s similar (on a weight per area basis) to that imposed on the ground by your feet when you stand up. The problems arise from the fact that the ground has a nasty habit of shifting about which itself has a nasty habit of causing all manner of disruption to the very rigid structures placed on it. Building foundations out of concrete may sound very hard and solid but when the ground starts moving then they look as feeble and spindly as you could want.

The Building Research Establishment investigated the phenomenon of ground movement in the 1990s and found a site which regularly heaved up and down by 50mm over the course of a year, not to mention a 60mm sideways movement as well. Mostly it’s sites with large trees and clay soils but it’s also rather unpredictable so consequently the momentum is towards deeper and deeper foundations, which means more and more concrete. This usually works but we still have a large number (approx 1,000 a year) new houses that subsequently suffer from foundation failure.

The best advice is to follow the advice you are given as closely as you can – don’t cut corners. Readymix concrete and excavations are moderately expensive but nothing like as expensive as having to fix later failures.

As foundation requirements have grown deeper over the years, there have evolved two options about how to construct them – at least, on largely problem-free sites. One is to pour the minimum amount of concrete possible into the foundation trenches and then build upwards in brick or blockwork – this is known as strip foundations. The other system reverses this logic altogether and pours as much concrete as possible into the trench before starting on the bricklaying – this is usually called trenchfill. Both methods have pros and cons.

The traditional method, laying footings below ground level, is cheap on materials but heavy on labour; it is also slower. In contrast, trenchfill is much quicker but, of course, uses more concrete. When pouring concrete into clay soils, you will probably have to use the trenchfill method.

An important consideration when designing foundations is to set the level of the concrete so that it ‘works blocks.’ Blocks are laid either flat in courses of 110mm or in the vertical in courses of 225mm (ish). If you have surveyed the site accurately, you will know exactly where the damp proof course will be so you can ensure that you stop the concrete at 225, 450 or 675mm below that point. That ensures that you keep the fiddling about and cutting to a minimum. – provided, of course, that you pour your foundations level!

9 Mar 2006

Loft conversions in fink trussed roofs

The loft conversion is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. They started to appear in the 1970s and have spread across the UK from the expensive areas towards the cheaper ones. You see them most often where land prices are highest, which is where people are looking to make their footprints sweat a bit. In an era of low rates of house replacement rates and with 3% stamp duty cutting in on house sales above £250,000, it’s a wonder there aren’t more loft conversions being carried out.

One of the factors stopping lofts being converted is the prevalence of fink roof trusses. This little innovation was widely taken up in the 1960s by British housebuilders because it was cheaper and quicker than building roofs on site in the time-honoured method. A fink truss roof is not easily converted because the integrity of the roof depends on the truss loadings being left in tact and the loadings typically run from wallplate to wallplate across the house. I would guess that around 98% of individual house roofs built between 1970 and 2000 used fink trusses so there must be four or five million homes in the UK (out of a total of 25 million) which have these roofs. They are not impossible to convert into living space but they do present difficulties that are enough to put off the average builder.

The demand for loft conversions has led to one of two innovative businesses setting up which specialise in turning fink roof truss roofs into habitable rooms. One such is Ripon-based Truss Loft which undertakes around 150 conversions a year across the whole country. They thread steel through the loft from gable to gable and build up a floor and roof support off these steels.

At the HomeBuilding & Renovating show at the NEC show last weekend, there was another business looking to crack this lucrative market. Telebeam was started by Digby Rowsell (pictured), a house designer from Wiltshire, who had oft pondered the madness of building all these fink trussed roofs. He hit on the idea of using a telescopic aluminium beam, which could be thread through the roofspace from side to side, thus creating a new floor strong, enough both to support activity in the loftspace and the weight of the roof above it. Rowsell has worked through the prototype stages and had the beams passed by LABC, the Local Authority Building Control body that should mean that it is acceptable to all local authorities.

The cost is around £300 a beam: each truss requires a beam either side, so effectively this means £600 per truss. Trusses conventionally sit 600mm apart, so an 8m long roof would have 13 trusses and the cost of supplying 26 Telebeams would be just under £8,000 (+VAT). That sounds like a lot for a loft conversion but bear in mind that most loft floors require strengthening in any event and that this cost is in for nothing with Telebeam. It’s also not far removed from the extra cost charged by companies like TrussLoft for their services: there is simply no cheap way of converting fink-trussed roofs.

6 Mar 2006

A webpage for every house?

The concept of a logbook for houses isn’t new. “It happens with cars. Why not houses?” goes the well-worn mantra. But no one has ever managed to get the idea off the ground. Stuart Young (pictured here) is going to have a go, with a new web-based business called Property Log Book . Has he got a cat in hell’s chance? Charging £30 a year to keep your documents on his server?

Well yes, he might just be onto a winner. Thanks to changes in the rules about how we buy and sell houses and how work on them is to be certified, it looks as though his timing is spot on.

So what are the changes which are prompting the need for logbooks at last? Firstly, the buildings regs are slowly moving towards a system whereby work can be deemed to satisfy if it has been carried out by competent people, rather than having to be passed by independent building inspectors, which has been the routine since Victorian times. At the moment, electrical work, window replacement, boiler fitting and work on unvented hot water cylinders can, and usually is, said to meet building regs if the tradesman carrying out the work is appropriately qualified. Self-certification is the phrase being used and self-certification is a trend that looks like it is here to stay. We can probably expect to see general builders offering self-certification for entire jobs sometime in the next few years, especially if that certification is covered by an insurance-backed guarantee. If this comes to pass, the role of the traditional building inspector will be greatly reduced. Already, building inspectors are complaining that the nature of their workload is changing and that much of their time is now spent digging out building reg approvals to facilitate house sales.

Which brings us onto the other major change afoot. The imminent introduction of the sellers’ packs, or Home Information Packs. An awful lot of the information required to sell a house is this run of the mill search through the archives to see if the house has actually got planning permission for that extension or if the loft conversion did actually get building regs approval. Why should the local council have to file away all this information? And why should the local council have to retrieve it when the principle beneficiary is the homeowner who, arguably, should have kept it all along. It is likely that the Home Information Packs may cost several hundred pounds to put together; if the house had a complete logbook, most of the queries raised for the homeowners pack would be sorted with just the click of a mouse.

Or that is the hope of Property Log Book, who are selling server space for around £30 a year. They reckon that if you stay in a house less than ten years (and most people move every seven years), this annual investment will pay for itself by reducing the fees for putting together Home Information Packs.

So how would it all work? Say you had some windows replaced. At the moment, you are can have the work passed by the local building inspector or get it done by a FENSA-registered installer. If it’s a FENSA firm, then they are required to issue a notification to building control to say that the work carried out met the current building regs standards. They should also give you a similar notification. What you would then do is send the ticket off to Property Log Book who would enter it into your database for easy retrieval. Every house registered with them would have its own web page which can be password accessed by the homeowner. When the time comes to sell the house, the information can be presented instantly to the purchasers or their solicitors.

It’s a particularly good idea for the new homes market. The logbook webpage is capable of holding all the plans and specifications for the new house, together with warranty details, and instructions for running all the systems in the house. Anyone wanting to work on the house can have instant access to this information. It also forms a useful record of tradesmen who have worked on the house, possibly with comments from the homeowner: this sort of information would be invaluable to a new purchaser.

No doubt there will be squeals from the grumps that it’s yet another example of Big Brother’s tentacles round your testicles, but I reckon it’s an idea whose time has come. Only one thing for it. I am going to sign up and test the service.