28 Jun 2006

Can a building plot be listed? Yes...

Picture this village streetscape. One side of the road is 1950s council housing stock, now mostly in private ownership but still a little downmarket. On the opposite side, an eclectic mix of privately developed housing styles, one or two thatched cottages interspersed with brick bungalows dating from the 1920s housing boom. It’s pretty typical of the mish-mash of building styles you see in villages across southern England.

In this very street, a building plot is formed by subdividing a garden on the private side of the road. If you were a planner, what restrictions would you think should be placed on the design of this soon-to-be-built house? In this context, it’s hard to make out coherent arguments for restrictions at all, other than the usual ones protecting the privacy of the neighbours.

But when were planners ever coherent? I write about this conundrum because last week I was looking at just such a building plot in a village nearby and the planners had peppered it with so many dos and don’ts that I walked away. In fact, it brought on a right grumpfest, which I can only dissipate by sharing it with you.

You see, as far as the planners were concerned, this was no ordinary building plot because the garden from which it was formed belonged to the nicest thatched cottage on the street and, at some point in the past 30 or 40 years, this cottage had been listed. Now if you list a house, you also list its outbuildings and its garden — what the planners refer to as the curtilage. And even if you separate a building plot off from the rest of the garden with a head-high brick wall and give it an entirely separate access, the building plot remains within the curtilage and you have, in effect, to build a new listed building.

So what should such a new house look like? A very good question and one that draws us right to the heart of the absurdities of contemporary planning. A new thatched cottage perhaps? No, that would be pastiche. A brick bungalow with a few tasteful adornments? Certainly not. Perhaps a variation on the 50s council housing stock, which itself was loosely based on the house types that Raymond Unwin developed in Letchworth, many of which are now listed. I don’t think so. No, what the planners would seem to want here is something a little bit cutting-edge contemporary, something that Kevin McLoud would feel happy to wander through on the next-but-one series of Grand Designs.

The applicants picked up on this and hired some architects to draw up something suitable. The plot is being offered with detailed planning permission for a very “contemporary” house. There is a curved metal roof over the main part of the house, some large glazed panels, some turf roofing and lots of oak cladding. Whether it actually works as a home is open to doubt – it only has three bedrooms for a start which is pretty light for a 240m2 house — but the planners obviously liked it because it has been approved and the plot is being marketed as if this was the house that had to be built on it. But they didn’t like it enough just to leave it at that. No, the planning permission comes with a long list of conditions, all stemming from the fact that this is a curtilage plot.

Take the oak cladding. Why oak rather than any other timber, I have no idea, but the architects specified oak on the drawings. The planners responded by saying “Fine but we want to see just how it will look in practice.” So the cladding will have to be presented to them beforehand so they can judge its suitability. The brickwork also has to pass muster, not just the choice of brick but the bonding patterns and the coping details as well. Details of the gutters and downpipes have to be agreed: “no ghastly plastic here please.” It goes on and on. Materials used for the hard landscaping surfaces also have to be examined and agreed upon beforehand.

Can you believe that? They actually have the right to tell you what style of paving you can use? What difference can that possibly make to the thatched cottage next door, soon to be hidden behind a six-foot wall?

The planting is also subject to a whole raft of controls, some of them contradictory. For instance, the planners wish to maintain the hedge that currently separates the plot from the road, whilst highways are insisting on 2-metre visibility splays either side of the entrance. As the plot frontage is just 15 metres, it’s hard to see more than about 6 metres of hedge left standing after the opening is completed.

Condition 11 states: “No development shall take place until there has been submitted to and approved in writing by the Local Planning Authority a scheme of hard and soft landscaping, which shall include indications of all existing trees and hedgerows on the land, and details of any to be retained, together with measures for their protection in the course of development and specification of all proposed trees, hedges and shrub planting, which shall include details of species, density and size of stock.” I know this reads like gobble-de-gook – you read it three times and still can’t understand what it means – but what they are driving at is that they control what you can and can’t plant in the garden.

The subsequent Condition 12 seeks to place a time limit on all of this activity. Everything has to be done within the first planting season following occupation, though quite what recourse they would have if you didn’t do it on time I don’t know.

The reason for these conditions is stated: “To enhance the quality of the development and to assimilate it within the area.” Now this is where it gets really bizarre. It’s this word assimilate that gets me. Assimilate to what exactly? Because the one thing a modern-style house will do in this street is stick out. In fact, the planners want it to stick out, they would like it to win an award and to bask in the reflective glory.

What the planners really want is something built in good taste, but they can’t possibly say that because they would be laughed out of court on grounds of snobbery and elitism. So, in the New Labour world of spin that we now all inhabit, they simply change the meaning of an existing word so that it fits their agenda.

I showed the conditions to my wife, the gardener. “I’m not having them tell me what I can and can’t plant.” That was her gut reaction. Mine too.

16 Jun 2006

On Home Energy Ratings

On June 14th, our dear poppet of a Housing and Planning Minister, Yvette Cooper, announced that the forthcoming Home Information Pack (HIPs) will have to include an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), which will rank the energy use of all houses for sale from A (good) to G (awful), just like you see washing machines ranked in Comet. It is, as you might just suspect, yet another European Directive being put into effect here. By 2009, all homes for sale in the EU will have to have energy certificates, but Yvette is keen to make us in England & Wales early adopters.

Like many Labour policies, it sounds like a good idea in principle, but you can’t help wondering if it will turn out to be so in practice. Undertaking a detailed energy-use calculation is a complex and time consuming process, and whilst it sort of makes sense when building a new house (though many would argue against this assertion), it is a pretty pointless exercise with an existing dwelling. Why so?

For a start, you have to know how the house is built. How is the home inspector going to know what the construction actually consists of? Are the cavities insulated? There may be visual clues, there may not. Sometimes the homeowner has no idea, or they may be simply lie about it. There is no sensible check that can be carried out without ripping the fabric apart, which I suspect is not really what a home report is designed to do. What is the efficiency of the boiler? Will the home inspector even know what boiler it is, let alone its efficiency? You can really only make the vaguest stab of a guess at the U values of the fabric and the efficiency of the heating systems in existing buildings, so the results of these home energy reports are likely to be quite inaccurate.

An alternative approach might be to have a look at recent fuel bills. Sounds like a much simpler way of assessing the energy requirements of a building. Unfortunately, this is one area where energy ratings come unstuck, because there are huge variations in outcomes, depending on how each house gets “driven.” Just as the fuel consumption figures on new cars don’t equate with the mileage you actually get, so the energy ratings don’t have much bearing on the actual fuel bills. You might, for instance, be a family of seven and use ten times more hot water than a single person in an identical house. Or you might have all your thermostats set to 26°C and keep the heating on all summer and the windows open all winter, as opposed to other homes that are only used sporadically. So previous fuel bills are not a good guide to future ones.

So it’s back to energy ratings, calculated painstakingly from the all the different surface areas and various other details. But even when they are done accurately, the information they deliver is not always relevant. For instance, a large house is going to use more energy than a small one, even though they may be have been designed for a same number of beds. Energy ratings are worked out on a square metre basis, not per bed, so the large house could well have a better energy rating than the small one, yet use significantly more energy both overall and for each occupant. That’s a conundrum that can’t adequately be addressed by energy ratings. They are a crude tool, at best.

So what we are likely to end up with is a certificate that doesn’t tell you a great deal that isn’t bleedin’ obvious. Old houses will be penalised with bad ratings because they were built with little or no insulation and no double-glazing. 21st century homes will probably score B or C. If the boiler is new or has been replaced in the past two or three years, the rating will go up one band. And the A band will be left for state of the art houses built someway ahead of the building regs requirements. You can pretty much tell this without having to go to the trouble of employing someone to work it out for you.

So maybe these certificates will be worth obtaining for their educational value? Maybe people need to be made more aware of the likely energy costs associated with a house purchase. Well, yes, this is a point that Yvette is keen to emphasize. Let’s make everyone aware of their carbon footprint — that’s the way to bring about changes. Hmm…possibly. But a point the minister was much less keen to emphasize was the cost of this “educational exercise”, which will be borne by the house seller as part of the Home Information Pack (HIPs), due to come into effect in 2007. The government’s own estimate of the costs of these HIPs is around £600-£700 plus VAT per house: that’s payable just to put your home on the market. There are aspects of the HIPs scheme that I think are going to be good: specifically, getting together a log book of building work and planning permissions, which should speed up the sales process. But I can see that obtaining an Energy Performance Certificate from a trained assessor will not be popular. It will, at a guess, make up 30% to 50% of the cost of the HIP and it will tell the new homebuyers almost nothing that they couldn’t work out for themselves. It’ll be educational for sure, but I suspect the people getting the education will be the ones currently working for Yvette Cooper.

14 Jun 2006

Is ElectroSmog poisoning us all?

I have been writing about health hazards in the home ever since I have been writing about housebuilding. Which is a long way of saying 12 years. But I have, to date, avoided getting worried about ElectroSmog. The best-known example of this is the controversy about the high voltage power lines, proximity to which is said to be a cause childhood leukaemia. Extensive studies have been made of this phenomenon and they are, to date, inconclusive.

We live about five miles from the Pelham to Walpole overhead power line. It’s a 400kV monster of a line, the largest size the National Grid operate, and I regularly walk the dogs along various paths running right under it. The way I figure it, if the electro magnetic field (EMF) running beneath these power lines is that strong, you would see the effects on the plant life growing under it. But you don’t. The rape fields, for that is what is mostly grown around here now, are the same colour and height all the way across and the hedgerows don’t seem to suffer any adverse effects at all.

In my rather lazy way of thinking about it, that seems to be conclusive. I have therefore pigeon-holed ElectroSmog as “Yet another groundless health scare” or “yet one more thing to get worried about, don’t we have enough of these already.”

But in Monday’s Daily Mail (12/6/06), an article appeared entitled Choked by the ElectroSmog which took a look at the myriad of low level radiation sources that we all get exposed to in the home. Not just the obvious ones like mobile and cordless phones, but also microwaves, induction hobs, plasma screen TVs and electric blankets. The article is by Alasdair Philips who runs an organisation called Powerwatch, which monitors and lobbies about these issues. He is also a director or a company called Sensory Perspective which makes EMF detection equipment. Oh, and he is co-author of The Powerwatch Handbook. He is an expert, for sure, but arguably not an independent voice, as he has vested interests in promoting EMF as a health scare. So is he a visionary or a charlatan?

If I understand him correctly, he is pointing the finger at two different effects. The first are electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by electrical appliances and cables and fluorescent lights and dimmer switches. These are localised versions of what happens under the high voltage power lines. The second effect is microwave radiation emitted by microwave ovens, mobile and cordless phones and any wireless technology such as Bluetooth or Airport. Philips bundles them all together and calls them ElectroSmog. He also ranks them in order of danger from 0 – 5:

• Mobile phones: 5
• Ordinary plug in the wall phones: 0
• Analogue cordless phones: 2
• Digital cordless phones (DECT): 5
• Gas hobs: 0
• Ceramic hobs: 1
• Induction hobs: 5
• Ordinary ovens: 0
• Microwave ovens: 5
• Ordinary tungsten lamps: 0
• Halogen lamps: 3
• Fluorescent lamps: 3
• Ordinary switches: 0
• Dimmer switches: 5
• Computers: 1
• Computers with wireless broadband: 5
• Deep fat fryers: 5
• Plasma TV screens: 4
• Electric underblankets: 1
• Electric overblankets: 4

Our household has an abundance of high scoring appliances. Should I be worried? I’m not losing any sleep just yet. It’s all very well quantifying the danger on a scale from 0 to 5, but this is a classic case of a denominator without an enumerator. Is a score of 5 actually dangerous? What is the actual, rather than the relative, risk? What is the cigarettes-smoked equivalent? This is where Philips, for all his undoubted expertise, is at his weakest because there really is no way of quantifying this risk. Yes, these are all new or newish phenomena that we are being exposed to and it would be foolish to dismiss any anxiety we may have about the long-term risks of such exposure, but the reality is that there are scores of other new products, drugs and experiences that are as potentially damaging as EMF and microwave radiation. Here’s another list for you:

• Air travel
• Antibiotics
• Food preservatives
• Central heating
• Oral contraceptives
• Deodorants
• Plastics
• Benzene
• Diesel particulates
• Paracetemol
• Vaccinations
• Solvents
• Air conditioning
• Oilseed rape pollens

Theses have all appeared in the past two or three generations and most of us are exposed to a great number of them a great deal of the time. We know that none of them strike us down instantly but then neither does lead poisoning or exposure to asbestos or smoking cigarettes. The question is are they insidious killers like these, long term bad news. In short, are they safe?

And what about combination effects? What about the dangers of using a mobile phone next to a rape field in May whilst wearing deodorant and being on the pill, swigging mineral water from a plastic bottle?

On the one hand we are living longer and healthier lives. On the other hand we are suffering from a surfeit of new and unpleasant conditions. Here’s another list.

• Anorexia
• Depression
• Anxiety
• Hay fever
• Eczema
• Asthma
• Allergies
• Migraines
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome

These conditions are all at record levels and seem to be increasing inexorably. Why? People think there must be some environmental connection, but you can’t begin to isolate the causes because there are so many and they may well, in any case, be interdependent.

So as far as I am concerned, ElectroSmog is just another in the long list environmental factors to be aware of but not afraid of. I sort of think it comes with the territory of 21st century living. But, of course, only time will tell. It may well kill me. After all I spend far too long sitting exactly 500mm from a computer screen, which I feel sure is far too near. Above me is a fluorescent light, to my right a DECT phone, to my left a mobile. I’ve had enough of this. I think I’ll go and cook some lunch up on our induction hob.

9 Jun 2006

Tax Position of Garden Building Plots

If you are in the fortunate position of owning a house with a large garden, you may well be sitting on a considerable tax-free asset, for garden sub-divisions are one of the main routes for new building plots to come to market.

The tax exemptions which apply to your Principal Private Residence (i.e. your main home) extend to the garden, provided the site as a whole is less than half a hectare, which is 5,000 sq metres, or just over an acre. This means that if you sell off part of your garden to a developer, you won’t have any tax levied on the windfall gain. Whether this is a sensible provision on the part of the Treasury is pretty questionable, but that’s the way it’s always been in the UK. It’s only in the past few years that people have started selling off the back garden for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But there are one or two things that you need to be aware of, because it’s not quite as straightforward as it might be. HM Revenue & Customs have recently published some guidance on these issues because one or two court cases have set precedents about what should and what shouldn’t be taxed.

1. It is important that the garden land is just that. It mustn’t be being used for commercial or agricultural purposes at the time of sale.

2. There can be buildings on the land but they too should not be being used commercially

3. The plot should be sold unfenced and whilst it is still garden. If the building work has started before the land exchanges hands, then it may be regarded as developing and get taxed accordingly.

4. Joint ventures agreements with the developer will be frowned upon. You can’t, therefore, agree to split the profits when the finished house is sold.

5. Sometimes an area larger than half a hectare will be regarded as being part of your Principal Private Residence if, for instance, you have a very large garden and are only selling off a small part of it. However, you have to argue this point with the district valuer before the transaction takes place.

7 Jun 2006

Living with downlighters, just

I am really developing a dislike of downlighters. We put a shedload of them into our kitchen during a refit in 2002: 14 to be precise, to accompany 4 that were already there. Today, I replaced 7 of these GU10 halogen bulbs, which had all blown. And this was the second time I had made a replacement bulb sweep. I think I have now replaced 16 bulbs in four years. They are said to last 4,000 hours each. Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t, but it seems to me that the average lifespan of these bulbs is much less than that.

And the physical act of replacing the GU10 bulbs is also really deeply unsatisfying. It’s a bit like something you might read up on in the bad sex guide. If you’ve ever used the Dutch cap as your preferred method of contraception, you’ll feel right at home changing over GU10 bulbs, because the simple mechanics of male-to-female insertion somehow becomes both time-consuming and difficult to understand. Sexy it isn’t.

First you have to unhitch a C-shape wire with a couple of protruding bits, which hold the bulbs in place within the bezel, which is what they call the silver bit you see surrounding the bulbs; sometimes the wire just pops out, often it’s quite resistant. You can easily end up wrestling with the blighter for ages until it suddenly comes loose and falls to the floor. Then the bulb hangs down limply from the hole in the ceiling from two low-voltage cables. Next you have to yank the bulb away from these wires. No pleasing clicks or turns here, just tug and hope. The replacement bulbs, which cost around £2.50 each, have two tiny little pins which have to be inserted into two holes in a circular plate, which sometimes comes adrift. If the circular plate has gone, you just have to guess where these two pins go. You push, you wangle, you push a bit more, it isn’t really in place correctly but you think it will do. There is certainly no satisfying click to tell you you are home. You just have to assume that it’s in. Then push the bulb back into the ceiling and then replace the horrible C-shaped wire clip in the bezel.

If you’ve got it right, the light comes on when you hit the switch. If not, then you’ll probably be landed with an unwanted pregnancy.

5 Jun 2006

On the Party Wall Act

What is the purpose of the Party Wall Act? First of all let me explain what the Party Wall Act is. It sets out to ensure that if you do work on your house, you don’t cause any consequential damage to your neighbours. It had existed since the year dot in London but the old Tory government, in all its wisdom, chose to extend its powers across the whole of England & Wales in 1996. Prior to that, if you caused damage to your neighbour’s property, they could sue you for compensation. You can still do this of course so arguably the Party Wall Act doesn’t make a huge difference to the way things stand between neighbours.

But it does make quite a difference to how you have to go about organising building work. It’s a red tape exercise par excellence, and it also causes frictions and fears where previously none existed.

By way of example, one of my old muckers, Phil, has just started on the rebuilding of a terraced house in central Cambridge. He is building a new wall, hard against the boundary. As it’s within 3 metres of the neighbours rear addition, the Party Wall Act had to be invoked. Back in the old days, a friendly chat with the neighbour would have sufficed. If undertaken with charm and tact, the neighbour would be willing to put up with the inconvenience of having scaffolding erected on their side of the boundary in exchange perhaps for some minor favour like repairing guttering or slipped slates. It came with the territory of owning a terraced house.

But now the first the neighbour gets to hear about it is when an official letter from a Party Wall Surveyor plops onto their doormat. The whole exchange starts off on a bad note: defensiveness and hostility are the watchwords. This particular neighbour was a single lady who immediately felt that she was about to be taken for a ride by unscrupulous builders and she called for the appointment of her own Party Wall Surveyor, which under the Act she is fully entitled to do, at the expense of the applicant. Letters get exchanged, surveyors make reports, the whole scene gets quasi-legal. Which means both expensive and time consuming. It ended up with her demanding that no builder should set foot on her side of the boundary and that any scaffolding needed to be erected to build the wall mustn’t touch any of her property. Neither measure will protect her property, which was the original purpose of the Act; instead it will just make the whole process much slower and more expensive to complete, as the wall will have to be built overhand from inside.

“The funny thing is,” said Phil, “you’d think from this exchange that she would be a real dragon but I have since spoken to her and she’s actually very nice. I just think she got freaked out by all the formal aspects of the Party Wall Act and over-reacted. It’s such a stupid, useless piece of legislation. No good comes of it and it’s yet another example of the simple act of building being made ridiculously complicated and confrontational.”

4 Jun 2006

On green roofs

I struggle to see much 'green' about green roofs. What you are doing is going to great expense to make a roof look like a meadow. Which it's not - it's a roof. You have to beef up the rafters because of the extra weight. You have to tank the roof with a hi-tech (and not very green) waterproof layer laid over sheathing ply - so you basically have something like a felt roof at this point - and then you have to go to great lengths adding edging materials to ensure that your organic matter doesn't slide off and become a large mound of slurry. Oh, and it all costs a fortune.

What is the point?