28 Feb 2008

Howarth Triple-Glazed Windows

I did eventually get to Ecobuild, Wednesday afternoon, and having arrived with very low expectations after last years’ event, I must admit to really enjoying my visit. Go in the afternoon – it’s a lot quieter – that’s my tip.

I went to see a debate about decarbonising the existing stock with John Gummer and Michael Meacher, which was mildy interesting. I had good talks with a number of people, only some of whom I already knew.

But perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was right at the end when I stumbled across the Howarth Windows stand and fell into conversation with Keith Topliss. I noticed that Howarth had a triple glazed timber window on display which I hadn’t seen before from a UK manufacturer and asked how much they were charging for it. It’s not out yet, about to be launched in April and pricing hasn’t been set yet.

I then asked him about the Supply Air window which I knew there were making but saw no evidence of on the stand. That apparently is still undergoing testing in the UK, but is going very well in Ireland. Again, Howarth hope to launch the Supply Air window later this year in Britain.

Keith then proceeded to tell me about how the window market had completely changed since the NHBC brought factory-glazing into their warranty cover in 1998. Bit by bit, the old practice of site glazing has died away, especially in the new build sector, and with it the problems that once befell double-glazed sealed units, namely misting up and condensation. Keith said: ”90% of the problems we have with glazing units stem from the 10% of our market that still uses on-site glaziers. Misting up on factory glazing is now so rare that it’s virtually a thing of the past.”

He told me some horror stories of just how badly site glazing can be done. The glass units need to have plastic packers set correctly around them, a practice known as toeing and heeling, and whilst this is routinely done in factories, many glaziers simply don’t know about it and this eventually leads to the units moving in the frames and causing the seals to break down.

Howarth only make timber windows, they have never got involved in PVC. But their range is now expanding to take on the likes of Rationel and Protec by providing timber windows with an aluminium capping and with it a 25-year guarantee. They look set to raise the bar for UK volume joinery manufacturers.

25 Feb 2008

Why does Ecobuild have 467 speakers?

It’s the last week in February and Ecobuild is upon us once again. It runs for three days, starting tomorrow, at Earl’s Court in London. I feel I must attend because it’s right there in the middle of what I live and write about, but I went last year and came away feeling very depressed. Mostly because it was just so big and so consumerist, which all these shows tend to be, but which is ironic for a show called Ecobuild.

So this morning I started to try and work out which day would be best to go on. And to see if there was anything or anybody I really wanted to see. What stands out is that there is an amazing amount going on. So amazing that it’s actually overwhelming. The speaker list has no less than 467 names on it – given that the show runs for three days, that’s about 3 minutes each. They get around this by having ten or twelve theatres where speakers can strut their stuff. But that just adds to the overall confusion. How do you decide where to go or who to listen to? And how would you know afterwards if you’d seen or heard the ones you wanted to? Or merely just been witness to a random cross section of people babbling?

It’s a bit like the choices you get from Sky TV. About 200 channels and none of them are worth watching. Somehow this seems like part of the problem, not part of the solution. I can see that the organisers of Ecobuild are probably delighted to get so many speakers to turn out for them, but as a potential visitor I actually find it just too much to handle.

So I may go Tuesday, or Wednesday, probably not Thursday and very possibly not at all.

Memo to Caroline Flint: Read the Code for Sustainable Homes

Intrigued by this story, which the BBC got hold of this morning. We are all now well used to hearing complaints that one government department has no idea what another is doing and that contradictory policy statements are consequently two a penny. But here we have an example of the same department being at cross purposes with itself. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the name Caroline Flint pops up again.

The subject at issue is the adoption of the Lifetime Homes standard. Flint is announcing that she wants the standard to become compulsory in all new homes. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this move, what she probably doesn’t realise is that buried within the Code for Sustainable Homes are loads of points for adopting the very same standard and that, in order to score the requisite 90% needed for Code Level 6, housebuilders are going to have to build in Lifetime Homes standards in any event. And by 2016, so we are told, Code Level 6 will be mandatory for all new homes.

21 Feb 2008

GD Fever

What are these people watching? It’s a Wednesday night in a pub in Cambridge, above me is a large plasma screen and there is European football on ITV and Sky, but no, they are not watching the footie. The Brit Awards are also on featuring Sharon Osbourne swearing at Vic Reeves, but they aren’t watching that either.

They are all gathered here to watch Grand Designs. Could this be the start of a new trend? The subject of the programme was an extraordinary house being built on a steep hillside in Bath and this particular group was brought together by Baufritz who supplied the above ground parts of the structure in the programme. Being a super efficient German housebuilding operation, they were pretty confident that Kevin McCloud was going to be complimentary and they invited a group of friends, prospective clients and staff along for beer and nibbles.

So were they over the moon? Or sick as a parrot? “Too much of the programme was spent on the groundworks” was a frequently heard observation, along with “Tiffany was magnificent” and “I never knew a staircase could be a thing of such beauty.” And no doubt about this result: England 0 Germany 2.

15 Feb 2008

What happened to all that pent-up housing demand?

The government’s stated aim is to build 3 million new homes in Britain by 2020. That’s 12 years away, so that’s 250,000 per year. Currently the total of new house completions is about 180,000 a year. Therefore the government wants to up this by 70,000 houses a year, that’s a 40% increase. Why?

The stated reason is that houses have become unaffordable. By applying the nostrums of classical economics, the government sees that the solution to this problem is to increase the supply of houses. Now previously on this blog I have examined some of the flaws in this argument, so I won’t repeat them here.

The point that struck me today is that the economic environment looks to be solving the unaffordability problem for us without so much as a brick being laid. House prices have stopped rising. In fact, they are currently adjusting themselves downwards in all parts of the UK except Scotland (they never seem to fall in Scotland). And earlier this week, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, said “There are no reasons to see house prices above current levels in the next few years.” Indeed he predicts that the price:earnings ratio of UK housing will fall by 20% over the coming five years. This suggests that either house prices will fall quite quickly by around 20% or that they will stagnate for several years until earnings catch up and make them, once more, an interesting investment.

So that mans that in 2013, houses will be around 20% cheaper, relative to earnings, than they are today. Does that not address the problem of affordability? And address it far more effectively than tinkering with the rate of new housebuilding?

Given that the economic landscape seems to have changed, and to have changed significantly — i.e. this is no blip — isn’t it time for the government to re-assess its housebuilding programme? In fact, the big housebuilders are already doing this for them. Far from increasing the number of homes they are building, they are all currently cutting back on production.

But the government is blind to all this. In the next couple of weeks, we are being told to expect Caroline Flint, the new housing minister, to be making a statement about where the ten eco towns are to be located, and she will also probably confirm her commitment to the three million new homes target. At the moment, that’s about as likely an outcome as a British-crewed Mars landing by the end of next year.

8 Feb 2008

How Tesco hoovers up inflation

Which? has just published a report on vacuum cleaners. Interesting to see that they don’t rate uprights or bagless. In fact their best four buys are all made by Miele, including a nifty one called the Cat and Dog TT5000 which is specifically designed for pet hairs. They don’t much like Dysons and they dismiss that old builder’s favourite, the Henry.

But what’s just as interesting is the prices these cleaners come in at. Most of them cost between £150 and £200. Anything badged Dyson sells for more than £200 and often more than £300. Of the 83 they test, there are a dozen or so that sell for under £100.

What they don’t test is the one I saw (and bought) in Tesco the other day (pictured here). The Tesco VC406 costs just £30. In the interests of research (honest) I have just had a go with it. Not the smoothest suck you will ever come across but, at £30, who’s counting. How do they do that?

6 Feb 2008

Has Caroline Flint been watching Shameless?

She hasn’t been in the job a fortnight and already she seems to have slipped on her own banana skin. New housing minister Caroline Flint made a speech to the Fabian society in which she suggested she wanted “to begin a debate” about who should and who shouldn’t live in social housing. It’s hardly a new debate. It’s that old chestnut about rewarding the deserving poor and punishing the undeserving or Shameless variety.

Trouble is this is a debate that should have taken place after World War Two when Britain embarked on its huge council house building programme. In the aftermath of that war, we thought there was no such thing as the undeserving poor, only a nation of war heroes who were owed good homes, free health care and a good education. By the 1970s, we could see just how naïve that world view was and Thatcher began the dismantling of the two-tier housing policy by selling off all the council houses.

What is strange is that new Labour has sought to re-ignite this failed policy by promoting affordable housing and keyworker housing. Indeed, the provision of lots of subsidised housing is the rationale behind its future housebuilding plans. Contrast this with Sweden, where there is no subsidised housing but instead the poor are given help with the rent. Can’t help thinking Sweden’s got it right, yet again.

Flint’s speech — or should that read outburst — probably marks her out as trouble. I can’t say I blame her: it must be very frustrating to be a free-thinking MP/minister and have to make speeches which just tow the party line. But it won’t get her very far (unlike Yvette Cooper, her predecessor, who never said a word out of place). Despite the fact that everyone from Shelter, to the Tory Party, to Gordon Brown’s private office, was at pains to disown her “debate”, she made a really telling point. If there is a points system for allocating social housing, why shouldn’t there be one for staying put as well? Underlying this is an even bigger question which she didn’t dare address. Why are we still building social housing?

5 Feb 2008

The Eco Town Gold Rush

The eco town story looks like its about to hot up once more. Apparently the government is about to announce its shortlist of approved sites but if my local town, Cambridge, is anything to go by, they will already be swamped with applications for new settlements. And almost all of them are recycled! How green is that?

The Cambridge region already has plans afoot for 25,000 new homes. It may well be more. The Cambridge Evening News reports the figure at 47,500. It may be that they are including areas further away or it maybe that someone somewhere has done the maths wrong. All we know is that we are about to be hit by a tsunami of new housebuilding. You might argue that with all this new development going on, no one will even notice another 10,000 home eco town, and this may well be the case. But the green light which Gordon Brown gave to eco towns last year has caused every two-bit scheme ever thought of to come crawling back out of the woodwork.

Around Cambridge we have (1) Mereham, near Ely, (2) Hanley Grange to the south of Cambridge, (3) Six Mile Bottom (to the east), (4) Alconbury (near Huntingdon) and (5) Denny St Francis, just north of Cambridge and in fact very close to (1) Mereham. Maybe we could have a double one: (1 + 5) Mereham-cum-Denny St Francis. All these have been touted as new settlements over the years and they are all back, this time badged as eco-towns. Code Level 6? No problem, sir, just give us the go ahead and we’ll build to Code Level 7. Which is apparently where Bill Dunster is now heading. How competitive is that?