27 Jun 2008

Wayne Hemingway: Green AND Dead

I’m not entirely sure what the eco-town challenge panel are up to at the moment, but if they want novel ideas on how an eco town can distinguish itself from any other housing development, how about demanding that the developers include a special ministerial back-pedalling cycle lane. The latest casualty of this scourge is none other than Caroline Flint who must by now be wishing she was minister of almost anything but housing. Her commitment to 10 eco towns has now slipped to “up to 10 eco towns” and that “over a period.” Like maybe 500 years, Caroline?

OK, I admit, it’s slightly enjoyable watching these ministers wriggling on a hook of their own making. But how do you think the eco town challenge panel are feeling about all this? They were brought in as arbiters of taste and sustainability but are now looking like a bunch of patsies, having to defend the indefensible on behalf of a government that has cooked up a stinker of a proposal which nobody wants. Common guys and girls. If you really want to improve the environment, do the decent thing, resign in a blaze of publicity and help bring this whole nonsensical eco-town proposal down with it. C'mon Wayne. What you waiting for?

24 Jun 2008

Robert Bagnall on Roofblock

On Friday last week, I went to visit Robert Bagnall, the man behind the wonderful 127a Church Street selfbuild diary. It’s the most warts-n-all tale I’ve yet come across and I only hope that his subbies read it. Somehow I think not.

Robert has undertaken the full project management of this build and has undertaken a fair bit of the work himself. Although there are no ground breaking features which might excite TV shows or magazines, there are one or two details here that I hadn’t seen before and was interested to find out more about.

In particular, Robert has chosen to fit Roofblock which I have known about for years — I first wrote about it in 1999 — but have never seen used on site before. Roofblock originates from a civil engineer in Northern Ireland called Andrew Schofield who saw an opportunity to simplify a building detail — roof edges — and to also make a maintenance-free component by making it out of concrete. I believe it sells in reasonable numbers in Ireland but it’s struggled to make much of an impression in Britain. Perhaps because it doesn’t look quite right? Or maybe not? You be the judge. What did Robert make of it? Well here are his comments sent in an email to me in April, and reproduced here with his permission.

I’m surprised Roofblock isn’t used more widely. I can’t remember where or when I first heard of it, but I’m pretty sure I was aware of it before we started planning the build. I think your book clarified and put a name to what I’d seen previously – I certainly had an ‘oh, that’s what it’s called’ feeling when I’d read what you’d written about it.

To be honest, I didn’t cost the wood or PVCu alternatives as using a single simple block between the top of the brick/blockwork and roof seemed intrinsically attractive. The cost, when I saw it, seemed reasonable. If it has cost a tad more we’ll have saved in terms of not having to go up three storeys to replace fascias (or do I mean soffits? or do I mean bargeboards? whatever). However, the maintenance-free aspect of the Roofblock is, however, slightly compromised by having to put a length of 4x1 on top of the Roofblock, below the slates, in order to kick the bottom row of slates up. On the one hand, you can’t see the wood, which is aesthetically preferable, but may mean that I won’t have any cosmetic signs that the wood’s rotten before we get bird infestation between the SIP & the slates. On the other, it meant that I didn’t have to drill holes in the Roofblock to attach the guttering – I would have felt very silly if one of the blocks had broken.

The other attractive facet of using Roofblock was that the brickies could put it up themselves. And using SIPs for the roof meant that the chippies were almost redundant – apart from attaching roofplates and banging nails through the SIPs into the ridge beam and purlins we practically didn’t need a carpenter for that aspect of the build. (I’ve checked my final bill from the brickies to see how much labour cost and they’ve actually forgotten to charge for it separately – it wasn’t part of the plans when I got the original quote – so it’s just been absorbed under general brick & block work. The cost for the Roofblocks themselves was £1150 + VAT for about 45 linear metres of block).

I don’t have a lot to say about the product – it does exactly what it says on the tin – but the installation is worth a few comments. Whilst the brickies hadn’t seen Roofblock before they were familiar with similar products. Apparently there’s an estate in Bedford built with similar blocks which also carried the guttering within them (they seemed to imply it was actually enclosed within the block rather than obscured by the block, so look out for the estate with the water damaged brick...) There was some ambiguity from the plans about how the block went around the corners and we had to talk to Andrew Schofield to clarify. Quite a bit of cutting is necessary around the corners as, understandably, Roofblock aren’t going to make bespoke blocks for your exact roof pitch, making the free labour look even more attractive.

The mortar gaps between our blocks are, I think, quite wide and if anybody ever has the opportunity to look down the edge of them they’ll find they do wander about a bit. Not sure if the two are connected. From ground level it all looks fine (although, possibly, a bit bulky for some people’s taste). I’ve had a look at the Roofblock brochure to see if the blocks in the pictures are fitted flush to look like dressed blocks, but they have (thinner) mortar lines. Not sure if the nature of the block meant that it had to be that way or was the brickies’ preference. But, tellingly, we did end up with half a dozen or so blocks over.

My one criticism of Roofblock would be connected to the information they’ve produced. The plans they drew up with the quote were quite rough, and there are few specifics on how to get the block to join up with any unusual roof construction. (Compared to, say, the SIP roof panel manufacturer who had a whole online catalogue of plans and drawings of how to use them in almost any circumstance). I had to do my own plans to show the brickies how Roofblock & SIP married up which I got checked by the building inspector.

Overall, I’d use it again if it was in keeping with the design.

16 Jun 2008

On Tesco Town

On Friday night, I went to Hinxton Village Hall to have a look at the roadshow put on by the sponsors of Hanley Grange, our local eco town. ‘Twas a grim little affair. There were two blokes, one in a jacket and tie, the other with open necked-shirt, who had been placed there to field questions and basically get it in the neck. A few residents came and went and stared grimly at what the powers-that-be had in store for them. One or two voiced their anguish, most remained silent, looking at the six or seven display panels which had been erected around the village hall. Hinxton is the village closest to the proposed site — I have outlined it in red on the brochure — and the fact that the scheme is being sponsored by Tesco just seemed to add insult to injury.

In fact so unpopular is the Hanley Grange proposal that I immediately started to feel sorry for the two guys put in there to answer questions — I sort of expected them to get lynched. I asked the guy in the open necked shirt whether they felt there was still a need for an eco town here, given that house prices are crashing and building sites suddenly seem as about as desirable as Anthrax dumps.

“Oh yes, we think so,” he answered. “There’s over 4,000 on the council house waiting list locally so we know there is demand, and even if the private market isn’t up to much, we can always build it out as social housing.”

That’s sure to make the proposals even more popular with the Aborginals of Hinxton. The numbers on the council house waiting list prove precisely nothing, as there is always going to be a demand for subsidised housing. The rationale behind the government’s housebuilding plans is that the demand for and price of new private housing can be used to siphon money into the subsidised sector, but the collapse of the new homes market has put pay to this ruse for the time being and, just possibly, for all time. I’m not sure the government realises this just yet, but sooner or later, it’s going to have to admit that this particular scam is now dead.

What caught my eye was just how rushed and ill-prepared the proposal is. There’s been no time for any of that fancy masterplanning, or for anyone to work out just what infrastructure might be needed to move people and goods into, out of and around the new town. They’ve just taken an aerial view of the site and drawn a motley collection of houses, shops, schools and green spaces, plus a couple of lakes, to give an artists impression of what an eco-town might look like which is, surprise surprise, just like any other new town that’s ever been designed and built. Accompanying it was a list of ten proposals which will make this town green but frankly it’s a list that any group of reasonably bright Year 11’s could have come up with in about 15 minutes. It just looks like someone has been told to plonk a small town down in some fields between Germaine Greer’s house and the McDonalds on the Pampisford roundabout. Which is exactly what this development is all about. No explanation of why this was such a good place to put a new town, or what made this preferable to any other green fields anywhere else in England.

The Pampisford roundabout is an interesting case in point. It’s the bit I have circled in blue, at the northern end of the development, closest to Cambridge. This roundabout is already a noted bottleneck with cars queuing for up to twenty minutes to get through at peak times. And yet the only thing they have even deigned to do to improve matters here is to draw a cycle bridge across the top of it. Talk about greenwash. Can you envisage what it would really be like? It would be a great place for small boys to drop stones onto the stationary traffic below, or for potential suicides to contemplate their fate, cheered on by the appreciative customers of McDonalds. Which, come to think of it, would surely have to be transformed into something more healthy otherwise the eco town residents might be tempted to binge eat.

If you look at the plan even more closely, you can see that the entrances and exits to Hanley Grange are by way of five T-junctions onto the existing roads, neither of which is capable of handling the current amount of traffic. Not even a new roundabout is drawn in, just possibly because it might remind people that the residents at Hanley Grange may choose to have cars, and this would illustrate that the whole idea of building a sustainable community in a green field is a nonsense.

Around the back of the village hall, the protest group against Hanley Grange had set up a tent where they were gathering signatures. There I picked up a strong feeling of rural resentment against this sort of central government diktat. Apparently, of the fifteen proposed sites for eco towns, fourteen of them are in Tory constituencies. The only one that isn’t is Rossington near Doncaster which just happens to be in the constituency of Caroline Flint, the Housing Minister. Later this year the 15 sites are due to be pared down to 10: it’ll be interesting to see if Rossington gets through to the next round!

13 Jun 2008

Old TV aerials: £10 to take away

Just had a wideband TV aerial fitted on my roof, so that I am now digitally compliant, ready for 2011 or whenever it is that the date is set. It cost the princely sum of £170 which made me think “that’s easy money” as it only took the two blokes about 20 minutes to do the job. What made my eyes water even more was when they were finished they asked me if I would like them to take the old aerial away. Because if they did, they would add a further £10 to their invoice “because it’s classed as industrial waste.”

“No thanks” I said, “I’ll be happy to take it down the tip next time I’m going there.” I wondered for a moment what hazards might be found in old aerials, and have even been as far as Googling for known aerial toxins, without success so far. Is this some new legilslative requirement or is it just some wheeze by the aerial company to squeeze a bit more money out of the customer?