23 Apr 2013

Old House Eco Handbook: a review

Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt have written an important book at an important moment in the history of our treatment of our housing stock in the UK. They are attempting to meld two very distinct movements into one, and it’s not an easy marriage. It’s professional production values — it is a beautiful book — and it’s almost coffee-table aesthetic pull the reader into believing that this is a book of elegant answers, whereas the truth is that it’s actually full of uncomfortable questions.

The Old House bit is where both Marianne and Roger come from. In this instance, we are talking about the legacy of William Morris and in particular SPAB, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who sponsored the book. Now SPAB was formed in 1877 and in its day it was undoubtedly radical: it was (I think) the first organisation to draw our attention to the value of the past and called on homeowners to stop knocking their homes about and start respecting what they already had. SPAB was a forerunner of the heritage movement, long before the National Trust existed and long before we started listing old buildings.

As heritage has become mainstream, SPAB has changed with the times. SPAB now spends much of its resources on education, dispensing invaluable advice on ancient building materials and techniques and gradually building up a pool of craftspeople who can work in ways sympathetic to old buildings. They have an affinity with natural building materials like lime, horsehair, hemp and wood wool, some of which were used by our forefathers and some of which weren’t.

Roll forward to today and we have a new challenge facing us, the need to retrofit our existing housing stock, the very stuff of the Green Deal. As the preface says: “How times have changed. Now eco-retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and sustainable is seen as an integral part of repair and maintenance.”

One can only surmise what Morris would have made of “eco-retrofitting.” He railed against the “destructive restoration” practiced by contemporary homeowners and architects. Would he have been a climate change skeptic who would have protested against wind turbines and solar panels, not to mention double-glazing? Or would he have rallied to the greater cause and seen that the preservation of our climate was critical to the preservation of our built environment, and thus become an ardent eco-retrofitter? This uncomfortable dichotomy is still very much alive and sits at the heart of this book.

Essentially, to undertake an eco-retrofit we have to rank our actions in terms of overall importance. We have to face some very difficult questions:

• Is the aim of a retrofit simply to reduce carbon emissions? Or to save energy? They are not the same thing. A renewable heating system might tick the first box without altering the house fabric at all. But to save energy, you have to attack the fabric.

• How much can you attack the fabric an old building without altering its character? There is a danger that you will ruin the very soul of the house if you tamper with it too much. There is also a danger that, if you use the wrong materials, you might end up ruining the structure itself.

Marianne and Roger argue that using natural materials is the way forward, in that they are less likely to ruin an old house, less likely to cause interstitial condensation and will go much of the way towards saving energy.

But how much of this is based on sound building science, and how much is fashion? That’s another very difficult question which we don’t have an answer to yet. There are a number of references in the book to the importance of having breathing structures, but breathing in building terms is a frustratingly hard concept to pin down. They give (in Ch 3) a very good analysis of the way moisture interacts with building materials, both ancient and modern, and when you’ve finished it, you can’t help feeling that you are none the wiser. That’s not because their analysis is lacking, but because the whole subject is so damned slippery. We know all the many different ways that water interacts with buildings, but that’s not the same thing as knowing what will happen when, and in what order, or what damage, if any, will occur. Every building is unique and the way it behaves is unpredictable. The older the building, the more unpredictable it is likely to be.

Consequently, the advice given often falls a little short of what’s really needed in a handbook. It often falls into the trap of listing all the questions you should be asking, rather than providing answers. This criticism sounds mean and churlish and, if so, I should apologise, because it’s a trap I fall right into with my own book. I know many people look up to me as an expert on modern housebuilding, but just like Marianne and Roger, what I’m best at doing is pointing out how difficult it is to get it right.

I just think that renovating old houses is a far harder task than building new ones, so the lack of clarity is hardly surprising. I also know that SPAB is currently sponsoring a load of research into what actually happens when you undertake an eco retrofit, so that in time we should be able to be far more definitive about the subject. In the meantime, this handbook gives a very good summary of what we currently know and don’t know. Frankly, you’d be daft not to own it if you were about to undertake an Eco Renovation whatever age your house might be.

To order Old House Eco Handbook at the special offer price of £24.00 inc. UK p&p (RRP: £30.00) please call Bookpoint on 01235 400400 and quote the code 46OHEH.

20 Apr 2013

Eric gets in a Pickle

I've written extensively on the uniquely Conservative dilemma between growth and conservation. It keeps rearing its ugly head. And the latest to fall foul of this ugly head syndrome is none other than Eric Pickles, who is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His humble pie moment is here.

Eric is a gruff, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, immersed in the Thatcherite traditions of hard work, getting ahead and despising slackers. He's set his heart on cutting red tape and last year he came up with a wheeze to make building big extensions easier by tinkering with Permitted Development Rights (PD Rights). Now PD Rights have been around as long as Planning Permission (1948 if you must) and they are used to define the lower limits of the planners remit. If your proposed works are deemed to be insignificant enough, you can just plough ahead with them using your PD Rights and neither the planners nor your neighbours can have any say in the matter.

That's all very well but, as with most schemes which set out to make matters simple and uncontroversial, you immediately run into problems of definition. What exactly are our PD Rights? Do they ever change? Can we lose them? Where can we find out? All good questions. And the answers are none too simple. Over the years, the planners have worked out various routines to determine whether or not your proposed works require planning permission and the best available resource around at the moment for those of us in England is the Planning Portal website. Look at the Do You Need Permission page. I must admit, it's pretty good.

As it stands, you can build an extension up to 3m long on an attached house and 4m on a detached house. That's at it's simplest. In fact there are currently 17 sub conditions you have to meet if you are to not infringe your PD Rights, but in essence you can build a single storey extension this sort of size without planning permission. Unless of course you've already used up your PD Rights - but that's another story: to quote Coldplay no less, nobody said it was easy.

Now our Eric's big wheeze was in essence to redraw this length of extension limit at 8m, but just for a period of three years, his thinking being that this would unleash a wave of extension putting-upping across the country as lots of frustrated mini-Pickles let lose their inner-Thatcher and built over their tiny garden-sized green belts.

Why 8m? I have no idea. Why not 10? Or 16? To quote from the same Coldplay tune: I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart.

Whether this really would burst a dam of pent-up large extension demand is questionable. It wasn't that no one was previously free to build an 8m extension: it was just that it required planning permission. And 90% of domestic planning permissions get consent. Ok, there is the extra cost involved, and the lengthy delay, but an 8m extension is not something to be undertaken in a hurry, so in the great scheme of things, these costs and delays are minor.

Anyway, Eric's 8m extension idea ran into flak from that other kind of Tory, the old-moneyed landlord type, that quite likes the world as it is. It's person, in this instance, was none other than Zac Goldsmith. He went ballistic. He foresaw not a building boom, but an explosion in neighbour-to neighbour disputes as homeowners threw up horrid flat-roofed sheds, blocking the light and spoiling the view. Yuck!

A fine old barney ensues. Nobody said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard.

In the end, Eric has to climb down. Hence the letter.

Only it's not a simple climbdown, it's a compromise. Rather than having to apply for planning permission if you want to build up to 8m, you can simply ask your neighbours if its OK. Here are the six stages:

  • Homeowners wishing to build extensions under the new powers would notify their local council with the details.
  • The council would then inform the adjoining neighbours – this already happens for planning applications.
  • If no objections are made to the council by the neighbours within a set period, the development can proceed.
  • If objections are raised by neighbours, the council will consider whether the development would have an unacceptable impact on neighbours’ amenity.
  • This is a form of ‘prior approval’ process which allows for consideration by ward councillors, and (if the council wishes) by a Planning Committee.
  • There will be no fee for householders to go through this process. 

It's actually ended up being a tiny change on what we already have. Only if the neighbours are all perfectly happy with your proposals can you proceed without intervention. If the neighbours' object — and 8m is a big extension so the chances are they will object — then it goes through something very like planning permission but without any fees attached. So that will immediately make it incredibly popular with the town hall planning departments — doing the job they do already but without any fee.

And what Eric has done now is create a middle tier of confusion somewhere between conventional PD Rights and conventional planning permission. Sort of PD Rights Plus or planning-lite.

In other words, where there was once a little clarity, he now sews the seeds of confusion. This is what passes for cutting red tape these days. One wonders why they bother?

PS The Coldplay song is The Scientist, one of their best. 

15 Apr 2013

Selfbuild to be exempt from CIL?

News today that the government is considering exempting selfbuilders from the dreaded Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). This is A GOOD THING. At least it is for all of us involved in selfbuild, as the CIL was threatening to derail may selfbuilds because it was so damned expensive. However, we must beware unintended consequences.

My first thoughts on the consultation have been posted back to DCLG. Here they are:

I am Mark Brinkley, selfbuild author and consultant and chair of one of the 2011 Self-build Industry Working Group Committees, hosted by DCLG. I would like to comment on the selfbuld sections of the consultation. I will answer Q21 and 22 only.

Q21 Should we introduce a relief from the payment of the levy for self-build homes for individuals as set out above?

Yes. An excellent idea.

Q22 Do you agree that this approach provides a suitable framework to provide relief for genuine self-builders?

I think the proposals could be improved.

I think it's quite right to attempt to distinguish between self-builders and speculative builders, but it's not always easy. Sometimes some projects can be a mixture of both.

1. The seven year occupation rule. This seems an inordinately long time to establish a selfbuild. Job changes, divorce, bankruptcy or even death may well intervene before seven years is up. I would have though that two years is long enough to establish whether it's a selfbuild.

If it must be seven years, why not place a charge against the property which would require the payment of the CIL if sold before that time? Maybe the charge could reduce - i.e. 100% in first two years, trailing down to zero in Year 7.

2. Documentary evidence on completion. I would have thought that the original person applying for relief would have to prove that they are in occupation as the principle householder (via a rates bill) and that this was their principle private residence. All the other matters you call on as evidence may well not be in place on many selfbuilds. For instance, warranties are not mandatory (many selfbuilders don't buy them but use architects certificates instead). VAT refunds don't take place if the entire contract is let to a VAT registered builder. Self-build mortgages are similarly often not used — standard offset mortgages are almost as common.

In any event, many of these features of selfbuild are not concerned with what happens to a selfbuild after occupation. The house could be let out or become a holiday home and we would be none the wiser.

There might also be issues with loft-style apartments which are sub divided by developers and are sold as shells, to be fitted out by purchasers. The fitting out stage is often classed as selfbuild for VAT purposes. Would you want to offer CIL exemptions on these?

There might also be issues with group schemes where a company is used to purchase the land and deal with planning permission, but the intention is to split the scheme into selfbuilds. Would these fall foul of the qualification rules?

In summary, I think it's complicated and that it will not be straightforward to distinguish between genuine and sham selfbuilds. However, that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. It's just that I don't think the qualifying matters you present in §82 and §83 are tight enough.

3. The proposal as it stands doesn't attempt to distinguish between genuine local need and trophy homes. Why should someone building a ten-bedroom mansion be exempt from CIL, whilst a small local developer building starter homes for resale have to pay? This seems unfair. I feel there should be some size limit placed on qualification for selfbuild relief. I would suggest 200m2 internal floor area, which is large enough for a five bedroomed family home. Or perhaps the size threshold could be left up to the local authority, which would be more in tune with local needs?

Another option (the modest house proposal) would be to exempt selfbuilders from the CIL for a threshold of, say, the first 100m2 internal floor area. If they want to build bigger, they can, but they would start contributing to CIL at the standard m2 rate for floor areas above the threshold. Example: a 250m2 house would be due to pay CIL on 150m2 only, being the 250m2 less the 100m2 threshold. However, this proposal risks being abused by selfbuilders adding extensions soon after occupation - it may be too difficult to police and/or would lead to unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. There might also be issues with measuring internal floor area, for which there is no British standard method.

4. The proposal risks creating a two-tier land market where selfbuilders would obtain a substantial advantage over speculative developers for market land. The higher the local CIL levels, the bigger the selfbuild advantage would be. I would expect lobbying from small builders against this proposal for precisely this reason. However, if you wish to promote selfbuild in the way it occurs in many other countries, then CIL exemption will be a powerful tool.