28 Sept 2015

Searching for Ronan Point

I spent the weekend working at the Homebuilding & Renovating show at London's Excel centre. By way of relaxation, I often walk the neighbourhoods surrounding these venues both before and after showtimes. Excel is situated next to the Royal Victoria Dock in the heart of London's East End and co-incidenatlly, very close to the site of Ronan Point, the ill-feted tower block which partially collapsed shortly after it was completed in 1968.

The story of Ronan Point has been well documented and there is much on the web about it all. Five people died after a resident attempted to light her gas stove early one morning and instead caused a gas explosion which blew out her kitchen wall and this caused all the kitchens above and below hers to collapse. Whilst the number of deaths was a tragedy for all concerned, this part of London had been well used to explosions having been witness to some of the most intense bombing in the Blitz, not to mention the largest explosion ever to be recorded in London at the Silvertown TNT plant in 1917.

The Ronan Point collapse is remembered now not for its death toll but for the way it marked a turning point in the history of housing in the UK. The 1950s and 60s were a time when Britain went a-housebuilding in a way that has never been seen before or since. Many of the big cities were still bomb damaged after WWII and what remained undamaged was in very poor condition and was widely regarded as little more than slum dwellings. So London's East End was being cleared of existing Victorian housing stock and grandiose schemes of cities in the sky were being enacted. Corbusier's dream of tower block living was coming to fruition here in Canning Town.

However, the dream and the reality turned out to be poles apart. By 1968, tower blocks were being thrown up in record time using pre-fabricated walling systems and, as it later transpired, very low build standards. Only when the boffins came to examine Ronan Point after the explosion did they realise just how poorly these blocks were built, and that it was surprising that more didn't suffer a collapse similar to Ronan Point. Part A of the building regs was in large part re-written because of what was learned from Ronan Point.

The disaster marked a turning point in the story of the slum clearance policies and council house replacements, as well as sounding the death knell for council tower blocks. The dream died with the collapse of Ronan Point. The enthusiasm and vision of a brave new world, built high in the sky, was quietly abandoned with the realisation that this was no way to house people. When the entire Freemasons Estate (9 identical tower blocks of which Ronan Point was one) was eventually demolished in the 1980's, it was pointedly replaced by low rise terraced housing, built by Barratts.

Only now, in the 2010s, has tower block building returned to fashion. The Docklands Light Railway which cuts through this area is now a great vantage point from which to witness the return of high rise flats in this part of London. Let's hope it ends rather better this time than it did in Canning Town in 1968.

I was intrigued to see what evidence of Ronan Point there is today so I went exploring along Butchers Road, E16, to see if there is any indication what happened there one May morning nearly 50 years ago. Alas, there is no plaque, no memorial, not even a storyboard to explain the significance of this place to residents and visitors. It's an important piece of our history and it's being completely ignored. Some might feel that to be interested in Ronan Point is a little ghoulish, but after half a century almost all the immediate actors in the event will have passed on, and it's an important event in the history of 20th century Britain. It still has resonance.

In fact, it took a little detective work on my part to work out just where the Ronan Point tower had once stood. There were lots of aerial photos taken after the explosion, but this doesn't make it easy to place it because many of the surrounding streets have been rebuilt, often with new alignments. But there are one or two key photos on the web which, together with other useful bits of information, place the tower block exactly. None more so than the one which shows the address of Ronan Point as 85 Butchers Road.

There are others in which you can make out the side streets, Ashburton Road and Fords Park Road, to the west of Butchers Road, which still follow the Victorian street pattern. Butchers Road is the street that runs diagonally across the image below, from bottom left to top right.

And there is the recorded fact that the site , after demolition, was developed by Barratts in their inimitable 1990s Noddy-style, complete with GRP porch canopies. It's these Barratt houses, arranged in two terraces stretching between Butchers Road and Freemasons Road, that mark out the surprisingly small footprint of the Freemasons Estate. Ronan Point was the westernmost tower. In fact, there is still a No 85 Butchers Road, which marks the entrance of the only Barratt home to face Butchers Road itself, just to the south of the Butchers Road Newsagents. That, near as damn it, was where the tower once stood.

I you are interested in finding out where it happened and, en route, getting to see a fascinating if still deprived part of the East End, the pin on my Google Map marks the spot. It's a 15 minute walk from the Custom House DLR station and an easy side tour for those visiting Excel.

Here are some mood-capturing images I snapped from my iPhone last Sunday morning.
The newsagent is just to the north of the site. Ronan Point would have once towered over it.
The electricity sub station is on Butchers Road by the entrance to Goldwing Close. It's very close to the site of Ronan Point.  

This Barratt house on Goldwing Close is more or less on the spot where the tower stood. These houses are now 20 years old and they haven't aged well.

17 Sept 2015

Selfbuild under academic scrutiny

Selfbuild can be a slippery concept. It has a definition which seeks to differentiate it from other kinds of build: it's that the project is conceived and executed by people for their own use. But is that in itself exceptional or noteworthy, and does it justify the amount of column inches that get spent lauding selfbuild as if it's the answer to our housing problems? Probably not.

This question is asked in the latest piece of academic research which has been carried out by Michaela Benson, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths in London. It's not often that academics turn their attention to selfbuild. In fact you can count the number of serious attempts at analysis on the fingers of one hand so it's always interesting to hear what they make of the selfbuild industry. As with others before her, Michaela Benson struggles with the very individualistic nature of selfbuild which makes conclusion-drawing problematic. But she does have one or two insights that are fascinating.

One is that, of the 16 selfbuild stories she puts under the microscope, they all have problems reconciling their budgets with spiralling costs and that they all seem to run into financial stress at some point. She concludes that selfbuild mortgages aren't all they are cracked up to be, as the fronted sums never seem to be enough to meet the bills. And related to all this, there is almost always some sort of falling out with professionals encountered on the journey. Architects can go from hero to zero in the face of unforeseen cost shocks. Contractors fall by the wayside as timetabling slips hopelessly. Specialist suppliers screw up badly, throwing the project timetabling into disarray. New techniques and technologies are embraced by the selfbuilders but often flummox the contractors. People met along the way often promise much but deliver little.

But she also concludes that these problems are not unique to selfbuild. In fact they are pretty much endemic to construction, certainly as widely practiced in the UK. Apart from a small number of community-organised schemes (which receive a disproportionate amount of media interest), selfbuild in England is a very middle class affair, taken on by people with good education, substantial earnings and/or assets and usually with some experience of management. In other words, the privileged few. That they so frequently run into problems probably says more about the chaotic nature of construction that it does about their own inadequacies.

To be fair to the selfbuild media, these conclusions are hardly a surprise. In fact this narrative lies at the heart of most episodes of Grand Designs. Plucky couple take on taxing project at considerable risk to their wealth and health; after facing many hazards along the way, they emerge bruised, battered but triumphant. Benson's research more or less confirms this stereotype.

The one conclusion that she draws from her study that is perhaps unconventional is a call for individual selfbuilders to better manage the social relationship side of their jobs. When the relationships break down, the job suffers and the cash management goes out the window. Which is perhaps an academic way of saying try and keep people sweet.

I am reminded of a couple of selfbuilds I have written about where the selfbuilders puts an enormous amount of effort and quite a bit of cash into keeping subcontractors on board. One arranged to have the fish and chip van arrive on site every Friday so that everyone working there got a slap-up lunch. Amazing how often this resulted in a full crew turning up every Friday. The other tipped his subbies over and above what their gaffer was paying them. He ended up tipping over £1500 in total, but reckons it was money well spent, as standards were excellent and there were very few callbacks. People respond to generosity, and goodwill gestures are often good investments in themselves.

Micahela Benson's report, The Social in Selfbuild, is officially launched on Friday 18th September at the Geffrye Museum and will be made available via her online blog later that day.

11 Sept 2015

On Jeremy Corbyn

On Sunday evening last week, I set off to cycle across Cambridge to have supper with Mandy, my partner. As I passed along Trinity Street,  ahead of me I spied a crowd assembling outside Great St Mary's Church, the historic heart of the city, just across the street from King's College Chapel.  I had no idea what was going on but as I slowed down to pass the throng, I saw a man (Richard Murphy, no less) standing on one of the stone benches outside the church talking through a loud hailer. And next to him stood none other than Jeremy Corbyn, who seems in this week in September 2015 to be very much the man of the moment, as he stands on the verge of winning the Labour Party's leadership election. Corbyn had been booked to talk inside the church that evening but the meeting had sold out, so he had decided to do an impromptu talk outside beforehand. A "dress rehearsal", he called it.

So naturally curious, I parked up my bike and decided to see what all the fuss was about. Murphy was batting on about the Peoples QE which sounded to me (not exactly a left-wing firebrand) like he just discovered that money does grow on trees after all. "No need to have any austerity, we can just print some money. They did it for the bankers, we will do it for ordinary people." But such has been the extraordinary economic landscape of the past few years that this left-field approach no longer seems quite as batty it would have done ten years ago.

Murphy stood down and up pops Corbyn to a big round of applause - there are maybe 150 people gathered around outside the church The setting is quite surreal. It's a beautiful evening in the heart of a beautiful city: the sun is setting, giving the surrounding stone buildings a lovely warm reddish glow. And there is Corbyn chatting to us like we are a bunch of students on a camping expedition. He comes across like a keen young teacher — some might say overgrown student — talking with us rather than at us and talking very much from the heart.

Initially I am totally dispassionate (being naturally cynical and only a little younger than Corbyn), but I soon find myself warming to him. In fact, after about three minutes I give up resisting and decide that he is actually a very cool guy, very natural and easy with his words and very charming too, in a self-deprecating way. It's one thing to be self-deprecating person-to-person, it's quite another to be able to do that on a public platform and not sound smarmy. Corbyn didn't sound at all smarmy. He might not appreciate this plaudit, but he came across as a real gentleman.

He spoke for about 20 minutes and only referred to a handful of people in that time. One was Peter Mandelson: he rubbished his "I'm comfortable with people making lots of money" quote. Corbyn said he wasn't at all comfortable with it and noted that FTSE directors earn 187 times more than their lowest paid staff. All good 70s radical stuff here, but maybe, just maybe, it rings truer today than it did back then.

Then a strange thing happened. He started talking about the cuts to the health service and social care and referenced a successful campaign to save wards at the Whittington Hospital in Islington, Corbyn's home. This is all good grass roots activism of the kind I grew up on in the 70s but it seemed miles away from the high offices of state that Corbyn is now standing for.

He mentions that he had had a recent conversation with one of the principal organisers of this campaign, Shirley Franklin. Shirley who? No one in the audience would expect to know who the hell Shirley Franklin is. Except that I happen to know her personally, as a friend of a friend and someone we did building work for in the 1980s. How bizarre is that? I'm listening to a man making a pitch to become leader of the Opposition and and he's chatting about someone I last saw at a funeral a few years ago. It felt like I was now sitting in his living room having a chat about the neighbours.

Not that Shirley isn't interesting in her own right. As niece of the esteemed Rosalind Franklin, the unsung co-discoverer of DNA, she has many interesting stories to tell. But this evening in the dappled sunlight of Cambridge churches and colleges, her mention made it a very personal connection for me. As Corbyn stepped down to move onto the main business of his evening, talking in the church itself, I returned to my cycle and pondered on what I'd heard.

If he does win the election, there will be a lot of people out to attack him, many of them from his own party. They may yet make mincemeat of his all-too-idealistic policies, but I suspect they will find it hard land a blow on him for being inconsistent or corruptible. Or boring. Old Labour he may be, but we have long since tired of the New version, so it will be interesting to see how Britain fares with a genuinely different political creed to debate with once more, even if it is a case of dusting off the 1970s agitprop.

27 Aug 2015

CDM and the selfbuilder

In April 2015, the CDM (Construction Design and Management) Regulations were expanded to include selfbuild for the first time. This appears to be in response to a European Directive that all building works should be covered by Health and Safety legislation, regardless of the way the sites were run, or of their scale.  The UK government risked being fined if it didn't implement the Directive (which has been around since 1992) in the way the EU thought appropriate.

So now almost all building activity comes under the ambit of CDM. The only exclusion is if the work is truly DIY, with no paid contractors at all. But to counter the widening of CDM, the resultant duties have been made a lot simpler and easier to achieve.

The CDM regs began life in 1995 and received a major upgrade in 2007. The earlier versions of CDM specifically excluded domestic clients but made substantial administrative demands on small builders running commercial sites. There was a key appointment of a CDM co-ordinator who had to take on responsibility for developing a Health and Safety file and ensuring that everybody involved on the job had some level of competence. The 2015 regs not only do away with this Co-ordinator role but make no mention at all of competence. Maybe competence was just too much to police. Maybe it was dropped because it was needlessly bureaucratic. But it's gone, and with it much of the purpose of CDM.

What's left? The Health and Safety file is still required but the guidance offered by the Health and Safety Executive is to download an App called CDM Wizard (available only on Android and IoS, which shows just where this is being pitched). Fill it out — mostly a series of checkboxes, about 15 minutes work — and "This is the Construction Phase Plan of your job as required under CDM 2015." Sorted.

You still have to notify large jobs to the HSE before you start but very few selfbuilds will be of sufficient size to have to warrant a notification. The threshold is that the job lasts longer than 30 working days and has more than 20 workers working simultaneously at any point in the project,  or the job as a whole exceeds 500 person days. Most selfbuilds should take rather less time.

It is also noticeable that the 2007 CDM regs guidance was a much longer document and was frankly over-complicated. It didn't include any information about health and safety risks, merely their management. In contrast, nearly half of the 90-page CDM 2015 guidance concerns itself with managing specific risks you are likely to meet on site. 

For instance, if you are involved in demolition, you are required to plan and carry it out in such a manner as to prevent danger or, where it is not practicable to prevent it, to reduce danger to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. It's hardly going to say anything else, is it? You are also required to have a written record of your plans before commencing, but if you have filled out the CDM Wizard, you will be there already. 

So what exactly is required of today's selfbuilder, now that almost all building work comes under CDM?  The guidance includes a flowchart (p86) which is about as clear as mud, as it bandies around terms like DIY and contractor without defining them. But if you work your way through this, you will find that you are more than likely deemed to be a domestic client and that you really don't have to do anything because the people working for you, be they designers, main contractors or individual tradesmen, become responsible for CDM by default, unless you want someone in particular to act as the CDM guy.

I don't happen to believe that CDM 2015 is particularly taxing on designers and contractors either. Designers are required to design in ways to minimise risk to workers and to follow-on maintenance, which isn't a bad idea and hardly needs a set of regulations to tell us as much. And contractors have to produce a health and safety file, which it appears can be done for free via the CDM Wizard. For large complex jobs, CDM may come to have a significant role to play. But at the domestic client scale, it's now not far short of being a simple check-box exercise.

Critically, CDM 2015 has replaced the competence tests with something approaching self-certification. If you judge yourself to be competent, than you pretty much are. For the past twenty years, lots of people have made a few quid by acting as professional CDM co-ordinators, often charging a four figure sum for the privilege. So whilst CDM now applies in the domestic building arena for the first time, it's going to be hard for professionals to justify charging such sums for "managing" things that designers and builders should be doing as a matter of course. 

20 Aug 2015

The Post War Housing Boom

In the post war years, we had a housing problem. A shortage even. Lots of people had been bombed out in the war and it was often cheaper to build new neighbourhoods than it was to repair the bomb damage. The governments of the day weren’t hamstrung by self-imposed borrowing constraints so they geared up to the hilt and embarked on a council house building programme the like of which hadn’t been done before and the like of which hasn’t been done since. Britain went a-housebuilding. 

In 1965, which was the peak year for all this, we built 350,000 new homes of which about 40% were council houses, the rest being homes for the private market. In recent years, we have been building a total of just over 100,000 new homes a year (and almost no council houses). 

Some look back on these as the golden age of housebuilding. It certainly was in terms of volume, but what was it that they were building back then? Was it any good? Most people agreed back then that the homes we were building were rather better than the ones people had been used to, which were routinely referred to as slums, but many of the slum houses which survived the clearance programmes have been “improved” and are now the bijou middle class residences worth over a million pounds a pop. Very little built in the 50s and 60s is now worth more than the land it stands on. 

Britain’s post-war housing boom concentrated on results: it was quick and it was cheap but, by and large, it wasn’t really any good. Some council estates have stood the test of time but many descended into virtually unliveable sink estates, or “cities in the sky” where pimps and drug pushers ruled the roost. These days, it’s buildings from the 50s and 60s which are being demolished. Everything built before the war is tending to be lovingly restored.

Is there a lesson to be learned today? We are being exhorted to “build more homes” and housebuilders are being castigated because they are building so little when demand is so high. But are today’s new builds going to stand the test of time? And if we manage to up the numbers we build, will the standards drop? 

19 Aug 2015

Passivhaus: the shape of things to come

Passivhaus aficionados like to make the point that Passivhaus construction doesn’t have to cost any more than “normal” construction. This seems counter-intuitive because the Passivhaus standard demands certain rather expensive features, such as triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery and more insulation than you can imagine fitted into places you’d never dreamed of. How can that not cost more to build?

The argument seems to go like this. You learn to work the Passivhaus way and each project you do gets relatively easier and quicker and less expensive. You also learn to design in ways that make it easier to build a Passivhaus and, bit by bit, you close the gap between “normal” build costs and Passivhaus.  Plus there is the added bonus of being able to do without a space heating system or at least a large space heating system, which saves a bit. The argument goes that if all houses were built to Passivhaus standard, within a couple of years the cost premium would vanish. 

But there is a problem with this argument. The physics of heat loss dictate that, for efficiency’s sake, you need to maximise the heated volume and minimise the area of the envelope enclosing it. The heated volume determines what heat you have to deliver and the envelope surrounding it determines how much of that heat you lose. Getting the form right is one of the key determinants of effective Passivhaus design, yet is something that isn’t made explicit.

The most energy efficient shape for a building is a cylinder (it’s why Thermos flasks are shaped that way) but this is impractical to both build and live in. The most sensible conventional shape is a square box, three storeys high. Take a look at the original Darmstadt Passivhaus (pictured) built by Wolfgang Feist. Guess what? It’s essentially a three-storey square box, albeit in a terrace of four — terraces also work well because of the shared party walls. Very efficient form.

Changing a square box into a rectangular box has a small detrimental effect which gets more extreme as you add to the length and shorten the width. Reducing the structure to two-storeys also decreases efficiency a little, but neither of these two measures make a substantial difference.
But certain shapes get severely penalised by this remorseless geometric logic and none more so than single-storey house or extension. Single-storey-anything blows the ratio out of the water as the envelope needed to encase a single-storey structure is usually 30% larger than it is on a two- or three-storey dwelling of the same floor area and therefore the heat loss will be 30% greater. Just because of the shape. You could still build a Passivhaus bungalow but it would require far more insulation, and it would be much more expensive to construct. Consequently, you don’t see many (any?) single-storey Passivhauses.

So when you hear that a Passivhaus costs no more to build than a conventional house, bear this in mind. It may be true, provided you keep the design within certain tight parameters. To put it another way, the Passivhaus standard is either restrictive in what you sensibly can do, or costly to build if you want something that isn’t a plain box-shape.

To be fair, this same rule applies to the building costs of shells generally, not just Passivhaus. But because Passivhaus places so much emphasis on constructing a highly-insulated and airtight shell, it exaggerates the difference.

24 Jul 2015

The death of zero carbon

Since their somewhat surprising election win in May, the Tory government has been getting stuck into some of its bete noirs, or should that be bete verts. They have taken the axe to feed-in-tariffs, to solar farms and on-shore wind, to the Green Deal, to the 2016 zero carbon targets and to any uprating of Part L, the energy efficiency regulations.

Their all too brief explanation is that they consider green subsidies to be too great a burden on consumers and tax payers and that it is good for business and the economy if they are reduced or abandoned altogether. Whilst they are too smart to go on record as saying that climate change is not important, and they are making very supportive noises about the forthcoming Paris Climate Convention, their actions speak otherwise.

For whilst all these green subsidies have their faults, and their critics (I count myself as one), they are all about promoting change in the way we supply and use energy. They are not being improved or refined: they are, bit by bit, being dumped and they are not being replaced. Just about the only coherent energy policy being promoted by the Tories is that we should all get behind fracking.

There are lots of problems with fracking, not least that the people in the shires seem to have even less appetite for it that they do windfarms. Yet the Tories have pandered to the anti-windfarm brigade by withdrawing support for onshore windfarms (the most cost-effective renewable technology), whilst showing no such considerations for similar folk who oppose fracking.

This tells us that the current moves are clearly ideological. The subsidies required to kick start a clean energy revolution are peanuts compared to other areas of government spending and in withdrawing them the government is clearly saying these things don't matter. Their actions would do the Republican Tea Party or Tony Abbott's Australian Liberal government proud. Stick it to the Greens!

So how did we get here? How come the British Conservative response is so different to other European countries, notably Germany which also has a conservative-led administration but one which could hardly have a more different climate policy in place? And what of the Climate Change Act of 2008 which sets out the UK's carbon budgets? Will that soon be repealed?

I've longed nursed a suspicion that the Treasury is a hot bed of sceptics and that Osborne is happy to play along with them. His father-in-law, Lord Howell, is a noted fracking supporter and doesn't appear to like the push for renewables. What do they talk about at the dinner table? And with noted Tory supporters like Lord Lawson, Matt Ridley and the proprietors of the Telegraph, Mail and Times all champing at the bit to dismantle the green subsidies, it was perhaps inevitable that the plug would be pulled.

The Conservative manifesto makes interesting reading here.  It promised to "cut emissions as cost effectively as possible" and not to "support additional and distorting expensive power sector targets." I think "cost-effectively" used here is a smoke-screen for "get fracking" and the "power sector targets" are those set out in the Climate Change Act.

What still appears strange to me is that the whole issue of climate change has become so politicised and that the Right should have come down so strongly against action. There's nothing particularly left or right about environmental protection - it's surely something most civilised countries would wish for. No one is campaigning to re-introduce lead in petrol or asbestos, or for scrapping the Clean Air Act. Admittedly, environmental action is expensive, but then so are pensions and health care and education. What is a state for but to serve our best interests and can it really be in our best interests to do nothing about climate change, to leave it to chance?

The Right questions that the evidence that climate change is dangerous. Whilst this is possible, it is just as likely that the effects will be rather worse than mainstream science predicts. We simply don't know what we are doing to the climate and how it will behave as a result of our using it as a waste dump. But rather than address the issue, the Conservatives seem happy to do nothing at all, hoping that economic growth will sort matters out before too long — for which there is no evidence at all. British climate change policies have never been particularly coherent or logical, but at least we have had some. No longer. It seems we might just as well have elected UKIP as far as climate change policies are concerned.

16 Jun 2015

The Casino Economy

This morning I received an email from Eva Morrison who is a Business Development Manager at Axis Corporate Finance, located in Canary Wharf in London. At Axis, she writes, we assist our clients to find a high yield property, find them suitable finance to complete the purchase and find them professional and corporate tenants to rent the property through professional estate agents who manage the property.

She goes on to state that they have properties for sale from as little as £200k and up to £2m. The yields are 5-8%, the LTV on the mortgage is 75-80% at an interest rate of 3%. Tenants are already waiting.

So let's work out how I could benefit financially from such a deal. I'd need some cash to invest, but in fact it's surprisingly little, only around 20% of the amount the property value. Say I had got £50k to invest from somewhere - I might even have been able to borrow this, but that's another story. I could use this to purchase a £250k property (£50k÷20x100), charge a rent of £16k a year (£250k x 6.5%) and pay interest of £6k (£200k borrowed x 3%). I've no doubt there will be a few charges along the way such as stamp duty, legals fees and management fees, but the bald facts of the deal suggest that, for my £50k investment, I can get a return of £10k per annum, a 20% yield. With a return like that, any uplift in property value is a bonus.

I'm sure it's the way that Buy-To-Let experts tell it and there is no doubt that fortunes have been made doing this. But is it too good to be true? What are the downsides?

The major one is that a borrowing boom like this serves mainly to fuel house price rises. So that whilst I may be happy to pay £250k for a small flat, it's only worth that because the price is being driven higher and higher by other investors trying to latch onto deals like this. Without this great surge of investors, the price would probably be far, far less. The flat itself probably only costs around £80k to build: the rest of the value is quite simply land speculation driven by the market.

Were interest rates to rise (and they have been rock bottom for five years now) or rents to fall, or indeed both happen at the same time, then the squeeze would be on big time.

This sort of property boom-bust is pretty endemic in the UK economy. We have been through three major busts in my life (1974, 1988, 2007) and after each one a period of self-imposed property austerity seems to ensue. But it doesn't last. The animal spirits, or just plain greed, eventually get the upper hand and the up-cycle kicks off again, always fuelled by excessive borrowing. This time it's being fuelled by interest rates which are the lowest ever recorded, making the deals more tempting than normal. Which in itself can only drive prices higher and higher. It's a classic bubble, but it could go on for another ten years — no one knows when it will burst. When the LTVs get above 90%, it's a surefire sign that it's getting too hot. That's when hot money starts chasing gullible borrowers. It's not quite there yet but I don't think it will be far off now.

But there is another social cost which is much less discussed. The people with the £50k to invest are, by and large, the old and the rich. The flats are, by and large, for the young and the poor. Traditionally in the UK, the property ladder has helped the young and poor establish themselves and put roots down into the community. This was one of the cornerstones of Thatcherism.

Although Thatcher oversaw the first wave of council house sales (partly to turn Labour-voting council house renters into Tory-voting ex-council house owners), the Buy-To-Let boom didn't kick off until the Blair years and it's effect has been to reverse the growth of home ownership (down from 70% at its peak in the late 80s to 62% today). Our politicians keep telling us that there is a housing shortage which is stopping the young being able to buy a home of their own. In reality, most of the new homes in the UK today designed to cater for the young are being advertised as investment opportunities sold to older investors who can invariably outbid the young. It's not really a very healthy state of affairs.

Which is a long way of saying to Eva that I won't be taking up her offer to help me find a high-yielding property. I'm sure they are out there and I'm sure that some people will make money out of these deals. But at my age, I don't really need the aggro or the exposure to the risk. And I'd rather my children were able to buy property at sensible prices rather than me buying property at ridiculous prices only to charge them rent in order to live in it. That, to my mind, is bonkers.

26 May 2015

Are Eco Homes prone to Overheating?

Earlier this month, stories appeared in the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail about overheating in eco-homes. In particular, Passivhaus was mentioned.

Why exactly should an eco home overheat anymore than any other home? What the stories implied was that because these houses were so well insulated, they wouldn't be able to cool down in summer. Heavy insulation used to keep the buildings warm in winter also traps heat in summer — potentially putting vulnerable residents at risk warns Mail Online. A study at Coventry University found that Passivhaus flats built by Orbit housing association were overheating too often, although the definition of overheating seemed to be set pretty low at 25°C. Lots of people pay good money to go places where the temperatures never drop below 25°C.

But back to the point. Is there something special about eco-homes (and Passivhaus homes in particular) that causes them to overheat? I don't think so. In fact, the Passivhaus standard is rather unique in setting comfort standards for overheating. 25°C for more than 10% of the time is regarded as a Passivhaus failure but I don't know of any other housing standard where such a result would be deemed to fail. Indeed, the existence of a Passivhaus overheating hurdle was the very reason why this study was being undertaken in the first place.

It's difficult for any home to enjoy temperatures lower than the external air temperatures without introducing air conditioning. Without this, the best method of controlling summer overheating is to open lots of windows and cross-ventilate, so that there is a breeze running through the building. This is the standard house cooling method used in hot countries and there is no reason why it can't be employed in eco homes and Passivhauses. Passivhauses also benefit from having mechanical ventilation systems which, used correctly in heat waves, will contribute to night-time cooling. On its own, mechanical ventilation may not be adequate to dissipate all the heat build up but it's not designed to do this. Passivhauses also have windows!

If the building itself is to contribute to the problem, it won't be the insulation that causes the problem but the thermal mass of the structure. If a house is built largely of concrete or brick, these materials will gradually absorb background heat during a prolonged heat wave and radiate this heat back into the house during the relatively cool night time, precisely when the residents don't want it. Low mass materials like timber and insulation don't absorb significant amounts of heat and are therefore not going to contribute to night time overheating. Admittedly, they will also stop heat escaping from the structure at night but set against this is the fact that they will also stop heat absorption during the hottest part of the day. These two effects cancel each other out.

If there is a problem with overheating homes in the UK, it will almost certainly be caused by a combination of having large, unshaded, south-facing glazing (resulting in the conservatory effect of having spaces which are rendered almost uninhabitable during the day time), coupled with inadequate ventilation — probably caused by having too few opening windows. These are design issues which can affect any building during heat waves, regardless of building standards and insulation levels. The editorial decision by two right-wing papers to big this story up as an "Eco House Problem" is unwarranted and probably mendacious.

26 Feb 2015

1998 revisited

I've just had my 500th article published. I started freelancing in 1997 and have mostly written for Homebuilding & Renovating since then. But in the early days, I used to find all kinds of unlikely spots to take my musings and here is one of my earliest pieces dated December 1998, written for the Velux company. It's about the nascent housing crisis and it's interesting to reflect how the slant has changed over the intervening years. Back then, we built twice as many homes as we do now, but mass immigration had yet to take off and become such a political hot potato.

Where will all the new homes go?

The future of new housing in Britain has reached a crucial stage. For the first time, there is a debate about how much housing is needed and where it should go. Until now it has always been assumed that new homes are generally a good thing: no more. We live in an age when many of the previous generation's assumptions are not only being questioned but also being actively rejected.

Until World War II, British housing had been largely developed on a piecemeal, laissez-faire basis. Developers were able to buy land more or less wherever they chose and build houses for either rent or sale. It resulted in a great expansion of towns and cities throughout the country: as we become more prosperous, we wanted more space and builders were happy to meet these demands where they could. The downside of this was that new housebuilding tended to sprawl out along roads in what is now called ribbon development. After the war, the political climate changed and planning controls were introduced. The idea of these was not (and never has been) to prevent building, but to direct it into locations which it was felt would be less damaging overall and it would be easier and cheaper to provide the essential services like schools, shops and medical services. In order to stop ribbon development, green belts were introduced around towns so that post-war housebuilding has tended to be channelled into what are called infill areas, mostly between the pre-war ribbons.

Throughout this post-war period we have been building around 200,000 new homes each year. Some of these have been replacements for older houses but most have added to the sum total of homes in the country which currently stands at around 25 million, one home for every 2.3 people. In 1972, the ratio was one home for every 2.8 people. The statistics here don't lie. Our total housing stock is expanding by nearly 1% each year whilst our population is virtually static.

Why do we need more houses? Haven't we got enough already? Or is there something wrong with the ones we've built to date? The truth is that nobody can answer these crucial questions with authority. Much of the evidence we have is anecdotal and often contradictory. Some sources cite the fact that much of our existing housing stock is simply in the wrong place and that people have a need to live near to their work so the new housing is tending to get built in the prosperous areas. Others say that we are still undergoing a profound social transformation which is seeing the breakdown of the traditional family and the rise of the singleton household and the single parent family. A third theory has it that we are simply getting richer and want more space to store our possessions. What isn't in doubt is that there remains a pent-up demand for new housing of all sizes and in all locations, though the bulk of this demand is coming from South-East England.  

Set against this is an increasingly strong conservation lobby. The government has outlined a target figure of 4.4 million new homes needed between 1991 and 2016 (very similar to the rate we have been building since the 1960s). But, for the first time, this figure is being challenged by many different parties and people are objecting to loosing more and more countryside to housing. Elected politicians have been quick to notice this and have been caught in something of a cleft stick, not wanting to upset either potential new house buyers nor existing residents who are fearful of development. Their response to date has been to try and persuade housebuilders to switch away from the time honoured practise of putting up houses in fields and to get them to concentrate on the conversion of existing buildings into homes — a phenomenon known as brownfield development. 

Just how many brownfield sites there are suitable for redevelopment is itself a matter of dispute. At one extreme, Friends of the Earth claim that there is the potential to create over 7 million new homes without touching an acre of greenfield: at the other end of the spectrum, many are saying that the government's own target of 60% of new homes to be built on brownfield sites is hopelessly optimistic and that many of the potential brownfield sites are located in areas where there is little demand for new housing. 

To date, the debate about the future of housing has concentrated on the simple numbers of new homes that should be built. It is just as important — yet so far it has been largely neglected — to look at the size and amenity of the houses that will get built. As discussed, one of the driving factors behind the growth in household formation is said to be the shrinking sizes of families and the increasing number of single person households. Logically you would expect the demand for new housing to be largely met by small homes, perhaps one or two bedroom flats. However, the actual demand seems to be spread much more evenly across the spectrum and, indeed, in recent years there has been a significant growth in the numbers of large four and five bedroom homes being built. It would seem that many one or two person households would actually very much like to have some extra space, perhaps a study to work from home or a hobby room. Just because households are getting smaller doesn't mean they are all getting poorer and it is beginning to look as though our individual space requirements are actually growing. If this is so, then one way of reducing the overall demand for numbers of new homes would be to build larger houses. 

Now in the minds of the conservation lobby, the large executive-style houses are the worst offenders of all because they invariably sit in their own grounds and all built with garaging, driveways and other space hungry features. It's a very low density form of housing and, worse still,  it tends to get built on greenfields. The actual living space in such homes is often surprisingly small and it has been shrinking over many years. A four bedroom house built today in a typical greenfield site has between 1100 and 1500 sq.ft of internal floor area: an equivalent built in the pre-war years would have been around 30% larger. 

Greenfield housebuilding isn't going to cease, whatever the wishes of the conservationists. However, it could greatly reduce it's demand for greenfields if it adopted design and building techniques which would allow a greater development density. The high cost of building land has tended to concentrate the minds of housebuilders on shaving actual build costs down to a bare minimum and this has, paradoxically, caused them to build smaller and smaller houses. Furthermore the the methods of construction used nowadays tend to prohibit extension of the dwellings once built. The floor plan is often so very tight that it becomes difficult to build a useful extension at the side or the rear and the loft space is constructed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for the householder to use the space for anything more than storage of suitcases and cardboard boxes. The Victorians and Edwardians habitually built homes with cellars and attics, giving the homeowner the option of expanding the living space as and when circumstances dictated. In contrast, the twentieth century Elizabethans have specialised in creating a form of housing that is both cramped and inflexible. The standard response to needing more space is to move house rather than to adapt what is already there.

It therefore seems likely (though of course it can't be proved) that part of the demand for new housing is being driven by a general dissatisfaction with what we are currently building. Were we to rediscover some of the techniques and designs of our forebears, we could be building extendible housing which would reduce the overall demand for new homes which would, in turn, save many greenfield sites from development. 

20 Jan 2015

Security Tips for Selfbuilders

The average private dwelling currently suffers an attempted break-in every 12 years and over half of these attempts are successful. Of course, it all depends on where you live. Some quiet locations still exist where no one locks their front doors, whilst there are some inner city areas which seem to get burgled regularly.
Wherever you live and whatever the future holds, burglary is not a problem that is likely to go away and anyone considering building a new house would be foolish not to consider the matter very carefully. 

The burglar
As you might suspect, the typical burglar is a young male but you might be surprised to learn that he is not part of a well-organised gang but usually a lone wolf whose break-in is often done on the spur-of-the-moment, when he sees the opportunity arise. There is really no reason to adopt a fatalistic attitude because, although it’s entirely true that if someone really wants to get into a house they can, most of the time they won’t bother if you go to the trouble of making life difficult for them. 
Our young burglar’s main concern is not to get caught in the act and to this end he values being able to get in, and out, quickly and preferably unseen. Another surprising statistic thrown up is that as many as 40% of burglaries take place while the home is occupied. You’d think this would be amazingly risky for our burglar but it only takes a few seconds to come in through an open door and walk out again with something and you may not even realise that you’ve been burgled. If you are worried about this sort of thing happening, get a dog.
With regard to new housebuilding, current thinking focuses on the following areas:
• Site layout
• Preventing access to the rear of the house
• Decent locks fitted to ground floor windows and doors
• Burglar alarms where risk is high
• Security lighting.

Site layout
Although this area has more relevance to estates than to single dwellings, it’s worth mentioning what they are on about. Dark corners and unlit alleyways should be avoided and houses should be sited where their neighbours can see who is coming and going. There is often little the individual housebuilder can do about this, though it is possible that consideration can be given to the issue when there are two or more houses to be sited near each other.
One obvious point that the professionals have tended to overlook is to locate the most widely used room in the house – usually the kitchen – at the front, so that the occupants can see who is coming and going out on the street. However, this arrangement remains an extremely unpopular layout in this country; we still prefer our kitchens to be by the back door.

Restricting access 
The rear of the house is the preferred area of entry for burglars. This is largely because the back of the house is almost always more private and is often screened from neighbours. A burglary often starts with a casual casing of the front of the house; if it looks as though there is no one at home, the second stage will be to go round the back and take a closer look. Only when they’re convinced the coast is clear will the break-in proceed. If access to the back of the house is impeded, then the would-be burglar may abort the job at this early stage in the hope of there being easier pickings further up the road. 
A 2 m fence and a stout gate – even without a bolt – will provide a considerable measure of defence against unwanted prowling. A tip from my 2010 Milton Keynes benchmark house is to use a 2 m fence but to have the top 300 mm made up of a see-through trellis which is just as difficult to get over but allows you to see who is walking along behind it. Back gardens can be protected, to a lesser extent, by walling or hedging them in. Plan in any obstructions that will at least slow down the progress of a potential burglar. However, bear in mind that a fully enclosed garden, once breached, makes an ideal spot for our burglar to force an unseen rear entry so if your garden is going to be enclosed for security reasons, you need to do it well.
Robust locks 
It is an NHBC standard to have five-lever locks on all external doors and to have window locks as well. The relevant standard here for door locks is BS 3621: you may even get a small discount from your insurers if your locks meet this standard. At least one exit – usually the front door – must be protected by a night latch (Yale-type locks), which can be opened from the inside without a key; this is to aid escape in case of fire. The idea is to lock the door on the night latch when the house is occupied and to use the five-lever mortise lock when the house is empty. Window locks used to be fitted as standard on volume joinery, but a change to the fire regs in 2002, calling for all first floor windows to be openable internally, has thrown this all into a state of confusion. Ideally, you want downstairs windows to be key-lockable and upstairs windows to be openable easily without having to find a key, but the chances of your joinery supplier getting all right are not high! 

French and patio doors
It is marginally easier to force a door inwards than to prise it out but it is likely to be rather noisy. Most front doors open inwards. However, note that double-doors (French doors) are particularly easy to force in or prise outwards; most French doors open outwards and if you fit them be sure to fit decent sliding bolts to the top and bottom of both doors. For extra security, make these lockable bolts. Sliding patio doors are generally a much more secure (and draughtproof) alternative (though not half as elegant); however, many break-ins have occurred where the patio door frame has been levered out of its seating, having only ever been held in by six short screws or, sometimes, nothing more than mastic sealant.
The current building regulations will ensure that you have to fit double-glazed sealed units, and the safety standards on glazing insist that safety glass is fitted to all doors, windows next to doors and all glazing less than 800 mm above the internal floor level. Safety glass is expensive, costing nearly twice as much as ordinary float glass. It comes in two varieties, toughened or laminated, and they perform slightly differently. 
Toughened is harder to break but when it breaks it collapses into small nodules, whereas laminated glass has a sheet of plastic sandwiched between two layers of ordinary glass; this makes it harder to break through (from the burglar’s point of view) and is therefore slightly more secure. The police are big fans of laminated glass, and suggest that it should be fitted wherever there is glass next to an accessible lock, but as this includes virtually every ground floor opening window it would be an expensive option.

New security standards
Factory-glazed windows are available which meet a new British security standard, BS 7950, also known as Secured by Design. Rather than just testing the individual locks or the glass, BS 7950 tests the whole window assembly in situ. Typically such a window will have laminated glass on the external face and shootbolt espagnolette locking mechanisms. To get windows to this standard, they really need to have been factory glazed but this doesn’t mean they have to be plastic – most of the big timber joinery manufacturers now produce BS 7950 windows. 

Burglar alarms
There is a huge variety of different alarm systems out there and it’s not easy deciding what to fit. It is usually cheaper to install a wired system, which is particularly well suited to new housing as the wiring can be concealed during first-fix stage. Installation quotes for a four-bedroom house are likely to vary from £500 for a basic system based on a mixture of internal infrared detectors and contact points to over £1,000 for external vibration detectors which are triggered by interference with doors and windows. Should you not want to go to the expense of installing an alarm, as an alternative, the wiring can be first-fixed in a day for between £100 and £200, so that the intruder detectors can be fitted at a later date without disruption to the decorations. Burglar alarms are eligible for zero-rating of VAT when building a new home. 
Fixing a burglar alarm should not be beyond the capabilities of a competent DIYer and there are a number of systems designed for just this. DIY alarms usually consist of a control panel, the detectors and an external siren. The wired systems are the most reliable and are probably best suited to new builds. However, wireless alarms have their advocates and are easily fitted as an afterthought. The standard wireless systems still need mains connections for both the control panel and the siren but the latest generation work entirely on radio signalling: the siren and the control panels are solar powered and you activate the alarm by using a remote control.  
More features tend to add to the cost but it is still possible to get a well-featured wireless system for under £200. Zones are the areas covered by individual detectors and most burglar alarms allow you to arm or disarm any of your zones individually. This is useful if you have pets or if you want only the downstairs armed when you are upstairs at night. Better systems have a capability of checking that all component parts are working – a feature sometimes referred to as a 24 hour zone.

The detectors on which burglar alarms are based come in a number of guises. The two commonest are the passive infrared (PIR) detector, which is triggered by movement across its path, and the door or window-opening detector that is set off when a magnetic contact is broken. You can also get detectors based on pressure pads – typically these would be under a doormat and would be triggered when someone unexpected treads on it. You can give great thought to just which detector to put where and still get it all wrong. 
Many a break-in now occurs via an upstairs window: the thieves never go downstairs because they reckon it will be alarmed, so they just ransack the bedrooms before leaving the same way they came in. So maybe it pays to have lots of detection zones but possibly only if you are very confident in your ability to operate the system.
If you’ve never lived with a burglar alarm, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are the last word in home security. However, the consequences of fitting an alarm can be fairly tortuous for the householder and their neighbours. All systems are set to make a loud noise for a few minutes; false alarms will make you very unpopular and false alarms do happen, so a burglar alarm is not without its problems. A recent police estimate reckoned that no less than nine out of ten ringing alarms are actually false alarms and the police now have a policy, in effect in most areas from 2006, of withdrawing their response after more than three false alarms. 

Monitored alarms
If you have a very remote site or are not entirely happy about a 105-decibel alarm ringing when a mouse crosses the floor, the next step up the security ladder is to get a monitored alarm. These link your house via the phone lines either to the local police or to a security firm. If you want the police to monitor your alarm, then the system must be installed by a company approved by one of two bodies; NACOSS (National Approval Council of Security Systems) or SSAIB (Security Systems and Alarm Inspection Board). Needless to say NACOSS or SSAIB approved systems cost rather more than unapproved ones. Or as one wag put it to me, it’s daylight robbery what these guys get away with. Monitored systems also carry an annual charge which is likely to be in excess of £150; they are only available if two key holders besides the occupants live close by and are prepared to be called out in the middle of the night. 

Movement sensors
Alarm systems don’t have to just concern themselves with making loud noises or sending messages off to police stations. You can also rig up detector beams running across the front and the back of your house which set off a buzzer inside when they are crossed. They vary in sophistication from simple passive infrared beams like the ones used to trip lights, to multi-height beams running between two concealed posts which aim to be cat and fox proof. The well designed systems will give you fairly reliable intruder alerts: a poor system, tripping out every time a bird flies by, will just make you paranoid. 

Car parking
Both integral and detached garages can be included in whole house intruder alarm systems, but this tends to be very inconvenient; the car has to be left outside whilst the alarm is deactivated (usually inside the house). It rather defeats the purpose of these remote control devices for garage doors. 

Other measures
Door chains (from £3) and viewers (from £4) are becoming more common, and are recommended by the police. Surely the most cheeky is the fake ‘Protected by Burglar Alarm’ bell casing which you screw on to your outside wall. Available at around £8 from DIY sheds.

Security lighting
Passive Infrared (PIR) detectors, similar to the ones used on internal movement sensors in burglar alarms, are also used on external lighting. These can be very useful around dark entrances although the halogen bulbs (sometimes 500W) can be so bright that you dazzle passers-by and tend to make them think you live in a high-security prison.  There are some very cheap versions on the market (at around £10-£15) which are best avoided; at around £30 you start to get ones where it is possible to change the bulb. Better forms of external lighting exist that can be wired to PIR switches, as well as manual override switches, which give pleasant external illumination as well as some form of security .
There are also a number of products that can be used to give the effect of occupation when the house is empty. For around £20, you can buy a gizmo which fits in between a lightbulb and its lamp holder that acts as a light-sensitive switch, useful for simulating occupation when you are away. 

Shutter protection
To fit security roll-down shutters to every opening on a detached house would cost over £6,000 so no way is this a cheap and cheerful option. Indeed it looks pretty severe as well, but if you are away a lot and have particular reason to fear intruders, then shutters are very secure. They don’t work well with outward opening windows (think about it) and are best designed around either sliding sash style or tilt and turn windows. On the Continent, shutter protection is often taken as a given, but then on the Continent windows only ever seem to open inwards. Strange to reflect how different something as basic as a window can be.


Home safes are available from £150 for a wall fitting one and from £200 for one bolted to the floor. Placing a safe in an existing house can be awkward but in a new house it’s a doddle – if you’ve planned ahead for it.