15 Dec 2011

How accurate are QSs?

I have a number of editions of your book and am now on the brink of my first self build. We have planning permission and detailed designs, and have had a couple of builders tender for the work, which was a condition from the bank in order that they would fund the project. However the costs are more expensive than I planned (surprise surprise I hear you say), and when I costed some of the major elements (ground works, external walls, roof) using your latest book, I came to half the price quoted by the builders. I have also got a few local sub contractors to quote and their numbers match mine not the builders
So I have employed a quantity surveyor to do it properly on my behalf, and am now the proud owner of 25 pages of costs for the project. Thankfully I am comfortable with this kind of numerical analysis, but I cam imagine at this stage most peoples eyes glaze over ! Unfortunately his numbers come in very similar to the builders (They would do wouldn't they I hear you say, they have both used QSs to cost the project and QSs will generally use the same process and hence come up with the same cost).
My analysis of some of the big numbers suggests that some of my QS's numbers are the same as the numbers from your book, but some are significantly more expensive (50% to 100%) more.
So my question is as a self builder what would your guidance be regarding the cost you can self build for Vs a cost given by a QS. Is there always fat in the QS figure to cover eventualities ? I guess I'm hoping for a shortcut rather than go through and cost the whole project using your book to come up with the relevant figure.
I want to self build but want to be ensure that there is a saving in there by doing this.




Good to hear from you. 

My feeling is that you are coming up against one of the age-old conundrums in building in that an awful lot of pricing is an art rather than a science. An expensive QS is probably about as accurate as you can get, but if you were to ask three other expensive QSs to undertake the same task you would get three different results.  And so it is with builders quotes. They will assess the size and difficulties of each task slightly differently and, crucially, they will assess the risk of these tasks being completed on time and on budget quite differently. The more off-beat the project, the more widely varied the quotations will be. My cost tables are really only there to provide the roughest of guidelines, not to construct quotations. 

One of the critical factors is risk - or more accurately the perception of risk. You have referred to it as fat which is how many people think of it. but its really a risk premium paid by you for them taking on the fixed price quotation. IE the risk of cost overrun is being transferred from you to them, and this is, if you like, insurance money for them taking on this risk. In theory, you can do away with this risk premium by becoming your own contractor/project manager, but you will only save money if everything (OK, most things) goes according to plan. If you prove to be a lousy or an unlucky manager, you may end up spending more money than the fattest of fat builder's quote.

I hope this helps. I realise this is very general advice, but as you note, it's a common problem which people undertaking selfbuilds face. We all want it to be costed out simply like a shopping list, but it almost invariably never works out like that.


Thanks for your response. I think you maybe underestimating the value of your cost tables ! In your book you actually break each of the tasks down into material and labour which makes it easy to add up the totals. However the QS uses a fixed rate for tasks which includes labour, materials and equipment (i.e. £24 per sqm of blockwork - which I think is spot on for blockwork but some of the others seem very high). This makes it very hard to break down to see what is actually costed without working out the materials. Indeed the QS bemoaned the fact that in the old days he use to produce a bill of materials but now no one wants it. They just use the fixed rate to work out the costs, and then only ever plan one stage ahead. However he is very reluctant to produce a bill of materials for me.
I've just re-read your chapter on project management and it all rings true. I would just love to have the complete bill of materials so I could see once and for all how much the materials would cost Vs labour. If I use the QS's 40% is material and 60% is labour, then if I assume each subbie earns £200 per day (quite generous ?) then the labour cost is the equivalent of 10 people for a whole year !




Thanks for the interesting feedback. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on these cost tables and rarely get any feedback on how people use them.


9 Dec 2011

Are empty homes really a scandal?

This week we've been treated to a new housing campaign, launched on Channel 4. The problem — no, let's get this in perspective — the scandal of empty homes. George Clarke has been bestriding our screens examining what has been going down. From the bits I've seen, he has mostly been laying into the now discredited Pathfinder Policy of the last government, which sought to rip up old terraced streets up North and replace them with state-of-the-art, zero-carbon flats, or Yvettes, as they never quite came to be known.

You can trawl up and down Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent or Sunderland and find really depressing looking wastelands of derelict and boarded-up housing estates. As Clarke kept pointing out, these could all be done up for.....well, it wasn't entirely clear how much. The key fact that he kept reiterating was that it was cheaper to do them up than it was to build new.

But the research from the Technology Strategy Board's Retrofit for the Future programme suggests otherwise. That is that if you are to create good homes fit for 2050 and our low carbon future, rebuilding may well be a more sensible and cheaper option.

Bringing these homes back to life would be expensive, however you go about it. And the fact is there may well be very little demand for these renovated or rebuilt homes in the private market. Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland — none of them are exactly setting the jobs market alight at the moment. Set against the demand for affordable homes in these towns, things look very different, but that's not a market demand which would lead to people come in and spend money on these houses in return for sensible financial return.

So juxtaposing the number of empty homes with the affordable housing demand may look compelling, but it's voodoo economics. The fact is there isn't enough money for affordable homes whether it's building new ones or doing up empty ones.

Which isn't to say that there must be some spots where terraces of empty homes could be given over to enthusiastic community selfbuilders to make of them what they will. David Ireland makes this point in his open letter.

But the truth is that there will still be one hell of a lot of empty homes in places where no one is ever going to find a sensible use for them. It's very sad, but I'm not sure it really counts as a scandal.

14 Nov 2011

Does Passiv mean Massive?

Ken Neal makes some interesting points on my last but one post.

• I do prefer to design passive houses rather than a PassivHaus, which are really active houses with all the kit and controls required. I do use and agree with all the standards, especially the airtightness but prefer to use passive stack ventilation. The additional heating load is about 1kW on a reasonably sized house which can be met, in rural areas where most of my designs are, by using a small wood stove.

Is he right? I don't think so. The Passivhaus only really requires one bit of kit - the mechanical ventilation system (MVHR). Sure, this kit requires controls, but they are not overly complex. Think Off — On — Boost. That's pretty much it, although there may be some element of timing involved as well. But nothing more complicated than a conventional heating system. And if you do choose to use natural ventilation instead of MVHR, you have the problem of not being able to circulate the warm air around the house, so that your wood stove wouldn't be heating the other rooms in the house. Natural ventilation requires significant input on the air intake side and that can realistically only mean trickle vents, which immediately blows a hole in your airtightness strategy. You can see why Passivhaus and natural ventilation don't really go hand in hand.

• I also prefer thermally massive houses, where you can get several days carry over of heat, to typical PassivHaus lightweight structures.

Passivhaus is agnostic on this point. There is no presumption in favour of lightweight or heavyweight structures. You can have whatever you want, so long as the thermal sums add up.

• I like a house which just sits there and does its thing on its own with very little control or active input.

Well, that is pretty much what a Passivhaus is aiming to do. But to get there, you need MVHR. Natural ventilation just doesn't cut it.

• Regarding embodied energy in materials, this only becomes significant if you are designing for a short life, say sixty years. In our energy constrained future we won't be able to build quantities of new houses, or alter significantly existing ones, because the energy to do so will be in short supply or too expensive or both. If you look at the age of some of our present housing there is no reason to suppose that a well built passive house won't last for three or four hundred years. So over that lifespan embodies energy is a very small proportion of the energy used in a building.

Basically, I agree with Ken on this point. But it does rather contradict his first point about the additional 1kW heating load placed upon a house without MVHR. Because that 1kW load will mount up over the lifetime of a house. After about twenty years, it will equate to the embodied energy of a lightweight house. After 40 or 50 years it will equal that of a heavy, masonry house. Those kilowatts, they all add up.

Mike Jones also makes some interesting comments on the same post.

• I plan to self-build to Passivhaus standard but I'd like a simple efficient MHRV system that I can service myself so I do not have expensive maintenance costs. Are the Passivhaus recommended MHRV systems easy to maintain by the householder or is maintenance a factor to be added to the building running costs? Anyone know?

I don't know enough about MVHR to answer that for sure. One of the issues to be resolved is that whilst there are dozens of MVHR systems on the market, very few are "Passivhaus certified." And whether these need professional servicing, I have no idea.

1 Nov 2011

Half FIT

One morning two weeks ago, I was awoken by some banging coming from a neighbour's roof. Draw back curtains and, lo and behold, across the street, some guys are up on the roof, seating some PV panels. Now this is a street running North-South, which means the panels are facing due east, so the amount of power they will create will be well down on their designed output.

To me, this was a sure fire sign that the Feed-in-Tariffs (FITS) had gone too far. Harvesting sunlight to make electricity in this manner is never really going to make much sense in a northerly latitude like ours, and doing it inefficiently like this really offends me. No way would anyone ever conceive of erecting east-facing PV if it wasn't for the promise of a big fat subsidy cheque. I've never liked these subsidies (having bleated about them on this blog often enough) and I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for these businesses which have apparently been "caught out" by this week's announcement that the subsidy is to be approximately halved forthwith (actually from December 12th).

Building a business plan on the whims of government renewable subsidies has never been a clever idea, especially in the UK which has a lamentable history in this area. We had Clear Skies, launched in 2003: they cocked that up. We had the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, launched in 2006: they cocked that up. Now the FITs, launched way back in April 2010, show every sign of being cocked-up too. Roll on the Renewable Heat Incentive!

27 Oct 2011

On 2011 UK Passivhaus Conference

Monday and Tuesday this week saw me at the 2nd UK Passivhaus Conference at the Barbican Centre in London.

There were around 250 attendees consisting of a fair smattering of old AECB-heads, a fair few BRE types, a sprinkling of academics and a good gaggle of "people who had come to learn." Consequently, the conversations ranged from the basic "This is what a Passivhaus is" through to the arcana of extreme building physics. The Passivhaus Trust itself would seem to be in rude health, energised by the fusing of the AECB's enthusiasm with the BRE's clout and professionalism.

Not everyone in the sustainable building arena buys into Passivhaus as a concept. Some decry its enforcement of MVHR (mechanical ventilation), others are suspicious of its cult-like qualities — it's very much the brain child of Wolfgang Feist and he gets to decide who and what gets certified, as well as remaining the owner of the PassivHaus Institute. But the beauty of PassivHaus is that it's a relatively simple standard, it appears to be based on solid building science, it's been shown to deliver what it says on the tin, and it's an internationally recognised standard, thanks mostly to the tireless promotional work of Feist himself. And in the UK in particular, Passivhaus still represents a giant leap forward on current building standards, even low energy ones, so it's not hard to see why the green building movement (OK some of it!) is so keen to promote it.

Day Two was for me the more interesting. It delved into a variety of technical topics and it would have been good to be able to sit in on them all, but the nature of the breakout sessions was that you had to choose one from three. Mark Siddall was particularly impressive on the subject of thermal by-passes and wind washing, a topic that lies beyond the confines of Passivhaus, but goes a long way towards explaining why low U value walls and roofs don't perform as designed. I also sat in on a good session given by Paul Tuohy (Strathclyde Uni) and Prof Chis Tweed (Cardiff) about the problems of post-occupancy monitoring. Everybody and their aunt calls for more of it, but the process is fraught with difficulties and the results are sometimes meaningless because there are so many incidental factors at work. Co-heating, in particular, was singled out as being hugely unreliable which is interesting because the practice involves keeping the temperature in a building constant over a long period and measuring the resultant heat loss, which reminds me of the tests run all those years ago by Actis to show that their multifoil was the equal of 250mm mineral wool.

Another observation was the ever growing interest in natural building materials and breathable fabrics. This is another area on which Passivhaus is silent: it emphasises airtightness above almost everything else, but has nothing to say on vapour permeability or embodied energy. Should these be included? Is there good practice to be passed on here or is it just getting too complicated?

And, more than once, the subject of quality control came up. Much of the success of Passivhaus is down to ensuring that the building is designed right and built right and the official or certified Passivhauses have to go through an expensive (like £2,000) and fairly rigorous auditing process. The materials need to be checked off, invoices examined, photographs taken. All very anal and tedious but critical in delivering quality. Some people are of the opinion that the certification process lies at the very heart of Passivhaus and is the main reason for its monitored success, but others feel that it's much too expensive and the certification cost needs to be reduced. It's a political point as well because Feist's PassivHaus Institute is resolute in insisting that they remain the police force here and they fear that any move away from this will inevitably lower standards. The UK Passivhaus Trust is firmly in Feist's camp but other countries (notably the USA) are taking a more relaxed view, claiming that the standards should be open and usable by all.

In one sense they already are. Anybody can look up what the Passivhaus standards are, anyone can purchase the design package (the Passivhaus Planning Package), anyone can claim to build to these standards. But where is the quality control? Without some form of rigorous certification process, how can you really know you have built a genuine Passivhaus and not a pale imitation that doesn't deliver energy savings as designed? It's a big issue, arguably the biggest one surrounding the Passivhaus movement. And it's interesting to note that of the 30,000 Passivhaus buildings constructed to date around the world, only about 10% have been through the official certification process.

Which brings me onto my final point, if it's the certification process which is the BIG THING, then maybe there's nothing much wrong with our building regs as they now stand, if only we built them properly.

3 Oct 2011

Brownfields, no gardens

Last Wednesday evening (actually Sep 21, the day before I locked horns with the National Trust), I attended a talk put on by Cambridge Architectural Research and presented by David Birkbeck, who runs Design for Homes, and, incidentally, someone I have known for many years, having once written for Building Homes which David once edited. David is also a selfbuilder and I have written about his exploits here and here.

But he wasn't in Cambridge to talk about selfbuild, he was instead chewing over the Housing Design Awards and how the styles and fashions have changed over the years. He covered the last 15 years, the time that marked the end of the cul-de-sac style developments of the 80s and 90s, and the move into brownfields, Georgian densities, and flats. And Poundbury-style site layouts.

He was interesting on Poundbury, and quite critical of the tortuous road layouts it uses (all curvy and wiggly and seemingly chaotic). Much better to go the whole hog and build squares and streets, like the Georgians, and indeed he showed that the current crop of award winning schemes all tend to do this. (I'd pepper you with examples but, of course, I wasn't taking notes and I have trouble remembering stuff a week ago. In any event, you can access them at the Housing Awards Website.)

But towards the end of the presentation, the subject of gardens came up. Or rather, the lack of them. The current trend is to move away from simple balconies towards roof terraces which aren't overlooked, so you get a bit of decking and a planting bed or two, next to which you can place your sunlounger and pretend you are somewhere else. Often, these areas are situated at first or second floor level and have someone else's home underneath, so they are in fact variations on the intensive green roof. David mentioned that there are already a few claims coming in for water penetration through these green roofs into the homes below and he suspected that we would see more of this over the coming years. It's not altogether easy or practical to build a roof garden, but that's one of the consequences of our predilection towards building at Georgian densities (although I don't recall the Georgians' going for roof gardens!)

I like a bit of irony, so I couldn't help thinking that the current National Trust anti-NPPF campaign, if successful, will continue this urban cramming trend we have embarked upon (otherwise known as the brownfield first policy). The flipside of "Protect Our Countryside" is "Ban the Garden."

29 Sep 2011

The National Trust plays its hand

Following on from last week's blogger's briefing, The National Trust has now published its promised Planning for People manifesto which sets out an alternative vision for NPPF. I wish I had had this to hand before attending their meeting because they all knew what was in it and I was shooting in the dark.

First of all it's short. Even shorter than the NPPF (which if nothing else is winning plaudits for its brevity.) In fact its only 4 pages long and the only page you need read is page 4, which sets out its 10-point list.

Let's look at the juicy ones:

Planning should promote genuinely sustainable development. In particular, the presumption in favour of sustainable development should only apply when plans or proposals can be shown to deliver multiple positive outcomes for people and the environment as well as economic growth.

Essentially this a moan about there being no definition of what sustainable means in NPPF. It's a fair point, but I think the idea is that local authorities are the best judge of this and what may be sustainable in Norfolk may not be in Merseyside, so a blanket national definition would be counterproductive. Although many have criticised the inclusion of the s-word here, it's worth pointing out that previously presumption had always been in favour of plain old vanilla development and you could therefore argue that the inclusion of the word sustainable is a move towards environmental protection - i.e. NPPF is more weighted to the environment than the old system. I'm not altogether convinced this is true, it's hard to pin anything down in NPPF, but my hunch is that adding the word sustainable to the palette is a very powerful tool and would enable, for instance, small towns to resist encroachment by supermarkets on the grounds that it is unsustainable for other local businesses.

So all in all, I think it's probably a good thing that there is no definition of what sustainable means at a national level.

Clause 130 of the Localism Bill should be removed. We are opposed in principle to a provision that privileges financial inducements within the decision making process.

Having sorted out my confusion about where Clause 130 resides (actually clause 130 of the NPPF just happens to be relevant to all this, but that appears to be a coincidence), I think this is alluding to the cash for sprawl option, which obviously the Trust don't like. Now I've read and re-read this Clause and it's very hard to see exactly what it's on about and how it differs from the shenanigans that all developers now face over S106 payments and Community Infrastructure Levies. If the locals get to decide where and how the developer's bribe is spent, then methinks this is a move for the better, because developer's bribes are nothing new and the old system has now institutionalised them. I guess what they are worried about is that under the new system, a developer will be able to simply buy planning permissions, or at least overrule the local planning authority by throwing goblets of dosh at everyone.

It sounds like the very worst of big business nightmares, where rich industrialist can ride roughshod over the wishes of the local population in order to build something horrible (think Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire). But the truth is this is pretty much what happens at the moment. Methinks the localism approach may be no worse and may even be better.

The NPPF should act in everyone’s interest to safeguard the things we value. There should be no weakening of protection for the designated natural and the historic environment. The countryside has value for its own sake. Development of the best and most versatile agricultural land should be strongly resisted on grounds of food security and landscape protection.

This is all code for "hand's off non-greenbelt farmland." Or "don't touch the village envelope boundaries." Again it's not clear that NPPF does ditch the village envelope boundaries - it asks local authorities to prepare a five-year plan which indicates which land should and shouldn't be built on, which is exactly what happens now. There does seems to be some sort of gap where a plan isn't current or in operation, but there's nothing to stop a local authority re-introducing much the same plan as it has now. The best and most productive land has always been protected: it seems most unlikley that that is going to change.

The NPPF should adopt an explicit ‘brownfield first’ approach. It should be clear that developers should seek to use previously developed land before green field sites are considered. There should be exemptions for brownfield sites of the highest public interest, including for nature and heritage.

Why? We've had nearly twenty years of brownfield development and it hasn't been a great success. Well, it has in some parts, but in others it's led to an over-supply of flats in areas where there is now very little demand. In London, for instance, there is really only brownfield development, but in Cambridge, where I live, there is very little brownfield to be developed and so the planners are now using greenfield sites with abandon. Surely, the principle should be that development should take place where it is best suited — and most sustainable. The previous use of the land is an irrellevance.

The default ‘yes’ and requirement to grant permission where a plan is out-of-date, indeterminate or silent is irresponsible and must be removed. Local authorities should have the ability to refuse development proposals where they would cause harm.

Well, surely the addition of the word sustainable provides local authorities with the power to do exactly this, in a way that they can't now. I.E. the out-of-town supermarket debate. If a local authority says it's unsustainable, then can say no to anything.

Localism should be real: communities should be given genuine power to shape their area for the better. It should be clear that neighbourhoods can opt for less development as well as more than in the local plan, and that local authorities who wish to set high standards for development are free to do so through the use of supplementary guidance.

Now, here I agree entirely with the Trust. If this isn't explicit in NPPF, then it should be.

It is fundamentally wrong that neighbourhood plans should be led and funded by business. It should be a core principle of the reforms that any plans whether at neighbourhood or local authority level should be genuinely community led.

Are they? This is news to me. Where does it say this?

There should be a limited right of appeal for communities, in circumstances where consent is granted for development that is inconsistent with the plan. This should be guaranteed by the Localism Bill.

Maybe. In an ideal world. But I am opposed to 3rd party right to appeal (as it gets called) because I can see it means that nothing would ever get built anywhere and the whole planning process would tend to grind to a halt. It's often forgotten that there are only really ever two parties involved in planning decisions in any event. One is the land owner/scheme proposer, who is always looking for a positive outcome. The other is the community/local authority/state who have, via the planning system, the right to say Yes or No to the proposals. It's only when the authorities say No that the whole appeal process winds into action, and then an independent bod is called in to examine the reasons why the scheme was refused, and decides whether the authority was acting fairly. It's pretty tortuous as it is, and another round of appeals, which would presumably contest a decision overturned by the appeal, would add what? More confusion? More protection? Certainly, loads more red tape.

It seems to me that once again, the addition of that word sustainable is critical to all this because a local authority will be able to use this to turn down applications it doesn't like without reference to any wider local plan or to the NPPF. I can see all hell breaking loose as the arguments rage over what is meant by sustainable, and I can see appeals inspectors getting into a right tizz about it.

26 Sep 2011

Is NPPF really a "developer's charter?"

On Thursday, I was invited to a blogger's briefing the offices of the National Trust in London, from where they are masterminding the campaign against the government's planning reforms. I'd never been to a blogger's briefing before and I was curious enough to take the bait.

"It's Day 57 of our campaign and we've only failed to get on the front page of a national daily twice" announced Andrew Lainton, who I was seated next to. He doesn't work for the National Trust but seems to be an embedded blogger working on "the campaign." Hell, I hadn't even realised there was a campaign before this briefing so I felt I was beginning to get up to speed. Lainton and the National Trust bods were quietly purring away because their campaign is being so successful and they had even elicited a letter from David Cameron earlier in the week, saying some soothing words.

I think the purpose of the meeting was whip up even more disquiet on the blogoshere (how I hate that word!) which is why I was there. But soon I found myself getting antagonised by the whole tone of the meeting, and started questioning them on what they were trying to achieve. I wasn't a lone dissenting voice: I was joined by the eloquent observations of David Brock, a planning lawyer, who pointed out that a presumption in favour of development (whether sustainable or not) was not new and had, in fact, has always been at the heart of the planning system. He produced evidence that it had been in place as far back as 1923. Cripes, I was getting a history lesson now.

Together, David Brock and I started chipping away at the National Trust attack dogs. "What are you hoping to achieve in your campaign. You've frightened the horses in the shires, but to what purpose. Do you want the goverment to abandon NPPF?"

NT: "Oh no, we are not against development and we like the idea of reforming the planning system. But we think it's now swung too far in favour of developers and that we want to reign it in a little."

"Isn't that down to finessing a few clauses then? Why the need for such a fear-inducing campaign?"

NT: "Because NPPF as it stands is fundamentally flawed."

"But you just said you are happy with the idea of NPPF and think just a few clauses need amending."

NT: "That's right. And it's fundamentally flawed, it's a developer's charter, and England will disappear under concrete from Stonehenge to Flatford Mill."

And so it went around in circles. 90 minutes into the blogger's briefing and I was by now feeling sorry for the government, because this lot are like a pack of well-heeled wolves, and it seems to me they have now got the Coalition on the run. Some of them (Wolfson, Pickles, Osborne) are trying to tough it out, defending the pro-development aspects of NPPF, saying its high-time Britain got building again as if a planning document is going to start a housebuilding boom (fat chance), whilst others (Cameron, Clark) are coming on like soft cops, being all reasonable and placatory. But it's the National Trust-led campaign against NPPF which is definitely setting the agenda. Planning isn't exactly the natural territory of the National Trust and some question what on earth the Trust is doing organising such a campaign, the stamping ground of the likes of the CPRE (who have been left miles behind in all this), especially as the Trust gets involved in a small way with housing developments of its own (but then they will be sensitive middle-class ones, the kind that don't count in this debate).

What really troubles me, and I didn't really express this coherently at the briefing, is that I think the existing planning regime is already a developer's charter and not a very good one at that. It's delivered millions of tiny, crap homes, designed by morons, built by penny-pinching spec housebuilders, and located on dreadful sites next to motorways and by-passes. And I feel almost any attempt at shaking up our present diabolical system has to be welcomed.

The problem is that the NPPF is a leap in the dark. With its emphasis on localism, and neighbourhood plans (hardly anyone knows what these are), not to mention "sustainable development", it asks more questions than it answers. But just to assume, as the Trust have done, that its very looseness will be an excuse to build anything everywhere strikes me as highly unlikely. It might have been, twenty or thirty years ago, but now we are in a very different era. Barratt's are not going to pitch up, all of a sudden, and build a 50-home estate in every village between Somerset and Suffolk just because NPPF calls the existing village envelope boundary system into question. There's no demand, and there's no money.

The clause that really freaks out the National Trust is 130. It states:

130. Local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances. Identifying land as Local Green Space should therefore be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. Local Green Spaces should only be designated when a plan is prepared or reviewed, and planned so that they are capable of enduring beyond the end of the plan period.

If I read this right, it means that the old village boundaries will be consigned to the dustbin and, in their place, villages will be able to have their own mini-green belts, decided locally. I see this as a really interesting development, and one that is of great potential interest to selfbuilders. For those of us who support good, appropriate building and not just the current craze for town cramming, I see this as a really positive step. And I feel an urge to criticise the National Trust for being so ideologically hidebound that they can't or won't see this. A return to the status quo (which seems to be what they want) is to ignore the damage that has been done by our planning system which encourages big land deals between developers and planners, and shuts out the little people. At least NPPF is making a stab at turning this on its head.

If their campaign to neutralise NPPF turns out to be as successful as they hope, it will set back the cause of sustainable building in this country for decades to come.

Calm down, Brinkley. No need to rant. It was only a blogger's briefing.

9 Sep 2011

The Portuguese Approach to Planning

I've just returned from a week in Portugal, staying with friends in a piece of the Western Algarve which has seen a lot of haphazard development over the past twenty years. It's pertinent to our ongoing debate about NPPF because the Algarve is a good example of what the National Trust/CPRE fear might happen to England if the new planning regime comes into force.

It's not that there is no planning permission in Portugal. I was hearing stories of people being evicted from land they owned on which they thought they had a right to build and didn't, so manifestly there are planning controls. But it's also obviously not a zoned system like we have in the UK, because there a lots of examples of new houses being built in isolated spots in the countryside. Quite why some houses should gain permission whilst others don't looks, to the casual observer (me) to be unfathomable.

As you travel around the highways and byways between Lagos and Sagres, at the very south-western tip of the European continent, what strikes you isn't the fact that the countryside has been "ruined" by haphazard development, but that some of the building is awful whilst other bits look just fine. Maybe I'm biased, but to me the catalogue homes which seemed to have been speculatively built for profit looked mostly dreadful, whilst the owner built houses sit quite comfortably in the landscape and don't blight it in any way. It's not black and white, not by any means, but there are some stunning new homes built in this area which really add to the landscape. And generally, the people who build them live there all year round and don't just use them as a holiday homes.

This area is interesting in other ways. Parts of it (the West Coast) are protected by National Park status and there is no new building allowed at all. It's a semi wilderness for horseriding, cycling, beachcombing and surfing. Just inland, there are a series of windfarms covering all the higher windy ground. Disfiguring? Possibly. But to me it just looks like pieces of machinery in working countryside, little different to power lines, telegraph poles and tractors. There are quarries too, the odd piece of woodland, and sheep grazing. Some very small towns and villages, and a scattering of small farms. It doesn't look like it's ever been particularly pristine, and so the addition of new houses or wind turbines (the sort of thing to give the CPRE kittens) doesn't stand out at all. The countryside doesn't look ordered like it does in England, but that's not a failure of the planning system - it's more like the way it's always been.

To suggest that Portugal is in trouble because of lax planning, as George Monbiot has done recently, seems just a tad bizarre. After all, we are not exactly rolling in it as the moment, are we? And one of the countries we aspire to in terms of economic well being — Germany — has a much more relaxed planning system than we do. Building in the countryside is something the Germans specialise in - last year they built 92,000 mostly rural selfbuilds — yet somehow I don't think the Germans are complaining about urban sprawl or mickey mouse planning.

16 Aug 2011

Cash for Sprawl

I last wrote about the Green Belt on June 2nd, before the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) had been published. I identified it then as a very Tory problem because the Tories in the government want it loosened, whilst the Tories in the shire counties want it maintained - strengthened even.

The NPPF appeared at the end of July, and most of the mainstream press coverage since then has been expressing the widespread fear that the countryside is about to be concreted over and that we are all about to be engulfed in urban sprawl. The usual suspects are behind this, notably the CPRE and The National Trust, and big names such as Griff Rhys Jones and Simon Jenkins have been persuaded to write eloquent pieces in the Times and the Guardian. They are trying to whip up a fear, a hysteria, along the lines of campaign to save our forests which resulted in a Government U turn earlier this year. They want to "turn back the tide" of development which the NPPF vaguely hints at.

In fact the NPPF is a wonderfully vague document. You'd think in managing to trim planning guidance down from 1,000 pages to 50-odd, it would now read like a concise cinema listing or a menu, but most of theses pages are taken up with aspirational statements and rather woolly policy indicators, so it's quite hard to figure out what the NPPF is actually on about.

The thing that these objectors object to is this tell-tale phrase (oft repeated, it must be said) that there should be a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Jenkins, in particular, tore into the S word, accusing the government of using it as a smokescreen to push through any development, but as far as I can work out, there is little if any guidance in the NPPF on what is meant by sustainable development. My guess is that, in the spirit of localism, the definition will be left to individual councils to work out.

But it remains an important adjective because presumably if there is no national definition of sustainable, then each council can more or less tinker with the definition to encourage or discourage development. What NPPF doesn't offer is clarity: I can see years of ugly planning battles ahead with expensive QCs discussing whether or not Development X is sustainable. "Not in Berkshire, m'lud."

Jenkins's assumption that it is a weightless word, a shim-sham put there to dress any development as good development, is probably a little off the mark.

The next point to consider is the status of the Green Belt. It appears to hold two separate meanings. The first is the technical one, the one planners recognise, of land specifically delineated as Green Belt (or as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), which in fact is a surprisingly small amount of the countryside. The second is the idea that all open countryside is green belt, which is the perception that most of the public has. In fact most of the UK is designated in planning terms as farmland and for the past 50-odd years you haven't been able to build on it. Not because it's green belt, but because the planning system has chosen to restrict building to existing settlements.

Now what's at risk, if presumption in favour of sustainable development becomes the norm, is the status of this non-green belt farmland. This explains how supporters of the NPPF can say that Green Belts (and AONB) remain as protected as they ever have been, whilst those railed against the changes claim that the countryside is about to be concreted over.

But NPPF doesn't say anything as simple as this. It doesn't state that concepts such as village envelopes should be shredded or that all non-green belt farmland is now up for grabs. Rather it frames the whole issue around the proposals being judged to be suitably sustainable and leaves the locals to figure out what to do.

Which brings us onto the thorny issue of Cash for Sprawl, which is slowly simmering away in the background. This is the libertarian concept that current planning restrictions have a monetary value which is expressed in the difference between the cost of non-developable farmland (peanuts) and land with building permission (squillions). An individual may own a piece of land but, the way things stand, the right to develop it is something vested in the surrounding community. The argument goes that, as the ability to turn a field into a building plot (and thus perhaps £10,000 into £1million) rests with the neighbours, it is the neighbours who should benefit - especially as it's the neighbours who will be inconvenienced by a) the building work) b) the loss of a nice view and c) maybe lower house prices as a result. If you like, it's compensation money. Or, as I have seen in succinctly summarised by anti-campaigners, Cash for Sprawl.

Needless to say, there is nothing about any of this in NPPF. The concept of planning gain is nothing new - in fact our social housing budget has been based on little more for decades. But up until now, there has been a very clear distinction between community gain (i.e. more playgrounds, cycle paths, new schools, etc) and individual gain (via rate rebates or even cash payments). The thought of crossing this dividing line makes many people very uncomfortable because it's beginning to feel less like big society stuff and more like greed or bribery. So to date this sort of debate has been going on away from the glare of mainstream media, and hasn't really entered the public realm.

But that too may be changing, if this week's Sunday Times is anything to go by. It carries two pieces on the planning debate. The first, by Jenni Russell, Throwing the Countryside to the Developer Wolves, is a call to arms to all national Trust/CPRE types, very much in the Simon Jenkins mould. But two pages further on, in a Think Tank piece, an article by Neil O'Brien of the Policy Exchange is entitled Get Paid to loosen the Green Belt. Unfortunately, the articles are paywalled so I can't provide a link. But if you've followed this piece so far, you will have a pretty good idea of what is in them. O'Brien's killer paragraph goes thus:

A better solution would be to let communities keep more of the planning gain and concentrate the money on those nearby who are most affected by development. Cash should go directly to households, rather than just councils or neighbourhoods. A big cheque in the post might prove some consolation for having development nearby.

No one has got as far as outlining a mechanism by which this might happen. Who would decide who would be eligible, and how much each household might receive? You don't have to think about this very long and to see that you might be opening a can of worms here, setting neighbour against neighbour in a pro-development gold rush. But if it "worked", suddenly every village in England might be falling over themselves to climb aboard this particular bandwagon - precisely what the CPRE fear. NPPF is no help here. It's simply left to local councils to decide how to handle it, and to decide what is or what isn't sustainable.

And this is perhaps the nub of the problem. NPPF doesn't really make it clear how much power the local councils will have in future. Are they still going to remain the sole arbiters of where development can or cannot take place? Or are developers (be they individuals, groups or professionals) going to be able to bring forward their own schemes on any bit of farmland that takes their fancy, in return for some form of "community cashback." You can't really have both. Either the planning system remains top-down, council led, or it becomes bottom-up, developer pushed, with the role of the council reduced to protecting specific areas, and arbitrating on whether the proposals are sustainable or not.

10 Aug 2011

Confusion over roofing underlays

Back in the 1980s when I was working as a general builder, if we had a re-roofing job we always used a product called Zylex, a bitumen roofing felt produced by Ruberoid. It was heavy, came in 16m rolls and above all it was cheap. I can remember the first time I ever saw Tyvek which was said to be the future. Tyvek was that magic thing, a vapour permeable underlay (VPU), which would allow roofs to ventilate and do away with all the complex little fiddles we had to do to stop condensation. It sounded so cool.

Fast forward to now and Zylex has all but vanished. There are now dozens of manufacturers produced VPUs and it's what everyone now uses. VPUs used to be much more expensive but there isn't a great deal of difference in price now (they seem to cost between £1.50 and £2/m2). But what is interesting is that, according to reports coming from the NHBC, they don't seem to work any better than Zylex. The recent hard winters have led to a spate of condensation claims, as water forms on the underside of the VPUs, and then drips down through the ceilings of the new homes below. The NHBC deems that eaves-to-eaves ventilation is inadequate and that we should use eaves-to-ridge ventilation, which introduces some sort of stack effect, in order to remove the moist air form these cold lofts.

If you want to avoid having to install ridge vents, then there is another option and that is to go for an air permeable underlay (APU). A what? Well an APU promises to do what VPUs promised back in the 1980s and didn't really manage. Just like Goretex jackets don't actually stop you sweating. It's a similar idea, a woven fabric underlay, but it allows air to permeate through the fabric which basically requires bigger holes than ones that just admit vapour. The best known (only?) APU on the market at the moment is Klober's Permo Air (£93 for 50m2, so not that much more than the others).

Two thoughts occur. Will we be coming back in twenty years time saying that APUs don't work either and that we are still getting dripping condensation in lofts. We seem to have come a long way in developing superior roof underlays and got precisely nowhere. And secondly, can an APU be used as an air barrier in airtight construction systems? Or is it, by its very nature, leaky?

Good piece of further reading here on the Monier site.

8 Aug 2011

Unintended consequences No 12: PV for water heating

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Feed-in-Tariff is that electricity producing photovoltaics are being used to power immersion heaters for hot water tanks. The "correct" technology for this task is the solar thermal panel, as these are much more efficient in converting sunlight into hot water. They are cheaper to install and they do it directly - or more directly than PV will ever do.

• 1m2 of solar thermal panel will produce around 500kWh of hot water per annum. Installation cost around £1500.

• 1m2 of solar PV will produce around 100kWh of electricity per annum. Installation cost around £700.

• Put another way, hot water powered by solar thermal is around half the price of hot water powered by PV.

Yet such is the distorting effect of the feed-in-tarrifs that people are now thinking of using PV for domestic hot water heating because they can't think of anything else to do with the surplus electricity produced on sunny days. Around 90% of the tariff is available just for producing electricity, and its easy to end up with a system that is oversized for purpose when the weather is right. On hot sunny days, you just don't need much in the way of electricity, so heating a hot water tank makes sense. And if you install more than 15m2 of PV on your roof, then you should be producing enough power to heat your domestic hot water, at least on a par with 3m2 of solar thermal.

So perversely, the way the feed-in-tariff is set up, one of the losers is set to be the solar thermal industry.

It makes senseBut only in terms of the strange Alice-in-Wonderland economics of feed-in-tariffs

4 Aug 2011

How do you assess a product like Oxyvent?

Here's an interesting press release that just landed on my desk. It's for a new plumbing product called Oxyvent. It's a box that you add onto your radiator or underfloor heating system that helps it run better, and it promises huge savings in fuel burned.

According to the PR lady, Paul Worswick, director of Oxyvent, is "very keen that Oxyvent isn't seen as some magic box of tricks as the physics behind the product is straight forward when explained." There's lots of information about on the website and a YouTube video sequence showing Paul himself with a Pimlico Plumber who is busy installing Oxyvent in someone's house. There's an FAQ and there is a brief summary of some tests carried out by Dr Tony Robinson, a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin (the kit hails from Ireland). And there are some ringing endorsements from satisfied customers.

But what there isn't is any simple to understand explanation of what makes Oxyvent so special. It seems to turbo charge the flow rates of water through the radiators, which enables them to run cooler, but to my mind that doesn't equate to making them more energy efficient. Some where in this system there must be a trade off - an extra pump or two, another heat exchanger, something unexplained.

I'm quite prepared to accept the claims at face value, but only if there is a coherent explanation of how it all works. As it stands, the publicity poses more questions than it answers. Installing one of these is going to set you back the best part of a grand: that's an awful lot of money for something being sold on trust.

So I looked up Tony Robinson, the Dublin academic who has been testing Oxyvent. He was easy to track down so I emailed him. He got back to me in a couple of hours and what he wrote was very illuminating.

The simple answer is that under the conditions that we tested in my lab the Oxyvent system did something useful; and there is no questioning this because our experiments were well thought out, they were accurate and we are experts in this field.

We observed two things: (i) when the radiators were balanced (to give approximately 11°C temperature drop at around 75°C boiler setting) the radiators we tested showed major non-uniform distribution in temperature, i.e. very large cold regions, due to the low water flow rates, and (ii) there were large fluctuations in the radiator temperatures and power outputs due to the boiler switching on and off which caused the inlet water temperature to cycle hot and cold.

He went on. For this scenario the Oxyvent system made a difference by smoothing out the fluctuations in the main inlet water temperature and thus the power output of the radiators. It basically added thermal inertia to the system so that the radiators did not react to the switching of the boiler. Now, the water flow rate can be increased i.e. unbalancing the radiators, without large excursions in the power output, so that for a given water set point temperature the radiator power output is nearly constant with time. The knock-on effect is that with the higher flow rate the temperature distribution of the radiator is much more uniform (we used thermal imaging to show this) so that, for a given inlet temperature, the unbalanced radiator would output more power since it would be, on average, hotter. Thus, the even temperature over the radiator provides more heat (for a given water temperature) and the Oxyvent tank ensuring that there are no severe cycling of this heat combine nicely, in the sense that the boiler water temperature can be reduced, which reduces fuel consumption, whilst still outputting adequate heat that is not pulsing over time.

One might ask then why use the Oxyvent tank for this; why not just reduce the water temperature (thus saving on fuel) and turn up the flow rate (thus improving the heat spreading on the radiators and thus the power output)? The answer is that for this case, the water inlet temperature is still cycling due to the on-off nature of the boiler so that the radiators may well reach the same peak power output but will also drop to a very low one, so that on average over time the power output is much lower than the case with the Oxyvent tank which provides a much more constant inlet water temperature to the radiators, even though the boiler is cycling.

Are you any the wiser? I'm not sure I am. It makes it look like it does something, but what exactly is still hard to tell. Other experts I know had reservations, but perhaps the best comment I got was from Michael Holmes of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine. He wrote I suspect that this product is a large heat exchanger/store, so the boiler flow and return go direct from this box, which acts as a thermal flywheel. Any benefit in terms of energy saving is likely to come from increasing the amount of time the boiler is in condensing mode, and by setting the boiler to a lower output temperature so it gradually heats up this thermal store. It is not clear whether it offers direct DHW too.

I suspect there are ways to achieve the same using controls. A boiler with a modulating burner that has a second low temp output for UFH etc. might achieve the same results without the expense. A thermal store cylinder can also work as a thermal flywheel, and provide DHW on demand.

So there you have it. A product that does something but we are not really sure what. It doesn't come with any 3rd party accreditation, like a BBA certificate, so we are left with lots of customer feedback and the observations of a Dublin academic. My hunch is that there are some installations where Oxyvent may make a huge difference, but others where it may do very little. And I realise that's not very helpful either.

2 Aug 2011

Cantor on Air Source Heat Pumps

John Cantor has a deserved reputation as a knowledgeable and independent commentator on all things heat pump. And here he has distilled much of what he knows on the vexed issue of air-source heat pumps. Anyone thinking of installing such a beast would do well to read through John's thoughts beforehand.

He looks at why so many people end up being disappointed by their heat pumps, and what they might have done to ensure that the installation had worked better for them. He analyses the Energy Savings Trust survey last year which showed generally poor results for ASHPs, and undertakes some comparisons with Germany and Switzerland where heat pumps are more widely used and apparently give better results. And he looks at the implications of the widespread adoption of heat pumps to UK energy policy - can the Grid cope?

All in all, a really useful contribution to the debate, and a very practical guide as well.

28 Jul 2011

The Salford Low Energy Homes

I found this piece fascinating. In the late 1970s, Salford Council hit upon the idea of building some low energy houses. They weren't the only ones. We did things like that in the 1970s. They were duly monitored for a couple of years, broadly found to work just fine, and then quietly forgotten about for the next 30 years.

Then a couple of years ago, Salford University cobbled together some money to undertake a follow up study. They had trouble identifying the 250-odd homes as no one had kept any records, but they tracked enough down to make a decent fist of it. The houses followed the high thermal mass cocooned in a 200mm shell of insulation design, the sort of thing that isn't going to crumble away anytime soon, and were built for about 8% more than the standard prevailing at the time.

What they have found is that the space heating performance of these homes remains spot on. In fact, it actually beats the figures for the 2010 building regs, and is probably about the same as the level set by the proposed 2016 "zero carbon" standards.

It makes for a good headline, but the colourful graphs used in the study are a little indefinite for my liking. There are no absolute measurements of energy use, just comparitors with other standards such as Part L at various stages. The sooner we convert all these standards to kWh/m2/a the better. Without a common denominator, the results are too easy to manipulate.

Another interesting statement:
The 1980-82 study involved detailed temperature monitoring at half-hour intervals in six dwellings over two years. It produced detailed results which showed that consumptions by different households varied by about a factor of five, from about 10% to 50% of traditional with an average of near 25%.

This corresponds with the observations of many others. There are huge variations on how individual homes perform. The Salford study suggests that the difference is largely down to the temperatures that people choose to heat their homes to, and that a house heated to 23°C would use four times as much as one heated to 18°C. They also suggest that that is true for badly built homes as much as well built ones. If this is true (and it seems likely, though once again there is no way of verifying it), then it has huge implications for the Fuel Poverty debate. The definition of fuel poverty is that you spend more than 10% of your income on energy bills, but without an effective way of monitoring how a household consumes energy, it's pretty meaningless.

26 Jul 2011

The Selfbuild Nugget

From tiny acorns....

There it is, buried on line 13 of Clause 28 of the newly published National Planning Policy Framework, the phrase that we hope will turn the tide of the UK housebuilding scene.

To paraphrase for those of you too lazy to download. Clause 28 deals with Housing Requirements. It asks that individual local authorities undertake assessments of what their housing requirements are. Nothing new there. It is more specific than this though. It requests these assessments address the need for all types of housing, including affordable housing and the needs of different groups in the community (such as families with children, older people, disabled people, service families and people wishing to build their own homes) and caters for housing demand and the scale of housing supply necessary to meet this demand.

So that's what we have won. Just the mention of people wishing to build their own homes. Never been mentioned before in all the 1,000 plus pages of PPG this and PPS that. Instead we have got it into the 60-page NPPF. BTW, how brilliant is that? Just 60 pages. I approve.

So the next stage is to use this lever to campaign LA's to address the demand for selfbuild, and to not quietly ignore it. It won't be an overnight sensation, that's for sure, but we have at least established credibility with the national planners that selfbuild should be more than just a side show.

It already looks as though the draft NPPF is going to kickstart a debate about the Green Belts. Just this morning, I heard the first salvo on the radio from the National Trust who are upset about the presumption in favour of sustainable development. I am sure I even heard the phrase "urban sprawl" came up. Don't you love it?

25 Jul 2011

The Selfbuild Revolution

It's been months in the making but the NASBA selfbuild action plan is now a reality and its here. It seems to be enjoying the support of housing minister Grant Shapps and there is every hope that at least some of the proposals will see the light of day.

I was responsible for the Regulation and Red Tape bits (broadly pages 14 - 17) but I couldn't have done it without the input from the committee members who sat through four meetings at Department for Communities and Local Government in London. So my own vote of thanks to:

David Dewart of Swindon BC Planning Dept
Julian Owen, Architect and founder of ASBA
Roy Speer of Speer Dade Planning Consultants
Sally Tagg of Foxley Tagg Planning Consultants
Doug Livingstone of HCA

and also to Mario Wolf, Paul Wren and Alex Lessware of the DCLG team. There were many others but the ones I have listed sat through every minute of every meeting and deserve medals if nothing else. And of course, a big hand to Ted Stevens, the founder of Nasba, without whom none of this would have happened.

One thing we were all agreed on is that we would like to see more selfbuild in the UK. "Whatever it is they do in Germany (last year 92,000 individual selfbuilds, as opposed to around 15,000 in the UK), we would like some of that pixie dust to rub off on us. It seems that the differences are as much cultural as legalistic and we hope that by gently prodding our local authority planning departments, we could open the door to far more land being made available for selfbuild. Our first goal is to get a mention of selfbuild in the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework consultation document which is due out any day. This is an amalgamation of all the previous PPS and PPG documents that have made up national policy before, none of which has ever mentioned selfbuild at all.

11 Jul 2011


Cambridge is known throughout Europe as Start-Up Alley. All these whacky, sometimes nerdy boys coming through with their PHDs in things mere mortals can barely comprehend are encouraged to commercialise their research and to form companies with Greek-sounding names to market their work. Mostly this sort of thing goes on in the quiet of a science park, of which there are a number dotted around the town, but every now and then you come face to face with one and this Saturday, Hamish Stuart of Polysolar was displaying his invention at the French Fair on Parker's Piece, close to the main shopping streets.

Now, if I got it correctly, Polysolar is a new type of photovoltaic panel which is formed by etching the power-generating circuits into a sheet of glass, and then sandwiching it between two more sheets. Compared with the crystalline PV panels which dominate the industry, its dead simple and therefore potentially very cheap. It produces less power than conventional PV but it has the potential to be used as a roofing material or as a facade. Building Integrated PV, or BIPV. There's a new acronym for you.

They have already completed several installations in Taiwan and China, but they now have sorted MCS accreditation and are ready to hit the UK, as it's all eligible for the feed-in tariff.

And I only went there to get a baguette for breakfast.

6 Jul 2011

The Natural House?

Good to see that The Natural House is open. At last. As far as I recall, it was meant to be up and running for BRE's Onsite 09 exhibition, but it had run into a few problems. I think the original builders went bust and it took a while to sort out a replacement crew. On time, on budget, it isn't. But is it on message?

I haven't seen it in its finished state (your roving reporter having temporarily stopped roving) but judging by Hattie Hartman's Footprint piece, I am puzzled by what point it's trying to make. The conclusion I am drawn to make is that this is a right-wing house, sitting in a small estate (OK Innovation Park) of left-wing houses. It is also a vocal house, making a statement about its political credentials. "I'm different and I don't care who knows it. Something 'bout me is not the same."

Enter Grant Shapps, our Housing Minister, who was on hand to open the house. Note it's red tape he is cutting, not blue ribbon!
Very symbolic. His quote is also illuminating. Shapps said ‘delivering zero carbon was beginning to look quite alien and not synonymous with traditional looking homes. . . Natural House demonstrates that British design will still have a place on our streets and does not need to be replaced by Scandinavian-style, ‘eco-bling’ properties that wear their green credentials for all to see’.

Now hold on Grant. One thing at a time. Firstly, is this really what anyone would call "British Design." I'm really not sure. Although it's four square, faintly Georgian, it's also nothing like anything I have seen anywhere in the world. If you were to show me a picture of this house without knowing where or what it is, and had asked me to guess where it was, I think I would go for Germany, probably because the windows look German (in fact they are Austrian, quite close). I'm not even sure what a modern British house design looks like.

By implication, Shapps seems to be implying that the other houses on the BRE Innovation Park look Scandinavian, but once again I'm not sure that really holds water. One or two maybe - indeed one of them is Scandinavian IIRC. But mostly they look.....left-wing methinks. Or modern. I guess Scandinavia is pretty left wing. Certainly has very high public spending levels. Not to mention suicide levels - how existential can you get? There is a point to be teased out here, but I'm not sure it's Britain v Scandinavia.

Then there's the eco-bling comment. One of the things that the Natural House eschews is eco-bling, which is the derogatory term used for solar panels in particular, but also for all the various accoutrements which the government currently gives us subsidies for (i.e. heat pumps, biomass boilers, CHP plants, i.e. small scale renewables generally). Although the Natural House is not a PassivHaus, it's making much the same points — i.e. you don't need eco-bling, you just need to build it properly. No whether this is a left v right, modern v traditional battle, I have no idea, but it's a point to which I pretty much subscribe. Maybe that makes me right-wing?

The manifesto for the Natural House includes using not only "natural" materials but ones that can be sourced in the UK and ones that can be purchased off the shelf. Which shelf, it doesn't say? Harrods anyone? Eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted that the windows came from Austria (despite Howarth Timber now making them in Lincolnshire), but it also uses Thermoplan clay blocks for the walls (Germany), Pavaroof (Switzerland), Aereco ventilation (France), lots of timber (anywhere but the UK). At least the foundations (Bullivants) and the roof cover (Sandtoft) are British, plus much of the chintzy fit out.

And how is it heated? Hattie doesn't tell us. Nor does any of the other literature I can lay my hands on. It's certainly no post-heated MVHR system because it doesn't have an MVHR system - it relies on Aereco's passive stack system instead. Certainly won't be a heat pump. can't be a gas boiler? Can it? My guess is that it's some infernal biomass boiler, hidden away in the servants quarters. I bet you it's made nearer to Scandinavia than the UK! (But I won't mention eco-****).

So we are getting close to the knitty gritty of what this house is all about here. It shares a fabric-first approach with the PassivHaus — incidentally there is as yet no PassivHaus on the BRE Innovation Park — but it sets itself out as being diametrically opposed to the PassivHaus airtight/MVHR approach. Because? Well, it's not altogether clear. I guess because it's "unnatural". But they have in fact — according to the score sheet — built an amazingly airtight house with a score of just 1q50, which only narrowly fails the PassivHaus standard (0.6q50). That's an awfully tight score for a house with no MVHR and it will be interesting to see how it performs, especially if there is to be wood-burning appliances as well. My guess is it will struggle - or else there are vent holes which will be used to let extra air in which simply got closed off for the pressure test. Something doesn't add up here.

You see, if you go really airtight, you more or less have to install MVHR. I know some people disagree (Bill Dunster?), but the consensus of opinion is that if you construct something resembling an aircraft cabin, then you need to have a fan to change the air. Maybe someone, somewhere on some distant university campus will spend years testing ventilation systems and airtightness levels to get a conclusive answer to all this, but at the moment it's an unknown and MVHR is much the simplest way of dealing with this unresolved issue.

So why make a stand against using MVHR? Is it because it's eco-****? Is it because it's not natural? Is it because it doesn't breathe? (Give us a break, please!) Is it because it's left wing? Or Scandinavian? Is it because we like chimneys? But if we like chimneys, why bother to build to such low air tightness levels? And why does this blog keep ending with a series or questions?

1 Jul 2011

On Welsh Slate

Alan Smith, MD of Welsh Slate, had invited me to take a look around the famous Penrhyn slate quarry.

I got there at last on Tuesday and was immediately bowled over by the place. The scale — it's enormous. The location — it's dramatic, perched up on a mountainside at the edge of Snowdonia. The history — it's all pervasive and a little disquieting. Penrhyn has been operating for hundreds of years so comes with the feel of an industrial museum piece. But there are still hundreds of years worth of unworked seams lying in the ground, so it remains an incredibly important resource. And one which I slowly came to realise is both underused and undervalued.

My knowledge of the UK roofing market is fairly limited. Back in my days as a jobbing builder in Cambridge, we regularly used to do re-roofs of the Victorian housing and we always used to search out Welsh reclaims. This was in the 1980s, at a time when Spanish slates were just starting to appear in number. Reclaims you could buy for a similar amount but were by and large a better bet than the Spanish ones. Thinking about it, that in itself is pretty amazing, because these reclaims had already spent the best part of a century up on a roof, and they were still in pretty good nick. It was easy to test them. You just tapped the back of the slate with a hammer and if it gave a nice hollow ringing sound, it was a good'un. In a good batch, only about 5% were rejected. Any building product with a 95% recycling rate after 100 years has got to be pretty special, but back then we just took it for granted. In contrast, many of the imported slates were prone to cracking or splitting when being nailed on the battens.

Back then, we never went for new Welsh slate because there was no need. It was always said to be "too expensive" so we just went with what everybody else used, which was reclaims.

But I never really put 2 + 2 together before this week. There is a very good reason why new Welsh slate is "too expensive" and that is because after 100 years it is still better than most slate from other quarries around the world. And that's not an idle boast, it's pretty much down to the geology of Penrhyn. The slate hewn from this seam is a lot older than the competition (geoglogically, it's Cambrian) and because of this it has far fewer impurities. Consequently, it is harder and it barely degrades. It can sit on a roof, go through whatever sun, wind,rain and snow can throw at it for year after year and it barely has any effect on it at all. Thinking back on it, the roofs we were relaying in the 1980s were being relaid because the supporting timber was knackered and the slates were starting to slip. It wasn't the slates themselves which were at fault.

Even today, 100 yr old reclaimed Welsh slate is available to buy at around £28/m2: new Penrhyn slate costs around £50/m2, so this is a building product that holds 60% of its value for a century. Can you think of anything else to match this? In terms of whole life costing, it's an astonishing result. And looking at things this way, I realised this week for the first time that new Welsh slate isn't "expensive" at all. It's actually one of the biggest bargains out there.

By the end of my brief visit, I had become an advocate. In an era when everyone and their aunt is banging on about sustainable building materials, here is one that's produced on our doorstep, that lasts several lifetimes, looks fantastic, there's masses of it, and it requires almost no energy to produce. There's no baking, no firing, no moulding with cement, no manufacturing at all. Just sawing away from the rockface, cutting, splitting and finishing, much of this still done by hand because no one has yet invented a machine which can improve on the human eye. Go check it out.

2 Jun 2011

The Green Belt - a very Tory problem

I have been dipping into a draft of the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) which is taxiing for take-off sometime in the not-too-distant-future (OK - I actually have no idea when). The NPPF sets out to streamline and simplify all the various national planning guidances (the PPGs and PPSs) into one document. This first draft will get re-written and then go out to consultation and in time it will become the business. In England only — planning being a devolved matter.

Now I must declare a small interest here because I am currently well involved with another consultation exercise going on in the world of selfbuild, where various noteworthies and practitioners are sitting in smoke-free rooms trying to come up with suggestions for housing minister Grant Shapps to make selfbuild easier and more mainstream. You can't sit for very long in a smoke-free room talking about selfbuild without the topic of planning coming up — in fact it sort of pervades pretty much all the discussions.

So if you like, the draft NPPF document is homework for me. It's certainly not the sort of thing I would be reading for pleasure. But it's not badly written and I must quietly admit to enjoying the odd moment. The thing that strikes me most about it, and the bit I am getting around to, is the fact that despite it being a new document, all the old planning speak is still in place, and all the old contradictions are there to be examined, and put back in the box.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle between housing supply and Green Belt. Here's what this document says about housing supply objectives:

The Government’s key housing objective is to significantly increase the delivery of new homes. Everyone should have the opportunity to live in high quality, well designed homes, which they can afford, in a community where they want to live. To achieve this objective, the Government is seeking to:

␣ significantly increase the supply of housing;
␣ deliver a wide choice of high quality homes that people want and need;
␣ widen opportunities for home ownership; and
␣ create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities in all areas, including through the regeneration and renewal of areas of poor housing.

To enable this, the planning system should aim to deliver a sufficient quantity, quality and range of housing consistent with the land use principles and other polices of this National Planning Policy Framework.

It all sounds very pro-housing until you get halfway through the last sentence, the bit that starts "consistent with...". Ask yourself which is more important. Housing supply? Or land use principles? I think the phrase consistent with tells you that it's land use principles which rule the roost.

And for land use principles, you can read protection, and for this you can read Green Belt. Here's what the same document has to say about Green Belt.

The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

Green Belt serves five purposes:
␣ to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
␣ to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
␣ to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
␣ to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
␣ to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Once Green Belts have been defined, local authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; retain and enhance landscapes and biodiversity; or improve damaged and derelict land.

Take another look at the first sentence. The fundamental aim of the Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl. Urban sprawl? You can't help but stand back here and think, firstly, what the hell is urban sprawl and, secondly, who would give a shit about urban sprawl. It then goes on to list five supplementary reasons why we should be worried about urban sprawl.

The one I like best is the prevention of neighbouring towns merging into one another, as if this is a way of stopping the transmission of infectious diseases. We have the horrors of the Medway towns, and Bournemouth and Poole staring us in the face, as these coalescences had occurred before the Green Belt policies got to work. How much worse could it have got? If it wasn't for these policies, upmarket Cheltenham might even now have been swallowed up by Gloucester (tabloid) City.

In fact, the more you read these justifications for Green Belt, the quainter they sound. And the killer sentence is of course the last one. Here it is again. For emphasis sake.

local authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; retain and enhance landscapes and biodiversity; or improve damaged and derelict land.

Now access, outdoor sport and biodiversity are all very well and good, but the country isn't exactly short of any of these.

So how can a planning policy make out that on the one hand housing supply should be increased significantly whilst, on the other, the obvious location for this new housing supply is off limits and can only be used for access, outdoor sport and bird watching? Who says? Who exactly comes up with this planning theory? And how come someone doesn't point out that it doesn't make any sense?

Now for many years, some of our more subversive commentators have put a very different interpretation on these policies. The last to nail his colours to the mast was the undercover economist Tim Harford. Harford argued that the Green Belt exists largely to protect the status quo and to maintain high property prices in English villages in particular. By preventing the expansion of villages, the Green Belt acts as an Economic Cleanser, and the poor eventually get shunted out into the urban social housing estates that the Green Belt actually encourages. My recent straw polls of planning-type people who I have been canvassing suggest that the Harford line is broadly accepted, and that the "urban sprawl" justifications used in planning policy documents are there pretty much as window dressing.

Not that there aren't a lot of people around who think the Green Belt is and should remain sacrosant. Here's what history lecturer, TV pundit and now a Labour MP Tristram Hunt had to say about it in 2008 (quoted in Daily Telegraph) "Of course our green belt is sacred. The alternative is a car-dependent, exurban sprawl disfiguring our towns and villages, worsening climate change, leeching cities into wilderness and doing nothing to bring down the cost of housing."

Not only is this mostly a load of bollocks, it's dishonest bollocks, esp the last bit about the cost of housing. That's having your cake and eating it. My point is that you can build in the countryside, or you can have fields in the countryside and high house prices, but you can't have both.

Which brings us to the Tories because here is a political party that actively wants both. The countryside is pretty much Tory heartland and rural Tories don't like voting for new housing development (because they like to hang on to what they have got). Despite the Green Belt originally being a Socialist-inspired idea, it's the rural Tories who will now be fighting hardest for its retention.

12 May 2011

Housebuilder's Bible - 9th edition - missing table

The 9th edition has now been on the shelves (well on Amazon's shelf at least) for just over a month and is selling well. And signs are that it's getting read as well because two eagle-eyed readers have spotted the fact that in Chapter 8 (Plumbing & Heating) I refer in the text to a table that isn't there. I can only apologise: it somehow got lost in the changeover between editions. The reason is that the 9th edition features a benchmark house without a conventional heating system and so there are no conventional heating costs to table. But I didn't mean to leave out the conventional heating costs - they just got overlooked.

So for readers scratching their heads, here is the data that should have been in Chapter 8.

Key Materials Prices
Gas Condensing Boiler and Flue £ 650
Gas Condensing Combi Boiler £ 850
Oil Condensing Boiler and Flue £ 1,400
Mains Pressure Cylinder £ 600
Primaries/Valves/Pumps £ 300
Radiator and Pipework £ 65
Heating Controls/wiring £ 200
TRVs £ 8
Room Thermostats £ 60
Devi Heat Mats £ 12 /m2
UFH pipe inc manifolds £ 10 /m2
Unbunded Oil Tank £ 400
Bunded Oil Tank £ 1,200

Plumbers rates £ 30/hr Cost@ £30/hr
Fit Boiler + Balanced Flue 10 hr £ 300
Fit Cylinder 6 hr £ 180
Fit Tanks in Loft 6 hr £ 180
Run Cold to Loft 2 hr £ 60
Connect Primary Pipework 8 hr £ 240
Fix one radiator 0.5 hr £ 15
Pipe radiator 1 hr £ 30
Fit Whole House Heating Control 6 hr £ 180
Fit Individual Room Stats 2 hr £ 60
Commission System 8 hr £ 240
Place and Plumb-in Oil Tank 6 hr £ 180
Lay underfloor heating 10 mins/m2 £ 5

3 May 2011

Harnessing the energy of the DIY army

In recent weeks, I've given over some time to helping out Nasba (that's the National Selfbuild Association) by engaging with the government in a consultation exercise to see if we can somehow push selfbuild up the planners' agenda, and to make life easier for amateur builders. Whilst major housebuilders have long been represented in the corridors of power by professional lobbyists, the selfbuild community, by its very nature, is fragmented and transitory and has been neglected in discussions about the national housing mix.

That this discussion is taking place at all is due in large part to two people, one being Ted Stevens, the driving force behind Nasba, the other Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister. Somehow selfbuild seems to fit in with all these coalition buzzwords we keep hearing like Localsim and the Community Right to Build (or CRTB as I heard it abbrvd. to), and bodies hoping to speak up for the "typical selfbuilder" are currently being welcomed with open arms at both the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and No 10.

At Ted's behest, I am chairing one of four committees tasked with coming up with ways of improving the selfbuilder's lot. My group is looking at the many regulatory hurdles facing amateur developers. This is definitely my big society moment because the fee for all this work is a big fat nothing - not even travel expenses - and my hope is, consequently, that this all doesn't take too long. We've been promised some sort of outcome by July. Let's hope so, because the thrill of sitting in Elland House, home of the Department, with a security name tag around my neck and a cheap day return in my pocket won't last long.

On March 28, I attended a gathering of the committee chairmen together with key DCLG bods to review where we had go to so far, and whilst there was lots of encouraging words spouting forth, we also came bang slap up against a little semantic problem which quietly rankles away in the background and from time to time rears its ugly head. That is how exactly do you define "selfbuild." Where do you draw the line? It sort of matters when you are trying to engage with agencies wanting to promote selfbuild, especially if the term starts appearing in planning guidance documents, which is something we all hope will happen.

So why is selfbuild hard to define? Well, there is the classic selfbuilder, the type who turns up at the Homebuilding & Renovating or Grand Designs shows, who has a plot and wants to know how to build a house. Then there's a small number of hardy souls who get together to do group selfbuild, some private, some as affordable schemes. There are also professional builders who build regularly for sale and sometimes build for their own occupation, and there are amateurs who become serial selfbuilders and sort of graduate into professionals. Statistically, these guys are selfbuilders but they don't really belong in spirit. Then there are converters and restorers. And there are lots of people who have homes that they want to improve and can't decide what to do with them: should they renovate or rebuild? To them, it's often a very tricky decision, but one thing they never consider is their status as selfbuilders or not. To them, it's just getting building work done whichever way suits.

And then it struck me that the very term "selfbuilder" has been defined by others, not by selfbuilders. It's not a term widely used in other countries and I don't think it was much used in this country until the 1990s. The reason we have a sub-group of house builders called selfbuilders is that we have a much larger group of professional or speculative builders, and it's the very dominance of this group which makes selfbuild appear to be something of an anomaly in need of a leg up.

What's peculiar about the housebuilding market in Britain is the dominance of spec builders. In the UK, the big builders do deals in smoke-filled rooms with landowners and planners and carve up the countryside into mega-plots, and then serve up whatever they choose to build. It doesn't really happen in other Western nations where the consumer has remained in pole position and builders have customised their output to fit consumer choice. Countries like Germany have a very different housing market where individual plots are quite easy to locate and develop, and the housebuilders compete for their custom, just like a kitchen or bathroom company does over here. There is no notion of selfbuilding in Germany, anymore than someone in the UK who orders a new kitchen is a self-kitchener.

So if we are really going to make selfbuilding much more commonplace over here, then we have to do something to address the dominance of the spec builders (i.e. stop it). I'm not sure this is the message that Grant Shapps really wants to hear, because so much of the policy debate is dominated by numbers, and there is a feeling that if the Coalition doesn't get loads more new homes built then its housing policies will have failed. My worry is that they are looking to boost selfbuild simply as a way of providing additional new homes, not because it is as an alternative and superior procurement route.

And in seeking to harness selfbuild as a way of simply adding to the number of new homes being built, the government may be missing a trick, because what we are dealing with here is a pretty basic human desire to build a nice nest. Whether that's building a new home or extending and improving an old one is not a central issue to this DIY army. And, if you think about it logically, it's not central to the wider issue of our housing stock. Too much effort is being expended on making the cake bigger: not enough on checking out whether it still tastes OK.

4 Apr 2011

Time to redefine competence?

Last Sunday, I was working an "Expert" at the Homebuilding & Renovating show and I got asked a question which set me thinking. First the question.

A guy is planning to build a house and he hates trickle vents, but he also doesn't want to use mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. His preferred window maker produces a window with a vent-open setting which he is happy with, but he has heard that this doesn't meet with British building regs. Is that right and, if so, what are his options?

It's a good question and it's not the first time I have been asked it. The ventilation regs - Part F - aren't exactly black and white on this issue but they make it difficult for people wanting to use the ventilation or night latch solution because they are required to demonstrate that the ventilation is controlled. Or, to be more precise, that the opening is not too big and not too small. A figure of 5000mm2 per room is bandied about as if this is the key - any less and you will suffocate, any more and you will be wasting energy. Whilst trickle vents are thus routinely manufactured for UK joinery firms to provide this opening (i.e. they are built to the regs), foreign manufacturers don't build with British regs in mind and therefore don't provide any information on their ventilation opening sizes. Hence they run into problems with Part F.

Now whether this is really a matter of public health, or a sneaky way of keeping Continental joinery manufacturers out of the UK market is a matter of debate which I won't dwell on here. My guess is that the more relaxed type of building inspector will be happy to accept the Continental solution, but the sticklers will throw the rule book at you and won't play ball. They will want a 5000mm2 (and not a mm2 less) opening or whole house MVHR, and nothing else will do.

Which brings me onto my main point. Why should this arbitrary power rest with the building inspector? The guidance in Part F has been written deliberately fuzzy so as allow a little leeway in interpretation, and yet the building inspector still gets to act as judge and jury on the outcome.

Which in turn brings me onto the issue of competence. As the building regs have grown ever more complex (and some would say intrusive), the power of the building inspector has slowly ebbed away. First, the role became subject to private competition, so that we now have different building control bodies with slightly different interpretations of the rules. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the world of multifoils where the TRADA-backed claims are now rejected by the establishment building control bodies (LABC, NHBC) but are happily waived through by many small private inspectors.

Secondly, areas of building regulation supervision have been removed from traditional building inspectors and placed in the hands of "competent professionals." Here we are talking about gas plumbing, glazing, electrics, boiler installation, solid fuel, SAP calculations, maybe even a few more I can't think of at the moment. The reason for this is mostly one of cost. Whilst the ambit of the building regs has expanded, the money available for their policing hasn't, so there simply aren't enough inspectors around to check every replacement window or boiler. So schemes like FENSA (for windows) and HETAS (for solid fuel appliances) have been created to supervise and sign off the work.

Can you see where this is heading? If we can accept private building inspectors, and if we can accept areas of the building regs that just get signed off as having been done competently by some bod in a van who has been on a course, why not go the whole hog and have suitably qualified builders and architects who can sign off entire buildings as "meets current building regs?"

Now this isn't a new suggestion. It was looked at in 1999 by the pre-cursor of the DCLG and "there was no support at that time for self-certification for whole buildings." But perhaps they didn't ask the right people? Or maybe professional practices baulk at the thought of the added liability of taking on all this extra responsibility. But it's hard to escape the logic and in an era of cuts, it's probably the way of the future. Afterall, surgeons don't have operation inspectors passing their every move, so why should competent builders or architects?

How would it work, such a system? Well big practices would probably hire redundant building inspectors to become part of the design team to keep everything tickety-boo and up to date. Smaller ones might still use the existing system, or hire in professionals as and when needed. There would have to be a spot-checking system in place (obviously) but there might also be the freedom to negotiate outcomes with clients, rather than the checkbox mentality which pervades the whole process at the moment. So if our trickle-vent hating selfbuilder wanted to use a Continental solution, he could do so on the understanding that it might be deemed to be non-standard and might effect the resale value of his house.

One area where I feel it could make a vast improvement is in the handling of listed building consents. At the moment, these get snagged up for ever and a day by conservation officers who are able to play God with what you can and can't do to a listed building, without so much as a nod towards cost or time. I'm frequently hearing of listed building projects being delayed by up to a year by the machinations of sometimes dubiously-qualified officials who find it very easy to say "No" to almost anything. Why not let the architects or builders take the same courses and get a similar qualification and then let them decide with the client how best to sympathetically restore a listed building?

Competence. It's all in that word. Perhaps it's time for our building professionals to step up to the plate and demand that they be treated like they have it.