31 Aug 2007

House for sale: $1,500

Want to take advantage of the US sub-prime mortgage crash? Why not buy this pied-a-terre in fashionable Detroit for just $1,500.

Selfbuild VAT reclaim statistics

I have been taking at look at the UK’s selfbuild VAT reclaim figures. These are a key statistic, used to measure the size and the health of the selfbuild market where, uniquely in Europe, new homebuilding is zero-rated for VAT purposes. What I have managed to glean from the Revenue & Customs are new figures from March 2004 to August 2006; I already have figures for six years in the 1990s, so there is enough data here to make some comparisons.

In the first period, 1993-99, the average number of reclaims under the DIY reclaim scheme was 10,593 per annum. In the second period, April 04 – Aug 06, this was 10,810, a 4% increase, possibly not statistically significant.

However, the average size of each reclaim has grown dramatically, from £4,166 in the 1990s, up to £6,547 in the Noughties sample. A whopping 57% increase.

What the figures reveal

Firstly, they don’t really tell you the size of the selfbuild market. The only people that make DIY reclaims are non-professionals who aren’t registered for VAT and who buy materials on their own account. Therefore there will be lots of selfbuilds that never appear in these figures. We have to guess how many more, but you won’t be far out if you were to add 50% to the numbers — i.e. around 15,000 per annum.

They do tell you that the number of selfbuilds isn’t really growing. In fact earlier figures that I’ve seen also confirm this. The number of DIY reclaims has hovered between 10,000 a year and 12,000 a year ever since 1984 when VAT first became chargeable on building work.

What about the dramatic increase in the amount being spent? I can see two obvious reasons for this. Firstly, inflation in building materials, which has been growing steadily over the past few years. Secondly, selfbuilders specifying more upmarket materials, in line with housebuilding generally. Granite worktops, underfloor heating, hardwood floors, etc.

Finally, one fact is revealed in the latest figures which I haven’t seen before. Around 15% of claims are disallowed. That seems an extraordinarily high figure. I know the scheme is somewhat complex to understand, but nevertheless that’s quite a figure. I don’t know whether this 15% represents a lot of wholly rejected claims or whether it’s people wrongly claiming for unallowable parts of their build costs — probably a bit of both. The figures I have used for the amounts claimed excludes the rejected claims.

If you want to know more about the DIY VAT reclaim scheme, the relevant page is here. Please note, this scheme only operates in the UK.

24 Aug 2007

Can I still do DIY electrics?

I am in the very early thought process stage for building my own home. I have every intention of carrying out as much of the work myself as I possibly can, and this ranges from ground works to electrical installation, plumbing etc, etc.

However, the recent changes in legislation now mean that I have to employ someone else to do what I could do myself the day before the changes came into force.

To comply with this new legislation, my thinking is that I need to be approved under the "Competent Persons Scheme", and therefore, I need to know exactly what qualifications I need to gain, and what my next move is once I have the qualifications. Is it purely a case of gaining BS7671 and the like ?

It seems very odd that as a "layman" I can visit my DIY store or similar merchants and purchase all of the equipment I require to install systems, but I can't actually do anything with regard to fitting them.

Can you please clarify what the situation is.

Ian Thorley

Mark writes:

It wasn’t until 2005 that electrical work came under the auspices of building control in England & Wales. Part P, as it is known, doesn’t actually state that only competent persons are allowed to carry out electrical work: rather it suggests you have two choices. Firstly, you can elect to have a suitably Part P qualified electrician undertake the work for you and sign it off as having been carried out in accordance with BS7671. Alternatively, you can apply to have the electrical work inspected — and hopefully passed —by your local authority building inspector, or an agent acting for them. This, in theory, allows DIYers to undertake their own electrical work, in the time-honoured fashion, but adds in a measure of quality control that wasn’t previously there. If this work was being carried out as part of a larger project — i.e. building a house — then there shouldn’t be any additional charge for inspecting the electrics, though this may be at the discretion of the building inspector.

However, not every local authority is happy to undertake electrical inspections. Some of them have hired qualified electricians to undertake this new workload, others haven’t bothered and are instead insisting that all electrical work is undertaken by suitably qualified electricians. I suggest you make some enquiries to your local authority building inspectors and find out where they stand.

If they insist on you using a qualified electrician, and you still wish to undertake the work yourself, you then have a further two choices.

• One is to find a Part P electrician who will mentor you through the job, do some inspection and sign off the job as their own. They do exist. One who works regularly with selfbuilders across the land is Ben Addison.

• The other is to undertake the training yourself. There are various places you can do this training. One such is Trade Skills 4U.co.uk, who offer a range of courses suitable for your needs at a cost of around £1,500. This must include a City & Guilds 2381 qualification to show you understand the essentials of BS7671, and a further qualification for Part P Domestic Installers. Having successfully completed the courses, you would also need membership of a certifying body such as The Electrical Contractors Association in order to be able to sign off your own work. It would probably cost you around £2,000 for the qualifications and a year’s membership. However, at the end of this process, you would also have a very sellable skill. If you really enjoy electrical work, maybe this is what you have been waiting for!

21 Aug 2007

Carbon Accounting in Electricity

In order to make sensible decisions about how to reduce CO2 emissions, you need good data on what those emissions actually are. In essence, you need to create a robust accounting system, built out of units of CO2, not to mention other greenhouse gases. There will be both a profit and loss account – energy in use – and a balance sheet – embodied energy in buildings and plant. In an ideal world, these carbon units could be linked to money and you could apply a cost-effectiveness filter across everything.

But the basic data isn’t yet in place. Or, to put it another way, there are still wide disparities in attempting to work out just how much CO2 is being emitted.

Take electricity consumption. It’s a complex beast because it is derived from a variety of sources, some carbon rich (oil, gas, coal) some almost carbon-free (nuclear, renewables). Plus it gets distributed over huge areas and undergoes transmission losses and power station inefficiencies. How can you attribute a single figure to the CO2 content of electricity? Well, we do. It is routinely rated in the UK as emitting 0.43kgCO2/kwh, just over twice as much as mains gas, and this is the figure used to calculate the CO2 emissions of electrical appliances, including heat pumps.

A long and involved thread on the AECB forum looked into just how accurate this 0.43 figure actually is. It turns out it was set in 1998 at a time when the CO2 content of electricity was falling because of the dash-for-gas. It never got down to 0.43, but it was thought that this was a good figure to use because, over a decade or so, it was hoped that the CO2 content might fall to somewhere close, and so it was a good basis to plan electrical installations on. The current figure, according to DEFRA, is actually 0.52 and, worryingly, it’s been going up not down in recent years as coal fired power stations have been coming back on line. This figure also takes no account of transmission losses, nor of embodied energy costs in power stations, nor extraction/transportation costs of coal and gas. It could, in reality be much higher than 0.52kgCO2/kWh. Some comments even set it above 1.00kgCO2/kWh. How can we hope to make sensible planning decisions about whether to install kit like heat pumps unless we can be sure that the raw data on electricity use is accurate?

It is yet another puzzle in this complex web we are weaving. It seems to me to be an increasingly important issue that is not being given the attention it deserves. We are being expected to make ball-achingly expensive decisions about future CO2 emissions and energy paybacks, but there are still huge question marks hanging over the accuracy of the data we are using.

20 Aug 2007

Timber frame fires: follow up

The London Fire Brigade have come back to me with the summary report of their findings on the Colindale fire on Wednesday 12 July 2006. Highlights include:

• The building was under construction and consisted of a concrete ground and first floor, with the remaining five upper floors solely constructed from timber.

• A fire was first seen at first floor level in Block B4. This is thought to be the fire’s ‘Area of Origin’. Block B4 was part of an ‘L’ shaped building with maximum dimensions 38 metres by 60 metres. The fire’s ‘Area of Origin’ was close to the centre of the building adjacent to the staircase shaft and lift shaft.

• The fire spread rapidly through Block B4 with full involvement and collapse of this building in less than 10 minutes.

• The fire spread by radiated heat to an adjacent building also under construction. The fire also spread via radiated heat to the top floor and roof of the neighbouring Middlesex University Halls of Residence. There was also damage by radiated heat to thirty vehicles parked in Aerodrome Road and to the “P.N.C. Building” located in the Hendon Police College on the opposite side of Aerodrome Road.

• As a result of the fire approximately 180 construction workers were evacuated from Block B1 and Block B2 and approximately 100 students were evacuated from the Middlesex University Halls of Residence. In addition, an unknown number of staff were evacuated from the Hendon Police College complex. No injuries were sustained during the evacuation.

And as to cause? The report makes these comments:

• The most probable source of ignition of this fire was a carelessly discarded lit cigarette at first floor level in Block B4.

• The rapid fire spread was not due to an accelerant and was consistent with the fuel present, i.e. High surface area compared to mass of construction timber, eighteen metres high with virtually unrestricted airflow.

Further thoughts and speculation

The key word here is accelerant. If there was an accelerant used (i.e. petrol or even paper), then we have a case of malicious arson. The report is quite clear that no accelerant was used. But my first thought was: How the hell can you tell anything about the cause of a fire, if the building has been burned to a crisp in just ten minutes? And why the speculation about a discarded cigarette? Presumably no one has come forward and said “Oh yes, I dropped a fag in B4 just before the fire took hold.” We would have heard. And unless there was a lot of readily combustible material lying around, like plastic sheeting or waste paper, a cigarette would not cause a timber frame building to catch fire. Whilst the fire spread may be consistent with the fuel present (i.e. timber and foam-based insulation), the initial ignition of the fire is more problematic. There surely had to be some intermediary element that could transfer fire from a lighted cigarette to a timber wall. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was a deliberately placed accelerant, of course, but there must have been something easily ignitable present and what that might have been isn’t mentioned.

Finally, it appears that there were builders on site but they were evacuated from buildings BI and B2, not B4 where the fire broke out. This suggests that B4 was quiet. That’s handy. And if you wanted to set fire to a block of flats under construction, where would you go about starting it? The fires area of origin was on the first floor close to the centre of the building adjacent to the staircase shaft and the liftshaft. At the bottom of a staircase and liftwell? Just the spot to turn a small fire into a conflagration in seconds.

It’s enough to make you wonder, if nothing else.

14 Aug 2007

The timber frame fires

Building carries a disturbing report of yet another fire in a half-built multi-storey timber frame apartment block. This one took place in Hatfield on Saturday (11/8/07) and Phil Clark has uncovered a short video showing the event. It follows hard on the heels of similar fires in Newcastle (April 07), Willenhall (Mar 07) and Colindale in North London (July 06). YouTube carries video clips of Colindale, Newcastle and now Hatfield.

I don’t know how many timber frame apartment blocks are under construction at any one time in this country, but it’s still a building technique that is in its infancy so I would be surprised if there are more than a few hundred on the go. The superstructure is often only left exposed for a few days — this is one of the rationales behind using timber frame — yet we’ve just had four burn to the ground in a similar manner. And amazingly, no one has yet been hurt, let alone killed.

Yes, it’s deeply worrying. But it’s also beginning to look a little suspicious.

11 Aug 2007

I am being plagiarised

On July 24th, I posted a piece called The Housing Green Paper: an idiot’s guide. It was, I am happy to admit, a very lazy piece of journalism, which basically consisted of me resorting to downloading the said Green Paper, opening it up as a pdf, and then carrying out a series of word searches in order to gauge the content. Hell, there is no point summarising my findings – you can read the original in full technicolour here. Yes, I know I should have read all 130 pages and reported back with my critique, but I cheated. In my defence, I have been open about it and it is at least an original approach that isn’t entirely without merit. But I didn’t expect it to catch on

So imagine my surprise this morning when I get my emailed copy of Sp!ked and find an essay by James Woodhuysen, ostensibly a response to the very same Green Paper, using my pdf word-weighing technique. Here is James’s version:

• Potential: 58 times
• Incentives: 24
• Identify: “scores of times”
• Carbon emissions: 69
• Square metres: 0
• Overcrowding: “a few”
• Hectares: 0
• Housing quality: 81
• Design: “more than a hundred”
• Empty properties: 24

My first thought was: “the cheeky bugger, I wonder where he got that idea from.” I don’t know whether to be peeved or flattered. Maybe a bit of both.

What would have been nice is to have received an acknowledgement. Not for the idea of counting word entries in a Green Paper (maybe it will catch on after all – it saves hours of boring reading), but for the points I have been making over the past few months, namely that there are a lot of very tricky issues surrounding the housing debate. And James, in common with the bulk of the media, isn’t really interested in any of them.

• Whilst it’s true that there is plenty of land in Britain, and much of it has been set aside, it doesn’t follow that this will continue to be the case indefinitely. The debate about using land for biofuels is focussing attention on just how little land there is if we want to grow our own fuel.

• The housing demand figures, which are used to justify an increase in the rate of housebuilding, are flakey. Whilst house prices are rising, rents are not. If there was a genuine housing shortage, you would expect to see rents rising as fast as house prices. It follows that the demand for housing is being confused with the demand for home ownership. And home ownership is itself being used as a form of saving. What we have is a pensions and savings crisis manifesting itself as a housing crisis.

Immigration? The elephant in the room no one will talk about. The future of immigration is intimately linked to future housing supply. Not just who builds these new homes, but who lives in them. But politicians and journalists would rather not even address these issues for fear of being labelled racist.

• Housebuilding booms don’t necessarily make houses cheap. Just have a look at what has happened in Ireland of the past ten years. If we cannot build our way out of this problem, are there any other solutions available? Maybe.

New housing, however eco-friendly, is basically no greener than new roads or new runways. The only green approach to housing is to repair or replace the existing stock.

Meanwhile, if you come across anyone else using my patented pdf word search to pad out an article facility, let me know and I’ll have another whinge.

7 Aug 2007

What is it with architects?

This piece in the Times today caught my attention. It was hung on the announcement of the Stirling Prize shortlist.

“In Britain no one wants to take any risks,” thundered David Chipperfield, the aforementioned shortlisted architect. Richard Rogers agreed: “There should be more exciting buildings in this country.”

But it was the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Jack Pringle, who hit the nail on the head: “[In Britain] it’s all about making the business case... Everything has to be justified in a terribly Presbyterian way.”

Hang on a minute? Maybe I am turning into a Puritan — actually I think I am — but isn’t this just a bit rich? Can you imagine any other profession complaining that their customers are boring and value-obsessed? Criminals? They are just not what they used to be, we have no fun defending them anymore. The sick? Why don’t they catch some really interesting diseases, ones that we could really test our mettle against.

What is it with signature architects that makes them act out like a bunch of spoiled brats?

6 Aug 2007

Multifoils and Private Building Control

It’s now nearly a year since the two most important building control bodies in the UK moved to stop the use of multifoils, at least as a substitute for conventional insulation materials. Under pressure from government, the LABC (Local Authority Building Control) and the NHBC (National Housebuilders Council) simultaneously stated that in future they would only accept insulation that met the standards laid out in BR443, which translates as using the U value figures derived from the guarded hot box test.

Multifoil insulation performs very poorly in guarded hot box testing. The manufacturers claim that it’s the guarded hot box test which is at fault. Their case rests on them performing well in comparison tests against conventional insulation, usually 200mm or 250mm of mineral wool. Such tests have been carried out several times by the multifoil manufacturers, to the satisfaction of some independent accreditation providers, but they have yet to win a European Technical Approval for their testing methods and they remain highly controversial.

I don’t want to dig too deeply down into the multifoil debate here — it has been covered several times on this blog already — but what is worth mentioning at this point in time is that there are still a number of private building control bodies out there who are more than happy to accept multifoil roof insulation. I was talking to a director of MLM last week and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of multifoils and is more than happy to sign off building works that use multifoil insulation. And I came away with the impression that MLM are far from unique in this respect, and that private building control saw this as a positive way of differentiating their services from the strictures of both local authority building control and the NHBC.

2 Aug 2007

Jeff Howell shows EPCs are useless

I have argued that Energy Performance Certificates will not be quite the powerful tool for the good that Yvette Cooper et al are hoping for. Now Jeff Howell, who writes for the Daily Telegraph, has gone one better and shown just how useless they are by having two surveys carried out on his refurbished house in Suffolk, and analysing the results.