30 Jun 2009

Crystallising Planning Permission

One of the more intriguing questions I got asked at the Sandown Park Homebuilding & Renovating show last weekend was “How do we go about ensuring our planning permission doesn’t run out.”

The couple asking me were from nearby Sutton and they seemed fairly knowledgeable about the topic and had heard that:
• planning permission doesn’t last forever
• unless you make a start on the building works, in which case the planning permission is crystallised for all time.

I’m not actually sure that crystallised is recognised as kosher planning jargon, but it makes sense to me. Anyway, essentially their information is correct. But as so often happens it begs a whole series of follow-on queries.

How long does planning permission last? It used to be five years, but the government in its wisdom reduced this to three years back in 2005. The reason for this was to prevent developers stockpiling land — something incidentally which the developers denied doing deliberately. It was never meant to hit householder’s extensions but bureaucracy has a habit of scything down all in front of it.

The irony is that the credit crunch has wrought havoc with many development plans and there are now loads of 3-year planning permissions granted back in the boom years which haven’t been built and are about to expire. No one is stockpiling land – they just haven’t got any money!

How do you crystallise planning permission? You need to make a start on site. There is nothing in the planning guidelines to define what a start consists of, but it is generally accepted that it means having completed the foundations (or at least some of them). Everybody knows this, but you’ll have great trouble getting a planning officer to confirm this to you. Which was exactly the experience of my Sutton couple, which is why they were asking me this query.

Their story got even more bizarre as they explained it in greater depth. It turned out that they were wanting to build an extension to an already existing extension. The existing extension had been done under Permitted Development Rights but the new work would exceed the limits set by these rights. Hence they had gone to the trouble of applying for planning permission two years ago. They didn’t want to have to re-apply, so they were wondering what they needed to do to crystallise the permission. You see, they thought the existing extension was Gerry built and were considering knocking it all down and building the new improved extension from scratch. But then again, maybe not – maybe the existing extension could be adapted.

Can you see the problem? What is the point making a start on an extension when you don’t yet know quite how it is going to be built?

What I suggested to them was that they dug down at the corner of the existing extension and exposed the foundations to see if they were adequate. And at the same time, ask the Building Inspector round to see what they were doing and to ask his opinion. In doing so, they would have made a record of having made a start.

I think that will suffice. But in truth I am not sure, because there are no written guidelines. It seems they may well end up with a small hole outside their back door which may be there for some time — like the big developers, they also hadn’t got enough money at the moment to undertake this work.

After they moved on, I went into grumpy mode. It just seems such an absurd situation, doesn’t it? People having to dig holes in the garden to satisfy some stupid town hall planning policy. This wasn’t what planning permission was meant to be about…..but it’s what we’ve ended up with.

23 Jun 2009

Heated towel rails

Lolli, my favourite Icelandic plumber, has pointed out that my section in the Bible on heated towel rails needs updating. He’s right. The mere ten lines I devote to the topic is very 1990s in both content and pricing.

It’s somewhat amazing to reflect on just what has happened to the towel rail market. It’s exploded. And at the same time, its sort of disappeared. Back in the 1980s, a heated towel rail was seen as a bit of an indulgence, an upmarket option for people wanting to throw money at a bathroom. The name everyone conjured with then was Zehnder: a Zehnder towel rail was white and it had a dinky little collapsible rail which you could use to hang your towels over. Other people, notably Myson, did towel rails, but they didn’t have extendible bits – they were basically just radiators designed to hang towels over.

Shoot forward to 2009 and there are now hundreds of designs to choose from dozens of manufacturers. Zehnder are still very much a top end option, although the plastic pull out bits seems to have gone by the wayside – I suspect they broke too easily. Wickes sells 11 different designs, varying in price from £70 to over £500. And there are several internet outlets which are easily Googled. The usual brand names all produce towel radiators: Stelrad, Quinn (formerly Barlo), Brugman, Myson, Acova (formerly Worcester), Aeon, Bisque. Plus now there are specialist companies that have sprung up, such as the Radiator Company and Radiating Style.

In fact, several radiator companies make no distinction between heated towel rails and ordinary radiators. They are, afterall, just radiators that you stick on the wall, which happen to be a slightly unusual shape.

But it’s not quite that simple. Because for one thing, you often want a towel rail to work to a different beat to your normal radiators. You may not want the towel rad to come on at the same times, or you may want it to work outside the heating season. As a result, you see towel rads with electric heating modes. Indeed, you can also find some which only operate using electricity – including some made of glass, would you believe.

Another option is to plumb them into a separate circuit so that they come on when the hot water is heated, rather than the space heating. This can work well, but it can also be a real waste of heat as it takes that much longer to heat the hot water and there is no knowing that the hot water heating times are better suited than your space heating times.

Towel rads are available in many different sizes. The larger they are the more heat they give off: small ones tend to emit around 300W. Large ones, anything up to 1kW, which is probably rather more heat than you would need in a small bathroom. Prices vary enormously. The cheapest are made of white-painted steel, next comes chrome plated, then stainless steel, then chrome, then brass, if you can find one. Cheap makes — you can pick them up for around £60 off eBay. A big brass one can cost you over £1500.

Final question. Do you actually need one? Well, it’s a good idea to have heating in a bathroom. We get cold when we are naked and wet. But you don’t actually have to have a dedicated towel radiator. If you are a slob, you can just chuck a towel over a chair and it will still dry out if there is some heating in the bathroom. And a lot of people like to fit underfloor heating in bathrooms, esp. electric mats. So, no, you don’t need one. But nevertheless, you might want one.

22 Jun 2009

On Homelessness

Homelessness. It’s not a topic I have ever written about before. It’s off my radar and I don’t know much about it. But I was fascinated to read an article in yesterday’s Express by Ross Clark saying that the available statistics show that homelessness is a problem that seems to be going away. Who’d have thought it?

So I checked the CLG website and there are statistics around that show that homelessness – defined as households in priority need - has been on a declining track since 1991 (which is when the table begins – it would be interesting to see if there are figures before this). Back then, just under 140,000 households in England became “homeless” during that year. The figure declined to 102,000 in 1997 and then shot back up again to peak at 135,000 in 2003. Since when, it has dropped dramatically. Down to just 63,000 last year and, if the press release is to be believed:

The number of households that became homeless (accepted by local authorities as owed the main homelessness duty in England) between January 2009 and March 2009 was 26 per cent lower than the same period in 2008.

All the other related statistics – people in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers — are also moving in the right direction, dramatically so.

National Statistics, published in June 2009, show that the Government's strategy to prevent homelessness is working.

Quite so. Something good is happening here, and maybe the government is right to crow a little, as so little else it has done has worked. But before they get too self-satisfied, they should perhaps consider that other factors may be at work here, as Clark suggested in his article. One is that the private rental market is collapsing, as a result of a flood of properties onto the market which, in a healthier housing market, would have been sold. Now many private landlords are finding it’s better to let their properties to benefits claimants because the rental income paid by local authorities is higher than the open market rate.

The other factor which comes into play here is that there is apocryphal evidence that the population is now declining, as many of the recent migrants move on to pastures new, or return home, as the prospects of staying on in Blighty look dim.

So the combined market forces of an oversupply of property and a shortage of people looking for places to rent (or buy) is maybe what’s behind the dramatic turn around in the fortunes of the homeless, rather than any clever government interventions.

But what does this say about the oft-quoted assumption that we are suffering from a chronic undersupply of housing, which is behind another government policy, namely a target of building huge numbers of new houses (like 3 million) by 2020? A target, incidentally, which the Tories seem happy to acquiesce in. Where is the evidence of this housing shortage? Not in the housing market. Not in rental market. And not in the homelessness statistics.

19 Jun 2009

On triple glazing

The highlight of last week’s AECB conference in Oxford was Wolfgang Feist, Mr PassivHaus, who held forth over a 60 minute lecture and four 90 minute seminars on all aspects of the PassivHaus standard. He is a remarkable performer: for one thing, he really knows his stuff and he is able to explain in great detail just why the standard, which he is largely responsible for, is designed the way it is.

The idea is not to construct zero carbon housing, or any stupid notion like that. What PassivHaus aims to do is to provide maximum thermal comfort in a house at minimal energy cost. This thermal comfort thing is important — I hadn’t really appreciated just how important before.

For instance, comfort underlies the PassivHaus take on triple glazing. I have been a voice arguing that triple glazing is “overkill” in the UK climate and that the energy used in making these units would probably never be repaid by the energy saved over their lifetime. However, the main reason for using triple glazing is not to save energy but to provide more comfort, as the internal temperatures remain more even.

Feist produced a table showing what the temperature differences were close to different forms of glazing when the internal temperature is designed to maintain at around 21°C and the external temperature drops to —5°C.
• next to a single glazed window, the adjacent temperature is around 1°C
• next to a double glazed window (2000 vintage), the adjacent temperature is around 11°C
• next to an all bells-n-whistles low-e double glazed window, the adjacent temperature is 16°C
• next to a triple glazed window, with a centre pane U value of just 0.65, the temperature is 18°C.

Feist maintained that in England, the milder temperatures meant that you wouldn’t have to use triple glazing to reach PassivHaus standard, but that it would be silly not to. What he did say was that he thought insulated window frames were more important than triple glazing. Interestingly, when the first PassivHaus’s were being built, there was no such thing as an insulated window frame and they had to adapt existing ones by sticking insulation on the outside. But by 1996, small joinery firms were responding to the idea and insulated frames became commercially available. Now they are available in plastic and aluminium frames, as well as timber.

Feist also discussed where to put the low-e coatings in triple glazing. Apparently, triple glazing will benefit from two coatings, but if the coatings are placed either side of the centre pane, and the pane isn’t toughened, there is a high risk that the panel will crack, due to thermal shock. Now they tend to provide low-e coatings to the inner surfaces of the two outer panes. In passing, it’s worth noting that the inside pane in a triple glazed unit doesn’t need to be glass – however, every transparent material used to date is more expensive than glass, so glass it remains, even though this makes the units very heavy.

16 Jun 2009

Rogers v Windsor

I must say I am enjoying this spat. For all the nice noises the Prince has made about architects recently, and for all the RIBA’s welcoming the Prince back into their midst, fundamentally they loathe each other and the Chelsea Barracks affair has brought it all out in the open.

Rogers sounds just so piqued. He asks rhetorically: “Are we going to have royalty dictating to us modern art? Are we going to have royalty dictating their taste in music? Are we going to have royalty dictating their belief in medicine, modern or not?”

But who was the client at Chelsea Barracks? None other than the Qatari royal family.

9 Jun 2009

On Plastering Options

Plastering is the cheapest way of providing good internal wall and ceiling coverings. There are different systems of ‘plastering’ but they all come within spitting distance of £12-£15 per sq m in price. There are alternatives which can be used when you know exactly what you want – exposed brickwork, timber linings – but they are considerably more expensive than a plastered finish and are normally only built as features.

The big question facing housebuilders is whether to go for a wet or dry system of wall coverings. The wet techniques use wet-mixed cement renders and gypsum plasters: the dry systems use dry-lined plasterboards. The wet techniques are traditional British building – the dry techniques are imported from countries where timber frame is prevalent. Ceilings are almost invariably fixed with plasterboard, but here there remains a choice about whether to cover them with a wet Thistle Finish plaster, to dry-line or to comb on Artex. Pricewise, there is very little to choose between the systems – though I estimate dry-lining is a little cheaper.

Wet plastering
Plus - it is well understood by builders and favoured by most plasterers; a well-skimmed plaster finish looks fantastic – at least initially.

Minus - it’s wet. Something like one cubic metre of water (equals 12 bathfulls) is being built into the fabric of the house if it is wet plastered and this must in time dry out, which will take a summer at least. This drying out results in movement which causes cracking in the top coat plaster which looks naff and gets builders called back on site to carry out cosmetic repairs. This problem is particularly bad when plasterboard ceilings are skimmed with a plaster finish; here the movement in timber behind the boards causes hairline cracks around all the plasterboard joints. None of this cracking is in the least bit dangerous – it doesn’t mean subsidence is occurring – and many people live happily with it knowing that these bedding-in problems can be filled in at the first redecoration. However, for many unsuspecting souls it is a source of genuine grievance and complaint.

Plus - it’s dry – avoiding problems outlined above. It is relatively easy to correct out-of-plumb blockwork – you just adjust the thickness of the adhesive dabs. It also gives a comparatively soft wall with enough give for small children to bounce off unharmed, whereas a hard, plastered wall would bring forth tears.

Minus - dry-lining is not particularly difficult to learn – the plasterboard manufacturers all run cheap two- or three-day training courses – but it can be badly applied, leaving a ridged effect on walls and ceilings. Plasterboard has to be fixed more carefully than is normal trade practice so as to keep the number of cuts to a minimum. The wall finish is similar to what you would get if painting on to lining paper (which is basically what you are doing) and this may not be glossy enough for some tastes. Plasterboard walls are not as damage-resistant as traditional plasters, though repairs can be easily effected.

Another problem with dry-lining, at least when it’s applied on plaster dabs onto blockwork walls, is that it tends to perform poorly on the airtightness front, now a factor which has to be addresses because air-tightness testing forms part of the building regs. In theory the backing walls should be airtight – why do you have to put in all those expensive trickle vents in the windows? – but in practice air sneaks through gaps in the mortar and around joist ends. One solution to this problem is to seal all the joints between sheets and around openings prior to taping and jointing. However this is both expensive (Gyproc’s sealer costs around £10 per litre) and time consuming. This air leakiness problem occurs with all forms of construction that use dry-lining, but its significance is greatly reduced when you build in timber-frame, incorporating a vapour barrier in the external walls.

Blockwork v studwork
You can only apply wet render on to a masonry background and it is, therefore, not an option for timber framers. Those using studwork walls will have to fit a wallboard, usually plasterboard – though, as already noted, plasterboard will take a 3mm wet plaster finish. On the other hand, if a dry method is desired in a brick and block house, then the favoured method is to stick plasterboard on to the blockwork using the dot and dab technique which uses specialised gypsum plasters as adhesives. This is the method currently in favour with over 70 per cent of professional house builders – just goes to show how much they value not being called back because ‘there’s cracks in me walls.’

What is it? Gypsum plaster sandwiched between two layers of paper. It is characterised by being easy to cut, fairly easy to handle and it provides a good backing for paint and plaster. Note that wastage can be high when using plasterboard – up to 30 per cent on small rooms and ceilings, 10-15 per cent on walls. It is available in several different formats: square edged (for wet plaster skimming) or tapered edge (for dry-lining); 12.5mm thick for 600mm spaced studwork and 9.5mm thick for 400mm spacings; foil-backed for providing an integral vapour barrier (it’s cheaper to use a separate polythene sheet); small boards measuring 1800x900mm as well as the more normal, room-height, boards which are 1200x2400mm. Since the sound regs were beefed up in 2004, there is a big take up of heavier boards to get studwork partitions up to the required 40dB sound reduction rating. Sound deadening boards at 12.5mm are what to look out for. None of these formats is expensive: rates vary between £1.50 per sq m and £2.50 per sq m depending on what you want the board to do.

There are also a number of plasterboards which are laminated to insulation. Make sure you get the right format for the job and make sure that you’ve used metric spacings on your wall studs and ceiling joists as imperial-sized plasterboard is no longer made.

Plasterboard is a very competitive business with three companies (BPB aka British Gypsum, and now owned by St. Gobain, Knauf and Lafarge) slugging it out for the European market. Consequently, the price hasn’t really changed much in 20 years – amazing value if you think about it. There is little to choose between the rivals either on price or quality.

8 Jun 2009

A big welcome to John Who

The latest cabinet reshuffle has seen yet another housing minister installed. This time it’s John Healey, someone I had never heard of before. I am struggling to remember the holders of this ill-feted post: in reverse order it seems to be Margaret Beckett, Caroline Flint, Yvette Cooper (all within the past two or three years) and before that…..I can’t remember. Or maybe I never knew.

The point is that this office of state is a revolving door. No one stays put for more than a few months. How on earth are they meant to get to grips with their brief?

If this was a school, it would be deemed to be failing. If it was a hospital, it would be dangerous. If it was a business, it would be going bust. But it’s a government, so nobody expects it to do anything anyway.

4 Jun 2009

Pilkington energiKare

I came across one new product at BRE’s Onsite 09 event, which was a new type of energy saving glass being marketed by Pilkington. It’s made in Japan, by Nippon Glass, owners of Pilks, and it consists of a two panes of glass separated by a vacuum gap of just 0.2mm. In this country, it’s being aimed fairly and squarely at the listed building/Georgian sash window market, because you get a very good U value from it (Centre Pane value 1.4) yet you can’t tell it’s not single glazing.

Well actually, you can, if you look closely. You can’t see that it’s two panes of glass, but the 0.2 gap has tiny black spacers located within it which you can see if you look close up – they appear to be a series of black dots. If the vacuum fails, the spacers fall out, so you have a visible clue that the unit is no longer working. But of course the units won’t fail. Will they?

The units are made up before the vacuum is applied. Each unit comes with a little grommet through which you can suck out all the air. There is a minimum unit size of 0.4m2, so a sash window will have to be done in one and glazing bars applied afterwards. But that’s not a big problem.

It looks as though they have got a product which can provide good energy efficiency and yet satisfy the English Heritage/Conservation Officer lobby. At around £300/m2, it will cost, but if done as a package of overall window refurbishment or replacement, it’s not that prohibitive. Just a shame they’ve given it a horrible name: Pilkington energiKare. I’m really getting to hate inTerCaps, aRen’T yOu?

2 Jun 2009

Insite 09 and a "huge surge of anger"

I spent the day at the BRE in Watford attending their Insite 09 exhibition. I went today (Tuesday) because there was a conference on the Existing Stock and, in particular, how to reduce the carbon emissions created by it. This is a debate I want to be part of.

As I pulled up at the entrance gate, I was handed a leaflet explaining where I should park. It told me I wasn’t allowed to do more than 20mph on site, that I musn’t smoke, nor should I attempt to use a mobile phone whilst driving the quarter mile through the site. It also told me not to park on the cross-hatched areas, nor the double yellow lines. And finally it warned me that if I broke any of these rules I would be asked to leave the site and my behaviour would be reported to my employers. All to get from the entrance gate to the car park at the back of the site. Welcome to the BRE.

The conference speakers were thoughtful and articulate, but I couldn’t help feeling that the suggestions being put forward were not really going to get to the root of the problem. Nick Raynsford, the Construction Industries’ pet MP, expressed his frustration with the Treasury which repeatedly refuses to pursue a more progressive taxation regime which might encourage green refurbishment.

In the Q&A I asked him if it was not now time to introduce a carbon tax on domestic energy bills: whilst the cost of petrol at the pump is nearly 70% tax, domestic fuel has just 5% added to it in VAT. His answer was informative: he suggested that the Fuel Cost Escalator had not been popular, especially when oil prices went through the roof last year, and that the government would risk facing “a huge surge of anger” if it brought in something similar on gas and electricity bills. I wouldn’t have thought that bothered the government too much. Afterall, it didn’t stop them going to war in Iraq? Or for that matter fiddling their expenses? So what’s their problem?