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.