This is a tale of two plumbers. And a quietly leaking toilet cistern.
It was in a downstairs loo, where I recently decided to have 20-year-old lino replaced. My only role was to remove the old flooring – which is why I left it until the night before the fitters arrived.
The lino only yielded with a faint, slightly ominous sucking sound. The chipboard beneath was black and sopping wet.
The culprit was clearly the cistern. The inlet connection was wet, the valve inside limescale-encrusted and obviously in a bad way.
I turned off the isolating valve, emptied the cistern, towelled the floor and left a dehumidifier running. Luckily, by the time the fitters arrived, the floor had all but dried out.
Meanwhile I called a plumber and ordered a state-of-the-art dual-flush replacement valve kit. It seemed a good opportunity to upgrade from single flush.
Plumber number one had been recommended by a local website. On the phone he sounded cheery and practical. The plumber who turned up wasn’t like that.
He wasn’t impressed by my new valve. He didn’t think it would fit in the cistern or that the operating button would work in the opening available. Finally, he let drop that he’d never actually seen this sort of valve before.
After an hour, we’d discovered that the new valve did fit, but the operating button didn’t. Also the replacement gasket included in the kit to seal the cistern to the pan was too small.
The plumber offered to fetch new parts, which could take another hour, given local traffic. By then it would have been cheaper to have bought a new toilet. I decided to cut my losses.
Plumber number two was brisk, matter-of-fact and knew the valve I’d bought. He pointed out that its operating button was more effective fitted to the cistern lid rather than, as in my case, the front. But he could see a way to make it work. He also fitted a new gasket between cistern and pan, making the seal watertight. It all took just over half an hour.
What’s the lesson of these tales?
Generalisations can be unfair, especially with a subject as notoriously complex as plumbing, but, as a customer, I found one plumber knowledgeable, flexible and effective, and the other – well, not.
Both companies offered similar services; both had professional accreditation and glowing testimonials. But the fact remains that only plumbers who work with gas or electricity are legally obliged to be certified by a professional body or have any professional qualification at all. Those who work only with water are free to call themselves plumbers, and trade as such.
This isn’t the case in many other countries, including the United States, Germany, Australia and Hong Kong. There, plumbers need to be licensed to practice, and licences are only granted after extensive formal training.
Licensing recently received support from the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE), the professional body which overlooks plumbing and heating standards in the UK. According to membership director Tim Sainty the decline in traditional apprenticeships in favour of diplomas and short courses ‘has had the inevitable effect of a fall in standards’.
The CIPHE believes a statutory licensing system would raise professional standards and allow licensees to prove to customers they are competent, insured and subject to independent investigation in case of problems.
Ironically, according to a recent Which? survey, plumbers are one of the most trusted trades. Trust in builders, however, who also have no legal requirement to be qualified, remains a huge issue for consumers, and especially selfbuilders.
Earlier this year research by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) found that one in three homeowners was delaying a building project because they feared being ripped off by cowboys.
It also revealed that 78 per cent of customers favoured the idea of legally enforced licensing, as did a similar proportion of small and medium-sized building firms. ‘Rogue traders are dampening demand for construction work,’ said FMB chief executive Brian Berry, ‘and consumers are being left to exploitation.’
In July the FMB launched a report, Licence to build: a pathway to licensing UK construction, which received cross-party support at its parliamentary launch. It suggested a UK-wide licensing system, administered by a single authority and covering all forms of paid-for construction, from sole traders to major contractors. Members would have to prove an appropriate level of qualification or experience, as well as insurance, and be regularly inspected and penalised or expelled if standards weren’t maintained.
But don’t we already have enough safeguards? Certainly there are numerous competence schemes, like the Construction Skills Certification Scheme , the recent government-endorsed TrustMark scheme and a host of trade and professional bodies. Plus, of course, the building regulations.
But, as the Grenfell tragedy made so obvious, building control inspections can be far from comprehensive. Trade and professional bodies are often more inclined to protect members’ interests than those of consumers. And many current vetting and inspection schemes are voluntary – leaving room for the incompetent and the crooked to operate unhindered.
The FMB licensing system wouldn’t have to replace all these. A preferred option is to integrate them, to avoid duplication and minimise costs. For selfbuilders, though, the most obvious benefit would be an online database of licensed members – but a database, unlike many existing websites, which is independently checked and rigorously policed.
The FMB believe their scheme will squeeze out cowboys, raise standards and help restore the public’s trust in construction. Their main argument is that similar schemes have improved construction professionalism in other countries, such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe.
All I can say is that when I told a Ukrainian structural engineer that a plumber could turn up, fail to complete a job and still charge full rate for his time, she was appalled. In Kiev, she insisted, no one would dream of paying until they were fully satisfied.
What were you doing in the UK’s longest heat wave in 42 years? Luxuriating in endless days of brilliant sunshine? Or getting increasingly frazzled from sleepless nights in your overheated home?
Chances are that the older and less modernised your house the more comfortable you were.
Because until late into the last century most homes were exceptionally leaky. Gaps under doors and skirtings, between suspended floorboards, in ill-fitting windows and uninsulated attics all ensured that warm air had much less opportunity to accumulate than in a modern house.
Unfortunately the same things had the completely opposite effect when temperatures dropped. Which is why we have spent much of the last generation packing our homes with insulation, fitting double glazing, banishing draughts and generally ensuring that as much heat is retained as possible.
Curiously, however, even though the official reason for these measures was to combat climate change, the likelihood that that would involve higher temperatures doesn’t seem to have been considered. In fact, overheating, or its avoidance, isn’t mentioned at all in the current building regulations. Nor are any there recommendations, let alone requirements, for maximum internal temperatures.
So, how can you ensure your energy-efficient dream home won’t turn into a sauna every summer?
Strategy one: stop the heat entering
External barriers, such as awnings, brise-soleil, pergolas or balconies are effective ways of keeping the summer sun at bay, particularly for south-facing facades. Leafy shade from nearby deciduous trees can have a similar effect and conveniently disappears in winter when solar warmth is welcome.
Internal barriers, such as blinds, curtains and interior shutters, are useful but tend to be less effective because heat has already entered the building fabric. East or west-facing windows should have vertical blinds to deal with the sun at lower angles.
The ultimate external barrier to solar heat is external insulation on a house with high thermal mass; that is, one built of blockwork, brick or stone. The heavyweight material both absorbs and gives up heat slowly. Once it’s warmed up in winter, the outside insulation keeps the heat inside. But in summer a cool interior stays cool much longer.
In addition, paint the outside of the house white to reflect solar heat. A white roof would be even more effective, though this may not convince your local planning department.
More likely to be approved is a green roof, which will provide both insulation and a cooling effect from the vegetation.
Strategy two: minimize internal warmth
Summer doesn’t require central heating but hot water will still be running throughout the house. Ensure all pipework is well insulated to avoid unnecessary heat leakage – and improve the energy efficiency of your white goods.
Think about confining heat-producing items such as the washing machine, tumble dryer, central heating boiler and hot water cylinder to a dedicated utility room. This will also help clothes drying in that space and, if you have one, add to the efficiency of a heat pump tumble dryer.
Internal walls painted white or pale colours will help to reduce heat absorption. Opt, too, for cooler floor surfaces, such as wood or tile, rather than carpet.
Strategy three: ensure effective ventilation
Simply opening a window is always effective, but more so is cross-ventilation where a second window in the same room, or in another wall of the house, creates a through draught.
But there are limits. According to the Chartered Institute of Building Engineers, the maximum distance for effective cross-ventilation is five times the floor to ceiling height.
Mediterranean-style external louvred shutters are a good way of excluding solar radiation while allowing fresh air to enter. They also provide security for windows left open.
Hot air rises so a route to roof level, or closeby, provides a useful exit for excess heat. A clear central chimney will achieve this, as will an openable rooflight above a central staircase.
A dedicated passive ventilation system works in a similar way. Here, warm stale air from kitchens and bathrooms rises naturally up near-vertical shafts to a rooftop vent. More common, however, are mechanical whole house ventilation systems (MVHR).
A continuously running fan in the attic draws stale air through ducting and expels it outside, while simultaneously drawing in fresh air, which is distributed throughout the house via more ducting. In winter the warmth from departing air can be extracted by an integral heat exchanger and used to heat incoming fresh air.
In warmer months the heat recovery capability can be turned off. Some systems automatically boost the intake of fresh air when the outside temperature is lower than the internal.
Strategy four: introduce cooling
Full air conditioning with ducting to all or most rooms is generally only feasible for new build. The cost of installation, running and maintenance is unlikely to make it widespread until heatwave summers become the norm. However, individual wall-mounted units – used, say, for living areas and a main bedroom – are much easier to retrofit. Currently all residential air conditioning carries a reduced VAT rate of five per cent.
So, incidentally, do heat pumps. These are effectively reverse refrigerators which extract heat either directly from the outside air, or from the ground via buried, liquid-filled piping. This is then used it to run central heating and hot water systems.
Heat pumps are expensive to buy, can be noisy and produce only low-temperature heat. They work best in well-insulated properties using low-temperature heating systems, typically underfloor heating.
Under the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive, however, heat pumps attract a tariff designed to recompense householders for the extra cost they incur above that of a standard fossil fuel system.
Even better, unlike conventional heating systems, air source heat pumps can be reversed to provide cool air in the summer. That ability alone is likely to increase their popularity as summers continue to scorch.
Building your own home has always been a major pipedream for many Britons, proved by the enduring popularity of Grand Designs and similar shows covering renovations, conversions and even mini-homes.
But for the past few decades the proportion of the population actually doing it has stuck doggedly at around ten per cent.
Because it’s been so much easier to do what everyone else has been doing: buy a new, or more likely, an existing house. Those are the properties that fill estate agents’ windows and high street lenders provide mortgages for.
Meanwhile the media have fed, and fuelled, our obsession with rising house prices. Actually building the things has been a minor detail. Note the past tense. Because that minor detail has come back to bite us.
Successive governments have promised more new homes, while ensuring property prices continue to rise. Now they’re well beyond the reach of anyone on an average salary, even if they are able to get a mortgage. Which they aren’t because of the tight lending rules adopted after the 2008 recession.
The same rules, incidentally, wiped out most the UK’s small house builders, leaving the market to ten major developers who have no incentive to build any more homes than they can sell at the highest prices.
Even the government is now showing signs of panic. Ex-minister Sir Oliver Letwyn recently called for a cross-government task force to co-ordinate existing initiatives to boost house building.
But where is anything actually happening?
It’s happening with self build, and in ways that are increasingly ingenious and imaginative.
Perhaps the best known is ‘custom build’ – a term adopted by the government in 2011, partly to sound more user-friendly, but also to preserve the role of the developer.
Here, the developer provides a minimum of a ‘serviced’ plot, i.e. one with all utilities and road access. To that can be added obtaining planning permission for your design and construction to agreed stages – from a watertight shell to a finished build.
The UK’s biggest custom build site is at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire (www.gravenhill.co.uk) where almost 2,000 homes are planned, including a wide variety of sizes and designs, only limited by a designated palette of local materials.
Other custom build sites, however, come with basic designs which can be modified for individual requirements.
One scheme which recently went for planning in Enfield in north London demonstrates an ingenious compromise between watertight shell and completed project. Developer Naked House (www.nakedhouse.org) is creating a row of one-bedroom mews houses, each provided with electricity, heating and a basic bathroom. And that’s it.
‘It’s complete in a minimalist sense,’ explains Naked House co-founder Rachel Bagenal. ‘It can get a mortgage, it passes building regulations and it’s habitable. But beyond that we have left everything that it’s possible we can leave for people to do themselves.’
In practice, each property can be expanded into an 80 square metre three-bedroom home. The design, by architects OOMX, includes a load-bearing party wall at the rear, making extensions easy to create, and a structural plinth at ceiling height, enabling a mezzanine floor to be added without further reinforcement.
But offering design freedom is only part of the self build solution. Even more important is making the cost affordable.
Naked House is a not for profit developer with its sale prices based on average local incomes – in Enfield’s case around £35,000 a year. Their land is obtained from local authorities and public bodies, often small or derelict plots that are uneconomic for a major house builder. Rachel Bagenal believes there are around 100,000 sites like this in London.
The land for Naked House’s first development was bought from Enfield Council on a deferred payment basis with funding for construction from social investors, including the Mayor of London.
Meanwhile, architect Alastair Parvin takes a more radical approach to self build. He’s the co-inventor of the WikiHouse, an ‘open source’ – i.e. free – house construction system, which can be downloaded from the internet and customized in SketchUp, a design programme that’s also free.
Files can be produced for a CNC machine – basically a computer-controlled cutting machine – using standard sheet materials, such as plywood. The result is a collection of numbered parts which can be assembled, IKEA-style.
‘You need to be able-bodied,’ says Alastair Parvin, ‘but you don’t need to be skilled to build a millimetre-precise, very low energy home.’
The system, he believes, is actually a return to traditional vernacular house building, which was basically self build.
Whether a WikiHouse will impress your local building control department is another question, but Alastair Parvin has an answer for that, too.
He and his team at Open Systems Lab (www.opensystemslab.io) are developing BuildX, a web-based form of building design, which is a kind of CAD (computer-aided design) plus.
‘Imagine,’ he says, ‘being able to go onto a web platform and customize a design in which the rules of building are baked in. As you design, it’s counting every single screw, calculating the energy impact and counting the cost. Straightaway you’re able to spit out a bill of materials, which is everything you need to buy, and an assembly guide.’
BuildX is currently designed to work with WikiHouse, but could be compatible with any digital building system.
Alastair Parvin believes it could dramatically reduce both the unpredictability and the cost of building houses, stripping out whole levels of bureaucracy on the models of Uber and Airbnb.
Including the vagaries of the planning system?
Well, that’s where PlanX, Open Systems Lab’s digital planning platform, comes in. Still at an early stage, it aims to put local planning department’s policies online, enabling designers to see, as they design, exactly what will and won’t be acceptable.
The idea is a beguiling one. But, as Britain’s hard-pressed planning departments aren’t always sure what that is themselves, I suspect that project may take a little longer.
To most of us Wordsworth is the poet who wrote the world’s most famous poem about daffodils – a distinction that fades a little when you try to think of any others.
To film buffs he’s Austin Powers’ cousin seven times removed. And to the Lake District, where he was born and died, he’s a major tourist attraction. Or rather, the cottage in Grasmere where he and his sister and fellow writer Dorothy lived for eight years at the start of the 19thcentury.
Visit Dove Cottage, as I did recently, and you gain a fascinating insight into a way of living – and building – that’s both reassuringly familiar and worryingly bleak.
The two-storey cottage is nestled into a hillside, which leaves two ground floor rooms semi-submerged and the garden rising steeply at the rear. The walls are of local limestone, whitewashed at front and back, the roof of local blue-grey slate.
Heating was provided by coal fires, venting into eight chimneys, each topped with two slates, leaning into each other, to fend off Cumbrian weather.
All in all it’s a traditional vernacular build, which, in outward appearance, might easily be replicated today.
Inside, however, its age becomes clearer. A small porch opens into two medium-sized rooms, both wood-panelled, the first known as the ‘front parlour’ or ‘home room’.
The ground floor is laid with slate flags, unusual for a modest home of the period, where rushes were more common. Luckily for the Wordsworths, Dove Cottage was originally an inn and needed sturdier flooring.
The kitchen is dominated by a large, cast-iron range, fed from an equally large coal store. A smaller adjoining room acted as a larder/cold room, mainly because a stream runs under the floor.
Upstairs, the largest room faces the nearby lake and was used as a sitting/working space. A smaller room is lined with copies of The Times in an early attempt at insulation.
What’s conspicuous is the lack of taps: water had to be fetched several times a day from a nearby well. And lighting. ‘Rush lights’ – locally gathered rushes dipped in fat – typically provided that. The toilet was in the garden.
By modern standards, of course, it’s all pretty basic. Nowadays, building regulations ensure new homes are well insulated, draught–free, heated and ventilated to a degree that would have astonished – and probably baffled – the owners of Georgian Britain’s most luxurious properties.
We have, in fact, come pretty close to the definition of a house by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, one of the main inventors of architectural modernism. Le Corbusier’s buildings were typically white concrete boxes, with open-plan interiors, plain white walls and acres of glass. To Le Corbusier, a house was simply ‘a machine for living in’.
Fifty years after his death, his influence is still strong, but recently it’s been growing stronger, though not entirely in the way he envisaged.
Le Corbusier began to develop his theories after falling in love with reinforced concrete, partly because it enabled buildings to be easily prefabricated and modular. Today, thanks to the falling numbers of traditional tradespeople, Britain’s leading house builders are also embracing prefabrication.
They’re keeping quiet about it because it’s still a mildly dirty word. Older house buyers remember post-war ‘prefabs’ and collapsing apartment blocks, while lenders still recoil at any hint of ‘non-standard’ construction (i.e. non-brick and block).
But homes built in entirely conventional ways are also following Le Corbusier’s lead by becoming more machine-like. Until 2006, for instance, openable windows and trickle vents – small slots in the tops of windows – satisfied the ventilation requirements of the building regulations. Now, to handle increasing levels of insulation and airtightness, kitchens, bathrooms and utility rooms must be fitted with mechanical extractor fans.
Meanwhile, smart technology is enabling us to mechanize and automate more and more of the home’s functions.
One obvious end result of these measures is a zero-energy home, due to become standard in the EU by 2050. Currently the best established method of building one is the German passivhaus system.
Here, the house is super-insulated and completely sealed. Moist stale air from wet rooms is drawn to a central heat exchanger where it warms incoming fresh air, which is then circulated throughout the home. The process is continuous and ensures constant fresh air at a constant temperature. It’s so energy efficient central heating isn’t needed.
But it does demand very high standards of construction, a lot of large diameter ducting and moderate but regular maintenance. In effect, it turns a house into an – admittedly very pleasant –machine for living in.
So what’s wrong with that?
Nothing, except that machines don’t last for ever, and the needs they meet change. Passivhaus grew out of Germany’s cold winters and limited energy supplies. In warmer climates it needs different orientation, careful shading and a degree of air conditioning. As April’s mini-heat wave indicated, Britain’s temperatures are rising and heavily insulated homes are already overheating.
But there are less mechanised ways of keeping homes comfortable. Passive stack ventilation allows warm, moist air to rise naturally through vertical ducts to a roof terminal. Fresh air enters through trickle vents or inlets that open automatically when humidity levels rise. The system isn’t as precise as passivhaus, but it’s maintenance-free and uses no power.
Careful design can achieve similar effects by orientation, built-in shading, especially of large areas of south-facing glass, external insulating shutters to keep out heat, and internal shutters to keep it in.
Building materials, too, can make a vital difference. The Wordsworth’s cottage may have been draughty and reliant on coal fires, but, once heated, its thick stone walls acted as a thermal store in winter and kept the interior cool in summer.
It shows that most of the problems we face in creating homes for today and the foreseeable future have been tackled before. Studying the most successful may be as effective as concentrating on the latest technical advances.
Blazing summer might not seem the best time to consider space heating, but for selfbuilders warmer weather can make a considered view a lot easier than when wintry beasts from the east are raging outside.
Britons, after all, have become chillier mortals over the past couple of generations. In the 1970s the average expectation of internal comfort was a balmy 12 degrees. Today, it’s 17 degrees, with main living areas at around 21.
But that’s come at a price. Space heating uses up to 60 per cent of our average domestic energy usage, while hot water takes up another 18 per cent. At the time of writing British Gas, EDF and E.On have just raised their prices by averages of 1.4 to five per cent and it won’t be a surprise if the rest of the ‘big six’ energy suppliers follow suit.
The better news is that bills would be even higher if the past half century hadn’t seen the introduction of a range of energy efficiency measures, largely dictated by the building regulations. They include double glazing, much increased home insulation and high performance central heating boilers, though it’s the latter, arguably, which has benefitted from the most development.
Seventy per cent of British homes are now heated by gas – a choice initially prompted by the 1956 Clean Air Act which banned the smog-producing coal that had previously kept most home fires burning.
The discovery of cheap North Sea natural gas in the mid-1960s only added to its appeal, and made it the obvious fuel of choice for domestic central heating, when it took off in the 1970s.
Boilers then were relatively straightforward in design. Gas entered at the bottom, was atomised into fine droplets and ignited by electrodes, achieving temperatures of between 250 and 350 degrees Centigrade. The burning gas rose through a heat exchanger made of cast iron or steel, heating water-filled pipes as it went, and exited via the flue at close to the combustion temperature.
The design was simple, reliable and easy to install. But it wasted a lot of energy to the open air.
So-called ‘energy efficient’ or ‘condensing’ boilers tackled this problem from the 1980s onwards. These extract more energy by using either larger or secondary heat exchangers.
The exhaust fumes pass over pipework containing cooler water returning from the central heating system. This causes steam in the burning gas to condense out, releasing latent heat which raises the temperature of the water before it reaches the main heat exchanger. As a result less energy is needed to heat the water fully.
Condensing boilers can now achieve efficiencies of up to 92 per cent, 20 to 30 per cent higher than conventional boilers. But it took a change in the building regulations in 2005, requiring all new installations to be condensing boilers, to give them market dominance.
It wasn’t a universally popular decision. At the time condensing boilers were considerably dearer than the conventional variety and, due to their complexity, generally less reliable or durable.
It also wasn’t widely known that the condensing mode only operated when the temperature of the water returning to the boiler was at around 55 degrees C.
In fact return flow temperatures in most homes are closer to 70 degrees. The cooler returns are only regularly achieved with low-temperature under floor heating or systems using deliberately over-sized radiators. The boiler was still more efficient than its predecessors, but not dramatically so.
Today reliability has improved and prices, in relative terms, are lower. Durability, however, is less certain. But improvements have come in other ways, mainly through external controls.
Many of these are neatly summarised in new regulations, known as Boiler Plus, introduced in England this April. Newly installed gas boilers must now be fitted with an independent time control, a room thermostat and thermostatic control valves (TRVs) on radiators – features most of us would regard as standard.
However, combination boilers – the UK’s most popular – must also have at least one of the following. Weather compensation via an external sensor which varies the boiler’s output as conditions change; load compensation, which does the same internally; a smart thermostat, which automatically learns your heating habits and optimises your system; and flue gas heat recovery (FGHR).
Doesn’t a condensing boiler have that anyway?
Yes, it does but FGHR devices, which sit on top of the existing flue, claim to extract another seven per cent of efficiency. Their high cost, however, only makes them economic for upgrading existing conventional boilers.
Super-efficient or not, gas boilers are still cheaper to buy and run than those using oil, LPG or sustainable alternatives such as biomass or ground and air source heat pumps. But as natural gas prices continue to rise how long can that last? Is gas still the best choice for a ‘forever’ home?
The sustainable power sources favoured by government produce ‘free’ electricity from wind and sunlight, but unpredictably. Until battery power can store it cheaply and easily, it can’t undercut gas.
There is, however, an alternative, as a recent study carried out in Leeds by Northern Gas Networks established. And that’s to use hydrogen.
Hydrogen is abundant, clean, more powerful than petrol and, unlike natural gas, produces no harmful emissions. The H21 Leeds City Gate project found that the existing natural gas infrastructure could easily be adapted to distribute hydrogen throughout the city, and local production could be economically viable.
To use hydrogen, boilers and cookers would also have to be adapted, but boilers and cookers underwent similar changes, very successfully, in the 1960s when natural gas replaced coal gas.
In an uncertain world gas could be the most sensible long-term choice for your future home.
I come from a family of formidable women. As a child I spent hours of agonising embarrassment as my mother argued the toss at supermarket check outs.
When my children were growing up it was a family joke that whenever my wife returned an item to the local Waitrose the manager hid.
When we embarked on our first self build, my wife was the logical choice of front person with our main contractor. She had worked as office manager of a small building firm and spoke fluent builderese. My construction experience at the time was limited to some rather shaky DIY shelving.
All this has coloured my view of women’s role in self build, and indeed most other activities. In other words, I haven’t really appreciated any distinction.
Most selfbuilders, after all, are couples, who generally work together with varying degrees of involvement. Lone selfbuilders are comparatively rare and lone females, in my experience, even more so.
One of the most impressive was a widowed Dutch lady in the west country who project managed her own timber frame eco build while running a small farm. Her enthusiasm and obvious competence made the whole process sound a near breeze. She got on well with her builders and architect. Only a recalcitrant local planning department caused her problems.
But latterly I have begun to suspect that this lady was the exception who proved a very different rule.
It started with a request for advice from a family friend. She had recently had a brick-built garage in her back garden converted into self-contained accommodation, including a kitchenette and ensuite shower room. The flat roof had been fitted with a large triple-glazed roof light and a new polished concrete floor installed with electric underfloor heating.
Several months later, however, the roof light had cracked, the bitumen roof was lifting and there were signs of damp around a door, window and the floor. A local builder, recommended by a neighbourhood friend, had done the work, though most of it had been accomplished by a single workman who had since vanished.
The original contract, it turned out, had specified a fibreglass roof. Both the very expensive custom-made rooflight and the electric heating – which is cheap and easy to fit but much more expensive to run than water-based heating – had been suggested by the builder. Our family friend, who has little experience of building, saw no reason to question this.
Now, after much complaining, he was offering to install the promised fibreglass roof and remedy the other problems for just a few more thousand pounds. Deeply unsure, but wary of changing horses at this late stage, our friend accepted his offer.
Even more alarming was the experience of a lady selfbuilder building in the garden of her existing home. Again her builder, who was well respected locally, was recommended by a friend – described as ‘not quite an architect’.
Keen to create a well-insulated home, the lady was alarmed to find obvious gaps in the flooring insulation. When she pointed this out to the builder he insisted there was no problem; after all his years in construction he knew what he was doing. Later the client found that the gaps had been sealed with cement.
Even worse, after agreeing an initial price for the project, the builder began to demand large additional sums but was reluctant to provide invoices.
By the time the lady consulted our Ask An Expert panel at the recent SelfBuild & Design East show, her budget had been exhausted and she was approaching desperation.
Now every self build has its crises, rogue builders exist and even the best get into trouble. Building is an unforgiving business. It’s physically demanding, unpredictable and heavily reliant on physical strength and manual dexterity: all usually regarded as male attributes. It’s also extremely conservative.
From that mindset it can be easy to regard women clients as ‘softer targets’, less likely than their male compatriots to be interested in the practical details of a project. That can encourage less scrupulous tradespeople to recommend options, or materials, that suit them rather than their client. And, very occasionally, do far worse.
So how do female selfbuilders combat attitudes of this kind?
The simple answer is: the same way male selfbuilders, and couples, do. Only perhaps more so, at least initially.
When you’re hiring a main contractor listen to the recommendations of friends or family by all means, but check out their work and talk to previous clients (if a contractor can’t put you in touch with any this is not a good sign).
Then repeat the process with two other candidates – perhaps found through the Federation of Master Builders (www.fmb.org.uk) or the government-endorsed TrustMark scheme (www.trustmark.org.uk).
If you don’t feel confident enough to do this, think seriously about hiring an architect or an experienced project manager to supervise your project. They’re likely to charge between eight and 15 per cent of your overall budget, but should save you at least their fees in terms of cost saving, efficiency and peace of mind.
Alternatively, opt for a package builder offering a ‘turn-key’ service; typically these involve timber frame manufacturers providing kit homes.
Or investigate custom build where a developer provides a plot with services and planning permission and typically offers a range of designs which they can build for you.
Whatever approach you choose, it will involve a steep learning curve, so be prepared to ask questions and keep asking until you have answers you understand. Knowledge is power on a building site and the more you have – or tradespeople suspect you have – the more seriously they will take you.
Failing that, cultivate a volcanic temper. It worked wonders for my wife on our self build.
Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud was not in a good mood.
‘I know small and middle-sized builders who don’t know if scaffolders or a team of labourers will turn up the next day until a phone call at one o’ clock in the morning, because they might have been lured away by higher rates in London.’
He was speaking not as a self build guru but as a small/medium-sized builder/developer himself, creator of HAB Housing with custom build developments in Bristol, Swindon, Oxford and Winchester.
Kevin had, in fact, slipped out of a recent Grand Designs Live Show in Birmingham to vent his spleen in a debate at a building trade show next door. But the point he made – about a growing shortage of skilled tradespeople – applies equally well to selfbuilders.
The issue is likely to be a major one this year. Sourcing tradespeople has always been something of a pain for selfbuilders. Coming, as most of us do, from outside the industry, we are obliged to rely on the recommendations of others – usually architects, family or friends – or our own observations of work we admire. Daunting as it sounds, most of us usually do find someone we feel we can trust and whose work can be relied on.
The only problem then is that we probably won’t be the first to spot this professional’s virtues and are likely to be joining a long queue for their services. A recent survey from the Federation of Master Builders found that the average waiting period for a good builder was a minimum of at least four months.
There are two good reasons for this. The main one is that the house building industry has neglected training for many years, but particularly so since the 2008 recession. Then, it’s estimated, over 300,000 workers left the industry, many of them working for, or being, the sort of small and medium-sized builders selfbuilders employ. Meanwhile the workers who have remained are retiring at a faster rate than those being hired.
Reason number two for the skills shortage is the industry’s response to the problem, which has been to hire from abroad. According to Mark Farmer of house building consultants Cast: ‘We have a very migrant-dependent workforce, especially in London where 45 per cent is non-UK, but it’s also an issue nationally.’
Officially it’s just under 12 per cent across the country, though actual figures are likely to be higher. Brexit, of course, puts this policy in jeopardy and, potentially, poses an even bigger threat than recession.
But 2018 shouldn’t all be bad news. Mark Farmer, who in 2016 wrote a damning report on the construction industry, called Modernise or Die, believes building is fast approaching the sort of crunch time many other industries have faced when traditional methods simply don’t work anymore.
‘We do not have enough people to build the homes we need in the UK,’ Farmer warned at the recent UK Construction Week in Birmingham. ‘Every time we increase output with the traditional workforce quality suffers.’
Among his remedies are much less emphasis on site work and more use of prefabrication to improve quality control and raise efficiency. He also wants a much more integrated industry with clients, designers, main contractors, subcontractors and suppliers communicating with each other from the start of a project – instead of making piecemeal arrangements along the way, as they do now. To Farmer, however, the key figure is the client, insisting on the standards common and expected in manufacturing in general.
So how is all this likely to affect self build?
Well, to start with, it’s hard to imagine clients more demanding, more cost conscious or more innovative than the average selfbuilder. But, unless you opt for a turn-key service through an architect or project manager, you’ll be very lucky to sidestep all the troubles that typically affect traditional house building.
What you can do, however, is look seriously at the off-site, or partly off-site, alternatives. The best known is timber frame, whose exponents have specifically targeted selfbuilders for many years.
The frames that provide the main structural support are factory built, allowing much greater dimensional accuracy than conventional site-built blockwork. Once delivered to site, frames can be erected in a matter of days and the house swiftly made watertight, allowing the interior trades to start work much earlier than usual.
Even more efficient is where wall-sized panels are factory built, complete with insulation, vapour barrier, services, doors and windows, leaving even less to chance on site.
Meanwhile cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) is a newer, but rapidly growing system where solid timber walls are made from a kind of super-ply, which can be factory cut under computer control.
For more information, and inspiration, look at the newly published The Modern Timber House in the UK by Peter Wilson (Arcamedia, £35) which features nearly 100 case studies of timber-built homes, many of them self builds.
But if you hanker after the solidity of masonry, don’t despair. There are a number of alternatives available, from insulated concrete formwork (ICF) to honeycomb clay blockwork to Durosil, a form of blockwork which combines the best characteristics of both masonry and timber. All of these are designed to deskill the building process and improve its efficiency.
What none of these alternatives will do, however, is beat traditional brick and block on materials price. But compensatory savings can be made on build time and labour costs, and the latter are likely to climb rapidly as the skills shortage bites.
A bumpy year ahead, then? Well, it will certainly be interesting but factors like the small but steady rise of custom build and local authorities’ gradual, if sometimes grudging, compilations of local self build registers are all hopeful pointers in the right direction.
Meanwhile, book that builder the minute you’ve got your planning permission.
My self build created a plan factory.
First there were the plans for the planning application. They consisted of front and rear elevations, side elevations, ground floor and site plans, first and second floor plans and sections.
When the proposal was rejected, a revised version was produced – along with the same number of plans. This was also rejected.
Plans for submission number three were so deliberately outrageous only a dedicated survivalist intent on recreating Hitler’s bunker in the heart of suburbia would have approved.
Naturally, my local planning department didn’t. However, they did, eventually, accept the original submission, with minor variations. Of course, this involved another set of plans. And all before the fully detailed plans, showing how the house would actually be built, were drawn up and submitted to Building Control.
Twenty years on all that remains of this impressive architectural library is a single set of ground floor plans, heavily seamed from folding and re-folding on site, scribbled with largely incomprehensible notes and garnished with copious coffee and concrete stains.
Should that matter?
Well, at the time, not at all. Those plans were a badge of honour, testifying to the remarkable fact that they had actually resulted in a shiny new residence. Even better, they were proof that our two-year construction marathon was, to our ecstatic relief, finally over.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
Few self builds come to a defined end. Once the completion certificate is issued and the builders have gone, there’s typically decoration, furnishing, deciphering the heating system and the garden to tackle. All too soon it begins to merge with on-going maintenance and, in time, remodelling, extending and major repairs. And that’s where problems can start.
In our case it was prompted by a decision to convert the under-used ground floor into a separate one-bedroom flat. This involved sealing off the stairs in a cupboard (in case of a later change of mind), replacing the entrance to an integral garage with a wall and window and separating off the electrical and heating systems.
Local tradesmen accomplished all this with relative ease. Until we came to the mains water supply.
The mains pipe entered in what had previously been a corner of the garage, so fitting an offshoot for the ground floor alone was easy. Now all we needed was two new meters, one for the ground floor flat, a second for the floors above. No problem with the ground floor. Lots with above.
The reason was simple. No one knew where the supply pipe entered the upper floors. After the stopcock in the former garage it simply disappeared into the adjacent stud wall. Examining the wall in the kitchen above was all but impossible. It was covered in built-in floor and wall units, one of which contained the central heating boiler.
Delving in cupboards provided no clues. The only visible pipework, supplying the sink taps on an adjacent wall, vanished into plasterboard.
Perhaps the plumber who’d fitted it would remember, but he’d been subcontracted by our main contractor and we had no record of his name. He certainly hadn’t left us any diagrams of the plumbing layout. And we couldn’t check with the main contractor because he’d since gone out of business.
Our only recourse was to dismantle the built-in units and possibly part of the floor, if not the wall behind: not a great idea with a timber frame.
Now, the obvious way to avoid situations like this is to compile a comprehensive build diary, taking pictures or videos throughout your project, keeping all plans, carefully marking any variations on them and eventually creating an all-inclusive house manual which will not only be invaluable to you but also to future occupiers.
Well, good luck with that.
Unless you’re on site all day, every day, you can’t be entirely sure you’ve noted everything that might be important later. But then neither will anyone else, especially the professionals.
The building inspector will only pay flying visits at key stages, similarly your architect, if he or she makes site visits. Your main contractor’s main concern is completing the project to your satisfaction, which might not be his, while subcontractors are chiefly concerned with finishing this project before the next starts. In other words, bish bosh, move on.
So how do you counter this? One way is to hire a trusted project manager who can both check and explain every stage, while giving you time to maintain a build diary.
But there’s another way on the horizon, one that big construction is increasingly taking. It’s called BIM, which stands for building information modelling. Essentially, it means digitalising the entire construction process.
In other words, designers, clients, main contractors, subcontractors and suppliers all share the same vision of the completed building – usually digitalised in the form of three-dimensional architectural drawings.
Any discrepancies or inconsistences in the design are then immediately obvious, subcontractors know exactly where, and where not to drill and efficiency, quality and cost control all improve dramatically. And, of course, after completion that extraordinarily complete description of the building remains on record, ready to be consulted whenever needed.
Will BIM ever work on the self build level?
Current pressures are pushing house building towards more and more prefabrication, which potentially provides a much more BIM-friendly environment. But if it ends up depending on a mud-soaked ground worker pausing at the end of a drainage trench to input its precise direction and dimensions into a tablet … I’d tend to give it a generation or two.
As a country we are obsessed with houses: designs, locations, interiors and, most of all, values. Yet, curiously, there’s one vital factor that’s almost universally ignored. Developers don’t mention in their glossy brochures. Estate agents rarely refer to it.
I mean, of course, construction, the way we build our homes.
‘Bricks and mortar’ is perhaps the nearest we get before we take up self build, after which we know we’re actually talking about ‘brick and block’. This is the way most British homes are built and is, in principle, the way we have built for hundreds of years – that is, by hand, with materials delivered on site, using tradespeople who are predominantly self-employed.
Just don’t count on things staying that way.
It’s not that change will be dramatic or instant. Chances are most houses will continue to look just as they do today i.e. predominantly brick clad. It’s underneath where it will happen. And is happening as I write.
House building is, in reality, going through its biggest crisis in over a century. There are multiple reasons why – from an accelerating shortage of skilled tradespeople to the increasing difficulties that traditional construction has in meeting ever more stringent energy efficiency regulations. Basically the old methods are creaking, both in terms of the quantity of housing they can provide, and the quality.
Even the governments admits there’s a problem in its Fixing the Broken Housing Market report published this year.
But the good news is that house building – a notoriously conservative industry – is being forced to look at alternative approaches. Approaches that are well established abroad but relatively little known here. And almost all promise faster, more energy efficient and more reliable builds.
So what are they?
The great majority involve some degree of modular construction, where parts of the structure are produced in a factory under controlled conditions. This shortens the build time, reduces the impact of weather and ensures much greater precision in the way houses are put together.
Best known in the UK, is the so-called ‘open panel’ timber frame system. The prefabricated frames are braced with OSB to create rigid boxes which are assembled on a prepared foundation. Insulation is then fitted inside and vapour barriers installed on interior and exterior surfaces.
‘Closed panel’ systems complete these processes in the factory. They are more common in Europe where manufacturers like Hanse Haus and Baufritz prefabricate whole walls, complete with windows and doors, wiring and plumbing. This makes it possible to erect a house shell on a prepared site in just one day.
Timber frame’s key advantages over masonry are that it’s both more inherently thermally efficient and hollow. Insulation can be fitted inside the frame, reducing the overall width of the wall. It’s also a dry system, eliminating masonry’s need for a lengthy drying out period after completion.
One ingenious system, developed in America, both maximises the insulation potential of timber frame and greatly enhances its strength.
Structural insulation panels or SIPs consist of two sheets of engineered wood – usually OSB – sandwiching a rigid insulation core. This makes them up to six times stronger than a standard timber frame.
When SIPs are erected, the insulation in each panel directly abuts the next, creating a continuous airtight seal – so airtight, in fact, that mechanical ventilation systems are normally specified. SIPs are one of the most effective ways of creating an ultra-energy-efficient home with relatively slim walls.
Newer to Britain, is cross-laminated timber (CLT). Built from solid engineered wood laminated in three dimensions, it’s as strong as steel but much lighter. Whole buildings can be precisely prefabricated and assembled swiftly on site. Insulation still needs to be applied externally, but the ambience and atmosphere of all-wood home is said to be unique.
But what if you want the energy efficiency and accuracy of a prefabricated home plus the solidity of traditional brick and block?
Luckily, there are methods of building with masonry that can easily match the advantages of prefabrication.
The best established is insulated concrete formwork (ICF). As with SIPs, insulation and structural support are combined, but using poured concrete instead of timber.
Walls are built from hollow polystyrene forms, either in the form of pre-formed blocks or larger panels which are put together on site. Both are designed to lock together, Lego-style. Once a storey is completed, concrete is poured into the forms, which remain in place, creating walls that are airtight and exceptionally well-insulated, both thermally and acoustically.
Unlike timber frames, ICF can easily create curves or other irregular shapes and can also form basements.
Durosil is a similar kind of interlocking hollow block system with integral insulation. The main difference is that the blocks are made from a curious mixture of cement dust and wood waste, combining the strength of concrete with the thermal efficiency and ease of working of timber.
The inner half of each block contains insulation; the outer is where concrete is poured. Like polystyrene ICF systems, they are capable of being assembled on a DIY basis.
Meanwhile, another system, much closer to brick, is honeycomb clay blockwork, a favourite in mainland Europe. The blocks interlock horizontally and are joined with a thin, glue-like mortar applied by machine, requiring minimal skill. It’s a fast, virtually dry system and the blocks can be filled with insulation for maximum energy efficiency.
So what’s the downside with all these systems? In a word, higher cost, at least on paper.
But I’d argue that we’re on the cusp of a change in consumer expectation. It involves houses that are highly customisable but can still be largely prefabricated, their quality pre-tested and guaranteed before delivery, their erection on site lasting a few weeks rather than several months, their internal comfort similarly guaranteed, alongside fuel bills that barely reach three figures.
Too expensive to achieve? Not worth the extra fuss? That’s exactly what was once said about central heating and double glazing.
For a while last winter I entertained the illusion of living in the Hanging Gardens of South London.
To be fair, ‘gardens’ was probably stretching it a bit, since they largely consisting of two clumps of grass and a handful of etiolated weeds. But they were definitely there, just outside the upper windows of my home, poking up cheerfully to remind me spring wasn’t far off, when they weren’t spraying rainwater over lower roofs.
In less lyrical moments I acknowledged that they were, in fact, blocked gutters, which added unblocking to the ever-lengthening list of household chores I’d definitely get round to next weekend, once the rain had stopped.
It wasn’t until I returned from several weeks away that I saw how truly lush my hanging gardens had become and the potential damage they were doing: heavily mossed tiles, splashes of damp on the brickwork and sodden flowerbeds below. But it was only when I paid someone to clear them that I discovered how poor a state my gutters were in.
Fine dust from the sanded roof tiles had combined with rainwater, moss and leaves from surrounding trees to produce a rich, black mulch, perfect for a hanging garden, but rubbish for roof drainage. Next year’s clean-up is now firmly fixed in the household diary.
For the selfbuilder, too, rainwater goods can be something of an afterthought, overshadowed, literally, by the demands of roof design and roof covering. Their importance is reduced even further by the fact that the materials can be remarkably cheap. Half-round PVCu guttering, the most widely used, costs little more than a couple of pounds a metre in Screwfix, including VAT, and even less when buying in bulk. A complete system for a detached house can amount to around £600, a very minor sum even for a low-cost project.
But neglecting gutters can be unwise. Like the mortar used for brickwork – another low-cost item – a poor choice will make a dramatic difference to the final look of your house.
So what are the choices and what criteria should you use? Overall, as with most aspects of building, it’s a matter of balancing budget against appearance, maintenance and durability.
For a standard design, especially on a tight budget, PVCu is close to unbeatable. Black guttering and downpipes may creak as they expand in the sun’s warmth, but their lightness and ease of cutting makes DIY fitting possible, another saving. They can also last up to 25 years, but will become brittle, joints will wear and colour fade, so repair and partial replacement will be needed.
Before plastic, cast iron was king. Now it’s largely confined to period renovations. It’s expensive, heavy, cumbersome to fit and needs repainting, inside and out, at least once every five years. But, properly maintained, it can last well over a century.
Other metals, however, offer the lightness and low maintenance of plastic but with greater strength and durability. Aluminium is better known from double glazing and comes in a wide variety of long-lasting powder coat colours. Steel guttering also offers slightly different colour options as well as a plain galvanised finish. These materials can both blend in unobtrusively with a conventional design or make bold statements in something more individual.
Even bolder, and more expensive, but matching the longevity of cast iron, are zinc and copper. Both are self-protecting metals, virtually maintenance-free in themselves. Both also change with exposure to the elements: zinc to a soft grey; copper from a brilliant shine to a deep brown to eventually a vibrant bluish-green. In addition, copper is a natural biocide, killing off algae and bacteria – useful if you are fitting a rainwater harvesting system.
Even the finest materials or installations, however, need to be kept clear to be effective. A yearly or twice yearly clean out, depending on your circumstances, is essential, but there are ways to minimise that chore.
One is to fit a mesh, made either of plastic or galvanised steel, over the top of the gutter, allowing rainwater to pass through but excluding leaves and twigs. Another covers the gutter with an anodised aluminium sheet whose front edge curves down and round at the front. Rainwater streaming over the top follows the curve and drops into the gutter; solid matter is swept on.
Yet another method consists of a long, cylindrical brush whose polypropylene bristles completely fill the gutter. Rainwater can enter, while most solid material is kept out.
But if all this seems too much trouble, there is a much more radical solution – and one that, for the first time, is about to be included in the Building Regulations, or rather Part H, which deals with drainage and refuse. It’s called an ‘eave drop system’, which is much less systematic than it sounds because it means abandoning gutters and downpipes altogether.
Instead rainwater is simply allowed to drop from the eaves, which need to be wide enough to protect the walls and windows from damp. Splashing off the ground will also have to be prevented with either a layer of gravel or concrete angled away from the wall.
In fact, it’s the way most houses used to be rain-protected before the intricacies of cast iron and plastic. Plenty of period examples can still be found, often roofed with thatch. This, in itself, is a very effective buffer against a downpour, absorbing much of its flow and force and allowing the water to drip slowly from the eaves over the dry hours that follow.
Eaves drop systems require, of course, ample surrounding space. Close neighbours are unlikely to appreciate the additional rain on their parade, or their side wall, but on a broad plot or a remote location, why not?
Let’s assume that, after all the rigours of Brexit and a impending general election you find yourself in a cat swinging mood. How much room do you actually need?
It’s an intellectual query, of course, not least because you’d have to be an unusually dedicated sadist to carry it out – and in urgent need of prosecution – but also because no one knows what it really means.
Could the ‘cat’ actually be a ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’, the whip used to enforce naval discipline in the 17th and 18th centuries? That was generally just over a metre long, so if you add the length of your arm (75cm) plus half your body width (25cm), the actual length of swing is around two metres. The total area covered, then, would, very roughly, be 12.5 square metres, or 135 square feet.
And, if you’d bought a brand new house in the last five or six years, you’re now almost certainly in trouble.
The truth is that swinging almost any object beyond average feline length is going to result in damage, and possible injury to anyone standing nearby. Thanks to the average size of new-build houses in the UK, there simply won’t be the room.
A survey last year found that the average three-bedroom property footprint outside London was just under 89 square metres or about 960 square feet. London managed 108.5 square metres, but Yorkshire and Humber were just 84sqm.
In comparison, the minimum area currently recommended – but not required – by the Department for Communities and Local Government is 93sqm.
I mention it because a recent report from the Home Builders Federation boasted that housebuilders are now building bigger homes with more bedrooms than they were eight years ago. The average size of a new build has risen from 74.2sqm to just over 85sqm.
What the report doesn’t mention, however, is that this new average is still around eight square metres smaller than the figure for 2003.
Should we be surprised? Not really. The cost of the additional space is more than covered by the increase in prices, though it does suggest that housebuilders are responding to the diminishing numbers of buyers.
Should we care? Well, selfbuilders self build because the market doesn’t supply what they want – sufficient space, sufficient build or design quality, affordability, or all four. But what if you decided to achieve three of these criteria by dropping the first?
That’s the principle behind the Tiny House Movement, perhaps more accurately described as super downsizing. In the UK tiny houses are best known through architect George Clarke’s Channel 4 Amazing Spaces series and the Shed of the Year competition it spawned. In other words, entertaining examples of British eccentricity, encompassing not only sheds but beach huts, caravans, houseboats, tree houses and even the follies and hermitages favoured by 18th century aristocrats.
Tiny houses only really deserve the label of a movement in the United States, where the kind of rugged individualism they exemplify is taken more seriously. Broadly, they are a reaction to the high cost of conventional home owning, not just in terms of the long-term financial burden it imposes, but also the restrictions it places on the freedom to travel, study or simply enjoy life.
It’s also a protest against rampant consumerism, the damage it does to the environment and, not least, the relentless accumulation of just plain stuff.
Over the last decade or so these ideas have inspired a radical re-assessment of what we really do, and do not, need in a home, as well as producing an extraordinary outpouring of creativity.
Typically, tiny homes range in size from around ten to 35 square metres and in terms of design from glorified sheds to miniature conventional homes to converted vehicles, and pretty much anything else in between. What they tend to have in common is all the facilities of a conventional home, including washing, cooking, heating, lighting and waste disposal, but in a suitably compact and often highly ingenious form.
Many are also built on trailers, partly for ease of transport but also to qualify as a mobile home. This imposes a maximum size of 20 by 6.7 metres with an internal ceiling height of 3.48 metres, but allows the home to be sited in a garden, as long as it’s associated with the property to which it belongs. A self-contained mobile home, however, will need planning permission, which may be difficult to obtain.
Alternatively, you can buy or hire suitable land on which to site your mobile tiny home. Legally, you will only be allowed to live in it for 28 days at a time, but if you remain undetected for ten years (four if your tiny home is fixed) you can apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness from the local authority. But do double check locally beforehand.
One major exception, of course, is building or buying a tiny home in which to live on site while you self build. Again, check out the local authority’s view, though obvious progress with your build should deter objections.
You might even design and build your own tiny home on your existing property as a self-build teaser. But be warned. The result may prove so appealing you might be tempted to postpone, or even abandon your conventional self build plans, move your new mini-dwelling elsewhere, move in and rent out your property as an additional, or sole, income. In other words, downsize to the simple life with all the guarantees of conventional home ownership.
Remember you heard it here first.
I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with films, but every morning for the last few weeks I’ve driven past the college where Indiana Jones taught archaeology, vampire hunter Duffy went to school and ageing teenager John Travola romanced Olivia Newton-John in Grease.
I’ve also driven through the road tunnel where villainous Biff Tannen collides with a manure truck in Back to the Future III, and walked past, with a slight shiver, the building from which Leonardo Di Caprio’s wife leaps to her death in Inception.
I’ve been visiting, of course, Los Angeles, the city where you can bump into movie actors in the local equivalent of Tesco’s and the daily newspaper publishes a weekly list of film locations. Just in case you want to star spot, though no one here would admit to being so uncool.
But, if you’d rather hand dig drainage trenches than give brain space to Hollywood glamour, there’s an aspect of this city that will truly warm the heart of a British selfbuilder. And that’s the local design code.
Because there doesn’t appear to be one.
There are building codes, which are the local equivalent of building regulations, and these clearly influence design. For example, homes are not supposed to rise higher than 36 feet from their lowest point and should have five feet clearance, sides and rear, from neighbouring properties (no Frenchified metrics here).
But on streets that can incline up to 32 degrees, and with plots that can be considerably steeper – both of which are surprisingly common – ridge height becomes a bit academic. And not least because ridges don’t always exist.
Southern California, after all, has a Mediterranean climate, with only about 15 inches of rain a year, so flat roofs aren’t in much risk of leakage. More concerning here are earthquakes, hence the building codes’ emphasis on reinforced concrete raft foundations and comprehensive bracing for timber frames.
Timber frame, of course, is America’s favourite method of house building. Timber’s universally available, cheap – cheaper than in the UK, judging by local DIY stores – and allows for fast construction, though most homes are stick-built on site rather than prefabricated, as they are in chillier, wetter Britain.
Typically, they consist of dry wall (plasterboard) on the inside of the frame, insulation between the studs, oriented strand board or ply on the outside, waterproof building paper and finally either battens supporting cladding or cement stucco simply sprayed on.
However, breathable vapour barriers, known locally as ‘house wrap’, are surprisingly rare. As are PV and solar thermal panels, which seems positively masochistic in this unrelenting sunshine. Especially since air conditioning, which is standard, makes up the bulk of electricity bills.
But, if that hints at a worrying lack of imagination, the designs of the houses themselves can more than make up for it.
I’ve been particularly impressed by the area in which I’ve been staying. Silver Lake largely consists of a series of hills surrounding a now drained city reservoir. Homes crowd the steep slopes overlooking it with the density of an Italian hill town, but in a world-spanning variety of architectural styles.
They range from simple, single-storey, clapboard timber frames, typical of any American suburb, and brightly-painted Mexican-style adobe houses to a mediaeval timber frame with a cantilevered upper storey and a pointed tower, a mock-Tudor bungalow, complete with fake patches in the render, revealing ‘brickwork’ beneath and a two-storey frame house that’s slowly being consumed by highly decorated, Gaudi-style extrusions.
Then there are the sleek, minimalist boxes in glass and black-painted vertical cladding, and local masterpieces – like architect John Lautner’s iconic, domed, circular, hilltop residence, and the ten homes designed in the 1930s by Austrian architect Richard Neutra who virtually invented modern design.
They are all different – in size, shape, colour, and often orientation, especially higher up the hillsides where they seem to balance on each other’s shoulders. Gardens are either non-existent, steep, narrow terraces or simply drop off vertically in the last few feet.
If these homes have anything in common, it’s decks and balconies to enjoy the views and the absence of ground floors – taken up, almost universally, by integral garages or parking areas. But this is a city where shops or services are always a car drive away.
The point is that, although these houses are now highly desirable and priced accordingly, most are not massively luxurious, nor were they built originally at vast expense. This isn’t Beverley Hills or Bel Air with sprawling mansions and gated communities. It’s a pleasant residential suburb which, over the years, has slowly benefitted from the housing shortages common to many great cities.
Its real value is the individuality, the creativity, the quirkiness which it’s been allowed to express in its buildings – rather like a traditional British village which has grown organically over many years, developing its own distinctive character.
It provides a lesson home-grown planners might learn from, not so much in terms of enlarging their range of acceptable designs, but more in terms of trust. Trust that those who build their own homes might just have a clearer idea of what looks and feels right than prescriptive authorities or volume builders.
And for selfbuilders themselves, of course, a visit to a place like this could be almost as inspirational as – dare I say it? - a thumpingly good Hollywood movie.
Drive west from Helsinki and you’ll soon find yourself deep in typical Finnish countryside: a rolling green landscape speckled with innumerable lakes, forests of pine, spruce and birch and the odd yellow-painted wooden cabin.
You’ll need to go in summer, of course, preferably after nine in the morning when the rush hour ends and the roads empty – an easy trick for a country almost twice the size of the UK and a population of just five and a half million.
Finding a building plot isn’t a problem in this, Europe’s most sparsely populated nation, and the further north you go the more affordable it gets. But you’ll need to get used to two months of virtually continuous darkness in winter and temperatures down to minus 30 degrees Centigrade.
No wonder, then, that those colourful cabins, even in the milder south, typically boast 250mm of mineral wool insulation in their walls and 400mm in the roofs.
But today’s destination isn’t a cabin. Turn, after an hour or so, onto a side road, drive through farmland and eventually you reach an impressive drive. And at the end of it, surrounded by manicured gardens, lies an even more impressive mansion.
It’s built in the neo-classical style, its broad yellow-painted facade featuring tall windows and a large entrance portico supported by white-painted Doric columns.
It all looks as solid and imposing as any 18th century equivalent from England or France, and it dates back over 200 years. But, when you tap the walls, you realise it’s made almost entirely of wood.
This is Kirkniemi Manor, once the summer home of a celebrated Finnish president and war hero. But today it’s the venue for a gathering of assorted European journos and their reason for being here, not inappropriately, is wood. Finnish wood, of course – and specifically that of Metsä Wood, a major Finnish producer of timber products.
Why should this matter to you?
Well, if you buy wood or wood products from B&Q or pine doors from Jeld-Wen, you’re buying Metsä. But, more importantly, the Finnish gathering, and a related conference in Helsinki, highlighted an exciting new trend in construction. Building with wood.
Don’t we do that anyway?
You’d be hard pushed to build most modern houses without using timber for joists, rafters, doors, skirting or concrete shuttering. And, of course, timber frame, despite representing only around 20 per cent of UK house building, is a popular form of construction with self builders.
But the timber construction being discussed in Finland involved something different. It was about building entirely out of wood. Solid wooden walls and floors, solid wooden columns and beams. In other words, engineered wood.
Here, this is most familiar in the form of plywood, oriented strand board (OSB) or I-beams – strong but lightweight joists where timber flanges are linked by OSB. Timber frame selfbuilders are also likely to have encountered glulam, where thin strips of wood are finger-jointed and glued together, creating beams of great strength.
But the latest and most exciting development in engineered wood is cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Described by one British architect as ‘jumbo plywood’, it consists of thin strips of wood which are glued together, plywood-style but with alternating layers at right angles to each other. The result is a material that is exceptionally stable, matches the strength of concrete and steel but is five times lighter than concrete.
It can be produced in panels, beams or supporting columns –Metsä’s version, known as Kerto laminated veneer lumber (LVL), is available in thicknesses from 27 to 75mm and widths from 200 to 2,500mm.
But the nature of the material allows it to be almost infinitely customised. This makes it ideal for prefabrication. Walls, floors and roofs can be created and cut precisely to architect’s drawings under factory conditions, then be rapidly assembled on a prepared site.
Just how rapidly is described by architect Andrew Waugh whose practice built the UK’s first CLT building in 2003, a small rear extension in Waterloo.
‘We built a three-storey building on a Saturday afternoon,’ he recalls. ‘Four people took six hours and the CAD drawings we had drawn exactly described what arrived on site. It all just slipped in.’
CLT’s light weight also means shallower, less expensive foundations, while, as a sustainable material, its production creates far fewer carbon emissions than concrete, steel or brick.
But its greatest appeal may well be the experience of living in a CLT home. As well as a natural insulant, wood is a breathable, organic material with which human beings have a natural affinity.
‘Wood,' architect Juhani Pallasmaa told the Helsinki conference, ‘has the temperature, softness and often the colour of human skin. It becomes more beautiful through age and use.’
It also make putting up shelves, kitchen units and pictures exceptionally easy.
So what are CLT’s drawbacks?
First is cost, roughly twice that of conventional construction, but that discounts savings on foundations, build times and labour costs.
Second is availability. Though well-established in Europe and Canada, CLT is little known among UK architects or builders, especially in house building.
But that will change.
One speaker in Helsinki was Craig Liddell of Legal and General, which recently announced a decision to build up to 4,000 flats per year for long-term rental. CLT was chosen as the building method most likely to provide high quality, energy-efficient, low-maintenance homes and in less than a third the build time of conventional methods.
As a result L&G now own the first the UK’s CLT production unit and the world’s largest CLT press.
Some years ago a selfbuilder I interviewed kindly invited me to spend a couple of nights in his newly renovated weekend retreat.
It was a traditional Scottish longhouse, though the renovation, which had added a large open-plan kitchen/living area, made it, more accurately, square.
The only downside was that it was situated, not unreasonably, in Scotland. In fact, north-west of Aberdeen in Speyside, home of whisky distilleries, and some 600 miles from my front door.
Nevertheless, I accepted immediately, partly because it was a cheap date for someone with a young and boisterous family, but also because the house was entirely off-grid.
Being essentially mean (see above), I’ve always found the idea of living energy bill-free deeply attractive, and here was a chance to experience how someone had apparently managed it.
The house proved to be everything I’d hoped for. Located off a gravel track off a narrow road winding through a shallow valley, it had no visible neighbours. But it did have stags on the high, bare hill behind it, fresh water pumped from its own well and a 30-feet high wind turbine.
The turbine charged a couple of gigantic batteries – said to have come from a submarine – housed in a stone-walled hut beside the house. When the batteries ran low, a diesel generator burst into life.
Enough electricity was produced to power all mod cons, from central heating to a full range of white goods. It helped, of course, that a highly insulated timber-frame shell had been built within the original stone walls of the house, minimising the heaviest energy demand, but I was deeply impressed.
It took me quite a while to be convinced that a similar wind turbine in our quiet London suburb would never receive the wind oomph of a remote Speyside glen. But that didn’t dim my ambition to achieve a home free of energy bills.
And, of course, I’m not alone. Until very recently it was government policy to make all new homes ‘zero carbon’ by this year. Not quite ‘zero energy’, but close, rather like the current European Union directive to make all new buildings ‘nearly zero energy’ by 2020.
But how do you achieve that? Well, the Speyside house establishes the principles.
Firstly, you minimise your energy requirements. That’s not so much investing in thermals and extra cardigans, it’s dramatically increasing the insulation and making the home as airtight as possible.
This involves a small expenditure of electricity to power the ventilation systems needed to avoid stale air and explosions of mould. But houses built to the German passivhaus standard – the best established low energy building system – are designed to require only 120 kilowatts of energy per square metre per year. That could mean saving up to 90 per cent of the heating costs for an average three bedroom detached home.
In practice, most of the space heating is provided by cooking, washing, heat from electrical appliances, solar gain through the windows and body warmth. But you still need energy for the electrical appliances, ventilation and hot water.
In theory this can be provided in abundance by rooftop solar thermal and photo-voltaic (PV) panels. The average house, for example, consumes around 3,300kWh of electricity a year, while a 3-4kWh PV system will produce between 2,500 and 3,400kWh over the same period. A perfect match. Except that our use of electricity and its production don’t always coincide.
The answer, in Speyside terms, seems obvious. Install a battery to store unused electricity. But that’s easier said than done.
Conventional lead acid batteries on the Speyside scale – built for commercial use – are the cheapest, but still cost from around £2,000 upwards and will only last between two and a half and five years, depending on usage. They also need a lot of space, such as a garage or outhouse.
More modern lithium-ion batteries – as used in mobile phones – are more compact and will last at least three times longer than lead acid, but cost up to three times more.
Even newer and more expensive are aqueous hybrid ion batteries. These are as long-lasting and maintenance-free as lithium-ion, but much more environmentally friendly, using non-toxic metals in a saline solution.
The cost of the batteries, however, is only likely to be around half that of a complete storage system, which will include an inverter – turning PV direct current to the alternating current used in the home – as well as controlling software and installation.
All battery systems however, are still new to domestic use. The sector is very much at the early stages of PV systems, where large claims were made and expertise was limited. The only self build kit home I’m aware of that includes an integral storage system is ZEDfactory’s Zero Bills Home launched this March.
But things are changing fast – prompted not least by the growing electric car market. Solar storage systems featured widely at this year’s Ecobuild event and huge interest surrounded last year’s launch of the Tesla Powerwall, America’s first mass-produced domestic battery system. Prices are set to fall.
Meanwhile, perhaps the best short-term option is a much smaller, less expensive system which diverts excess PV electricity to your immersion heater. A hot sunny day could provide a full tank of ‘free’ hot water, and markedly reduce the demand on the boiler over the course of the year. A number of systems are available, with installed costs starting from around £300.
It might not have quite the panache of a 30-foot wind turbine, but it’s certainly a promising start.
How do you feel about the Brexit referendum? Was it a moment of joyous liberation? Or the equivalent of handing a toddler a loaded gun and being surprised when it exploded in his – and your – face?
Whatever the reaction, the real question is what happens now, and, in particular, to your self build project. Does it put it on the backburner? Does it make it any easier than BB (Before Brexit)? Or is it most likely to make very little difference at all?
In terms of house building in general, the commercial sector caught an immediate cold, with seven of the major players losing around 20 per cent of their share value within hours. But, given the profits they’ve been making in recent years and their obvious reluctance to build enough homes to reduce or stabilise prices, selfbuilders can’t really be too concerned.
More significant is the fact that this fall in value, and the general instability of the post-Brexit world, is likely to cause big developers to pause until things become clearer.
In the short-term, that may release more tradespeople into the market. Given the general shortage of building skills, that may then enable you to progress your project more easily – though, probably, not more cheaply, unless you are very lucky.
Wages, at least in the areas where people most want to build, and live, have been rising lately. Bricklayers, for example, are now said to be demanding, and getting, £25 an hour in London.
But if the uncertainty leads to another recession, the number of building professionals seeking work is likely to rise, and so is the likelihood of you negotiating more affordable fees.
That is, until the economy improves, or gets far worse, in which case building workers will simply leave the industry. This is what’s happened in every other recession and the reason why there’s a current labour shortage.
If the Polish and other Europeans who have taken up the slack in the past decide, or are obliged, to go home, things could get very sticky indeed. But that, to be honest, is unlikely. Many have established such a good reputation they are more likely to take British citizenship and stay for the long term.
In the meantime the need to overcome local skills shortages, as well as achieve high build quality, will provide a huge boost for prefabricated homes. Many, however, come from Europe, especially Germany, so if your self build dreams include a Huf Haus or a Baufritz home it might be wise to make enquiries soon.
But don’t make any down payments quite yet or you’ll suffer the full effect of the collapsed pound. Once it revives, however, move before Brexit becomes final, or you risk even higher prices with the trade tariffs that could follow.
But recessions, it has to be said, are usually good for selfbuilders. It’s not just building costs that fall, but property and land prices, too, and the numbers of buyers seeking both. It may not be a catastrophic fall – our housing shortage has grown too great for that. But, if you have the funds or a property to sell – even if its value has also dropped – you are likely to find your project a lot easier.
Another cause for optimism is lending. If the economy continues to be turbulent over the next few months the Bank of England is likely to cut interest rates even beyond the current half a per cent. This prospect is already prompting lenders to offer some of the lowest fixed mortgage rates for years.
The downside is that, if the cuts prove successful in stimulating the economy and inflation results – boosted by the higher cost of imports – higher interest rates may then be imposed. But that’s likely to be many months ahead, so, if you can, talk to your lender as soon as possible.
What else should you worry about? Frankly, worry itself. You’d be much better off looking for the opportunities that always arise in uncertain times. Bargains often hide themselves quite effectively, which is why they’re bargains.
Selfbuilders have always had to be the guerrillas of the housebuilding market, snapping up the plots and properties the big developers miss, or regard as unlikely to produce the 20 to 30 per cent profit they seek. Those figures provide a big margin of opportunity, especially for those looking for a home rather than a boost to income.
In many ways, for self build, Brexit means business as usual.
The surveyor prised the plastic louvre off the bedroom wall, leaned forward on his small stepladder and peered into the exposed cavity.
‘Dry as a bone with a nice draught,’ he told me and gave a purr of approval. ‘You won’t have any trouble with these walls.’
He was, it became clear, of the old school of surveying. Buildings should be kept dry and well-ventilated. None of this nonsensical stuffing of the cavity with insulation. Air should circulate freely in cavities, whisk under suspended floors and rattle the sarking in cold, empty attics.
And he had a point. Such guiding principles had, after all, preserved this three-bed semi in excellent condition since it was built in the 1930s. Of course, the same couldn’t be said of its occupants.
Which is the problem. What suits buildings doesn’t always suit people. Over the years we’ve compensated for this with blazing hearths, thick curtains, thicker carpets and extra layers of clothing. But over the last half century innovation and regulation have upgraded our expectations.
Today central heating means we no longer need to spend the winter huddling around single fires. Double glazing has clobbered draughts. Walls, roofs and foundations bulge with insulation. Houses grow ever more airtight.
But this historically unprecedented level of comfort comes at a price, and not just the extra costs in construction materials and fuel bills.
Occupation produces large quantities of moisture-laden air. Not such a problem when draughts suck them away. But, when they don’t, moisture condenses on cool surfaces – window reveals, ceiling edges, the interiors of neglected cupboards.
Blooms of unhealthy mould, which return however many times they are wiped away. Damp smells can occur and stored clothes rot.
Sealing a home can also lead to a build up of the carbon dioxide we exhale and the volatile organic compounds given off by many household materials.
Luckily, these problems usually diminish in warm weather when windows are left open. But then another problem can arise – overheating.
A recent report by the Zero Carbon Hub estimated that around 20 per cent of UK homes are likely to become uncomfortably hot during prolonged spells of high temperatures. The very young and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
Of course, the construction industry and regulators are aware of these problems. But not that aware. In this area we are all to some extent guinea pigs.
The current building regulations, for example, have numerous requirements for ventilation in terms of floor area, access to fresh air and minimum numbers of air changes per hour. That’s why double-glazing comes with ‘trickle vents’, those openable slots in the frame which seem to contradict the whole purpose of having sealed units in the first place. And why new kitchens and bathrooms are required to have extraction fans.
But achieving the right balance between appropriate ventilation, comfort and cost, both running and installation, can be tricky. Every home, after all, is different and its occupants have different needs.
How, then, do you decide what’s right for you – and your budget? Let’s look at the five main choices.
Whole house mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) is the crème de la crème. It provides constant fresh air at a constant temperature.
MVHR works by extracting air from warm, wet rooms, like the kitchen and bathrooms, and drawing it through ducting to a constantly running central fan and heat exchanger. Here, outgoing warm air heats incoming fresh air, which is then distributed to living areas.
To be effective, MVHR needs heavily insulated houses with high levels of airtightness, but it can cut heating costs of an average home by up to 90 per cent, giving annual fuel bills of about £80.
Installation costs, however, are high. The ducting is extensive, and hard to conceal in an existing property. The system also needs to be designed and fitted by experienced professionals, of which there are limited numbers in the UK.
Less expensive to install, and more suitable for less airtight homes, is mechanical ventilation (MEV). This also extracts warm, moist air via a central fan and ducting, but then simply expels it. Fresh air is drawn into the house through trickle vents and the building fabric.
The running costs are double those of MVHR, but a recent Irish study estimated that this would add only around £86 on average to an annual fuel bill. Adding controls, which automatically vary the fan speed depending on demand, can reduce costs by up to 40 per cent, according to Aereco’s operations manager Peter King.
If you want to eliminate running costs altogether, passive stack ventilation simply uses vertical ducts to allow warm stale air to rise naturally and disperse at roof level. But control is a bit hit and miss.
Alternatively, you can turn the problem on its head with positive input ventilation (PIV). Again a central, permanently running fan is used, but only to draw in fresh air, which can be slightly warmed with an internal heating element.
The result is a marginal increase in internal air pressure. In a less airtight home, however, it’s enough to gently expel stale and moist air through trickle vents and other gaps in the fabric.
Last, but not least, are extractor fans for individual rooms, and not just kitchens, bathrooms and loos, where extraction only occurs when the rooms are in use. Constant, low-noise fans, often with heat recovery which recoups up to 90 per cent of outgoing warmth, can provide effective, low-cost ventilation in all living areas, including bedrooms.
If all this sounds a bit hit-and-miss, that’s only because it is, though hopefully another generation of energy-efficient home building will bring the expertise we lack.
Because the only reliable alternative is to return to homes like that 1930s property I mentioned at the beginning. Well-preserved as it was – the reason that I bought it – it was in winter a bone-numbing ice box, much beloved by my local provider of gas and electricity.
It might not quite be East versus West or Tyson Fury versus the other guy, but newcomers to self build soon become aware they are engaged in a power struggle – a struggle for their attention.
It doesn’t involve design, size or location – all the things that normally concern prospective homeowners. It’s about the way houses are built.
To many this can seem confusing. By definition British houses are ‘bricks and mortar’. And it’s true that the majority of UK homes are built with brick. In fact, until the 1920s, most were built with solid brick walls.
But the 1930s saw the widespread introduction of the so-called ‘cavity’ wall, where a house actually has two external walls, separated by a narrow gap.
Why do that?
Well, brick may be strong, low-maintenance and visually appealing, but it’s also permeable to moisture. If it becomes saturated, the moisture can penetrate to the house interior, causing dampness and mould.
In twin-wall construction the outer leaf can still be saturated, but the moisture gets no further than the cavity. It then drains or evaporates away through airbricks bridging the walls or ‘weep holes’ – small slots in the brickwork at the base of the outside walls.
Result? The inner wall remains dry and the interior damp-free.
There is an argument that house builders were less concerned with drier homes than the fact that cavity walls were cheaper and quicker to build than solid ones. But there was an even bigger advantage.
The inner wall – the one that supports the floors and roof – was now invisible. So there was no longer any need to build it of relatively expensive brick. Equally strong but cheaper materials could be used instead.
After the Second World War the concrete block became the material of choice and brick and block now dominates the market. But not entirely.
For a generation or so a growing minority of builders have used timber for their underlying structure. Timber frame – as it’s called – has several advantages over brick and block.
Most timber frames are constructed in a factory, allowing the entire inner shell of a house to be delivered to the site and erected within a few days, rather than the weeks it takes to lay blocks by hand.
Timber is also inherently more thermally efficient than masonry and a frame can be packed with insulation, providing even more thermal efficiency within less space.
So why isn’t everyone using it?
Well, Britain’s house building industry is organised to serve traditional masonry construction. Timber frame is more familiar in Europe and North America. Here, it’s only widespread in Scotland, where the climate demands fast construction and plenty of insulation.
Nevertheless, timber frame manufacturers have always targeted selfbuilders. For newcomers to construction, the speed of the build, the promised energy efficiency and the fact that so much of the building process is handled in the factory are big attractions.
But the world is changing. Building regulations are requiring ever greater energy efficiency for new houses. The aim is to reduce carbon emissions, but the main effect is to cut fuel bills and produce warmer, more draught-free and more comfortable homes.
To achieve that, however, demands more insulation in the walls and roof and a more airtight form of construction.
Timber frames seem to score here, because they are routinely sheathed in polythene to protect the wood from moisture. But, just as routinely, the polythene is then punctured to admit services.
There’s a practical limit, too, to the amount of insulation the frame can accommodate. As with brick and block, the cavity is used instead, though even then additional insulation may be needed on the interior walls. It’s all getting a bit cumbersome, and the idea of the cavity seems to have been lost along the way.
Should this matter?
Well, our European neighbours don’t think so. According to one UK training manager, Austrian builders regard Brits as ‘crazy. You build a house twice.’ Solid, damp-proof, highly insulated walls are common on the continent.
But there are systems here that can provide that. Perhaps the most interesting to selfbuilders is insulated concrete formwork (ICF). Here, hollow blocks, typically made of expanded polystyrene, are assembled Lego-style then filled with concrete mix. After the concrete sets, the blocks are left in place, providing exceptional levels of insulation and airtightness.
Since they simply lock together, assembly can be a DIY task. Professional input might be limited to creating a level foundation and expertise with a concrete pump.
There are drawbacks. Fixing heavy objects to a polystyrene wall can be problematic and production creates significant carbon emissions. But there is one system where those drawbacks are much reduced.
Durosil blocks are made not of plastic but wood waste marinated in a solution of pure cement dust. The result is a form of fossilised wood, as strong as conventional blockwork but with the thermal efficiency of timber. That efficiency is improved by incorporating polyurethane insulation within each block.
Like brick and block, it’s also breathable, but can be cut with a reciprocating saw and allows heavy objects to be attached using only woodscrews. Perhaps most significantly, the low slump concrete mix used can be poured in temperatures that would halt conventional brick and block laying.
Durosil only reached Britain in 2008 but stakes its claim as the original ICF system. Invented in Switzerland in 1937, it was used to rebuild much of post-war Vienna and is now big in Canada.
It was first marketed here as an eco product but failed to impress the trade. It’s now re-inventing itself as a fully-certified form of rapid, energy-efficient construction.
It’s also actively targeting selfbuilders, staging regular free training days where you get a chance to build a wall. I advise you to go along. It’s fun and provides plenty of ammunition in the Tysonesque struggle for your selfbuild attention – and your cash.
Next time you step into your shower and get instant hot water, or switch on the central heating as temperatures plummet, spare a thought for Benjamin Waddy Maughan.
A house painter by trade, Mr Maughan dreamed up the first ‘instant’ domestic water heater. When he patented his idea in 1868 most of his fellow Londoners heated their bath water in kettles on the kitchen stove.
The wealthier, however, could afford the ‘tank system’, an early form of piped hot water run from a kitchen range with a back boiler. Unfortunately, if the water supply ran low, the boiler would overheat – with catastrophic results when the supply resumed.
Maughan’s answer to this explosive dilemma was a free-standing metallic cylinder. Cold water flowed to a tap at the bottom through narrow, spiralling tubes, heated by rows of gas jets. The result? ‘Instant’ hot water on demand.
Maughan called his invention the ‘Geyser’ after the Icelandic natural phenomenon. It proved almost as volatile. Temperature control was hit-and-miss while lighting up could produce loud bangs and unpredictable bursts of steam. But the Geyser proved a hit.
The latest incarnation of the Geyser is, of course, the combination, or ‘combi’, central heating boiler, and it’s just as popular.
Like the Geyser, the combi combines hot water on demand with a compact size. Even better, it doesn’t require a separate hot water tank, freeing up even more space and potentially saving energy because you only heat the water you use.
This also reduces the amount of internal pipework, making installation easier and cheaper, and minimising the risk of a burst pipe in a cold spell. And on top of all this you have drinkable water from your cold taps – handy for a middle-of-the-night thirst.
This is how the trade sells the combi and it’s made it the UK’s best-selling boiler. But, as with the original Geyser, are there drawbacks that don’t receive quite so much publicity?
A recent study by the sustainability consultancy Sustainable Homes suggests this might be so. During the first six months of 2015, the consultancy studied the hot water and energy use of 520 two-bedroom homes in housing associations across England.
Many were fitted with combis. Like consumers, housing associations were attracted by their low installation and maintenance costs and perceived efficiency.
The researchers, however, found that the combis were actually using 13 per cent more energy than standard boilers with hot water cylinders. And this was true regardless of the number of the homes’ occupants.
How could this be? They found three main reasons.
Firstly, hot water cylinders are much better insulated than they used to be. The heat loss from stored water is greatly reduced.
Secondly, it takes more energy to heat water instantaneously than it does to maintain a steady temperature.
When the water in a cylinder drops to around eight degrees Centigrade, a standard boiler will fire automatically. It will run until the water reaches its normal temperature, then shut off. As a result firing is reduced to a minimum. With a combi, the boiler fires up whenever a hot tap is turned on.
Thirdly, any boiler’s efficiency drops the more it is turned on and off because exhaust gases have to be purged after each firing.
The study suggests that a system boiler producing 15 kilowatts would have to be replaced by a 20 kilowatt combi boiler to produce the same heat output.
But there are other drawbacks the study didn’t cover. Perhaps the major one is the result of the direct mains connection. This means that when, for example, a shower is running, someone turning on a washing machine or even a tap can cause the flow to reduce.
Hot water can also take a long time to reach a tap or shower. This is because the system has to be cleared of cold water before freshly heated water reaches an outlet.
But this isn’t meant to be hatchet job. Combis are an excellent choice for small households without attic space, particularly where the main occupants work full-time and may only need heating and hot water early morning and evenings.
Similarly, standard and system boilers have their own pluses and minuses, though in general they are preferable for larger homes and homes that are occupied full-time.
All boilers, however, are only part of a heating system and other aspects can make a big difference to overall efficiency and energy use. Corrosion, for example, caused by oxygen in the water reacting with metals in the pipework can cut efficiency by up to 15 per cent, turning an A-rated boiler into a B.
Equally important are intelligent controls, taking, for example, outside temperatures into account, and the ability of a boiler to modulate. This enables it to automatically vary its operation to produce maximum efficiency.
But if all this sounds hideously complicated when all you want is a heating system that’s reliable and doesn’t cost a fortune, take heart.
Under recent EU legislation, central heating engineers are now obliged to provide an energy efficiency rating to systems they install. It’s similar to the A to G labelling on white goods, only the ratings go all the way up to A+++.
It isn’t infallible. Existing components aren’t covered, but it’s still a significant advance for consumers. And it’s likely to have an even bigger effect on manufacturers.
After ten years of similar labelling on white goods, according to the Heating and Hot Water Industry Council, fridges now consumer 25 per cent less energy and tumbler dryers up to 50 per cent less.
Roll on the next decade.
Imagine a castle from Game of Thrones, but on a bad day. Yes, that bad.
So bad, in fact, it has been derelict for some 300 years and only recently rescued from dense forest.
Built on a steep bluff above the valley of the River Beune in southern France, the Chateau de Commarque started life as a wooden tower in the 12th century. The builder was reputedly a local abbot anxious to defend his family interests against a rival family.
It took a couple of centuries and a marriage to settle the quarrel. By then the tower had become stone and some 60 metres high, and been joined by a Gothic keep, a great hall, and a fortified, near vertical village.
But centuries of warfare – including a British invasion – took its toll. By the 17th century the chateau was in such poor condition it was abandoned.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the ancestors of the original builders, the site is a popular tourist attraction. You’ll need stamina to descend the track into the hidden valley where it lies, and a head for heights if you want to enjoy the stunning views from the tower, but I thoroughly recommend it.
The Chateau, however, is more than just a romantic ruin. Its history spans almost a thousand years of architecture, from Romanesque Gothic to late medieval, but people having been living here for much longer.
The rock directly beneath is riddled with troglodyte caves, whole homes gouged and tunnelled out of the limestone. There’s evidence they date back as long as 17,000 years. One cave – not open to the public – contains a life-size wall carving of a horse by Magdalenian man from the end of the last ice age.
The site provides a unique snapshot of the history of human habitation – from appropriating existing shelter in living rock to excavating and shaping the same rock into custom-built dwellings. And not only in terms of structural design but interior design, too. Only a few pieces of statuary and wall markings remain in the chateau, but the cave carving shows prehistoric man was just as appreciative of interior decoration.
Nowadays we tend to regard structural and interior design as two distinct areas. Most selfbuilders wouldn’t dream of designing a house without using an architect or the equivalent. But comparatively few also engage an interior designer. After all, most of us have decorated and furnished a home before.
The reality, however, is that home design is about making the best use of space, in terms of function, practicality and aesthetics. And thinking about all those aspects at the earliest stages of a project increases the chances of success, both now and in the future.
The alternative is to discover too late that your existing furniture either fills or is lost in your new living room, or that the feature wall you’d planned for your favourite pictures simply looks crowded and odd with a ceiling that’s too low.
Here, then, are a few suggestions that might help.
1. If you’re planning on keeping existing furniture, measure it before you start your design. Dimensions can be hard to judge if you’re not used to looking at plans.
2. Before you decide a room’s size, consider how you use furniture and how you like to enjoy prized items such as pictures, book shelves or display units. For example, if you want a feature wall filled with family photographs, will that leave enough space for the sofas and chairs you would like? Or a full-size dining table and chairs? Or a large screen TV?
3. Will your layout be open plan or divided up into separate, function-specific rooms?
Separate rooms make it easy to pursue activities that need concentration or ample storage, such as a home office, hobby or media room. But if the house has a relatively small footprint, open plan can give a welcome sense of space and light. It’s good for those who entertain a lot, or parents who can keep an eye on young children while continuing other activities.
It’s not so good for multiple activities or a sense of cosiness. Lack of wall space will also limit the amount of storage as well as display space.
You can, however, combine the two approaches. Open plan layouts can be divided up easily and flexibly, using sofas, dining tables or freestanding shelves, or simply contrasting rugs or mats.
But more permanent solutions need to be incorporated at the planning stage. They include a freestanding stove or central chimney breast. Or a different floor level in one area, either raised or sunken, to create a more intimate zone; the ceiling might also be lowered marginally. Nooks and alcoves, including deep bay windows, can also achieve a similar effect.
4. Think about all the power points, TV, broadband and lighting connections you now have and treble them. Wifi and wireless sound systems are widespread now, but none yet match the speed and reliability of a wired connection, especially in a masonry construction. Ensure the wiring runs in trunking or, ideally, in a service void within the walls. Otherwise you may be redecorating or repainting whenever you make a change.
5. Consider building in items such as wardrobes, cupboards and bench seats in window bays. Custom-made items will help define the style of your house, but, just as importantly, VAT can be reclaimed at the end of the build on the labour and materials used.
6. Don’t be afraid of making interior design choices too early. In deciding the overall design of your house, you’re actually deciding the major elements of the interior design too. If you reach a point where they don’t seem to marry, then you probably need to re-think one or the other. Or both.
It’s much easier, and cheaper, to play with designer’s sketches than finished bricks and mortar.
For around half a century we Britons have had a peculiarly schizophrenic attitude to our homes.
On the one hand they are what they are to everyone: our main refuge and shelter, our emotional centre. But for many of us we’ve also been obliged to take a rather more hard-nosed and calculating attitude. Our homes are also our cash cows.
Buying a property is, of course, the biggest single investment most of us will ever make. But for large numbers it has also been astonishingly profitable.
Thanks to strict planning laws and a virtual monopoly of house building by a few large commercial developers – whose aim, quite logically, is to maintain the highest possible prices – homes have become gigantic generators of dosh. In many areas of the UK, homeowners have earned far more simply by sitting tight in their properties than they could ever have done by working.
This has had two major consequences. One is that we’ve been able to borrow much more than our incomes would otherwise have allowed – the effects of which we are still suffering.
The other has been to turn large numbers of us into property speculators, buying in areas which are more affordable than desirable and gambling that rising prices and local improvements will produce enough profit for a move. The downside of this, of course, is that static or falling prices can maroon us there forever.
All this has made house acquiring and owning a bit of a lottery. Good for risk-takers and the already rich. But hardly ideal for the those of us who simply want to get on with their lives.
There is, of course, one way of overcoming all these obstacles, and that is to join the other side. In other words, design and build your own home.
At first sight this might seem like extreme risk-taking and strictly for the well-heeled. A quick glance through this SelfBuild & Design magazine's case studies should show you otherwise.
Yes, it’s a huge amount of hard work, with a stack of bureaucracy to negotiate, and all the stress that entails. But you do save yourself a developer’s profit, receive a concluding gift of most of the VAT you spend and gain yourself a uniquely customised home. And, for some good news at last, it’s getting marginally easier.
This is why. Back in December 2006 the government of the time committed to make all new homes ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. ‘Zero carbon’ originally meant that the total volume of carbon dioxide produced by the house over a year – as a result of energy use – would amount to zero. This would be achieved by fitting large amounts of insulation and using sustainable energy, such as heat pumps or solar heating panels.
It was all part of the Climate Change Act, designed to combat global warming by cutting Britain’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2050. Details were spelt out in a document called the Code for Sustainable Homes.
But almost from the start, questions were raised. It wasn’t clear how the measures would be achieved, or measured, or who had the expertise to do the work. Unsurprisingly, it was the house building industry who objected most strongly.
Year by year changes were made. Minimum rather than zero emissions were introduced; developers, it was suggested, might be charged for every kilogram of CO2 they failed to eliminate. In 2014 it was proposed that the measures wouldn’t apply to sites of ten houses or less. And last summer, with the measures about be incorporated into the building regulations, they were all, without warning, dropped.
The green building sector was understandably outraged. The House Builders Federation suggested that zero carbon standards would have added £2,500 to the cost of a new home. The government argued that existing energy efficiency measures needed time to become established.
So who was right? And what difference will it make?
Well, the next upgrade to the building regulations will be less onerous than it might have been, though don’t count on saving £2,500.
The regulations are still moderately stringent and they are only minimum requirements. Most self-respecting selfbuilders start off by aiming to exceed them. It’s only when the quotes start coming in that compromises tend to happen.
But the fact remains that, despite recent advances, new British homes are generally colder, draughtier and less energy efficient than those of most of our European neighbours. That means we pay higher energy bills than we need to, we are less healthy than we might be and we enjoy less comfort.
Perhaps if our house building industry had concentrated on achieving those benefits rather than ever increasing profits, and our government had put less emphasis on saving the planet, house buying and house owning might not be such a fraught affair.
But then, as a selfbuilder, all those benefits and responsibilities are now in your hands, aren’t they?
Framed by the Alps and bordered by three German-speaking nations, Lake Constance is a spectacular sight, especially from 300 feet up.
You can, of course, view much of its 40-mile length from the Pfänder cable car which rises 3,500 feet from the lakeside Austrian city of Brengenz. But it’s much more fun pootling over the rooftops in a Zeppelin.
Did you think Zeppelins died when Germany’s Hindenburg – the largest airship ever built – exploded in New Jersey in 1937? Not a bit of it. These days Zeppelins live in a large hanger opposite the arrivals lounge at Friedrichshafen airport, which happens to be Lake Constance’s local airstrip.
I recently had the good fortune to enjoy a 45-minute flight over the lake, ‘fortune’ being the apposite word; tickets start from 160 Euros. But this was definitely one for the bucket list.
Today’s Zeppelin NT is 246 feet long and carries 14 passengers and two crew. Three swivelling rotors give it a top speed of 70mph and the characteristics of a helicopter. But flying in it is like nothing else. As the pilot told me, if a conventional aircraft is like a speedboat, skipping over the waves, an airship is like a sailing vessel. It moves with the medium it floats in. Things happen slowly, gently and on an altogether more human scale.
It also happens to provide an excellent viewing platform for the local housing stock, which here can claim to be one of Europe’s most varied. It includes Alpine ski lodges, medieval castles, baroque palaces, modernist extravaganzas and a reconstructed Stone and Bronze Age lake village.
Think Lake-town from The Hobbit movies. Built of wattle and daub and thatch on timber piles, it provided protection from raiders and annual flooding as Alpine snows melted. It’s possibly the earliest known example of German efficiency.
Which brings me to my point.
I came home to the Queen’s Speech. The Right to Build bill, encouraging local authorities to accelerate selfbuilders’ access to local plots, was very welcome. Heartening, too, was Community Secretary Greg Clerk’s pledge to increase the sale of central and local government surplus land.
Disappointing, however, was the absence of any energy efficiency measures for British homes. This was the day after 55 leading property and construction executives wrote to George Osborne calling for energy efficiency to be made a national infrastructure priority.
Their letter backed a report last year by the UK Green Building Council. It argued that government investment in energy efficiency could cut household energy bills by £300 a year, reduce fuel poverty by 90 per cent, double the number of jobs in the sector and boost valuable knowledge, skills and products.
It would also enable Britain to meet its obligations to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.
Should this matter to selfbuilders?
Renovators and converters might seem the only immediate beneficiaries. But a re-invigorated, innovative construction industry would help all builds, and benefit everyone with warmer, cheaper, better homes.
But don’t we already have measures like the Green Deal and the Renewable Heat Incentive?
Well, that rather depends on the month. Schemes tend to change frequently, fluctuate wildly in their generosity and require a degree in advanced bureaucracy to use effectively. Consumer-friendly they are not.
But perhaps the government simply reflects popular understanding. As one commentator remarked: ‘This is a country where having a pub close by is a thousand times more important than an energy efficient house.’
He was, it has to be said, German. But, then, the Germans have been down a similar path. Their housing stock is, or used to be, of similar inefficiency to our own. Admittedly, higher fuel prices provided more incentive to upgrade, but Germany’s Energiewende or ‘energy transition’ has been a significant success.
Unlike the UK’s efforts, it’s comprehensive, operating at both policy level and the level of local building firms. Initially, government subsidy funded research into eco refurbishment and establishing reliable energy efficiency standards.
But the strategy has been to bring these developments to the market, encouraging private investment and consumer interest, and creating economies of scale to bring down costs. One example of this is passivhaus windows, now just ten per cent more than the cost of a standard window in Germany, but a decade ago many times more expensive.
Key to the programme is the KfW. This state-owned bank offers householders 20-year refurbishment loans at just one per cent. Even better, the higher the standard of a retrofit, the more money can be borrowed.
The result has been to a create a retrofit ‘brand’, a trusted guarantee of refurbishment competence. Unlike, say, Britain’s Energy Performance Certificates, which are skimpy at best and easy to manipulate.
Meanwhile energy auditors have formed a national consortium – another ‘brand’. They not only assess energy efficiency needs, they can also project manage the subsequent works, again providing a level of trust rare in Britain’s building industry.
Could an approach like this work here?
One argument in favour is that in 2010 every government euro invested in KfW led to 15 euros of private investment, while over four euros returned to public finances in taxes and reduced welfare spending.
But perhaps culture will out. In Germany, I’ve been told, Energiewende works ‘because people love the state’. Not everyone, though, takes the KfW route, either because they’re happy with standard products or they’re not keen on the random checks that maintain KfW’s standards.
Judging by the number of roof top pv panels visible from my Zeppelin, however, I’d say British-style stroppiness is pretty thin on the ground. If the UK government doesn’t take domestic energy efficiency more seriously, count on the very best retrofit products – not to mention a host of general house building items – to be increasingly German.
Remember the classic Monty Python sketch ‘Four Yorkshiremen’, each vying to outdo the others with the extreme poverty of their childhood homes.
One lived in a house that was ‘only a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of tarpaulin’. ‘We were evicted from our ’ole in the ground,’ says another. ‘We ’ad to go and live in a lake.’ ‘You were lucky to have a lake!’ counters a third. ‘There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t’shoebox in t’middle o’road!’
It was, of course, a total slur on the good people of God’s own country – and quite remarkably accurate – but it sprang to mind with the recent publication of a new NHBC guide.
Homes through the decades: the making of modern housing is an illustrated review of British homes and house building over the past 150 years. An intriguing blend of history and nostalgia, it’s a reminder of the extraordinary advances housing has made within just a couple of lifespans.
In late Victorian Britain most homes were built of single leaf brickwork. They were cold, draughty, heated by coal fires and lit by candlelight. Luxuries were easy to identify: gas lighting, indoor flushing toilets and space – separate rooms for dining, morning activities and receiving visitors and, of course, servants’ accommodation.
A century and a half on, those luxuries which haven’t been superseded by technology or changing social habits have become standard requirements. As a result, identifying true luxury isn’t as easy it used to be. Sheer space is still top of the pops. But what next? One definition of ‘luxury’ is ‘providing great comfort’. Is that a swimming pool, a wine cellar or crystal chandeliers?
Of course, the real definition is entirely personal. One man’s duck house is another’s remote garage door opener. But for those less focussed it can all be a bit overwhelming, as I came to appreciate recently when planning a home extension. And I’m supposed to know about these things.
Nevertheless, unless your budget is truly humongous, there are some choices which, respectfully, I’d suggest are, truly luxurious, either in themselves, or in the finances and time they liberate for use elsewhere. They are, in no particular order:
1. Insulate to the max. The building regulations are pretty demanding when it comes to insulation. But resist any urge to skimp. Treat the expense as a deduction from future fuel bills. And remember it’ll be cheaper to do now than at any time later.
2. Prioritise airtightness. Even the most expensive insulation will be wasted if draughts squeeze round the edges. Gaps between panels, around windows, doors and any pipes or cables that penetrate external walls should be sealed.
3. Treat ventilation seriously. It’s arguably the single most contentious aspect of modern house building, largely because airtight homes are still so new to many builders and architects.
In an airtight house trickle vents in windows, a cooker hood and a bathroom extractor fan won’t be enough to prevent stale air, smells and galloping mould, or the accumulation of unhealthy pollutants from many modern materials.
The most effective answer is a whole house ventilation and heat recovery system. This silently sucks hot, moist air away from kitchens and bathrooms, extracts the heat and uses it to warm incoming fresh air which is then pumped into the living room and bedrooms.
It needs a lot of ductwork – easy to fit into a new build, highly disruptive for a completed home. But a good system will provide constant fresh air throughout the house and no mould. And there’s nothing to stop you opening the windows when the weather’s warm.
Alternatively, opt for individual heat recovery ventilators in separate rooms or areas.
4. Choose underfloor heating. Radiator systems may be familiar and reassuring, but they work mainly by convection, sending the warmest air to the ceiling and circulating dust. They also consist of dozens of separate components, which will need regular maintenance, and in very cold weather radiators can become very hot – not great for young children or the frail elderly.
Underfloor systems provide warmth at floor not ceiling level. Their size means they operate at low temperatures, saving fuel, and they have far fewer components. And, unless you’re prone to driving four-inch nails into your floors, leakages are extremely rare.
5. Opt for an open-plan layout. Current fashions are reviving separate dining rooms and today’s top luxury item, a dedicated cinema/media room. But creating these with demountable partitions, made of timber or steel, rather than fixed walls will make future layout re-arrangements much easier and cheaper.
6. Digitize your home. Fit ethernet cabling alongside conventional electrical wiring. You may not regard yourself as a digital whizzkid, but web-based communication is growing in scope and importance by the day. In Australia, for example, continuous home-based health monitoring is currently being trialled. If anything untoward is detected, alerts are fed automatically to you, your doctor or relatives: a boon for the sick, elderly or disabled, let alone the rest of us.
7. Fit photo-voltaic panels – if you have a south, or near-south-facing roof, or other unshaded spot. Under the Feed-In Tariff system the government will pay you for the electricity you produce and your own usage will be free on sunny days. That alone justifies it.
But, just as importantly, electricity storage methods are growing steadily more efficient. In America the super-efficient batteries used in the Tesla electric car have just been launched on the domestic market and Daimler is about to produce a similar product this side of the pond. It raises the happy prospect of regularly reducing your fuel bills to zero.
8. Consider triple-glazing. Not because it will dramatically cut heating costs. It won’t. But then neither did double glazing. It did, however, reduce draughts and cold spots and make homes feel much warmer and more comfortable. Triple glazing will do much more of the same.
Which sounds a pretty good definition of luxury to me.
Can you tell your Passivhaus from your SAP, your DER from your TER or your BREEAM from a roof beam? Would you be delighted if your architect told you that your new house had achieved Level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes? When someone mentions ‘zero carbon’ do you automatically think of rare steak?
It’s a curious fact of modern life that many of us spend more time and effort studying the performance of a new car than we do of a new house. Choosing a replacement runabout we’re likely to consider a comprehensive number of variables: interior space, engine size, fuel consumption, acceleration, service intervals, rates of insurance, road tax etc. And we’re actively encouraged to take it for a spin.
House buying and building is a little different. It’s not that we take it any less seriously. Far from it. It’s just that the number of variables we’re able to consider is rather smaller.
Given our obsession with property, that might not seem immediately obvious. After all, we all know the value of location, how to juggle floor plans, strip out walls and elbow in new kitchens, extensions, loft and basement conversions. And, most of all, the monetary value of our property.
But there’s a point when our knowledge and confidence tends to wobble. In a self build or a renovation it’s usually the first glimpse of a Building Control application, explaining how our project will actually be built. Suddenly our pristine floor layouts are covered with arcane scribblings, obscure maths and references to exotic materials.
At which point most of us switch off. Isn’t this is what we pay builders, engineers and tradespeople to sort out?
Well, yes, but it’s also like buying an expensive car from a salesman who assures that you it’s very economical, cheap to tax and insure and fully compliant with all the regulations. But he can’t give you any figures to confirm this or let you take it for a test drive. And when you look for independent informed reviews, there don’t seem to be any. In fact, the only comments you do find – perhaps on the internet, or anecdotally – tend to be, well, not very complimentary.
Basic standards are covered by the Building Regulations and structural warranties as well as the requirements of British Standards and professional bodies. But none of these tell you much about your actual experience of your new home. How warm will it be in winter, how cool in summer? How much gas or electricity is it likely to use? How draughty or stuffy will it be?
There are indications, of course. The Building Regulations include the Standard Assessment Procedure or SAP, designed to predict the energy efficiency of your new home and its carbon dioxide emissions. At design stage a figure known as the Target Emission Rate (TER) is calculated, based on houses of a similar size and construction.
At the end of the build it’s recalculated, taking into account any changes and the result of an airtightness test, checking how draughty the house is. The result is the Dwelling Emission Rate (DER). Your DER has to equal or undercut your TER or your builder has to make changes.
The DER figures are to produce the Energy Performance Certificate, the one piece of documentation consumers do recognise. Like the labels on fridges and TVs, the EPC rates a building’s energy performance on a scale from A to G and one to 100. Currently the average for England and Wales is a D 50. Since EPCs are based largely on hypothetical figures, however, their usefulness is questionable.
But there are more stringent measures. BREEAM (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) sets standards for energy efficiency and sustainability, often used for government buildings. It inspired the Code for Sustainable Homes launched in 2004. This was the government’s attempt to improve levels of energy efficiency and sustainability in order to reach ‘zero carbon’ for all new houses by 2016. In other words, levels so high that building and living in these homes will produce no new carbon dioxide. The Code has six levels. Three represents a 25 per cent increase in energy efficiency over the 2004 Building Regulations. That rises to 100 per cent at level six.
But the daddy of all these standards is generally recognised to be the German Passivhaus system. Its approach is simple and practical. Its primary aims are energy efficiency and comfort, achieved through very high levels of insulation and airtightness and good internal air quality via whole house mechanical ventilation. Conventional heating systems aren’t needed.
Certification is only granted if declared levels of heating, cooling, energy requirement and air changes per hour are reached. Over 30,000 Passivhaus buildings have been built to date, including the world’s first passivhaus bungalow, a pre-fabricated German Hanse Haus at Inverness.
Passivhaus is the closest house building gets to a Bentley or a Mercedes. Yet the name is as little known to most UK house buyers as SAPs, the Code for Sustainable Homes or, indeed, the intricacies of the Building Regulations.
Why is that?
Well, one clue is in yet another standard, launched at the EcoBuild sustainable building trade show this March by the Building Research Establishment. Unlike its UK predecessors, however, the Home Quality Mark targets not the building professionals but their customers. The aim is to ‘give householders a robust stamp of approval to allow them to make informed choices, as well as enabling developers to ‘differentiate (their) product to customers with third party verification’.
In other words, it promises consumers a comprehensive and independent view of what they’re actually buying or building rather than simply its cash value. Such a standard is long, long overdue. Expect to hear much more about it over the coming months, and prepare to complain if you don't.
You can check out the fine details at www.homequalitymark.
There it stands on the drive, gleaming in the sunlight. You can barely drag your eyes off it. Your very own top of the range SUV. Four-wheel drive, ABS, LED headlights and room in the boot for a back-up Mini.
Well, why not? Everyone deserves new wheels once in their life. And it’s not as if you haven’t had to wait. Almost two years, in fact.
Luckily a mate in the trade wrangled you a factory visit to check up on progress. That was a surprise.
You’ve seen the ads: all assembly lines, robots and fizzing laser welders. The reality was more like a couple of draughty garages on the edge of a field. A dozen mechanics beavering away frantically with tea permanently brewing in the corner.
‘These lads are master craftsmen,’ the works supervisor reassured you. ‘Lifetimes of experience. We’re lucky to have them.’
Curiously, on later visits, you never seemed to see the same faces twice.
Not that that worried you on delivery day. The new wheels drove like a dream, everything you’d imagined and more.
Even the most refined of roadsters, though, have their niggling little faults. Like the inch or two of naff stitching on the front passenger seat, the radio’s tendency to reset itself to Norddeustcher Rundfunk and the way the offside rear airbag inflates whenever you turn sharp left.
Of course, all this and more was put right the instant you reported it. At least for the first couple of months.
Since then the response has been a little tardier. Like having to ring half a dozen times to get someone helpful. Or waiting a week for a call back. Or an email. Or anything.
Still, your new car drives like a dream and, let’s face it, how often do you need to turn left really sharply?
Now if car manufacturers actually treated their customers like this, there would be universal outrage, an avalanche of court cases and possibly some bankruptcies. Which is why, in general, they don’t. But there’s a group of manufacturers who behave very much in this way, and on a worryingly frequent basis, and that’s Britain’s commercial house builders.
It’s true that legislation and lenders’ requirements protect buyers from the most serious faults, such as a builder going bust, or the home actually collapsing. But that still leaves a big gap between catastrophe and reasonable client satisfaction.
The media and anecdotal evidence cite endless examples of new doors and windows sticking, wonky walls and skirtings, paint layers that seem unusually thin, nails left protruding and gardens that yield a rich harvest of rubble, offcuts and rusting scaffolding couplings – that is, if they’re even completed.
And this is despite the existence of a consumer code for home builders, followed by all those registered with the major structural warranty schemes. It guarantees fair and equitable treatment for home buyers, reliable information on the standards to which homes are built and an independent dispute resolution scheme.
So why aren’t homes built as reliably as cars? Here are five suggested reasons.
1. We don’t build houses in factories – at least not on any large scale. Accurate measuring and finishing are much easier out of the weather under controlled conditions. Recent research suggests that prefabrication could cut the cost of materials by 35 per cent and labour costs by 40.
2. All houses are, to a degree, bespoke, since plots and ground conditions differ and require different approaches. Many volume housebuilders, however, use standardised designs, whose problems should have been ironed out long ago. Well-established developments in foundation design – such as mini-piling and screw piles – can overcome many of the uncertainties of traditional methods, though they cost more.
3. Employment in construction is fragmented and poorly organised. Over 90 per cent of UK contractors have fewer than ten employees. As a result most building workers are self-employed, hired for specific tasks, often on a fixed price basis. This doesn’t encourage excellence or commitment to the project as a whole. It also minimises opportunities for training, which perpetuates the problem.
4. Buyers don’t complain enough, partly because they’re so grateful to get a home, partly because they don’t realise what they’re buying. Developers’ advertising stresses location, interior design, ambience. Practical aspects, such as the method of construction, its implications for energy efficiency and comfort, expected running costs and maintenance issues, are largely ignored. There really needs to be a simple, standardised way of describing new homes which allows the average buyer to understand exactly what he or she is buying and compare it sensibly with rival offerings.
5. Housebuilders just don’t see the need. Why should they? Homes are in such short supply they can sell whatever they produce. The fact that Britain ends up with the smallest, most poorly designed houses in Europe is, in business terms, irrelevant.
But, then, the volume housebuilders, like all successful businesses, are only adapting to market conditions. And the single, over-riding condition that defines our market is the ruinously high cost of building land.
As Kevin McCloud pointed out at the recent Grand Designs Live, this has meant ‘we have learnt to build badly over the past 60 to 70 years, because we’ve had to’. It’s been the only way for builders to survive, and huge numbers of small and medium-sized firms have not.
There is, then, an obvious remedy, which is to cut the cost of land by releasing more for home building. Preserve, by all means, what is valuable, architecturally, historically, culturally, but open up the rest – and not just to the ten volume suppliers who dominate the market. Divide it among medium-sized and small firms and, of course, selfbuilders, both individual and collective. Then watch prices come down, choices increase and, hopefully, in time, the return of well-trained, well-motivated tradespeople and a sector its customers respect.
More, in fact, like the car industry.
One of the main prerequisites of a journalist is the ability to be enthusiastic, especially about subjects that really aren’t terribly enthralling.
Take, for example, Nicaraguan nose flutes, which, incidentally, do exist. One day an editor rings you up and demands a short piece on that very subject. Perhaps Brangelina are serenading each other nose to nose in their latest blockbuster.
Within half a day you not only know what this curious instrument is, but its history and its main practitioners and you’ve chattered earnestly with its principal UK expert.
His passion proves infectious. Now the nose flute’s obscurity baffles you. Had Beethoven been born a Nicaraguan, you’re sure nose flute concertos would be a staple of every major orchestra. You can’t wait to get your insights down on paper.
Enthusiasm, it turns out, is rather like sincerity. As George Burns said, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.
But there’s a snag. If you’re not careful, it can stick. Two dinner parties on, friends seem unaccountably averse to sharing your new passion. Worse, your partner vows that if you mention Nicaragua, flutes or even noses ever again, she’ll smack you.
I have a similar problem with bricks.
Being British, we all love brick. After all, there are few parts of these islands where buildings aren’t constructed of it. It’s solid, it’s dependable. ‘Bricks and mortar’ is how we describe property, even when it’s made of something else. Bricks are in our national blood, rather like our red blood cells. And we tend to give both the same degree of enthusiasm.
In other words, we take them for granted.
I’ve done as much myself, even through one self build and numerous renovations. Partly because planners insisted the brickwork matched the existing or that of neighbours, thus removing any real choice. But mainly because I regarded bricks as, well, not particularly interesting.
For a start, they’re all the same size, which is really the point of them. Yet having to source alternatives, such as Imperial sizes to match an older building, is an instant headache. It takes a lot of time, adds to costs and leads to grumbles from bricklayers who aren’t used to the sizes and don’t like having to deal with odd-shaped or messy reclaims.
But then my attitude changed. I’d like to say it was because I admire the work of architects like SelfBuild & Design expert Andrew Pinchin who cleverly updates the intricacies of Victorian brickwork, or artists like Alex Chinneck who has built a full-size brick house upside down. And I do. But my real reasons were strictly professional. I was asked to write a book about building in brick.
I soon made two discoveries. Firstly, my knowledge of brick and bricklaying was much smaller than I realised. Secondly, after a short, frantic interval, brick revealed itself as a truly awesome material.
I can now tell you that you’d need to pile over 1,700 bricks on top of each other before the bottom one crumbled to dust. That brick is an artificial form of metamorphic rock, formed by the same processes as the genuine article but in just three days rather than millennia. And even that the brick Boris Johnson wielded at the last Conservative Tory conference was, in fact, an Ibstock Alderley Mixture wirecut.
Luckily, however, I’ll limit myself here to my top seven brick tips. They’re unlikely to be all you need for your build, but they might save you an appreciable amount of time and money.
1. Choose a local brick. Once all bricks were made from local clays, so they reflected the colours and textures of their surroundings. For most local planning departments insisting on a brick with a local history is a default position. So pre-empt them and win brownie points.
2. Choose early. Don’t leave brick selection to your designer or bricklayer. Your design may be stunning, but 70 per cent of the overall look of a brick house is down to the brickwork. So spend time choosing. It’ll be worth it. Bricks generally only account for around four per cent of the total build cost.
3. Think about mortar. It accounts for around 17 per cent of the average brick wall. You can vary its appearance by its colour and the way it’s applied, known as pointing. Good pointing can make the cheapest bricks look stunning.
4. Be wary how you buy. When you seek quotes from brick factors or builders’ merchants, they’ll be keen to register your details with manufacturers, who will ensure you receive similar prices when you look elsewhere. So, for the best prices, be discreet with your details.
5. Order early. Nineteen brick plants closed during the recession and, despite assurances to the contrary, the industry is still catching up.
6. Book a master bricklayer as soon as possible. Firstly, because they are in high demand; secondly, their input on a brick design will be invaluable – they will almost certainly know more about brickwork and its possibilities than your architect; thirdly, their advice on choice of brick can save you time and money. Some bricks, for example, are more porous than others, allowing them to be laid more quickly.
7. Look at brickwork when you research designs and plots. British brickwork abounds with small but stunning details that usually go unnoticed, but could transform the look of your new home.
You never know. Months from now friends may never dare mention bricks in your company. But I’ll have someone else to talk to.
Let me introduce you to Mr Andrew Stunell. He’s a Liberal Democrat MP, but don’t hold that against him.
For a couple of years he was a Coalition minister with responsibility for Building Regulations. Via a private member’s bill he’s added some small but significant amendments involving security and sustainability.
So far so what, you may say. But to do their job politicians also need to speak out, and not just on crowd-pleasing issues that grab a tabloid headline. Rather on issues they know well, and regardless of who they might upset.
So it was in a piece Andrew Stunell produced recently for Building magazine, the industry’s premier publication. His theme was the appalling energy and environmental performance of Britain’s homes – currently the worst in Europe.
Over two million households now suffer from fuel poverty, thanks to low incomes, rising fuel bills but mainly poor energy efficiency, and the number is set to climb. Attempts have, of course, been made to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes, notably in the form of government grants for loft and cavity wall insulation, draught proofing and replacing traditional boilers with energy-efficient condensing models.
But these largely dried up with the Green Deal, an ambitious scheme to upgrade homes on a much more comprehensive scale. It was intended to be funded, ingeniously, by the fuel savings the upgrades would create. But that didn’t stop it from being over-bureaucratic and prohibitively expensive. Or taking no account of the building industry’s lack of expertise and experience in this field. Unsurprisingly, fewer than 2,000 households took up the scheme and it was scrapped earlier this year.
But there have also been grants for more sustainable forms of energy production, such as photo-voltaic and solar heating panels and ground and air source heat pumps. Under a variety of names from Clear Skies to the Feed In Tariff, these initiatives have ricocheted between extreme miserliness and excessive generosity – usually followed by a panicky withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the Building Regulations have demanded steadily higher levels of insulation and airtightness for new homes. The government’s aim is to make all new housing ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. In other words, homes built after that date must generate all their own energy without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the space of a year. In practice that means super-insulation, very high levels of airtightness and the use of renewable energy.
Like the Green Deal, it is hugely ambitious. It also assumes the building industry has the skills and capacity to meet its demands. Not to mention, the willingness.
And here lies a problem. Commercial builders argue that increased energy efficiency only adds to costs and house prices will have to rise as a result. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence, then, that the latest upgrade to the Building Regulations was delayed and less rigorous than expected. Or that the government has proposed that zero carbon should not apply to developments of less than ten houses and that local authorities should no longer have the power to demand levels of sustainability in new housing above the legal minimums. 2016 now looks a lot further away than two short years.
The result of all these mixed messages? An energy debate which focuses mainly on energy prices and the producers’ profits. An industry which is wary of investing in energy efficiency. And a thoroughly confused general public.
Anyone buying or selling a house is now aware of Energy Performance Certificates, but does the Green Deal or Feed-In Tariffs register with the average homeowner? Even selfbuilders’ eyes can glaze over when confronted with demands for SAP calculations, DERs and TERs in Building Control applications and most hand the problem straight over to their architects.
And this is where Andrew Stunell comes in. Ten years ago, he recalls, he replaced his kitchen for a ‘serious five-figure price’. The job was highly disruptive. He didn’t get a grant to do it. It didn’t earn him any dividends. He simply shelled out several thousand pounds.
Three years later he upgraded his boiler and shortly afterwards had his cavity walls insulated. Disruption was minimal. Together these were less than half the cost of the kitchen and have brought savings ever since in the form of lower fuel bills.
Yet, Stunell points out, surveys of householders say that energy efficiency measures aren’t adopted because of cost, affordability, disruption and inconvenience, as well as doubts of the benefits. None of which, of course, stops as many new kitchens being brought a year as replacement boilers.
So how can things improve? Stunell recommends the sort of regulatory rigour that has transformed cars from unreliable rust buckets to durable, safe, super-efficient comfort stations inside a decade. It’s needed, he argues, because the industry has persistently resisted change and ‘does more whingeing than building’.
I’d add some more. In no particular order: stop knocking the energy companies; they’re hardly saints but their products are cheap compared to many European countries.
Treat retrofitting – upgrading the energy efficiency of existing properties – like new build and make it zero-rated for VAT.
Give short-term council tax discounts to homeowners and landlords who upgrade.
Set up schemes to foster innovation in retrofitting with the intention of making it cheaper, easier and more efficient and to develop appropriate skills among the relevant trades.
Found a cash prize for the best annual retrofit innovation and the best retrofit and publicise it widely. Launch a campaign to show the cash benefits of retrofitting and energy efficiency, explain how they work and what homeowners should expect from competent installers.
And finally laugh out loud when builders claim energy efficiency will only make new homes more expensive. Point out that new homes are already more expensive than most of us have ever believed possible and being forced to pay ever increasing fuel bills for ever for the privilege of buying one is really taking the p.
Their characteristic sound is a sharp intake of breath, often accompanied by the sucking of teeth, and a prolonged, despairing sigh.
Ensuing comments include: ‘Who did this then?’ ‘Dear oh dear oh dear’ and occasionally, ‘You didn’t do this, did you?’ accompanied by a swift placating laugh, just in case you are, in fact, the culprit. I’m talking, of course, about tradesmen.
Brits have a curiously ambivalent attitude to building professionals. For every dozen or so cowboys who hi-ho Silver into the sunset, leaving us spitting with fury, there’s at least one ‘little man’ who is an absolute gem. For all those contractors who can’t be bothered to respond to a work query, there’s one who produces a reasonable quote, starts on site and months later, after the project has taken twice the time predicted, has become a quasi family member.
There is, of course, a distinction here – more apparent, perhaps, to the client than the tradesman – between minor works, such as a simple plumbing repair, and larger projects, from renovations to new builds.
But it’s still likely to be the same Paul, Dave or Andy doing the work – these being the most common builders names according to recent research by aluminium bi-fold door manufacturer Origin.
Unless you live in London where it’s just as likely to be Jakub, Mateusz or Kacper.
Whatever the names, however, they really don’t have a glowing reputation. Another survey, commissioned earlier this year by mobile app creator PoweredNow, found that, despite an increasing demand for tradesmen, over 80 per cent of UK home owners found dealing with them deeply frustrating.
Eight five per cent complained that they simply didn’t turn up, despite promising they would. Eighty three per cent complained how difficult it was to get a quote. And, for those who did get a quote, 85 per cent said the final bill was higher.
Another complaint was the trades’ regular insistence on cash payment, made for an estimated 65 per cent of jobs. This is despite the fact that almost 60 per cent of home owners would prefer to pay by credit or debit card, and 55 per cent would be happy to pay much more quickly on that basis.
No wonder only 20 per cent felt happy with the service they received.
So why do tradesmen behave this way when it seems so contrary to their interests? They can’t all be blithering idiots or low-grade psychopaths with sadistic tendencies. Can they?
Well, let’s look more closely at the other side. Remember Origin, the door manufacturer. They didn’t just look at builders’ names. They researched the lives of 500 tradespeople.
They found that the average builder works between 40 and 50 hours a week, waking at 6.24am, leaving the house at 7.20 and clocking off at around 5.30pm. One in ten, however, leaves the house before 7am and doesn’t finish until 12 hours later.
Most builders have at least four projects on the go, one reason why they drive an average of 262 miles a week, though one in ten covers over 600 miles. And their main worries?
Unsurprisingly, weather caused the most stress, followed by unreliable staff – so it’s not just us getting the run-around – and unreasonable customers. These resulted in one in ten builders worrying about not getting paid, while 16 per cent found it a struggle juggling projects, finances and deadlines.
The great majority, of course, are either self-employed or owners of their own small businesses. This helps to explain their bias toward cash in hand, though not perhaps for the reasons many of us assume.
That would be for the avoidance of tax. But it’s not quite that simple. If a builder is paid by cheque or balance transfer, his earnings are traceable by the tax authorities. But, as a registered sole trader or small businessman, his expenses are also deductible against any tax due.
They include his tools, vehicles used for business, fuel and any materials or services he needs for work which aren’t paid for by the customer. All he has to do is retain the relevant receipts and keep accurate financial records. That can be a problem for an employer using casual workers who aren’t interested in doing the same.
But an even bigger problem is Value Added Tax which is paid on services, including building. If you register for VAT, you are obliged to add the current rate of 20 per cent to every bill you issue. You don’t, however, have to register until your business reaches a certain threshold. Currently it’s £79,000 a year.
Even the busiest, or dodgiest, emergency plumber might have trouble making that much profit. But the snag is the £79,000 isn’t profit, it’s turnover. If you’re a heating engineer charging, say, £2,500 to supply and fit a new boiler, but paying £2,000 for the boiler, you’re only making £500 for the job, and that’s before taking into account other expenses.
You would only have to fit a new boiler every fortnight to reach the VAT threshold, even though your annual profit might only be around £15,000. Nevertheless you would be obliged to up your boiler fitting rate by 20 per cent.
How many customers would you keep if you suddenly increased your prices by a fifth – with no added value for them?
The solution, then, is to keep your declared turnover below £79,000 – by taking cash payments for an appropriate portion of your work.
It’s tax avoidance, of course, but no one’s ferreting away millions in foreign tax havens as a result. It’s simply a matter of survival for (mostly) hard-working individuals and small businesses. The fact that it still amounts to an estimated £2billion in lost tax every year is really a good reason why government should look at the issue again, especially in the light of current skill shortages.
And you thought tradespeople were being awkward just to make your life difficult…
Politicians are supposed to be skilled in creating images. If they’re successful, it’s either very obvious or so subtle it might be years before you realise it was all a big front, and even then you might have your doubts.
The real fun, though, is when it all goes wrong. Like France’s M’sieu Hollande beetling to an illicit rendezvous on the back of motorised invalid carriage. Now a Harley, a BMW or a Moto-Guzzi – with the security guard on the back – might have softened the blow. But three wheels, no.
Then there’s David Miliband’s banana. Waving it about during a serious interview probably didn’t scotch his bid to become Labour leader. But it didn’t help.
George Osborne, however, is made of more conventional stuff. When it came to launching a new series of house building measures, he played it strictly by the imagemakers’ book. He donned a hard hat and a fluorescent yellow jacket and headed straight for the most convenient building site, where he was photographed, trowel in hand, laying a selection of bricks and blocks.
This turned out to be in Nuneaton and the only flaw in an otherwise perfect photo opportunity was that Mr Osborne was launching the most pro-active measures for self build ever devised by a British government while posing on a Barratts commercial development.
Now it’s true that the number of self builds has declined somewhat in recent years – recessions hit selfbuilders as hard as everyone else. But some aide might have unearthed one local Grand Designer, even in Nuneaton.
I’m quibbling, of course.
The truth is the chancellor’s key measure was remarkable. A new Right to Build provides local authorities with £150million to create up to 10,000 serviced plots specifically for selfbuilders. They will come complete with utilities in place, including a dropped kerb and even, where necessary, completed archaeological checks. Even more importantly, selfbuilders will have a right to demand these plots from local councils.
According to the Treasury, the plan is to create a similar environment to Germany and the Netherlands, where self build is a major and well-established part of the housing market.
On top of this, the chancellor promised to look at extending the Help to Buy scheme – where the government guarantees a proportion of a mortgage deposit to borrowers – to the self build sector. Another important boon.
Less dramatic, but likely to be similarly significant, was a further proposal for a £500million Builders Finance Fund. This is aimed at small and medium-sized contractors who are currently unable to get loans from the high street banks. The idea is to ‘unlock’ some 15,000 house builds which have stalled as a result.
Builders of this size, however, are precisely the kind of small, local firms which selfbuilders use. You might argue that cash-strapped contractors are much more likely to give you a better deal, but they’re also more likely to run into difficulties, or go bust. Builders in a boom can be a pain, but in a reviving market they’re going to be both eager to make up lost income yet still aware that customers can vanish very quickly. There are also likely to be more firms around – all good news for selfbuilders.
And there’s more. Earlier, planning minister Nick Boles proposed a plan to extend permitted development rights to landowners in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It would allow them to convert or replace up to three farm buildings with new homes without needing planning permission.
Now, while the prospect of a stunning self build in an even more stunning location is delightful, this provoked predictable outrage.
To some it represented the imminent destruction of the traditional landscape and the rural economy. Others argued that it would simply produce a swathe of expensive second homes, making landowners rich but pricing most other locals out of the area.
But the important point, I’d argue, is that however sensible, or not, this particular proposal is, it shows a new willingness by government to think about house building in new ways.
And you might say: about time.
Depending on whose figures you read, Britain needs around 250,000 new homes a year to meet current needs. In recent years it’s been around 100,000 short. As the economy revives and people return to spending, the under-supplied housing market will inevitably boom again. But with wages largely stuck at pre-recession levels, and borrowing still tricky, fewer and fewer people will be able to join the club. Not a great recipe for re-election in 12 months’ time.
In years past governments could solve housing shortages by providing local authority housing. But there’s no more money for that. But if they do nothing, the market will eventually collapse, which would make homes affordable again – at least temporarily – but would damage the City, which makes so much money out of a high value property market.
Hence the subtle whiff of desperation, and the rash of new proposals. Not all of them will be carried out, of course, or in the form they in which now exist. I suspect individual selfbuilders will lose out to group builds when it comes to sharing out that £150million plot pot – the government, after all, is seeking numbers. But that’s politics, and democracy.
What’s significant is that self build is being seen increasingly by government as a serious, practical choice for homeowners, and one which deserves official financial support. And that’s worth celebrating.
Anyone who’s lived in a Victorian terrace – particularly one that remains much as the Victorians left it – soon discovers there is one room that is always the coldest.
It’s easy to find. Just go up the stairs that face the front door and keep straight on. It’s right there at the back with a window overlooking the yard.
The party wall you share with your neighbour is likely to be reasonably warm. So is the floor which provides the ceiling for the kitchen below.
But everything else – the back wall, one side wall and the all but flat roof over your head – is just 230mm of solid brick, 18mm of felted boarding and 12mm of plasterboard away from all the elements can throw at you.
When I lived in such a terrace this room became my office, partly because it was the furthest from the busy parts of the house, but mainly because nobody else wanted it.
In summer it was baking and in winter it functioned as a highly efficient heat pump, extracting most of the warmth from the single central heating radiator and transferring it rapidly to the atmosphere outside.
But the room did have one great benefit. It inspired an enduring interest in energy efficiency and how to achieve it.
My solution at the time was to line the outside walls with eight by four insulated plasterboard panels, which were glued in place over the faded wallpaper – I didn’t want to waste a moment more than I needed to.
The long-term plan was to tape and skim plaster them before decoration, but, having only a vague concept of taping, and even less of plastering, that stage got dropped. I did, however, cover the ceiling with polystyrene tiles, which at the time were almost fashionable.
To my huge gratification, these measures worked – at least in winter when the room became recognisably snug. In summer it became a cut price sauna and, on the hottest days, physically unbearable. It taught me, however, three valuable lessons: insulation works, is simple in principle, but in practice annoyingly tricky to get right.
They are lessons, I contend, that we all need to learn, and quickly.
The reason is simple. Britain has the oldest housing stock in the developed world. Around 8.5 million of its 25 million homes are over 60 years old. One in five has solid walls. This, in itself, wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if this country didn’t also have the worst insulated homes in Europe.
Forget politicians accusing energy companies of profiteering – the UK’s fuel prices are actually low by European standards. Forget green levies, too. Poor, or non-existent, insulation is the only reason why one in five British households is now in fuel poverty.
Ah, you may say, but we have the government’s Green Deal. We can borrow to upgrade our homes with insulation and renewable and efficient forms of energy creation, like heat pumps and replacement condensing boilers, repay the loan out of our fuel savings and still have lower fuel bills than before.
Only we won’t. Heat pumps, for instance, are most efficient at producing low temperature heating. If a house isn’t super-insulated, they’re no cheaper, and possibly more expensive, than conventional heating. The same goes for condensing boilers.
The Green Deal assumes that insulating to these standards is much the same as topping up loft insulation, spending an hour or two pumping mineral wool fibres into a cavity or pinning draught proofer round a front door frame. It isn’t.
In 2011 architect Marion Baeli studied housing association upgrades to two identical Victorian terraces in west London. One, virtually untouched for 50 years, was super-insulated using the German Passivhaus system, the world’s best established low-energy construction method. The second house, which had been refurbished ten years previously, was upgraded to the government’s Decent Homes standard for social housing, which essentially means providing ‘a reasonable degree of thermal comfort’.
Before the upgrades both properties used 21,000 kilowatts of energy a year, at a cost of £2080. Afterwards, the Passivhaus used just 1,700kWh and its annual bill fell to £397. The second home’s energy usage dropped to 16,000kWh and its annual bill was £1,652.
The Passivhaus upgrade, however, cost £178,290 and the second home’s £45,382. Marion Baeli calculated that, if energy prices increased by 10 per a year, the Passivhaus upgrade would pay for itself within 18 years, the second house within 12.
The figures, of course, wouldn’t be the same today. Energy prices have risen 37 per cent in the last three years, and some of the most expensive Passivhaus measures – super-insulated doors and windows – are now significantly cheaper.
But the sums involved in even basic upgrades remain daunting, especially considering that interest rates on Green Deal provider loans have been quoted at around seven per cent.
That, however, isn’t the only problem. Successful insulation depends on effective levels of airtightness. A recent German study found that a single one millimetre gap in 140mm of insulation can reduce its efficiency by 40 per cent.
Britain’s tradesmen simply aren’t trained to build to such small tolerances. Worse, the fragmented nature of UK construction actively discourages the sort of co-operation and awareness building at this level requires.
And that’s assuming the knowledge to do so is widely available, which it isn’t. There is EnerPHit, the refurbishment version of Passivhaus, but that only appeared in 2012. Otherwise it’s down to a handful of experienced specialists.
That hasn’t, of course, prevented several dozen pioneering homeowners from upgrading their own properties into SuperHomes – you can check them out at www.superhomes.org.uk.
You might also look at the Energy Bill Revolution, a campaign to persuade government to spend its green levies on upgrading Britain’s housing stock. A rercent survey commissioned by the campaign found that 85 per cent of adults favoured a free nationwide programme to super-insulate 600,000 homes over building new roads, power stations and HS2.
Could this – might this – be a turning point?
How long is a piece of string?
Well, firstly, of course, that depends on how long you want it to be, but, much more importantly, is the way you choose to measure it. Use the metric system and you’ll be a lot more accurate than Imperial units. A foot may sound reassuringly precise, but it’s less so when it’s described as 30.48 centimetres or 304.8 millimetres. What if the inch you just measured is actually 30.49 centimetres? Or 30.46? What difference will it make in the real world?
If you’re laying a patio or a garden path, it’s going to be largely irrelevant, and virtually impossible to measure, anyway. If you’re making a microscope or a jet engine, even smaller measures could be critical.
Building a house, especially in masonry, generally falls at the Imperial end of the scale. Bricks and blocks are small enough, and mortar flexible enough, to allow continual adjustments over even large areas, concealing a multitude of sins.
Timber frame isn’t so forgiving. The frames are usually built in a factory under controlled conditions, making accurate measurements much easier. As a result, the complete frame can be delivered in one go and erected within a day or two – potentially a big time saver. The big drawback is that the foundation on which it’s placed must be level, typically to within plus or minus five centimetres. Getting it wrong could prove extremely expensive.
For the great bulk of house building, however, this kind of accuracy isn’t so crucial. Evidence of this is the fact that, although most materials and fittings, are now manufactured in metric, an awful lot remain stubbornly Imperial.
Doors, for example, are largely Imperial, along with many plumbing fittings. Windows, intriguingly, manage to be both. The heights are in metric, while the widths remain largely Imperial, but are cunningly described in metric. The result is a bizarre variety of standard widths, including 488mm and 915mm, and windows that look decidedly squat and strange.
And look, for example, at the tolerances allowed by the NHBC, the main arbiter of building standards in the UK. External walls can be up to eight millimetres out of plumb up to a height or five metres and 12 millimetres out over that height. Render can deviate up to eight millimetres from flatness in every five metres. Window frames can be five millimetres out of plumb up 1.5 to metres.
Should you be outraged? Doesn’t it confirm everything you suspected about developers and builders being more concerned with saving time and cash than pursuing the highest standards?
Well, if you want to live in a pristine loft apartment with mathematically straight walls and floors and ceilings that accurately follow the curvature of the earth, you might have a point.
But, just like the building industry – though with rather more justification – that’s not actually what most of us prefer. It’s quirkiness and individuality that we respond to – like the sweeping curves of thatched roofs, odd-shaped doors in Cotswold cottages or gently sloping floors in Elizabethan manor houses.
But it’s not quirkiness for its own sake, charming though that can be. What we’re actually responding to are natural shapes, organic forms that we recognise instinctively from the natural world, including our own bodies. We find them familiar and reassuring and also beautiful.
In their way they are just as mathematical as the metric system. At their core, as architects know but often ignore, is the concept of ‘phi’ or the golden ratio. Put simply, if the proportions of a shape, such as a rectangle, are in the ratio 1 to 1.618 they are immensely satisfying to the human eye. It’s a ratio that’s found through the natural world – the ratio of opposing spirals of seeds in sunflowers, the arrangements of leaves on plants and of our own DNA.
The observation is age old and has been recognised in iconic buildings from the Great Pyramid at Giza to the Parthenon, from medieval cathedrals to Georgian architecture. If you have any doubts, compare a standard-size window from your local builders’ merchant with almost any in the Royal Square in Bath.
Ironically, we describe phi today with the decimal system of metrification, something our predecessors managed without. But the measures they did have were based on very familiar objects, chiefly their own bodies. The inch, for example, was originally the width of man’s thumb and the yard a single stride, while a furlong was the length of a medieval field and a chain the length of a cricket pitch.
All of these varied, of course, with local custom, which, in an increasingly integrated world, prompted the need for an international measurement system. Clearly, for science and technology that makes a great deal of sense and it’s undoubtedly produced huge efficiencies and economies. But, when it comes to something as important and individual as building your own home it should be worth thinking on a more human scale.
In theory, using non-metric measures is only likely to lead to extra expense, building with reclaimed Imperial-sized bricks, for example, or sourcing your own timber. But with a little ingenuity it needn’t be. Even metrically-sized materials can accommodate curves, circles and spirals – in a staircase, a circular bull’s eye brick arch, the sweep of a roof or an eyelid dormer window.
Mention it to your designer. See what his or her reaction is to phi. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Perhaps that piece of string really should be just a foot long – simply because it feels right.
You know how to put up a tent.
All those sleepovers the kids had in the garden, those frantic mud-filled festivals of your misspent youth, and possibly middle age, too.
It’s just a question of slotting plastic tubes together, feeding them through those fiddly grooves in the fabric, banging in a steel peg or three and bingo – a dome from home.
Well, that’s what I thought until I tried it on sloping ice a hundred yards or so from a bare, rocky shore in the middle of winter. A British winter, that is.
Where I was, it was actually summer. But that didn’t make a huge difference since I happened to be in the southern hemisphere – in fact, about as far south as you get and still remain on the planet. The place was Damoy Point, a small isthmus on Wiencke Island, which is just off Anvers Island, which is just off Antarctica.
About 35,000 people visit the world’s most remote continent every year, the great majority of them tourists, like me. The great majority of those visit the Antarctic peninsula. It’s the most accessible and most scenic part, a straggling tail on the South American side of the continent, geologically part of the Andes and full of fjords, islands, steep icy peaks – and penguins.
Most tourist ships have under 500 passengers; larger vessels aren’t allowed to land and landings are strictly controlled. No more than 100 tourists at a time for around a couple of hours.
But my wife and I were the exception. We were one of 14 winners in a shipboard lottery. Our prize? A night camping out on the ice, like real Antarctic explorers.
Since the day temperature hovered around freezing point and the night dropped to minus 10, unless the wind blew, producing another 10 degree drop, this might not seem a massive bonus. But Antarctica’s cold is bone dry; it last rained here about a million years ago. It’s nowhere near the bone-rotting chill of home. In fact, wrapped up as we were in one-piece thermal jump suits, thermal boots, gloves and beanies, we were remarkably comfortable.
Not that that really helped in tent erection. Even on gently sloping ice long plastic tent poles are prone to skitter downhill at the first opportunity, while pegs are disinclined to grip. And that’s assuming you know what you’re doing in the first place, which we patently didn’t. Luckily, five members of our ship’s expedition team were there to lend a hand, or rather a complete erection service.
Sleeping, however, proved more problematic. We were assured we’d be ‘toasty’ inside arctic-standard sleeping bags on two layers of thermal mats. It wasn’t quite like that, largely because my failure to master my sleeping bag zip meant waking with the cold every time a limb popped out.
But lying there in the semi-twilight of an Antarctic summer night, listening to the honking of the penguins and the gentle snoring of my neighbours, was a unique experience. It increased my admiration for the early explorers enormously – not least in their ability to withstand the cold, since their ability to insulate their living space was, frankly, a bit pants.
I gained this view from visiting a restored British Antarctic base from the 40s which occupies a tiny island just around the corner from Damoy Point. Port Lockroy is now a museum and Britain’s southernmost post office. The building is essentially a timber hut covered with tar paper. ‘Spartan’ would be a kind description and ‘suicidally draughty’ a more accurate one. Even the prefabricated timber hut Scott used for his ill-fated attempt on the pole had double walls, though the cavity was filled, curiously, with seaweed.
Modern Antarctic bases are made of sterner, and better insulated, stuff. Port Lockroy’s current staff, for example, live in an insulated Nissen hut. Most impressive, though, is the Franco-Italian Concordia Station, which is situated on Dome C, a 10,000 feet-high bump on the Antarctic plateau. Here, local temperatures vary from minus 50 to minus 84 degrees C and the thin air causes altitude sickness. Conditions are so extreme the European Space Agency uses the base for research.
Its main buildings are two, three-storey steel cylinders, each 61 feet in diameter. Insulation is provided by six-inch-thick expanded polystyrene cladding covered with glass fibre. Silicone joints and timber wedges stop cold bridging.
Of course, even the most rabid passivhaus enthusiast might balk at that level of super-insulation, but there are other lessons these buildings can teach us. The Antarctic is a largely pristine environment and there are international agreements to keep it that way. Our ship wasn’t just required to limit the numbers and duration of landings. Visitors were obliged to bring back everything they took with them, leaving only footprints behind.
This had interesting implications for an overnight stay. We were each allowed a water bottle, a chocolate bar and a fourteenth share of a seven-litre port-a-loo. Antarctica is plainly not for the weak bladdered.
But most Antarctic bases, operate on similar principles, for practical as well as environmental reasons; ferrying anything in or out is hugely expensive. Solar panels, wind turbines and waste and water treatment plants are commonplace, and self sufficiency and sustainability constant goals.
So can we expect some kind of self-sufficient, super-insulated habitat design to emerge from the frozen wastes and revolutionise the way we build our homes? Possibly, but in the meantime I’d settle for a toasty warm, self-erecting tent which would stick limpet-like to any surface you threw it at.
A sad day at Cole Towers.
Demolition of a much loved institution is underway. It’s been overnight accommodation for my children, a Bond villain-type base in an amateur movie, a handy storage facility for malodorous items and a refuge for fox cubs (the last two may not be unrelated). But with two swings of a sledgehammer it’ll be gone.
Actually, one might do it. Twenty years take their toll on any building, and this is in a pretty bad way. A third of the roof has fallen in, the windows went long ago and the floor boasts an interesting, and possibly extraterrestrial, fungus whose identify has baffled scientists. Or at least my next-door neighbour who is the only scientist I know.
Nevertheless, for a £100 chalet-style shed from B&Q it’s done pretty well. Especially since it was made from cheap, softwood shiplap, wafer-thin roofing felt and a single application of varnish in the early 1990s.
Garden sheds, of course, are said to occupy a special place in the male psyche. They’re man caves, semi-sacred refuges from the responsibilities of marriage and family life, meditation spaces where lone males can contemplate their essential otherness without fear of the washing up.
Undoubtedly there’s an element of truth in that. One of my earliest memories is of my pipe-smoking grandfather who I never saw outside his potting shed, a short but significant distance from the small terraced house he shared with his wife and two teenage granddaughters.
But that, I believe, misses the point. Sheds, in essence, are fun, something children know instinctively. My grandmother’s huge shed was stuffed to the rafters with rusting garden equipment and ancient bicycles, blanketed by one gigantic, dust-whitened spider’s web. It was a place of mystery and horror I never dared enter.
My best friend’s shed, on the other hand, was used as overflow accommodation for children from the two families who shared the main house. The bunk beds made it indistinguishable from the bunkhouses in TV westerns, and almost as exciting.
But even more exciting was building your own. As a child I was fortunate to live in a house with a large garden and ample supplies of ‘woods’ – scraps of timber and sheet material left over from my father’s repeated attempts to build the world’s largest corner horn, an early and gigantic form of hi-fi loudspeaker.
Friends and I constructed ‘bases’ in the privet hedge and up trees. My most ambitious plan was to build a submarine version at the bottom of a large pond, reached via an airlock and a strong pair of lungs. All we were missing was the pond. Sadly my parents intervened before excavation of the lawn was complete.
But that spirit of adventure isn’t confined to childhood. You can see it in any garden building brochure. For every plain t&g’d double-roofed shed there are as many summer houses, log cabins, workshops, garden offices, garden studios, pavilions and gazebos. In other words, exotic sheds.
The urge to create a private, highly individual dwelling – if only on a small scale – lies deep within all of us. Selfbuilders, of course, follow that urge on a much bigger scale, but that doesn’t lessen the value of shed building. In fact, it enhances it.
Build your own shed and you gain a swift, and relatively painless, introduction to the basic principles of house construction. You learn about foundations, how walls support themselves and roofs are made waterproof. You learn about project management, following plans, sourcing materials and using tools and equipment. Depending on the shed’s size and location, you may also learn a little about planning requirements.
And the joy of it is, it comes at very little cost. OK, you can spend thousands on a bijou, bespoke garden masterpiece. But you can learn almost as much from an £80 Argos clearance model. In fact, you’re likely to learn more because you’ve less to lose by making improvements, adding customised features, experimenting.
And here we can get serious, or even more frivolous, depending on your point of view. Ever considered the more interesting alternatives to brick and block and timber frame for your self build? Cob? Straw bales? Rammed earth? Here’s your excuse to try them out.
Several plans for my own shed replacement are under consideration. It’ll need to be large – at least five metres by three – and multi-functional, which means sturdy construction and good insulation. It’ll also have to be cheap – ideally, very cheap.
Actually, pretty much free would be nice.
Is that possible?
Two years ago I built a compost bin from pallets recovered from nearby skips. It’s proved unusually robust. Pallets are typically 1m x 1.2m x 0.15m. Suitably braced with timber uprights, they should make useful walls with built-in space for insulation.. Internally, they can be covered, and further braced, with ply or OSB. Externally, traditional shiplap can sheath a layer of breathable building paper. Second-hand pallets cost as little as £3 each. Sometimes they’re given away.
Equally cheap, both second-hand and new, are scaffolding boards. They can make sturdy floors and roofs as well as formwork for concrete bases.
Or why not use scaffolding itself for the basic structure? Boards or sheet materials could be fitted internally, allowing you to have an inside-out shed, like a garden version of the Lloyd’s building. Using both internal and external boards would create a cavity for insulation. On uneven ground, scaffolding poles resting on a concrete pads would also make inexpensive and easy foundations.
And then there’s papercrete. This American invention consists of shredded newspaper mixed with sand and cement. You can make blocks or panels from it, or simply spread it over a supportive framework, such as chicken wire. It sets like lightweight concrete. Weather proofing will be needed, but, if you fancy a dome-shaped shed or a garden-sized replica of the Taj Mahal, it’s hard to beat.
Didn’t I tell you sheds were fun?
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