Friday, October 07, 2005

On the Federation of Master Builders

It’s funny how you sometimes stumble across the most interesting things by accident, or they appear when you are least expecting them. Last week at the London HomeBuilding & Renovating show, I was presenting an afternoon seminar entitled Project Management together with David Snell, author of Building Your Own Home. It’s a gig we have shared together for four or five years now and we have a pretty well worked routine advising people what to look out for and what to avoid when choosing and later working with builders.

Now a couple of weeks before the show, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), Britain’s largest trade organisation for small builders, had been on to the organisers asking for some representation at this particular seminar. The FMB have sponsored talks at the HomeBuilding & Renovating shows before and they book stand space there to promote their website findabuilder.co.uk. I politely told them that I didn’t think they would add much to our presentation as we worked to a theme and all it would do is interrupt the flow and reduce time for questions at the end — this particular seminar always gets a shedload of questions.

But it came to pass that the FMB sent a delegation to hear what David and I had to say during our seminar. I sort of anticipated the worst. We talk about how there is a large gap between what should happen in theory and what happens in practice and that the vast majority of selfbuild jobs and small extensions take place with no formal written contracts and that if you start insisting on contracts, penalty clauses and withholding money for months after the job is finished, then you can expect to have a much larger quote in the first place. Oh, and don’t do anything silly like pay cash upfront. All good knock about stuff, and slightly different to the advice I would expect to hear from some organisation full of starch-shirted-stiffs.

I fully expected the FMB delegation to have ago at us for being too cavalier with our advice. They all sat there, two rows back from the front, madly jotting down notes. Sure enough, after the Q & A was over, a couple of them sidled over to us and started to ask subsidiary questions. But blow me down if the point they really wanted to get across to us was that they felt it was perfectly in order for a builder to ask for a deposit before the work starts and that we shouldn’t be advising people that this was not a good idea.

Hang on a minute. Give the bloke cash upfront before he’s so much as broken wind! You are having a laugh, aren’t you? No mate, we at the FMB think upfront deposits are a good idea.

Well, bugger me, I never knew that. Turns out that David and I have been the starch-shirted-stiffs all along and that our advice is far too pompous and unrealistic. Or had we just met the urban guerrilla wing of the FMB?

I logged onto the findabuilder.co.uk website to research further. It’s revealing by what it leaves out, rather than what it promotes. It has advice for homeowners on how to spot a cowboy that suggests that he will do the following:

• EVADE giving you references or details of previous jobs
• OFFER you a 'cheap' deal for cash-in-hand.
• SUGGEST you can avoid paying VAT for cash
• CONFUSE you with jargon and complicated explanations
• INSIST that a written contract is not necessary
• SAY they can start tomorrow (a good builder is usually busy)
• CAN'T give you costings because 'things may change'
• LAUGH when you suggest showing them plans
• GIVE you a surprisingly low quote
• CAN only be reached by mobile and don't have an address on their card
• ASSURE you the details are their problem and you don't need to worry
• KNOCK the opposition

All good stuff, but note there is nothing about asking for payment upfront, in my mind one of the true danger signals that you are dealing with a man of straw. The website, their consumer portal, also contains a code of conduct, which they expect their FMB members to stick to when dealing with the general public. Again, nothing is mentioned at all about the vexed issue of upfront payments. The only conclusion you can draw from this is that the FMB implicitly supports the practice of asking for upfront payments from the general public.

The FMB has a different website, www.fmb.co.uk, dedicated to their members who are all small builders. There you can see a different side to the oganisation. “The FMB is a trade association established over 60 years ago to protect the interests of small and medium-sized building firms.” By encouraging the practice of upfront payments, perhaps?

Coincidentally, our dear government is about to give a huge boost to the FMB by making them a lead player in their new scheme to “kick out the cowboy builders.” Their previous scheme, the ill-fated QualityMark, was finally put to bed earlier this year after five hopeless years in which a lot of our money was spent by central government and almost nothing happened on the ground. In its place we are going to have Trustmark, which is very much QualityMark-lite. In fact very-lite. Whilst QualityMark demanded that member firms paid 0.75% of turnover in order to join, Trustmark is free for the first two years and will only then cost about £10 a year to maintain membership, if the contractor is member of an accredited body (i.e. FMB), although maybe £300 a year if not. Trustmark will be an umbrella group, inc. all FMB members, and many other trade associations. It will offer warranties against defective work and protection against members going out of business during the job, but the warranties will have to be paid for as extras by the clients. In other words, there is protection if you choose to pay for it as an additional insurance policy. Which people just won’t do.

Like the FMB’s own findabuilder.co.uk site, the trustmark site also has some guidance about “protecting yourself from rogues”. And, of course, there is nothing about the dangers of paying upfront. Maybe the FMB had that bit surgically removed as its price for coming on board and giving the organisation some weight in the marketplace. But I can’t help feeling that the FMB will gain more from Trustmark — a DTI sponsored initiative — than vice versa. And the poor old consumer won’t be the least bit protected by either body, as far as I can tell.

So is it ever OK to pay upfront?
I reckon there are some circumstances where it’s fine for a builder to request an upfront payment. Notably where the client has specified some fittings which have to be paid for in advance, or at least require a substantial deposit and for which the builder is acting as a middleman. This happens with a lot of imported gear and it also happens with a large number of timber frame companies. There is also a case for demanding a small deposit on small jobs where the client needs to show that they are serious, say on a new kitchen or a bathroom. But for 90% of building jobs, the materials are (or should be) being purchased on credit and the labour is being paid for a week in arrears so there should be no reason for the contractor to demand an upfront payment, except to ease his cashflow. And a builder with a stretched cashflow is, in my book, one to avoid.

On the other hand, there is good reason to pay a builder in stages as the job progresses. It’s best to tie these interim payments in with landmarks so that everybody knows where they stand. A builder with a solid cashflow would be able to work on something like a payment once a month, maybe once a fortnight. Any less than that and the warning bell should be ringing. The very fact that the FMB doesn’t omit “demanding payment upfront” as one of its code of conduct points suggests strongly to me that many FMB members simply haven’t got the wherewithal to float a small building job. That’s not to say they won’t do a good job, but I personally would be far happier to employ a builder who belonged to no trade organisation who didn’t demand cash upfront than one who was a member of the FMB who did.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Selfbuild at a crossroads

Whilst selfbuild is now fated on TV and in the press and has become an aspiration for hundreds of thousands of people, the supply of land needed to keep the ball rolling is in danger of drying up because government policy is set against low density housing.

As recently as 1997, 47% of all new homes were detached. By 2004, it was just 19%. This startling turnaround has been entirely due to changes in planning policies, resulting in hundreds of Poundbury-style high density housing sites springing up across the country. Whilst the demand for these new homes remains reasonably strong, nobody is complaining too loudly.

But in killing off the sterile and little loved “executive housing” estates, the new planning policies also threaten to stop the flow of innovative and experimental homes being built by today’s selfbuilders.

One of the side-effects of the new planning regime is to increase demand for single building plots. This, in turn, makes the whole process of homebuilding more expensive and results in the build budgets being cut. You already have to be fairly well-off to afford to buy building land: soon only the very rich will be able to build interesting houses on these plots.

Contrast this with the situation in the rest of Europe where land is often set aside specifically for selfbuild schemes, which most people regard as a sensible use of rural resources. Even in the more densely populated areas like Germany and the Benelux countries, you will regularly come across building plots for sale for the same price as a large car. In stark contrast, building plots fetch rather more than the cost of an average house in SE England. The painful truth is that the more we spend on the land, the less we have to spend on the building and as a result most of our designs and our building methods are decades behind what has been happening elsewhere. Whilst we seem to be collectively mesmerised by the gleaming efficiency of German-import Huf Haus, who have now built around 50 houses in Britain, the reality is that is how 30% of all houses are built in Germany.

The nearest we come to factory-made houses is our native timber-frame industry, which supplies just the skeleton of the house. In Scotland, where land is relatively cheap, it’s taken off in a big way and accounts for nearly two thirds of all new homes and an even higher percentage of selfbuilds. Scotland also has an extremely well-developed selfbuild infrastructure with hundreds of businesses competing to design, finance, insure selfbuilds, besides actually building them.

South of the border, the situation is rather more piecemeal. In areas where land is less expensive, selfbuild flourishes as a viable alternative route onto or up the housing ladder for people on ordinary incomes. But as you get nearer to London and land prices escalate, “normal” selfbuild, as practiced in the rest of the world becomes impossible. Virgin plots with road frontage are now very rare and what we are now seeing is that the majority of single plots coming to market have been formed by the subdivision of large gardens.

Whether this on-going densification of our villages and suburbs is something future generations will thanks us for is doubtful. This process is a direct consequence of the pressure, coming from amenity groups such as the Council for Preservation of Rural England, not to release greenfield sites around villages. But the side-effect of this policy is to destroy the siting and integrity of much of our most cherished housing stock by cutting swathes through long-established gardens and erecting fenced off entrances to backland development. Currently, this is only way that the huge pent-up demand for single building plots can be met.

Selfbuild should form part of the very backbone of rural life, enabling communities to grow organically from within rather than by having alien estates grafted onto them by master planners and national developers. But today planning matters are all dealt with by remote local authority offices whose wishes are, in any event, increasingly being overruled by central government. Selfbuild as an aspiration has taken root with the British public: but for that aspiration to become reality for more than a few, government needs to recognise that it has the potential to become a significant contributor to our future housing stock, as it is in most western countries.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Spluttering SIPS

I have been writing about SIPS (Structural Insulated Panel Systems) building panels for five years now. In that time I have been on six sites where they have been being used. Each time there has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what’s being, or has just been, built. And yet each time there also seems to have been a catalogue of mishaps and delays. These are somehow never attributed to the SIPS building system itself, but seem to be caused by the shortcomings of the designs or the supplier.

This time last year I visited a site of six terraced houses being built by Nick Robinson in Hampshire. Nick is a professional housebuilder with a keen interest in new construction systems. I had previously seen a site he had built out using steel frame, which had worked pretty well. But when he enquired about using steel frame again, Corus, the manufacturer, told him they were no longer interested in supplying small sites so he had to look elsewhere. Nick chose Kingspan’s TekHaus, a polyurethane SIP panel made in Germany, and the main player in the nascent UK SIP market.

I had seen Nick a few weeks before visiting his site. Back then, he had already laid the foundations and he told me then that he hoped to have the structures of all six houses up for my visit at the beginning of October. The reality couldn’t have been more different. Two slabs were untouched and on the four where a start had been made, none had a roof panel on. Kingspan were using a middleman, known as a process partner, and he had screwed up badly. Deliveries were late, were in the wrong order, were sometimes damaged and some panels were cut wrong. A lot of time was wasted on site trying out to sort this mess out, and often rebuilding the panels. Brain Clark of IPC Erecting, who ran the site crew there, told me that they eventually finished the contract at Christmas. What should have taken six weeks took nearly five months.

Last week I was in Wiltshire visiting another Tek Haus (pictured) in the process of erection. Who should I run into here but Brian Clark. And what was Brian’s erection crew up to? Mostly snagging again, it would seem. This contract, a single house of just over 300m2 floor area, had started on August 1st and was booked for a three-week erection. Here we were, in Week 8, and the roof panels were yet to go on. The story behind the delays was familiar. Unresolved issues with structural design, panels being supplied that weren’t quite right, glulam beams being supplied which weren’t nearly right, crew waiting for cranes. All little niggly things, all very disruptive. If these two jobs were exceptions, all well and good, but the truth seems to be that they are not exceptions at all and that delays and overruns are in fact the norm with small SIPs projects.

I was first introduced to SIPS building in Britain by Tim Crump, proprietor of TJ Crump Oakwrights, a Hereford-based green oak housebuilder. Tim was an early adopter and had understood how and why SIPS were beginning to take-off in North America where they are frequently used to wrap-around custom homes. Tim built several houses incorporating SIPs but by 2003 he had fallen out of love with the whole concept. At the time Tim told me that he thought there was a big gap between theory and practice and that they always seem to spend far too much time sorting out snags on site that should have been designed away in the office, before the panels ever left the factory. Tim ended up loosing money on a contract to erect two houses for an architect because none of the pre-cut panels actually fitted together as designed. After that, he has steered well clear of factory-made panels and carried out this type of work in timber frame with his own site crew.

So is the SIPS bubble about to burst? Far from it. Adam Holmes of Kingspan told me this weekend that the TekHaus system is making great progress in the social housing market and that the volumes they are doing are now enough to justify setting up a manufacturing plant in England. SIPs score highly on the EcoHomes ratings and housing associations have to take this into account when placing orders for new housing. It seems that with all the money the government is throwing at affordable housing, the future of SIPS is looking pretty rosy. Or at least it is for Kingspan’s TekHaus, which is out and away the most important of the UK suppliers.

However there must be a question mark over the use of SIPs in the selfbuild and one-off developer sector. The way Kingspan have organised this, the responsibility for design and erection falls onto a number of regional process partners who effectively quote against each other to supply essentially the same product. This creates some surprising anomalies; for instance, the house I visited in Wiltshire was being supplied from Northumberland, because the quote was 25% cheaper than the local supplier. The Northumberland supplier, SIPHome, might just have made money on the project if, as they had planned, it had taken three weeks to erect and had been all delivered in six loads. But of course, the job had overrun spectacularly. This of course was SIP Home’s problem but it doesn’t install confidence in a delivery system that is so wayward and disorganised.

It’s not as though these SIPS systems are cheap. The Wiltshire contract for supply and fix of wall, floor and roof panels — the shell in other words — was valued at £68k. It’s hard to see the equivalent in blockwork, or a basic Taylor Lane-style timber frame, costing more than £50k, including all the insulation. Whilst the resulting home should be extremely energy efficient — there is no central heating system, as such, just a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery — it’s still an awful lot to pay for a finish standard, which could easily be achieved by other means.

The question is this. Is there something inherent in SIPS building methods that makes them prone to delay and cost overruns? Or is it just that the assemblers haven’t really worked out how to get the best out of the system. For what is clear is that the goodwill towards what promised to be a new, green building method is running low and that if someone doesn’t sort it out soon, it is in danger of evaporating altogether. Many selfbuilders I meet are very enthusiastic about using SIPS for their projects but it seems that they are not really getting the service they pay well for and hence deserve.

It may be that in the short term, SIPS are best suited towards very simple structures such as you would find in most social housing projects and maybe commercial sheds, but not for the more complex designs met in the selfbuild arena. In theory, the design skills needed for SIPS construction should be very similar to timber frame and there really isn't any reason to expect problems, but in practice there seems to be a skills gap somewhere in the SIP production stream which is proving costly and frustrating. What should be a simple, quick and efficient system is currently anything but.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Permitted development: the lowdown

I spent the weekend delivering seminars at the HomeBuilding & Renovating London show. The first one each day was entitled “Making The Most of Your Living Space” and it found me gently lulling the audience about the joys of loft living and loft converting. UK’s Mr Basement, Alan Tovey, then encouraged everyone to become troglodytes. But undoubted star of this particular show was planning guru, Ken Dijksman (pictured right rather unflatteringly), who took the stage for no more than ten minutes and regaled everyone with a synopsis of the ins and outs of permitted development rights and how, in the right hands, their correct application would lead on to wealth and happiness but, screwed up, would destroy you utterly.

Talk about spellbound. The audience lapped it up. And Ken managed to leave them hanging on for more because on each of the three days, all the subsequent questions were about one thing: permitted development rights. As the questions got more complex, Ken’s answers became more Delphic and he resorted to that old planners’ standby answer, “I can’t possibly tell you the answer to that as every situation is different.” Well he has only just resigned from his planning post to become a full-time consultant: 17 years behind a local council desk is enough to make anyone evasive.

So just what was it that he was saying that got the audience so excited? Basically this. If you still have unused permitted development rights on your house, you can apply for an uncontroversial planning permission which would take you above your permitted development rights allowance and then, should you win, you can still use up your permitted development rights allowance on some other project you have in mind as long as you haven't built out the bit you have just won permission on. In other words, the permitted development rights only disappear when the new structure is built, not when planning permission to build it is won. Neat huh? Well only if you want to extend all over the place in ways that the planners will think dimly about. But for some people this can be a very handy tip.

Another was in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. A couple weren’t allowed to extend their house by the planners: their permitted development rights had been used up on an ugly garage and the new extension they hoped to build was not appreciated by the powers-that-be. Then a knowledgeable friend suggested to them that if they demolished the unloved garage, their permitted development rights would be liberated once more and they could then use them to build the extension without the intervention of the planners.

Permitted Development Rights: a summary
Permitted Development Rights come with most houses and they enable you to build a certain additional volume without planning permission. The cut-off point is January 1, 1948, when the Town & Country Planning Act came into effect. Anything built before that date is taken to be part of the existing house.

Permitted Development Rights enable you to extend up to 15% of the existing house in volume, or 70cu m, whichever is the greater. For terraced houses, this is reduced to 10% or 50m3. In both cases, the maximum enlargement is 115cu m. The volume is reduced to 10 per cent or 50cu m within Conservation Areas. In Scotland, the figures seem to be 20 per cent or 24sq m. The extensions must be no higher than the existing house and if within 2m of a boundary, a pitched roof structure mustn’t be higher than 4m or a flat roof 3m.

It affects loft conversions as well. Loft dormers are allowed if the extension adds less than 50cu m to the volume of the house (40cu m in terraces); the roof extension must not face the highway, and the roof extension must not increase the height of the existing roof. If your planned loft does transgress on any of these points, it doesn’t mean that’s it’s prohibited, but you will have to apply for planning permission.

These rules go on and on in every decreasing circles. The application of them to real life situations is a jobsworth’s delight: the more complicated they get, the more exceptions you incorporate, the more planners you have to hire to work out what’s allowed and what’s not. I could go on for many more lines with even greater delights about the exceptions in the planning system but I would do far better to point you to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Planning portal which you can find at www.planningportal.gov.uk

Ken's email, should you want to know more, or even to hire the guy - he is now a fully fledged planning consultant - is dijksman@msn.com

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Planning system becomes more laboured

Changes to the planning system which were mooted by New Labour in earlier, more radical, times have now effectively been abandoned by John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office has published more of the detail on changes to the current planning system, writes Ken Djiksman*.

One of the biggest changes now proposed is in relation to refusals. In the past there was no limit to the number of refusals you could clock up on a site. But now if a similar proposal is refused twice within two years and no Appeal is lodged the local authority can ‘decline to determine’ any more similar applications. Although this sounds simple it could have big implications. If you try and negotiate an approval by making minor amendments (compromises) in order to satisfy the planners they can simply turn around and refuse to make a decision on the third application you submit. And there is no appeal against this other than via the courts.

Another change is to the length of time planning consent lasts for. Planning permissions have generally lasted five years, since the system was introduced in 1947. For no apparent reason this has now been reduced to three years. This means that outline planning applications will also now expire after three years if the reserved matters (detailed plans) are not agreed. The net result of this change is just to increase bureaucracy.

In an attempt to speed up the bureaucracy of planning another of the changes may do exactly the opposite. When a planning application is submitted various organisations are consulted, for example this might include the Environment Agency or English Heritage. They have always been under pressure to respond quickly, but now this has become a legal requirement within 21 days. But a response can be as simple as a standard holding objection or request for more information, it does not need to be an answer. So in the cause of meeting targets this new power will just slow the system down as more letters are sent, simply to meet the targets – rather than achieve a result.

To sum up, these changes just tinker with the existing system and make a little more complicated and slower, good news for the consultants and unemployed planners but a bit of pain for everybody else!

* Ken Dijksman is an independent self employed planning consultant with
extensive experience in both public and private practice. He may be e-mailed at Dijksman@msn.com

A fuller version of this story will be featured in the launch edition of our new publication: Housebuilder’s Update. Details of how to subscribe will be posted next month.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Building materials price update

I spent a couple of hours on Friday pouring over the recent invoices of my one-time partner Robin Gomm, who still runs the business, Complete Fabrications, that we started together in 1986. Cement prices up a little, block prices up a little, insulation prices up a lot, timber prices stable; no great surprises anywhere.

As I was leaving, Robin dipped into a filing cabinet and took out a pricing document that we used twenty years ago. It was handwritten, a document prepared in a pre-computer age, which made it seem somehow even more ancient than it actually was. It was fascinating to look at what had happened to costs over that timescale. You would instinctively feel that prices must have doubled, trebled or even quadrupled but what stood out were some items, notably plasterboard and timber products, which are actually cheaper today than they were in 1985. 12.5mm sheets of plasterboard were costing us over £4.00 a sheet back then: now Robin is paying £3.80.

Cement also made an interesting contrast. This most basic of building materials was costing £2.80 a bag back in 1985; currently the going rate seems to be £2.77. So is cement another example of inflation-free building costs? Unfortunately not. In the 1980s a bag of cement weighed 50kg. Now health and safety legislation prohibits the sale of bagged materials weighing more than 25kg so effectively cement has doubled in price as £2.77 buys you just 25kg. That’s equivalent to a 4% rise per annum and, coincidentally, equates exactly to the rise in the Retail Prices Index over that time period.

But cement stands out as one of the few building products that have actually kept place with inflation. My, admittedly subjective, reckoning has it that building materials as an amorphous grouping, have risen in price somewhere between zero and RPI. That is a trend which is likely to continue, higher energy costs notwithstanding. The main drivers behind increasing build costs are labour costs, which have risen more or less in line with house prices (i.e. far higher than RPI) and legislation, which requires us to put rather more into our houses today than we did in 1985.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Building Regs gather no Moss

After much delay, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has now published (on 13 Sep) the uprated regulations for energy efficiency (Part L) and ventilation (part F). Well, published draft versions, at any rate. If ever a cake was half-baked, this was it. That’s not to say that the proposals are batty: there is much good sense in them and they are obviously the result of a huge amount of work. It’s just that the energy efficiency measures don’t really seem to be all there yet.

New house designers, for instance, are referred to a website called www.modeldesigns.info
www.modeldesigns.info where they can find details they can use in their fabric designs, in order to meet the new improved insulation standards. But click onto this site and what do you get? Just a page advertising low cost domain name registration and a note to say that this URL has been taken. At least the ODPM have registered the name! At least, we hope it's the ODPM. It could be Kate Moss looking for a new career. But whoever has it, it will presumably be some time before guidance is proffered.

The big issue that was getting everyone excited was testing for air tightness. Most commentators were agreed that there really wasn’t much point just tightening U values endlessly because without much higher building standards, the extra insulation wasn’t doing anything. However, universal pressure testing is impractical as there simply aren’t enough blower doors, or qualified testers, to go around. What seems to have emerged is a compromise. Developers building estates will be subjected to certain random tests. Of particular interest to selfbuilders and small developers is the option to avoid the need for any pressure testing by using a value of 15 m3/(h.m2) for the air permeability at 50 Pascals when undertaking the heat loss calculations. This is 50% higher than the air permeability standard being asked for on pressure-tested houses, so in effect there is a trade-off. You want to avoid the pressure test? Then you have to pack in more insulation.

But how much more? On that, Part L remains evasive. And presumably will continue to do so until such time as www.modeldesigns.info bursts into life.

In time, I suspect that the next Part L will bed in just fine and I am in the camp that thinks pressure testing will prove extremely useful in raising building standards, though it’s sure to raise all sorts of hackles in the short term.

But lurking in the new draft version of Part F, the ventilation regs, is a new requirement that I suspect may end up upsetting a large number of new homeowners. It states:

To ensure good transfer of air throughout the dwelling, there should be an undercut of minimum area 7,600 mm2 in all internal doors above the floor finish (equivalent to an undercut of 10 mm for a standard 760 mm width door).

There is logic to this. How can you ventilate a house properly if you seal off individual rooms from one another? And to be perfectly honest a 10mm gap isn’t really very much: much less than this and your bedroom doors will start binding. But there is something about being told that you have to have a 10mm undercut which I feel sure is bound to get people’s goat. Can you see it? Officious building inspector going around checking the undercut on your doors? You really wonder why they have bothered to add this clause, unless it’s the thin end of the wedge and the next revision of Part F will ask for 25mm. Yikes.Mark Brinkley

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