Monday, 9 February 2009

Back to the land of dreams...

The saga of the "Chiltern water mill" has taken on a life of its own, and readers are recommended to check Nemesis' blog (in the right hand toolbar) as a gateway to the pros and cons.

I have had other fish to fry today (the rest of today's blog will seem rather dull compared to the cut n thrust of recent exchanges), with the news that the government is planning to scrap the various exemptions to the "energy efficiency" Part L of the Building Regulations, which currently apply to certain classes of historic building.

However, given the proposed replacement clauses set out below, I can't quite see how the end result differs from the current situation, begging the question of why English Heretics think it's necessary to seem to be supporting a change in the rules, and having a vast and time-consuming survey on the subject, when the net effect will (quite rightly, in my view) be no change at all:


The Issue
Government is considering removing the exemption under Part L that currently exists for:
• listed buildings
• buildings in conservation areas
• scheduled ancient monuments
• churches (unconditionally)

The criterion against which exemption is judged is whether compliance would unacceptably alter their character or appearance.Any proposal to remove the exemption will have to be approved by the Building Regulations Advisory Committee and ministers before going to public consultation.

English Heritage did not request [that comes as a surpirse to many of us] the exemptions but clearly their removal will have implications which must be considered. We are working with CLG to assess these.


Part L of the Building Regulations deals with the conservation of fuel and power and tightening targets is one of the main vehicles for reducing carbon emissions. The UK changes are mandated under the European Directive (Energy Performance in Buildings Directive). Part L was revised in 2002 and 2006 and work is well advanced on changes to be made in 2010.

Back in 2000 English Heritage objected to energy efficiency proposals which could harm historic buildings: notably requirements to;
significantly reduce natural ventilation of buildings, provide gratuitous insulation and only allow double glazing.

Working closely with ODPM (now CLG) resulted in special consideration being given to historic buildings with the aim being: “to improve energy efficiency where and to the extent that it is practically possible, [but] not prejudice the character of the historic building, or increase the risk of long term deterioration to the building fabric or fittings”.

• Work specifically allowed to historic buildings– replacing lost elements (eg facsimiles of historic windows)– rebuilding lost buildings (eg a gap site in an important terrace)– making provisions to allow buildings to “breathe”

Those paragraphs are included within the Approved Documents for Part L . English Heritage has consistently supported the line that exemptions for historic buildings (allowed under the Directive) were not needed [there's that surprise again, those of us who were there at the time have a rather different recollection], provided that historic buildings were given special consideration. Our view has been that:

• historic buildings can accommodate significant benign changes (eg energy efficient lighting, boilers, pipework, loft insulation etc)
• we did not want to create a two tier approach where listed buildings are left alone and all other traditional buildings (pre 1919) are ‘fair game’
• unimproved historic buildings might end up being blighted during economic downturns in some parts of the countryUnfortunately when the 2006 changes were made, the definition of historic buildings was removed – inadvertently I am assured. Amendments are proposed including the reinstatement of a revised definition to read:

…listed buildings and those in conservation areas have an exemption from the energy efficiency requirements where compliance would unacceptably alter their character or appearance. There are three further categories of buildings where special consideration is encouraged:

a) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest and which are referred to as a material consideration in a local authority’s development plan; or

b) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest within national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, registered historic parks and gardens, registered battlefields, the curtilages of scheduled ancient monuments, and world heritage sites; or

c) buildings of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both absorbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture

This may be introduced when a few other minor changes are made although no date has been given.

2010 changes2010 changes to Part L are well advanced and CLG hope to go to public consultation in April 2009. They are aiming for a tightening in targets to achieve 25% improvement in energy savings over 2006. The proposal is to remove the exemptions and the following provisions have been suggested by CLG:

Historic and traditional buildings

3.6 When establishing reasonable provision for the conservation of fuel and power, special considerations apply to the following classes of building:
a) listed buildings;
b) buildings in conservation areas;
c) scheduled ancient monuments
d) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest and which are referred to as a material consideration in a local authority’s development plan;
e) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest within national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, registered historic parks and gardens, registered battlefields, the curtilages of scheduled ancient monuments, and world heritage sites;
f) buildings of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both absorbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture.

3.7 When undertaking work on or in connection with a building that falls within one of the classes listed in paragraph 3.6, the aim should be to improve energy efficiency where and to the extent that it is reasonable and practically possible. The work should not prejudice the character of the host building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration of the building fabric or fittings. The guidance given in the English Heritage publication Building Regulations and Historic Buildings, English Heritage, 2002 (revised 2004) should be taken into account in determining appropriate energy performance standards for such building works. Particular issues relating to work in historic buildings that warrant sympathetic treatment and where advice from others could therefore be beneficial include:
a) restoring the historic character of a building that has been subject to previous inappropriate alteration, e.g. replacement windows, doors and rooflights;
b) rebuilding a former historic building (e.g. following a fire or filling a gap site in a terrace);
c) making provisions enabling the fabric of historic buildings to ‘breathe’ to control moisture and potential long term decay problems.

3.8 In arriving at a balance between historic building conservation and reasonable provision for energy efficiency improvements, it would be appropriate to take into account the advice of the local authority’s conservation officer.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Mills, and Madness

Image from © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Well, I seem to have stirred up a bit of a hornets' nest with my post on "Grand Designs".
Certain aspects of the matter (by no means all) put me in mind of a case which achieved some notoriety a few years ago, that of Sproughton water mill in Suffolk, where the owner became so aggrieved that he was being forced to keep his listed building in repair, he set up a website to rant about it (not unlike conservation officers who set up blogs to get things off their chests, I suppose I'll have to admit). Despite the former owner's subsequent bankruptcy, the site is still available:
Now, there's a lot to read there, but the most important fact to bear in mind as you wade through it is that the work carried out by the local council was done as an emergency repair for the urgent preservation of the building, not as a permanent work of restoration, and as such, naturally fell short of the standards that would have been required in the latter case (indeed, the law generally only allows for the "necessary" work to be done, not any arty-farty stuff). It's also important to realise that the owner had consent to convert the mill to a new use, but did nothing to implement the scheme.
The key page is this:
an opinion from perhaps the best-known planning barrister specialising in historic buildings in the UK. The opinion has been posted on the site because the mill's owner believes it vindicates his view. A careful reading, in fact, shows precisely the opposite.
I happen to know many of the key players in this particular farce, and I also know that (despite assurances to the contrary) that comments sent to the site which do not accord with the former owner's view are not published there.
I feel a certain amount of sympathy for those who embark on a lengthy project with little but ideals and enthusiasm, but little or none for those who wilfully misunderstand their own position and then complain when they get hurt. "Look before you Leap".
This case resulted in the departure of a very able conservation officer from the local authority, under frankly intolerable pressure from an ignoramus:
But (unreported on the site) it ultimately led to the bankruptcy of the foolish owner, and the vindication of the local council's action:
I just thought my reader(s?) might like to know that, as the end result was not nearly as widely reported as the events that led up to it.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

What's in a name?

Well, in my case, the difference between a Google search throwing up a lot of "confessions of a co-ed" results, and a search result with this blog in it - hence today's change of name. The former may (or may not - I haven't looked) be more fun.

Monday, 2 February 2009

For Ever, For Everyone?

“Over the next five years the National Trust aims to renovate more than 5,000 buildings to meet a set of minimum environmental standards that include installing maximum loft insulation, water saving devices, rainwater storage, double or secondary glazing, thermostatic heating controls and efficient lighting systems.”

It all sounds very lofty and ideal, but the reality is that, as a landlord with many tenanted properties large and small, the National Trust is being forced, usually by local government Environmental Health Officers whose understanding of esoteric issues such as breathability and traditional construction is minimal at best, to comply with a variety of “decent homes” standards which many private owners of historic buildings would find unacceptably harmful to the qualities that led them to buy in the first place.

The standards themselves are broad, and set out with the best of intentions, but achieving those standards is being left in the hands of people who simply do not understand the fundamental difference between what can be achieved in a modern, air-tight rabbit hutch by a volume housebuilder, and what can realistically be achieved without long-term damage in almost any property built before about 1920.

The first I knew of all this was when the NT's property manager phoned me querying the very specific nature of the remedial works being required by Environmental Health, to an unlisted 17th century cottage on one of their local estates. The property does indded have very serious damp problems, most of which are condensation-related as the bathroom and kitchen are internal and poorly ventilated, and the last tenant never opened the windows. Some choice extracts from the notice are reproduced below:

Sections 11 and 12
The Authority … serve this Improvement Notice under Section 11 and require you to take the remedial action specified. Details of the Category 1 hazards together with the remedial action required are contained in the Schedule attached.

A person, on whom an improvement notice is served, commits an offence if s/he fails to comply with it and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

Nature of the hazard :- Excess Cold; Damp and Mould Growth; Falling on Stairs; etc
(yes, they really did add “etc” as a hazard! Bit of a catch-all, that one)

The deficiency giving rise to the hazards:-
Absence of heating system; Defective windows; Rising damp to walls; Rising damp to floors; Insufficient insulation to walls and ceilings; Inadequate surface water drainage; Defective brickwork; Defective roof; Steep stairwell without banister; Absence of mechanical extraction to Kitchen

Nature of remedial action required to be taken:-

Insulate Loft Space
Increase insulation of loft space to 270mm using quilted insulation or apply equivalent to 1st floor ceiling to provide a 'U' value of not more than 0.16 and to comply with current Building Regulations.

Damp Proof/Insulate Walls
Treat all walls to the ground floor to prevent rising damp

Carefully remove for re-use, existing skirtings (where present), and door linings. Hack off all damp and defective plaster to a minimum of 1m above the proposed damp proof course, or 150mm above the level of the damp which ever is greater.

Key brickwork ready to receive new rendering. Inject a chemical horizontal/vertical damp proof course guaranteed by an insurance bond for a minimum 20 year period. This work must be carried out by a specialist contractor.

For internal walls:-
render exposed areas using a suitable sharp sand and cement mix, incorporating a waterproofing additive and salt inhibitor as instructed by the specialist contractor.

For external walls:- (Dry Line)
Hack off any loose, sodden or perished plaster to all the ground and 1st floor external walls. Provide tanalised softwood battens and fix vertically to full height using plastic wallplugs and brass screws. Battens to be suitably sized and spaced to allow for insulation slabs to be fitted to bring "U" value of walls up to current Building Regulations standard. Cover battens and insulation slabs with 9.5mm thick foil backed plasterboard, fixed with galvanised clout nails or corrosion resistant screws.

Scrim joints to plaster board and finish walls with a 3mm plaster setting coat, flush with existing plaster where applicable.

Lay New Damp Proof Floor
Remedy the ground floor dampness and for that purpose take up the existing surfaces of the rooms to the ground floor excavate to a sufficient depth and construct a new floor incorporating an efficient horizontal damp-proof membrane; the damp-proof membrane to be carried without a break vertically up the walls to a sufficient height above the DPC membrane, upon completion the interior surfaces of the walls to be re-plastered.

Repair Chimney Stack
Renew and re-point new brickwork to chimney in suitable cement.

Cut out defective brickwork from the chimney stack replace with new or sound second-hand bricks set in cement mortar, renew defective pointing, defective soakers, flashings, and fillets (soakers and flashings to be in code 5 lead, and fillets to be in suitable mortar mix incorporating a waterproofing additive.) Seal or cowl pot/s, leave roof sound and watertight on completion.

Re-point Wall
Rake out all loose and perished brickwork pointing to all facades of the property, specifically to the right fa├žade of the property as you look on from the adjacent road, to a depth of 20mm. Brush out debris, wet and re-point in suitable mortar, with the joints finished to match existing in all respects.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

What really concerns me is how many people (who don't have the NT's experience) would meekly comply and therefore do more harm than good to their properties? Not long after this notice was served, I chanced across another notice from Env Health requiring PVCu windows to be installed in a listed building, with cement repointing and plastic gutters being specified too. The bullying manner and prescriptive “tick box” way in which some EHOs are approaching the task is bad enough when pushed at the NT, but where private landlords are concerned, threats of legal action if specific treatments – often injected damp proof courses, double glazing and dry-lining – are not carried out, lead to all manner of terribly damaging works being done, “on council orders” and therefore often without the necessary consents.