AECB News : Building Regulations!

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Tom Jarman considers the strengths and limitations of Building Regulations.

Tom Jarman considers what Building Regulations are actually there to do, why they are unlikely to meet client expectations and most importantly why they are not a substitute for client responsibility. And although this won’t be a surprise for the great majority of the AECB community, it does seem to be the case that many client groups regard them as what to do, rather than a baseline. We need to do all we can to continue to highlight this, and argue for cultural change in client groups so the demand for better buildings isn’t dependent on new regulation.

Clients in the context of the blog refers to large commissioning agents of new homes, such as social landlords, and local authorities where they are procuring new homes for their own stock. It can also refer to large build-to-rent clients in the private sector.

Building Regs, oh Building Regs, why do you make me so sad? Is it because you were never designed to be a substitute for a client developing their own specification? Yes, it’s another classic piece of doggerel from the Low Carbon Journey stable. But I do have a serious point (thankfully): what are Building Regulations, and what expectations should we reasonably have of them?

Most of the Approved Documents (ADs) that constitute Building Regulations (BR) contain a similar introductory paragraph, namely that they “are made for specific purposes, primarily the health and safety, welfare and convenience of people and for energy conservation”.

BR clearly have a role in managing certain aspects of the built environment, but this sentence reminds us of their scope: at a practical level, they are focussed on the structural soundness, security and fire safety of a building, and in reality energy conservation (Part L) falls down the hierarchy. This is partly because BR is a design standard, and contains little requirement to understand as-built performance. This is particularly tricky with energy, where it is harder to know from a visual inspection on site how a junction or construction detail will perform in practice, or how an element such as boiler will actually be used by the occupier. The implementation of structural, security and fire safety measures can be much more easily inspected during the construction phase.

However, Building Regulations 2013 aren’t a bad place to start…

… for three reasons:

  • Firstly, by introducing Dwelling Fabric Energy Efficiency (DFEE) (the amount of energy consumed excluding plug loads and any contribution from renewables) and balancing it with the Dwelling Emissions Rate (DER) (CO2 emissions), fabric first has become much more consistent and focused as an industry standard approach. The balance of u-values and airtightness required to meet the Target FEE are at a good level. This is critical because some housing sector clients are far too reliant on BR to provide their specification;
  • Secondly, the weaknesses in the current BR – indoor air quality and overheating – can be dealt with through amendment rather that a full reissue; and
  • Thirdly, demanding greater levels of thermal efficiency (ie more challenging requirements for DFEE and DER) than currently required introduces disproportionate risk. For example, higher levels of airtightness require much better assessment of overheating and ventilation risk, better site implementation and better understanding of the interaction between moisture and thermal bridging. This causes me enormous concern given that we have a developer base whose default approach is to build to BR at lowest cost, and a client base that is largely ignorant of DER, DFEE and risk – and consistently commissions BR at lowest cost. So I am concerned about pushing beyond current requirements if the implications will be inadequately considered by the commissioning client base.

A realistic view of Building Regulations

We need to urge clients to have a more realistic view of BR and what they can achieve – and this includes the extent to which they will manage quality and risk. Research by the Zero Carbon Hub demonstrates client complacency:

Low energy diagram

Source; Zero Carbon Hub, 2015 

For further information, see http://www.building4change.com/article.jsp?id=2696#.VjCkkDZOdPY

So, within the red box, out of 72 respondents, the great majority have no risk control measures in place. The context for the above is overheating, but I suspect this can be replicated across other risk areas, such as ventilation systems, accredited construction details, installation of insulation… (the ZCH Builders Book makes this point better than me). And this doesn’t include about 4% of respondents who answered ‘Don’t know’.This dependence on Building Regulation matters because although they contain acknowledged weaknesses, my own view is that they aren’t going to be substantially reissued in foreseeable future – so if you are dependent on them, you are sucking up every risk and shortcoming that translates from them into your building. There are two factors against reissue:

  • Developers have won the argument by and large. More demanding BR are a bureaucratic burden that damages housing delivery and affordability. Yes, like you I am thinking a version of ‘how annoying’ when I write this, but we are where we are; and of course;
  • Political realities – Brexit and the deficit. And although housing has come back on the agenda, the focus is absolutely on numbers. I would argue that quality is mentioned in a superficial context (see the recent issues with Bovis), but we are still very far from the performance gap, indoor air quality and moisture being significant issues for most clients and retail buyers.

Client responsibility

Which brings me back to my old friend, client responsibility. BR were never meant to manage housing quality, specification and risk for you, and they never will – partly because they are not a holder of objective truth but a collection of documents written by humans. So at the client end you need to recognise their strengths and limitations, and add the layer that makes them work locally. You need to identify and mitigate risk.

Building Regulations don’t make me sad. But a client base that fails to deliver much better housing than it could, and should, does.

An earlier version of this blog was originally published in May 2017 at www.multicomfort.co.uk.

Tom Jarman, Director, Low Carbon Journey Ltd

Tom has been interested in sustainability since the first bottle banks were opened in his home town in the late 1970s. He has since worked in the private and public sector, managing teams and in project development and management. He now works in low carbon new build, deep retrofit, future energy systems and building information modelling.  

© 2017: Tom Jarman and the AECB (for Terms and Conditions click here)

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