Building Regulations... Fair or over-regulated?

by Scott Edwards

In the last published quarter the building trade was reported to be 6.9% down on growth. Of all our industries, this was one of the largest levels of shrinkage compared to markets such as the food and beverage industry showing a drop of 1.8%. During testing times such as these, the building trade is normally one of the first sectors to show strain. However, how much of this decline has been due to “The Recession” and how much to over-regulation?

The slump in the housing market through over pricing and over lending by the banks was always going to mean an inevitable decline in construction, therefore resulting in a gross reduction of staff for the major construction companies. One of the main routes back into employment for trade’s people is to transfer your skills onto serving private homeowners rather than large developers. It would stand-to-reason then, that homeowners will be far more likely to concentrate on the upkeep and possible development of their current property rather than try to secure a sale during a time of lowered market prices and insecure mortgage lenders, right? Unfortunately, over-regulation in recent years may have put a significant dent in the private market, and be playing a large part in holding many skilled people out of work.

The area highlighted here is “Loft Conversions”. The difference that can be made by converting the roof-space of a conventional 3 bedroom semi-detached property in the United Kingdom is staggering! The property can instantly become a four bedroom dwelling without having to increase the original footprint, it’s often a simple task to include an en-suite bathroom during the renovation and the increased value to the property provides additional financial security to the owners, not to mention enhance the quality and comfort of their lives.

Loft conversions have been one of the growth areas within the building trade over the last ten or so years, and a healthy number of new SME’s have started up to solely undertake this work. A conversion also requires a multitude of different trades that can include: Carpenters, Plumbers, Electricians, Roofers, Plasterers, Brick layers and Labourers. There’s also a varied pool of suppliers that are engaged to supply the materials, including: builders and timber merchants, electrical, bathroom and roof tile wholesalers, right through to window, glass and staircase manufacturers.

From 2002 building control decided to increase the regulations on the loft conversion industry with the following measures: Supporting beams had to be either 2 @ 12 x 4 inch timbers bolted together or steel “I” beams, with the majority of inspectors insisting on the more costly steel. This measure was fine for large spanning area’s, however most average properties do not require that amount of support. Likewise, inspectors were often insisting on much larger joisting and often raised the timber section from an ample 6 x 2inch to 9 x 2 inch. The required thickness for roof insulation was also increased from 50mm to 100mm (As if the loft space is not warm enough, “Heat rises you know”)! Not only did the increase in joist and insulation thickness have a bearing on cost, it also reduced the occupant’s headroom by up to 5 inches. The next regulation was that all joists would need to have chicken wire laid across them prior to floor boarding to create a further barrier. This measure added another material to the project and further labour costs to install. Finally, and by far the most damaging measure was building control insisting on the whole property having all it’s doors and frames replaced as fire doors, a very costly and time consuming exercise.

After speaking with many loft conversion specialists it’s apparent the average conversion has increased in cost by 20-30% (over and above inflation) and many people have subsequently shelved their plans. Obviously we need regulations to protect people, but how many of the measures had any significant impact other than increasing costs and scaring away potential customers? Or, are we creating regulations for the sake of it allowing bureaucracy to once again triumph over common sense???

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