Friday, December 30, 2005

Half price kitchen, anyone?

The post-Christmas sales have started and nowhere is this more apparent than in the new kitchen market. I’ve just seen an advert on TV for Magnet — Half Price Sale starts today plus an extra 10% off — followed immediately by one for B&Q Kitchens — Half Price Sale starts today plus an extra 15% off. What is it with new kitchens at this time of year?

One of my regular golfing buddies works for one of these outfits and he tells me that what happens in the kitchen market is a mirror image of what happens in book retailing. With books, the market goes ballistic in the two months leading up to Xmas, and then cools off. With kitchens, November and December are completely dead and suddenly the market bursts into life after Xmas. However, when asked why this should be, he just shrugs his shoulders and says that’s the way it is.

So are there bargains to be had at this time of year? Are these 50%, 60% or even 75% off offers what they appear? I don’t think so. In fact I know so. These kitchens are always at least 50% off. I think that on one day each year they suddenly advertise kitchens at the full price in an obscure store like Runcorn, and then every store in the chain can claim to be at least 50% cheaper than this. And, in point of fact, when you are ordering a whole kitchen, the price is often negotiable anyway, especially if you have an offer of something similar for less from a competitor.

Three years ago I spent a morning with Wickes looking at one of their new stores. Wickes have recently been taken over by Travis Perkins but are still operating in much the same manner as they always have done, a sort of halfway house between a builder’s merchant and a DIY store. Their core strategy is to sell basic products very cheaply, known by business studies students as Everyday Low Pricing or EDLP. They don’t go in for promotions, 10% offs or 3 for 2 offers, they just like to sell stuff cheap all the time. It works for Wickes, across their entire product range. With one glaring exception. Kitchens! They couldn’t shift any if they advertised them at a low price so they now use the old 50% off% routine beloved of MFI, Magnet and B&Q.

So it seems us Brits require a little encouragement to buy our kitchens. Either that or a Swedish name. IKEA is one store you won’t see any seasonal promotions. That is because the business is owned and run by elves so imbued with a collective work ethic that they have no concept of bargaining.

Friday, December 23, 2005

House leaves £60k competitors standing

I have selected a new benchmark house for the 7th edition of The Housebuilder's Bible, which is due out in September 2006. It’s the smallest house I have yet worked with and in many ways it’s a back-to-basics structure, a four-square box with very little embellishment, finished to a pretty basic standard. It’s builder, Mike Capp, is working up some of the costings figures for me over the next few weeks but he assures me it cost between £60k and £70k to build.

I’ll be writing at length about this house in the next edition so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But it makes an interesting case study in itself in the year that the government has sponsored a House for £60k competition. To qualify, the house needs to be at least 76.5m2. My benchmark house is 110m2 internal floor area. It appears, cost-wise, that it would cream it!

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Hire the Neighbour's Builders?

I have often written of the similarities between choosing a builder and choosing a mate. Both are high-risk games of chance with no guarantee that things will work out OK in the end. I have always assumed that people spent rather more time and care on mate selection than on choosing a contractor but recently I have started to have my doubts. There was a witty little aphorism in The Week recently which stated that it doesn’t really matter who you marry because they invariably turn out to be someone different. Maybe it’s the same with hiring contractors.

To hear some people complain about their builders, you’d think they were talking about their estranged spouses. And as for going off and starting another job mid-way through yours — well, it’s adultery by any other name. But what is even stranger is to hear some men complaining about being “done over” by their ex-wives in ways that sound just like a good old building dispute.

The standard routine for hiring builders is something akin to an arranged marriage. You check them out, you ask them to tender, like inspecting the dowry, and you refer to your elders (architect?) for reassurance. This all stems from the fact that we have been taught not to trust our own judgement about builders and that somehow an assortment of other routines will make a better job of it than we will. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

But yesterday I took a call from Clive Fewins, a fellow journalist on Homebuilding & Renovating, who was telling me about an article he had written about a couple who wanted an extension built onto their house and they rather wanted the neighbour’s builders to do the work. These guys were working right next door so they could see what they were like and the neighbours themselves weighed in full of praise. The builders were interested and produced a quote that looked to be OK. But then the couple had an attack of the wobbles and decided that they really ought to check out some other builders, just to make sure they weren’t being ripped off. So they put their job out to tender to four other builders. One came back with a much higher quote, the other three didn’t bother to come back with any quotations at all. But they spent about three months waiting for all this to become clear. During which time, the neighbour’s builders had got busy on other work and instead of starting seamlessly on their extension after finishing with the neighbours, they now had to wait nine months for them to come back. Oh, and the price had gone up.

So the net result of all this tendering process was that the job was delayed by nearly a year and it cost more than it would have done if they hadn’t bothered with it.

There is a sneaking admiration for the institution of the arranged marriage among us Anglo-Saxons. We seem to be so bad at keeping marriages together these days, that we suspect that it would be better for all concerned if our parents chose a mate for us. But I have my doubts. If building disputes are anything to go by, your parents are just as likely to select a useless spouse as you are yourself. And if and when anything goes wrong, they’d be the ones in the firing line. I am not sure the chances of forming a lasting relationship can be made any more favourable by letting the head rule the heart in such matters.

The question is how much difference does due diligence and the tendering process really make to the successful outcome of a building job? There is ultimately no way of knowing because there is no way of measuring outcomes. But, as this little story shows, sometimes it must make sense to throw caution to the wind and just hire the obvious candidates, rather than phaffing about with all the rigmarole of a professionally run beauty contest.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Does Part M apply to new extensions?

Tracey asks:

Do the Part M access requirements apply to extensions to properties?

Mark reckons:

Guidance on this issue is in the latest 2004 edition of Part M. Broadly speaking, the answer is NO.

This is unusual for building regs: normally they apply to material alterations, just as much as to new builds. However, Part M is attempting to make homes easier for disabled people to visit and it therefore doesn't make any sense to apply these regs to just one part of the house.

There are a couple of exceptions.

• If the existing house is already Part M compliant (and it will be if it's been constructed in the past five years), then of course the new extension must meet the same standards.

• You can't make the house worse, from an access point of view. By way of example, you can't take out the only downstairs toilet.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Congestion charge OVER London, please

Two snippets of contrasting information from this morning’s Wake Up to Money on Radio 5.

1. BAA unveils plans to press ahead with a new runway at London’s Stansted Airport, home to the low-cost airlines, and 30 miles from where I live. They want to increase throughput of passengers from the current 21million a year to around 50million. It will be expensive and both Ryan Air and EasyJet are complaining about extra charges but it doesn’t appear to be making any difference as Central Government is “determined to press ahead.” Their logic seems to be, according to David Learmont, editor of Flight International, that without new runways at both Heathrow and Stansted, London will become a “no travel zone.” DL commented that Paris Charles de Gaul has more runways than all of London’s three main airports combined. He seemed to be suggesting that without more runways, people would choose to fly to Paris instead. Which is a bizarre thought. “Where are we going to go on holiday? I know. Let’s look for the city with the most runways, that’ll be sure to be worth a visit.”

2. Bus services were deregulated in 1986, twenty years ago. They are now run by private companies throughout the country, with the one exception of London. However, during that time, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 7%. The only place where bus journeys are up is in, you guessed it, London. Is this a coincidence? Unlikely. Apparently, bus companies are not allowed to work together to provide connecting services because this can be construed as “distorting competition.” During these twenty years, the price of both bus and train tickets have risen faster than inflation. Meanwhile, car ownership is cheaper than ever, in relative terms.

What have these two items got to do with housebuilding? Transport and housing are intimately linked. We have a government committed to a “sustainable” housing policy, based largely around the notion that the journey to work must be accomplished by any other method than a car. On this basis, they will allow an absolute minimum amount of development in the countryside or on greenfields, insisting that urban cramming (aka brownfield development) is the future.

But the root of the problem here is transport, not housing. You can’t have a sustainable housing policy without a sustainable transport policy. The residents of these new brownfield developments still want or need cars and consequently building in towns just adds to overall congestion. Providing better bus services would be one sensible way of alleviating this problem but this just hasn’t happened. The political will just isn’t there, outside London.

The government’s transport policies are anything but sustainable, as the two news snippets indicate. A sustainable approach to air travel would be to say “Enough is enough.” There are already flights to London from all over the world. If anybody wants to get here, they can, very easily and pretty cheaply. If the demand grows, then passengers should pay more for their seats, just as Ryan Air and EasyJet do so effectively. In effect, we should have a congestion charge in the skies over London, just as there is on its streets. Doubling the number of flights into London will not only double the CO2 emissions from all the extra air journeys, but increase congestion on the ground as all these new arrivals go about their business.

And buses? The fact that the bus services have been left to languish for so long since the mistaken privatisations of the 1980s smacks of the fact that no one really cares about them. Except, it seems, Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, and the man behind London’s innovative congestion charging. He has spent a huge amount of money on buses in London and the results speak for themselves. They are packed. People will use them, if the services are frequent and reliable. The added success of many Park & Ride schemes around the country also shows that people are prepared to make combined journeys, part car, part bus or train, but they have to be certain that the bus/train link will be working.

But when I want to visit London, I am faced by a dilemma. I live out in the wilds of Cambridgeshire so I am off the grid as regards sensible public transport options. My journey has to start by car. But, if I am going into Central London, which is only 60 miles away, I don’t want to be in my car when I arrive, as I will have to pay the congestion charge and find somewhere expensive to park. Question is where do I break the journey and switch to public transport? I have basically three options.

A I drive to Cambridge, 15 miles away (and due west, rather than south in the direction of London) and catch the King’s Cross non-stop train: it runs every half hour and only takes 45 minutes, so it’s an excellent service. But it’s expensive to park at Cambridge station and there is no guarantee that there will be a parking space there on weekday mornings. That’s a stress I can do without. Last time I took this option, they sold me an overnight parking ticket for £12 when the car park was already full!

B I drive to a station on the Cambridge-Liverpool St line, one of which, ironically, is Stansted Airport. The trains are slower than the other line and they head into the City rather than the West End which is rarely convenient for me and usually results in much longer tube journeys, which I don’t look forward to. But there is usually adequate parking, although Stansted parking is expensive and involves a three or four mile detour off the M11 motorway to get to.

C I drive into the outskirts of London and look for a tube station with a car park. Redbridge, on the Central Line, can be good as it’s at the end of the M11 and the parking there is cheap, as little as £2.50 a day. Hop on the tube there and you’ll be at Oxford Circus in 40 minutes. But arrive before 2pm and you won’t find a place in the car park and you have to look at car parks and stations further east, which is time consuming and stressful. Redbridge car park could easily have been developed into a Park & Ride node but no doubt that’s not regarded as a sustainable option because it sort of encourages people to drive part way into London and so it languishes as a relatively small 200-space car park.

In reality, none of these options is ideal. There is no easy Park & Ride option for London: you are left to fend for yourself and try to figure out which route will be the easiest and where the parking might be adequate and affordable. Added to which there is no way of knowing which car parks have space, let alone being able to reserve a parking space in advance.

Why is it so difficult? If I did the journey every day, I would develop a pattern or a routine and I’d be able to do the same thing each day without thinking. But because my time of travel and my London destinations vary, I often set off from Weston Colville with no idea how I am going to complete my journey. That speaks volumes for the lack of integration in British transport policy. For too long, it has been dominated by the Cars are Bad, Public Transport is Good dogma. The result is that you cannot drive your car where you want without congestion or parking problems and that consequently you struggle to find sensible ways to use public transport. Unless, of course, you want to fly somewhere.

Incidentally, there is more space given over to parking at Stansted Airport than there is to runways. And I think BAA makes more money out of its airport car parks than it does out of its landing rights. At least BAA understands the Park & Fly concept. I occasionally catch a Ryan Air flight for some ridiculously low fee, under £10, and when I get back to Stansted, I have to pay £45 to get the car out of the car park. Its expensive, but at least you know where you stand. The same cannot be said of our railway car parking.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On Soundproofing Floors

If costs were the only criteria, every selfbuilder would choose a timber intermediate floor. However, the performance of timber floors in modern housing, particularly as regards sound proofing, is poor and, as a result, many selfbuilders have chosen masonry construction and pre-cast flooring. They undoubtedly perform well in this respect but they come with a cost penalty. What many people don’t realise is that timber floors can be “improved” to perform just as well as precast concrete ones. There are a number of features which can be designed in, each improving the decibel ratings a little bit: combine several of them and you have a vastly better performance.
• add insulation within the joist void (now mandatory) – adds 3-5dB
• thicker or heavier ceiling board – adds 3dB
• mount ceiling board on separating strips – adds 2dB
• add resilient strips between the joists and the floor cover – adds 2dB
• add a sound deadening layer under the floor cover – adds 4dB
• separate floor joists from ceiling joists – adds 3dB

If you were to do all these measures, you would improve the sound reduction levels from around 35dB up to around 50dB, which is close to the party floor standard required in flats and similar to the best pre-cast flooring systems. The cost? Similar to switching to pre-cast!

Whichever flooring system you choose, you should consider the effect of using hard floor surfaces and downlighters. Hard floor surfaces are noisy, especially as regards impact noise, which can transfer through the structure. If you are really concerned about noise indoors, then consider fitted carpets which are fantastic at sound absorption. Downlighters are another fashionable item which do little for soundproofing: however there are ranges which are rated for fireproofing and acoustic purposes, such as Snaplite, and you should consider fitting these under bedrooms.

Incidentally, there is a very rough and rather crude relationship between soundproofing costs and decibel reduction ratings. The simplest floor, the unimproved timber joisted floor with chipboard over and plasterboard underneath, costs around £35 per m2 and reduces airborne sound transmission by around 35dB. The very best soundproof solutions cost around £60 per m2 and gives just over 50dB sound reduction. Can you see where I am heading? It would be nice to say that each decibel of sound reduction will cost you around £1 per m2, and it’s not so far from the truth. But in reality, the decibel scale is not linear and the decibel rating doubles every 10 decibels, so it gets harder and more expensive to deliver soundproofing at the top end of the scale, so the neat relationship breaks down somewhat. But it’s not a bad guide. If you are prepared to throw more than £50 per m2 at your intermediate floors, you can build in pretty good soundproofing, whatever system of floor you choose.

At 35dB sound reduction, you will be able to hear all too much. Probably every word of every conversation. At 45dB, you will be aware that a conversation is going on but won’t hear more than mumbles, however music or TV will be very perceptible. At 55dB sound reduction, you should be vaguely aware that someone is in the room above or below, but the noise really shouldn’t give you any grief. Unless of course, they decide to hold a rave. Then I think you’d best forget about dB ratings and go out for the evening.

Friday, December 02, 2005

47 ways to get stung

Fancy knowing about all the different ways you can get stung from crossing swords with the construction industry? Take a look at Transparency Internationals website and click on the Anti-Corruption Code of Conduct for Individuals, which downloads a free pdf.

It’s not all one-way traffic. Some of these items are things clients use to hit contractors. But as a catalogue of dodgy practice, this makes great bedtime reading. Here’s the table of contents.

Pre-qualification and tender
1. Loser’s fee ........................................................................ 13
2. Price fixing ....................................................................... 13
3. Manipulation of pre-qualification .................................... 14
4. Bribery to obtain main contract award ............................. 14
5. Bribery during sub-contract procurement ........................ 15
6. Corruptly negotiated contract .......................................... 15
7. Manipulation of design .................................................... 15
8. Specification of overly sophisticated design .................... 16
9. Inflation of resources and time requirements ................... 16
10. Obtaining a quotation only for price comparison ............. 17
11. Concealment of financial status ....................................... 17
12. Intention to withhold payment ......................................... 17
13. Submission of false quotation .......................................... 18
14. Falsely obtaining export credit insurance ........................ 18
Project execution
15. False invoicing: supply of inferior materials .................. 19
16. False invoicing: supply of less equipment ...................... 19
17. False work certificates .................................................... 19
18. Excessive repair work ..................................................... 20
19. Overstating man-day requirements ................................. 20
20. Inflated claim for variation (1) ........................................ 21
21. Inflated claim for variation (2) ........................................ 21
22. False variation claim ....................................................... 21
23. Issue of false delay certificate ......................................... 22
24. False extension of time application ................................. 22
25. False assurance that payment will be made .................... 22
26. Delayed issue of payment certificates ............................. 23
27. Concealing defects (1) .................................................... 23
28. Concealing defects (2) .................................................... 23
29. Set-off of false rectification costs ................................... 24
30. Refusal to issue final certificate ...................................... 24
31. Requirement to accept lower payment than is due ......... 24
32. Extortion by client’s representative ................................ 25
33. Facilitation payment ........................................................ 25
34. Overstating of profits ...................................................... 25
35. False job application ....................................................... 26
Dispute resolution
36. Submission of incorrect contract claims ...................... 26
37. Concealment of documents .......................................... 27
38. Submission of false supporting documents .................. 27
39. Supply of false witness evidence ................................. 28
40. Supply of false expert evidence ................................... 29
41. Bribery of witness ........................................................ 29
42. Blackmail of witness .................................................... 29
43. False information as to financial status ........................ 30
44. False statement as to settlement sum ........................... 30
45. Over-manning by law firm ........................................... 30
46. Excessive billing by lawyer ......................................... 31
47. Complicity by lawyer ................................................... 31