Saturday, July 29, 2006

Nuclear Power: why we have no choice

Here’s an interesting map. It’s taken off the BBC website and it indicates just where France has built all its nuclear power plants. Alone in the western world, France has embraced nuclear power. France now produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear. It also makes France by far the lowest CO2 emitter of the rich Western countries. Whilst the rest of the EU produces around 10 tonnes of C02 per person per annum, and the USA produces as much as 18 tonnes each, France is throwing off just 6 tonnes.

If my maths is right, they now have a total of 54 reactors at 19 different sites. The map doesn’t even include France’s nuclear reprocessing site at Cap de la Hague, on the Cherbourg peninsula, close to Flamanvillle (No 1 on the map). It’s also close to the Channel Islands and not that far from the Isle of Wight.

Whilst neighbouring countries debate whether to restart their nuclear programmes, France just steams ahead with hers, never having even paused for breath in the first place. There are four sites across the Channel which could affect us in the UK in the event of an accident. Belgium has two right on its borders and ultra-green Germany two more. German policy remains implacably opposed to any new nuclear power stations and, because of this, Germany won’t agree to an enhanced carbon offset trading scheme because it fears this would give ammunition to the pro-nuclear lobby.

But is Germany just showboating? In the absence of any means of influencing French policy and with two nuclear sites sitting just over the Rhine, downwind of Frankfurt, Cologne and Stuttgart, who are they kidding but themselves in pretending that they can opt for a nuclear-free future.

And isn’t it strange to reflect that there is no pan-European energy production policy? In its absence, France has effectively made everyone elses’ decision for them.

Over the next few years, as you watch the pro- and anti- nuclear lobbies tear bits out of each, arguing about frankly unquantifiable risks, just remember that the Channel isn’t very wide and that, short of invading France, we have no way of avoiding the nuclear option. We might just as well build our own and be done with.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Stairways to hell

During the past couple of weeks, I have been looking at new houses in Cambridge. The vast majority of new developments there are flats, which is fine if you have no kids or you are buying to let. But there are a few family homes which are, by and large, both incredibly expensive and incredibly tall. Four storeys seems to be the going height.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live in a four storey house. We once spent a week in a windmill in Norfolk and that was enough to convince me that multi-storey living is not something to aspire to. Yes, it may keep you fit but it’s also incredibly annoying when you have to traipse up and down all the time.

Pictured here is Countryside’s award winning Accordia development on Brooklands Avenue in Cambridge. These four storey semis are selling for just under £1million, for which you get bags of space, six bedrooms plus a garden about the size of half a tennis court and a studio over a double garage at the rear. The bedrooms are sandwiched on the middle floors with living space top and bottom. There are balconies and decking and lots of interesting sight lines but it’s not really a house I would want to live in. It would be like a re-run of the Norfolk windmill, only worse. Obviously the powers-that-be like it because it presses all the right sustainability buttons, but the housebuying public seem less enamoured because these big houses are not selling. I feel sure it’s the stairs.

On Monday, I saw another four-storey town house in central Cambridge at a development called The Greshams. Bit smaller than Accordia and a bit cheaper at £750k, but the same stair problem. They had built a sunken kitchen down at the bottom and they had a living room on the top floor “for the view.” You would spend your life going up and down three flights of stairs.

Can you imagine living in one of these with a toddler with a penchant for climbing stairs. You’d need six stair gates and you’d be forever going around opening and closing them. It would drive you bonkers.

And what about the elderly and infirm? How are they going to be accommodated in homes like these? Not that they don’t have level thresholds for wheelchair access, required by Part M of the building regs since 1999. At the Greshams, this level access enables you to visit just two rooms in your wheelchair, a downstairs loo and a small study next to the front door, probably amounting to no more than 10% of the floor plan. It makes a complete mockery of the concept of Lifetime Homes which was behind the introduction of Part M. These houses would have been far better reconfigured as single storey apartments, stretching across the terraces, rather than slicing through them vertically.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Home Information Packs axed

Housing minister Yvette Cooper has popped up on the airwaves once more. Just a month ago, she announced that the Home Information Packs, due to come into effect in June 2007, will have to include an Energy Performance Certificate. Now she has pulled the plug on the home inspection aspect.

“We will bring in the energy efficiency information as soon as possible because that’s important for cutting fuel bills and climate change, but we think the other aspects of the survey need more time for testing and we also think the industry isn’t ready to pass on the benefits. So we want a phased roll out instead of a big bang on June 1st 2007.”

So the Home Information Pack has morphed from being a home condition report into being an energy efficiency report. Which is replacing one useless piece of paper with another.

The Energy Performance Certificate will not change people’s carbon consuming behaviour. It’s a patronizing and pointless exercise. Indeed, if you add up all the miles driven by the hastily-retrained home inspectors in order to assess each house for sale, the certificates will probably end up being a net carbon contributor.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Planning Revue for Domestic Work

The government has just published a review of how home improvements should be administered in England and Wales. It’s called the Householder Development Consent Review. Key recommendations:
• the volume approach to permitted development should be replaced by an impact assessment, backed up by local development orders which LPA’s could use
• where neighbours have no objections, the planning process could be “streamlined”
• mediation is suggested as a way to resolve planning issues.
• Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) should be time limited and allowed to lapse.

Mark comments
40 pages of well meaning waffle. That’s not quite fair. It’s actually very good at highlighting what the problems are at the moment, but it’s next to useless when it comes to providing solutions.

The problem stems from the fact that the current regulations were penned by Lewis Carroll for inclusion in an unpublished novel entitled Alice Makes Hay. We have various exotic instruments like Permitted Development Rights, Tree Preservation Orders, Building Regulations and Party Wall Acts. There is even something called a Lawful Development Certificate, which signifies to the proud owner that they can do something in their garden without having to apply for permission. You have to apply for a Lawful Development Certificate instead.

The various rules are so complex that not even experts understand them completely and there are tens of thousands of people gainfully employed trying to unravel them. In the last ten years, the number of planning applications for domestic improvements has doubled to around 340,000 per annum, and they now make up well over half the caseload of a typical planning department. Yet nearly 90% of these applications are passed, either first time or on appeal, so the review is right to wonder if there might be just a little room for streamlining.

But that’s about as far as it goes. The diagram shown here is about as potent as it gets. LDO stands for Local Development Order, a bolt-on to PD Rights to be defined on an area-by-area basis by local planners. In other words, yet another set of rules, this time ones which change every five miles.

The review is full of calls for Plain English user guides but is itself a wonderful exercise in new-Labour obfustication. The text in the report is littered with meaningless phrases like fast-tracking, disseminating good practice, improving interfaces, reducing regulatory burdens and supporting culture changes. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, there is precious little meat in this sandwich. It manages to point out some of the absurdities that have grown up around the Permitted Development regulations, but suggests replacing the arbitrary volume rules with some sort of impact assessment. Just how this would work isn’t explained, but it seems to be based on the warm fuzzy group-hug approach to planning. If your neighbour doesn’t like the impact of your extension on their back garden, then it’ll be off to mediation for the pair of you. Let’s hope the Red Queen is not too busy.


So what could be done to improve matters? Here are my proposals.

1. Tree Preservation Orders. How can you “preserve” a living organism? TPOs are a nonsense. Scrap them.

2. The Party Wall Act. A nonsense. Scrap it.

3. Conservation Areas. A nonsense. Scrap them.

4. Listed buildings. A good idea that has now run way out of control. There are approaching 500,000 listed building in England, an absurd figure. This should be restricted to around a tenth as much, say 50,000. Nothing would be added to this list without something being taken off it. That would concentrate minds and it still leaves bucket loads of history for us to drool over in centuries to come.

5. Minor planning applications. If your neighbours can’t see it, hear it or smell it, then you should be able to do it. If they can, then let’s adopt the French system and appoint a mayor in each community who can act as the arbiter of good taste and neighbourly dispute. If you want to build, invite the mayor around for a drink and see where it goes from there.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

David Cameron's eco-renovation: an update

The story of David Cameron’s eco-renovation on his house in Notting Hill has been doing the rounds for six months now. I wrote it up on the blog back on January 9th, just after it broke. Back then, the budget was £10,000 which caused me to express a foul-smelling belch of disbelief.

The scheme has been mired in planning controversy. His snooty neighbours don’t fancy a rooftop wind turbine one bit and have been pulling all sorts of tricks to get it all delayed or even abandoned. As an aspirant political leader, Cameron will no doubt have welcomed the opportunity to learn more about what really excites the good citizenry of his country. But what tickled me more than this spat with his neighbours was the Daily Mail’s estimate of the job costs, which have now grown to around £1 million. OK, it’s only the Daily Mail and when have they ever allowed a couple of noughts to get in the way of a good story, but even so, from £10k to £1m in six months is going it some!

In my experience, most people start out wanting all kinds of fancy stuff when they commission building work, only to find out that they can’t afford any of it and they subsequently trim the job down to the bare essentials. Not so Cameron, it would seem. As he has got more and more enthusiastic about green technology, he seems to have adopted a buy now, pay later approach to his home improvements. Should make for an interesting Prime Minister, if he ever gets the job.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Baufritz, the biological housebuilders

Last week I went on a rare expenses paid jolly to Germany. I was guest of Bavarian housebuilder Baufritz who, like many others in Germany, have watched Huf Haus blaze a trail into the UK selfbuild market and would like to do the same themselves.

There are something like a hundred fertighaus (factory house) companies in Germany, in the Huf Haus/Baufritz mould. They typically build a few hundred homes each year, similar in size to what several timber frame housebuilders do over here. The German businesses are also usually timber frame but it’s not timber frame as we know it in the UK. Here, we tend to supply just the timber skeleton, the superstructure, which then has to be finished on site. The Germans, by contrast, assemble most of the house, including internal and external wall finishes, in what is sometimes referred to as a closed-panel system.

To a visitor from the UK, the gleaming efficiency of the production lines is a site to behold. It’s reminiscent of car factories with wall and roof panels moving through assembly lines with a minimum of human intervention. If you want to read up more on it, there is a very funny description on the But She’s a Girl blogsite. Baufritz produce around 250 houses a year with a staff of 260, of which around 80 work in the factory and a further 60 work on site as erection crews. Work it out: it’s roughly one house per person per year. Say 1800 hours input. In the UK, you would expect to see between 3000 and 5000 hours work go into a traditionally-built house of similar size, and not that much less for a timber-frame one.

The reasons for this different approach are several.
• German’s pay high tax on overtime so there is an incentive to increase production from regular working hours.
• Germany hasn’t experienced the housing booms and busts that we have had in the UK. Consequently, German builders are confident enough to invest in manufacturing facilities.
• Unlike in the UK, Germans rarely seem to sell family companies and they tend to invest for the long term. Baufritz is a good example: it is owned and managed by the fourth generation of the Fritz family.
• The basic German house shape is simpler and less variable than its British equivalent. It lends itself to prefabrication.
• Planning permission for homes in rural districts is much easier to obtain in Germany and the selfbuild market is much larger, maybe ten times the size of the UK
• Without wishing to resort to oversimplistic stereotypes, Germans seem to be naturally good at organisation, teamwork and manufacturing. In contrast, Brits are more inventive, more willing to experiment and quicker to embrace change. All these factors combine to explain why prefabrication has taken off in Germany but struggled in the UK, for it’s expensive to change horses when you have invested huge amounts of money on one particular method.

And there are elements of German housebuilding that are surprisingly conservative. Various innovations which have been widely taken up in British housebuilding have seemingly been ignored in Germany. Trussed roofs, engineered timber beams, precast concrete flooring: no sign of these in Germany, as far as I can work out. In fact, most fertighaus builders lay a wet concrete screed within the intermediate floor, just because that’s the way it has always been done, despite the fact that it stops the house erection process stone dead whilst the concrete dries.

Consequently, German housebuilders tend to be looked at as being much of a muchness. Very, very good at what they do, but a rather limited range. Huf Haus stand out because they have gone down a most unusual design route and have decided to build these iconic black wood and glass houses, designer conservatories for the minamalistically inclined. But how does the competion differentiate itself?

Well, Baufritz specialise in what they call the biological approach to homebuilding, as promoted by the IBN (Institut fur Baubiologie) in Neubeuern. If I can summarize just what it is Baufritz’s take on a healthy house is, it seems to be:
• avoid all products from the petro-chemical industry
• use only untreated timber (and lots of it)
• insulate with compressed wood shavings treated with whey (for fireproofing) and soda (as an insect repellent)
• rely on natural ventilation– avoiding mechanical ventilation systems
• shield against electro-magnetic radiation
• use radiant heating systems — both underfloor and in-wall

Their take on mechanical ventilation is certainly unconventional and puts them at odds with the Passive Haus movement, who promote ultra low energy housing in Germany. Not that a Baufritz house is a high energy burner: on the contrary, they seem to be building some of the best insulated homes I have ever seen. The biological builders approach is simply to monitor indoor air quality via a carbon dioxide detector and then to open a window if things look to be a little struffy. They also don’t insist on extractor fans nor trickle vents, two of the banes of UK building regs. A Baufritz home doesn’t suffer from condensation - it’s simply too warm and well insulated.

The other really revealing technological aspect of their homebuilding is their using a specially-prepared plasterboard with a carbon skin which attracts and earths electro magnetic radiation. I have never seen nor heard of such a thing before. They take electrosmog very seriously and insist on getting radiation levels right down to trace levels, and have equipment on hand to prove it. Having written somewhat dismissively about the threat of electrosmog on this blog in June, I must admit that I am beginning to start getting worried about it!

The healthy house is a difficult call from a marketing point of view. Whilst no one would possibly object to living in a healthy house, there is just a slight fear that paying good money for levels of protection not available in normal housing is verging on being paranoid. People may worry about microwave ovens and mobile phones, but not enough to stop using them and so they may well feel that buying a biological home is a bit weird. I asked the heavily-pregnant owner/manager, Dagmar Fritz, pictured here, how many of their sales resulted specifically from customers demanding healthy homes and she admitted the number wasn’t that high. The reason they build biologically is because of a family commitment to the issue and Baufritz have established a unique reputation amongst German factory house builders and are now poised to see what the UK makes of their offerings.

It will be fascinating to find out. Oliver Rehm, a friend of Dagmar’s since student days, and a UK resident has gone into partnership with Baufritz to sell their houses into the British market. They have established an office in Cambridge are currently working through various technical approval issues. They don’t have any brochures or pattern books; everything is bespoke. Prices have yet to be finalised but expect a Baufritz house to cost something similar to a Huf Haus, that is to say around the £1500 per sq metre mark, making a four- bedroom, 2,000 sq m house £300,000. That puts it firmly at the upper end of the cost spectrum, and probably aims it at the prosperous South East corner of the country. Still, I can see them going well with people who admire the quality of German factory housebuilders and yet don’t want something quite as severe as Huf Haus.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

New stealth tax unleashed on garden building plots

Just arrived back from the Peterborough Homebuilding & Renovating show this weekend. At one of my seminars, there was a bloke from Tuddenham in Suffolk who has managed to get planning permission to build a new house in his garden. Nothing unusual about that. But the council, Forest Heath, had a sting in the tail for him. They have demanded a fee of £25,000 from him, to be paid before occupation.

I had heard of fees of £3,000 and £4,000 being demanded before from one of two councils, but nothing like this. It seems this policy has been has slipped through on the nod, without so much as an announcement, at least not one that I noticed. He told me that the council have the right to demand up to a third of the market value of the plot and that they were trying to make out that he was getting off lightly because they were only asking for 25%.