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BREAKING THE RULES OF THUMB

ajenda - There was a time when most architects understood the Building Regulations.Today they are clouded by confusion. But how can anyone be expected to keep up when the Approved Documents are constantly changing, asks Austin Williams?

A decade ago, if you had asked an architectural assistant, a technician or even an architectural practice partner to name the U-value for an external wall, I bet most would have got it right (after clarifying whether it was for a domestic or non-domestic property). And if you'd asked for the U-value of a roof, the percentage of correct answers would have been even higher. These things were second nature.

They were rules of thumb that everyone who had the slightest understanding of technical design principles would have known, and if they didn't, they would certainly have known where to find them: Part L, a couple of pages in, and there was a straightforward schematic of a house with check-off U-values. Simple.

Fast-forward to today and ask these same people, ask anyone what the answer is, and you'll discover that there is far less certainty.

So, even though the current Approved Document Part L has attracted significantly more media attention than I can ever remember being given to its predecessors, and is seldom out of the trade and business press, in general we are less aware of its content.

As a matter of fact, the current Approved Document actually contains a similar U-value diagram to the one that went before, but nowadays an architect cannot rely on this data alone. A building now has to be viewed in totality, using computerised calculation spreadsheets and comparative elemental or whole-building analysis, etc. Knowing a figure like 0.35W/m 2C is no longer enough. Today it has to be compared with an out-turn SAP rating, read in conjunction with Robust Standard Details (sic), assessed in terms of air tightness, checked off against natural ventilation leakage, amended to suit site orientation and tweaked by the assumptions of the amount of carbon emissions that may or may not be coming from a bloody boiler. Much of this is beyond the wit of mere man and so, God help us, M&E engineers with geeky computer programs are multiplying like rabbits. Since architects have always felt usurped and insufficiently appreciated, this doesn't explain the shift in recent times. So what's happened?

Spreadsheet architecture Today, many architects actually see opening the Part L volumes (for now there are two) as a source of unfathomable dread rather than enlightenment. While it was only the more nerdy architect who revelled in the regulatory excesses of Approved Documents, everyone got by using the rule of thumb.

The generalised rules could be gleaned from the pages of Approved Documents quite easily and remained in one's mind because they had time to enter the public consciousness.

Rules of thumb stood the test of time. They provided a starting point for a scheme and clues as to its parameters. It was, and surely still is, the only way to begin to flesh out a design concept. Rules of thumb pave the way to a better understanding of the practical realities of insulation standards, glazing sizes, elements of structural stability, wheelchair turning circles, means of escape and so on.

But, rather than providing some assurance that your initial sketches wouldn't be far out, as they did in the past, today all of these rules of thumb are in a state of flux, with amendments pending or recently published to Approved Documents L, E, A, M and B respectively and more to follow. This is not just the usual schema for regulatory change; it is a state of permanent revolution.

From now on, it is predicted that Approved Documents will be constantly under rolling review. This simply means that nothing will be certain, that designs will have to incorporate a predictive capacity, and architects will have to monitor and upgrade constantly. Welcome to a world where government Approved Documents, intended to provide definitive guidance, are in fact feeding a climate of uncertainty, confusion and desperation.

Given that we live in an era of precaution, the necessary predictive element will tend to err on the side of caution and safety - 'safety' in the meanest, most boring sense of the word. Can you imagine housebuilders altering their designs radically - as is the cri de c?ur of architectural aesthetes everywhere - when they are primarily concerned with getting the right answer at the bottom of a spreadsheet calculation? Thus, the whole idea of rules of thumb - of knowing the essentials of practical construction principles - is now effectively static? or void.

We have now reached an era of spreadsheet architecture, where inordinate amounts of time are taken up with transparency rather than getting on with the job in hand; justifying the numbers rather than concentrating on the design. A wrong number requires the architect to either fiddle the figures, safe in the knowledge that the building inspector will be none the wiser, or to employ an engineer and hope that the client will stand the costs.

Time and tide In the past, Building Regulations were created and modified for a clear purpose of improving the previous legislation. Definitive strictures were laid down after years of practical enquiry, explaining the pros and cons of current regulatory practice and proposing a tightening or, in some cases, a relaxation of the rules, as appropriate. Today, there are two significant differences. Firstly, building regulations have become politicised and, secondly, regulations are tested out in practice. Both of these have destabilised the trust needed for the regulations to be successful.

In political terms, building regulations nowadays seem to be aimed at fulfilling a 'higher ideal' rather than simply improving comfort and convenience - the prior drivers for change. Energy policy today is dominated by a political discourse on saving the planet rather than saving on the gas bills; acoustic insulation is promoted as a bulwark against (and hence overstates the fear of) noisy neighbours; accessibility issues are caught up in the frenzy of competing disabilities (disabled ambulant steps versus wheelchair-bound ramps, for example); and means of escape are shackled by the insurance lobby, a fear of litigation and the ever-evasive risk-assessment culture (a culture, by the way, that has little correlation with risk reduction). All of which pressures architects into looking for the lowest common denominator rather than the best tools for the job.

Just like buses Building Regulations were first drafted in their modern form in 1965. Thereafter, the document underwent significant alteration and upgrading until it was published in its current guise under the Building Act 1984, some 19 years later. The Approved Documents, indicators of how to comply with the Act, were brought out at the same time and were only altered in 1992, a period of eight years' reflection. Since then, there have been piecemeal changes to individual documents, but, crucially, all changes came about after careful consideration, testing and revision. Today, regulations are hurriedly debated and foisted on an unsuspecting public to iron out the problems. It's not that field-testing is such a bad thing, were it not for the fact that these are legislative documents. Regardless of whether or not the information contained in them is duff, they have to be believed until the next round of corrections and addendums.

Like buses, you wait 10 years for an amendment and then they all come along at once.

Currently, the list of proposed changes over the next 18 months includes Consultation - Part L (conservation of fuel and power) in early/mid 2005, and New Part L (conservation of fuel and power) in mid/late 2005, notwithstanding the fact that the current guidance was published in July 2004, that 'complementary' Robust Details came out in 2002 and needs to be upgraded, and that there is a consultation busily trying to harmonise (read: amend) Part L in line with Part E. Theoretically, Approved Documents are to change every two years.

But, so what? These are only guidance booklets. Are architects unable to grasp such straightforward data? Have we simply reached the point of so-called 'information overload' that we were all warned about by Hal Berghel back in 1997? Well, I would like to argue that there are two objective causes to the current lack of clarity in architects' understanding of the regulations. The pitiful explanation that the world has become such a complex place that architects are unable to stay in control of the exciting array of products and contracts, is not one of them.

Architects are as bright or stupid as ever they were. However, it is true that, as a result of the way regulatory information is disseminated today, architects have, paradoxically, become more distant from the construction process and more detached from the object under enquiry than ever they were.

The fact that regulations are in a constant state of upgrade leaves architects unaware of the regulations pertaining to their project.

Regulations are frequently no more than advice (see Part P for a clear and ridiculous example), regulators regularly abrogate their responsibility for it and, more importantly, all too often the transitory nature of the regulation makes for a curiously unauthoritative statement on what is needed. It's about time that the Building Regulations settled into a less frenetic pace of change, stopped pandering to remote political concerns (about which they know little), and began producing guidance documents that have integrity, accuracy and, that old-fashioned concept, longevity.

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