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Part E time

technical & practice - Robust Standard Details for Part E are now in force. We look at the implications for acoustic performance of new housing

It has always been the case that robust standard details would be issued to complement the Building Regulations Approved Document E that came into force on 1 July 2003. Up until now, such details that have been available have been 'provisional' but have been deemed to be acceptable for use until the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister got its act together to finalise the real details.

Now, one year after the Approved Document E (2003) came into effect, and six months after the details were promised, the new and improved Robust Standard Details (RSD) come into force. All new attached dwellings which are started after today (this generally refers to the date of a Building Control submission) will have to comply with the changes.

The new details do not differ greatly from the ones used on the ODPM website but the online versions are now invalid and should not be used 1.There is also an entire process of registration and certification that has been added to the legal requirements of robust detail compliance. Thus the recent launch of a new company, Robust Details Ltd (RDL), a spin-off from the House Builders Federation which was originally charged with producing all the robust standard details, has pretty much sewn up the approval system.

The new robust details come into force today and RDL has been set up as the body authorised to permit you, for a not-so-small fee, to use its robust details as a means of complying with Approved Document E. You will be, RDL says, 'investing in constructions that add real value to the building rather than paying test fees.'

So from now on, if you want to use one of your own details? tough; RDL will not allow it. Or rather, RDL is happy for you to pay for a test and then submit your details together with the test results (and another fee), so that it can appraise your work. Some manufacturers are adopting this strategy - paying to get their own details registered, tested and approved for incorporation within the RDL collection of acceptable details. It seems as if individuals might need specifically to request the protection of copyright if you do not want the registration and testing of your own details included within the RDL handbook.

If you are determined to try something that is not in the 14 limited details that RDL has drawn up in its launch booklet, and if you have not had your detail tested, you will have to put your neck on the line and go for pre-completion testing, using an accredited monitoring organisation 2.Pre-completion testing, RDL is delighted to say, is risky and expensive and if the on-site workmanship is substandard and the post-completion test fails, there could be a lot of explaining to do.

However, developers will have to pay a fee for the registration, testing and approval of each dwelling under the RDL system, whereas under the pre-completion testing regime, depending on the number of 'types' of dwellings being constructed on a given site, the developer only has to carry out one completion test per construction type 'indicative of the performance of others on the same development.' In some cases, therefore, risks aside, precompletion might be a cheaper and easier option.

How it works The requirement to comply with the RDL details relates only to new build attached dwellings; flats, terraces, semi-detached houses, etc. If you are building one of these dwellings you must first register the plot with RDL - there are no alternatives - and you will be given registration documentation to show Building Control that you are going down the RSD route.

It will be obvious to the building inspectors - depending on whether the requisite registration forms have been lodged with the authority or not - that pre-completion testing will be required. They may pop in to tell blissfully unaware builders of their liability. Third-party agencies will also be empowered to conduct spot checks on building sites to ensure compliance with the submitted details.

On registering, the designer, developer or contractor will state which applicable robust details will be incorporated within the building. To do that, you must buy a copy of the Robust Details Handbook for £65.

Registration forms, however, are available on the website. Acceptance of registration is acknowledged by RDL's purchase form, which 'entitles the customer to use the stated robust details as an alternative to pre-completion testing'.

However, even though every effort is made by RDL to ensure that the robust details are compatible with other parts of Building Regulations, most notably Part L (see box), it says that 'it is not always possible to guarantee this'. Learning from the errors of the launch of Part L, RDL has come clean and tried to pre-empt, or sidestep, complaints. Further to this, if a robust detail is constructed in accordance with the checklist, RDL suggests it might fail spot checks. In this event, it suggests ominously that building control 'would then take reasonable steps to ensure compliance with Part E'. In this regard, the Frequently Asked Questions area of the website reads more like a series of get-out clauses than any constructive assistance.

Don't sign anything Once on site, you are provided with a checklist related to each of the relevant robust details, which the site manager/supervisor is required to check off, sign and date. It is not the same, say, as signing off dayworks.

Signing the checklist is an onerous responsibility and we advise architects to not be drawn in. These checklists are handed into the Building Control to satisfy it that it need not bother going on site - as the site is effectively managed for it. More importantly, at the end of the works, there is a duty to sign a Robust Details Compliance Certificate, which states that the construction of the relevant separating elements has been 'properly constructed in accordance with the relevant robust details specification sheet(s) and associated checklist(s).

Once again, we advise caution.

Given the historic dangers related to Final Certificate liability, any architect thinking of signing this certificate, which will be used to grant Building Regulations approvals, should think carefully. In reality, the contractor should sign, but in design-build situations, architects should beware and make clear their responsibilities and their duties at the outset. The next practice meeting of the RIBA will be looking at this aspect of the new regulations and issuing guidance as necessary.

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