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Geoff Wilkinson on The Loft Conversion Project Guide

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The Regs: The Loft Conversion Project Guide aims to iron out common faults, says Geoff Wilkinson, a building regulations expert and former vice-chair of the Association of Consulting Approved Inspectors (ACAI)

With commercial markets in the doldrums, housebuilding has ground to a halt and many architects are having to turn back to the small residential market in order to make ends meet. The loft conversion market, for example, is holding up very well at the moment and figures from the researchers at Channel 4’s Home Show have discovered that there are around 20,000 of these projects each year.

To many building owners and architects, a loft conversion seems to be a simple and cost-effective way of creating space, especially in tough economic times. But they often fail to realise how complex the regulations are until they speak to the building inspector. Indeed, architects returning to the small residential market can be shocked by just how much things have changed over the past 10 years – its not simply a case of dusting off an old set of 1999 specification notes you have tucked away in a drawer.

In recognition of this, the The Construction Products Association (CPA) is due to publish the Loft Conversion Project Guide 2009 before the end of the month. The guide will, for the first time, collect all the Building Regulations requirements from the relevant approved documents. To give some idea of just how complicated the rules on this type of project have become, the draft weighs in at a hefty 152 pages.

The purpose of the compiled guide is to simplify the Building Control process, especially for the small builder or architect.

It should also bring a consistency of interpretation that has been missing in recent years, particularly in the selection of insulation products and the positioning of fire doors.

The origins of the guide lie in the Future of Building Control Consultation (that I mentioned in my last column, AJ 17.09.09). Communities and Local Government (CLG) has recognised, at long last, that it needs to do more to educate the public, industry and Building Control bodies to better understand and comply with the Building Regulations.

It concluded that additional guidance was required in the form of ‘project-by-project’ guides to reduce the number of documents that people had to buy, especially if they were undertaking a simple project. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents consulted by CLG on the matter considered loft conversions to be the subject that should be covered first.

The plan is to roll out similar guides for other domestic projects with the humble single-storey rear extension next in line for the Project Guide treatment. However, as was discovered with the loft conversion guide, when you start to consider the practicality of various design options, the volume of regulation, guidance, second-tier guidance and material options, the content grows like topsy. I will be fascinated to see how the authors tackle the almost innumerable options for roofs, for example. Perhaps it would have been easier just to reintroduce the timber safespan tables for floors and roofs as a starting point?

It will be interesting to hear the views of the readers of this column as to what guidance they feel would be most helpful in undertaking their job. In my opinion, the documents really need to be recast to reflect the various phases of construction – for example by sub-structure, drainage, structure, envelope, services and so on – rather than in the current sections marked A to P.

I would also like to see the documents published electronically on Planning Portal, including hyperlinks to specific tables at the end to save clicking through pages of PDFs. In an ideal world you could also type in a use class, ‘offices’ for example, and all the relevant text in the guidance, such as ‘Fire Resistance period’, would appear in bold.

If we could succeed in that, then I think we really would have made significant strides forward in simplifying the process and aiding understanding.

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