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Loss and expense

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technical & practice - How do you build innovative housing and ensure there is confidence in the long-term durability of the end product?

Only last month (AJ 7.4.05) we noted that the dream of so-called 'innovative housing', let alone £60,000 pre-fabs, was floundering due to the fact that mortgage companies were not happy to take the risk on experimental building types.

Now, the BRE is trialling a new Loss Prevention Standard for Innovative Housing (LPS 2020) that has gone through rigorous consultations with a range of stakeholder organisations, from insurers and mortgage lenders to manufacturers, and is intended to deal with their concerns. It will be finalised by the end of the year and will be available, in draft form, at BRE's Offsite2005* event next month.

Its intention, inter alia, is to 'provide a single and consistent method for assessing the design and performance of innovative building systems that do not have an adequate track record in the UK.' In the same way that Scottish Building Regulations have just changed from proscriptive regulations into more fluffy technical standards, so the intention of LPS 2020 will set up generic performance standards.

These will stipulate that the building must comply with these performance specifications before a certificate can be issued that will satisfy the warrant body.

In addition to the general requirement that the innovative construction project meets certain Building Regulations criteria, the building will also be assessed for a range of ethereal issues, such as safety, durability and functionality, resilience, repairability, whole-life performance and adaptability. The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML), which is party to the consultation - and inevitably is driving a great deal of the process of stipulation - still has concerns that the durability must relate to a building lifespan of 60 years (for a 35-year mortgage offer), and that the buildings must be capable of being repaired 'using locally available skills and should not present repair issues greater in extent or more complex than traditional designs'.

Andrew Heywood, senior policy adviser at the CML, says the certificate will provide a necessary comfort for howeowners who 'will not want to discover that their windows, say, are at a greater risk of replacement' than with less innovative materials. 'This is not an argument against innovation, ' he adds, 'but we need to ensure that there's a track record, so that the problems can be quantified. That is the point of the certification. If we have a certificate, then it shouldn't be a problem for lenders.' The BRE has defined 'innovative' as a) that which falls outside existing standards and codes, in terms of materials, manufacturers and building processes; and, b) that which has a limited track record in the UK. For example, while timber frame is something that will not require an LPS 2020 certificate because of its sufficient proven history, something like timber-framed structural insulated panels will.

Jaya Skandamoorthy of the BRE likens the process to that of the National House Building Council (NHBC), which is only now happy to warrant light-guage steel-frame housing, even though it has been around for a decade or more. It is the 10-year proven track record of light-guage steel construction, and the large amount of research data reinforcing the acceptability of the material in use, that has given the NHBC confidence to accept it.

But the CML says it will only warrant designs that are flexible enough to allow alterations such as 'fitting a conservatory.' Hardly the stuff of innovation, it seems. Moreover, it suggests that LPS 2020 should cover manufacturing processes as well as site erection procedures and performance before it will consider offering a mortgage, or if it does offer a mortgage, it will do so only on the basis that the LPS 2020 certificate will effectively guarantee that work on site has complied.

In reality, this is just a toughening up of existing certification procedures, although, in theory, it can be done by self-certification or through a third-party warranty-provider. Architects engaged in this type of certifier's role already take risks in certifying the work of others, and the LPS 2020 certification procedure will carry it to a new level of liability. Speculative developers will need to ensure that they have complied or they will not be able to sell properties on, while selfbuilders might have their mortgage revoked on completion if an unfavourable report prevents a certificate being issued.

The problem with trying to officially sanction innovation is that it tends to kill the very thing it is trying to encourage. If increased legislative and bureaucratic hoops are put in the way of innovation - as if there aren't enough already - and if you have to show that your brand-new product will definitely last for 60 years, then maybe it's just that little bit easier to stick with the tried and tested.

* Offsite2005 is a BRE conference to be held at its Watford site from 6-9 June.

Visit www. offsite2005. com for details

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