COVID-19, A Sustainable and Resourceful Building Project

We are now into the fifth week of the COVID-19 lock-down and the end still feels a long way away.

Along with others in our street, around the country, and all over the world, I have been clapping for the healthcare workers, first responders, hospital cleaners, service-industry employees, and all the other dedicated people who are on the frontlines of the pandemic. All these amazing people are risking their lives every day to save people from the virus wreaking havoc around the world. I respect and applaud all of them.

Builders are doing their bit

There are others in the country, in the construction industry, not on the front line and not putting their lives at risk, but who are doing their bit. They are doing their bit to keep the economy going and ensuring that their client’s homes are not left insecure, unsafe, and unfinished.

The builder who drove miles to pick up some ‘leftover’ plasterboard sheets to finish off a job. Another who spent a couple of hours digging up some waste sand from a back garden so he could make a chimney stack watertight. Or the builders who order materials on ‘click and collect’ and patiently wait in the queue to pick up their materials to finish off their client’s job. This shows real commitment; to keeping their company going, to their clients, and to their employees whom otherwise would be without work.
Operating like this is time-consuming and can be frustrating but it keeps things going and it is being resourceful. As one builder (Drew) said to me “his Dad always kept ‘leftover materials’ just in case they were needed. Drew developed this ‘savings’ habit and with some material now like ‘gold dust’ all the bits and piece hoarded in his garage are now becoming very useful.”

Resourcefulness at home

As for me, well I have one new job (a detached uninhabited garage), and I am finishing off existing jobs where I can but otherwise, work has ‘fallen off a cliff’. Clients are reluctant to commit spending money until they can be more certain of their future.
The allotment has never looked so good and we are really on top of things there. We have re-built the compost heaps from pallets found on the street and made a new gate that’s been on the list for some time. The new gate has a Sweet Chestnut frame made from leftover bits of decking and an infill made from old pallets. All these materials were just ‘lying around’.

Sustainable Sweet Chestnut

Sweet Chestnut is the only other English hardwood (Oak is the other one) that has a high level of natural tannin or Tannic acid. The tannin makes the timber more durable and is perfect for decking or external cladding.
Sweet Chestnut is also really sustainable. All over southern Britain, you can still find Sweet Chestnut coppices. Coppicing (cutting the 80-100 year old Sweet Chestnut every 15 years or so) is a harvest, which encourages new timber growth. It is also hugely beneficial to wildlife and a host of plants, moths, and insects. Bluebells run riot after fresh cutting and, combined with mature ‘standards’ (trees which are left), chestnut coppicing produces a wonderful woodscape, it is really sustainable and is superb woodland husbandry.

Tackling climate change must be part of the COVID-19 solution

There are many devastating personal impacts from COVID-19 and I would not want to downplay these but maybe our experiences will make us think more about the environment. I rejoice about the lack of cars on the road, the cleaner feel to the air, the absence of vapour trails from planes, and the quiet. Indeed, only yesterday the BBC reported that “Tackling climate change must be woven into the solution to the Covid-19 economic crisis, the UK will tell [other] governments next week.”

Reusing surplus building materials

In addition to thinking about the impact of our homes, (I think every new building should by law be required to be built to Passive Haus standards) how about doing something positive about all the left-over building materials (not in Drew’s garage) that are sent to landfill.
A quick Google search reveals many organisations who specialise in re-using building materials. Enviromate is just one of these and they state that the UK building industry used 240 million tonnes of material and products every year, nearly 30% is wasted, and 13% is new and never used. This is £1.5 billion work of reusable surplus building materials that enter the waste stream and landfill every year in the UK!

So, when things do get going again and you’re lining up your builder to start work, think about and ask them about waste, sustainability, and reusing materials. It might save you some money and it would certainly be good for the world and the environment.

For details of my other blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of technical and/or legal information.

MM – COVID-19, A Sustainable and Resourceful Building Project – V3 – 28 04 2020

Investigating under my Floors or ‘Potholing’ in Brighton

Walking into a shop in the north lanes in Brighton a few weeks ago I noticed that the floor seems very bouncy. When I mentioned it to the owner they didn’t seem to be bothered saying that the floor hadn’t collapsed so far and the freeholder was responsible for any structural works. I left the shop wondering what was lurking below the floorboards.

My House

I live in a typical Edwardian property in Brighton. My end of terrace house was built in 1900 with early cavity wall construction and suspended timber floors to the ground floor.
As is common in houses of this period the rear half of the kitchen has an un-insulated solid floor. This was the scullery where the floor would get wet and often stay wet so the floor could not be timber.
The gable end of my house faces south, the rear faces west and being a mile or so from the English Channel the back and the gable end take a battering from the weather.
The house was built using lime mortar, which is a breathable material. The 25-year-old render to the gable end and recent pointing to the brickwork has all been done in sand and cement, which is not breathable and may be trapping moisture within the walls.
On the outside, the ground level on all three external walls is well in excess of the recommended 150mm below the internal floor level. There are visible air-bricks on the front, side, and rear elevations.
The timber ground floors all seem sound. They do not bounce, there is no evidence of rot or mould to the exposed timbers but there is some dampness to the plaster at a low level on the gable wall.

Suspended Timber Floors

Suspended timber ground floors started to be used in the early 1900’s and Brighton was one of the first areas to trial the use of cavity walls. So, my suspended floor used an early construction method and I have some of the first cavity walls.
These early suspended timber floors minimised the joist depth (saving money) by using cross-joists and masonry sleeper-walls that gives the joists intermediate support. However, the early sleeper-wall were not honeycombed (no ventilation gaps) which impedes cross-ventilation.
The joists for these early suspended ground floors are often set into or rest on the brickwork at or below the DPC (damp proof course). This creates the perfect conditions for rot.

The Construction of My Suspended Timber Floor

The first step was to determine how my suspended timber ground floor is constructed. I lifted three floorboards in the hallway (they are short so easiest to remove) and created space just big enough for me to squeeze between the joists. The floorboards, which run from side to side are supported on joists running front to back. Looking further, I could see the joists were supported on cross-joists running from side to side located at the front and back, on either side of the chimney breasts and adjacent to sleeper-walls (without honeycomb construction). The end of the cross-joists I could see sat on a small timber blocks, which in turn rests on brickwork.

So, I have a ground floor structure that probably has inadequate ventilation and joists ends that may well be rotting.

Potholing Here I Come

The next step was to investigate the state and condition of the timber joists below the floorboards. This was a pretty challenging task given the 300mm (1 foot) crawl space in the void between the cross-joists and the ground. I dressed up in protective clothing, a mask, head torch and, helmet. I eased myself down between the joists and set off under the floorboards. I felt and looked like a potholer.

What Did I Find?

Over the past few months, I have made a number of trips down into the void beneath my timber floor, torch and moisture meter in hand. My next blog will set out what I discovered.

For details of my other loft blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide only and is not a definitive source of technical and/or legal information.

MM – 02 11 2018

Converting Your Loft – Internal Space and Layout

In my last loft blog, I looked at the key structural elements that determine the floor area and volume of your loft conversion. This next blog looks at the interior, the space you can create and how you can make it work for you.

What Do You Want?

In converting your loft you’ll want to ensure you achieve the space you envisaged at the planning stage. What you can achieve will be determined by the floor area and the volume you can build (see earlier blogs on the exterior and structure).
If you are converting the loft in a small terraced house in a conservation area you may only have space for one room.
If your property is an Edwardian townhouse and has permitted development (PD) rights you should be able to build a full-width rear dormer accommodating one or more rooms plus a shower. A bigger floor plan could fit two bedrooms
If your home is a large Victorian semi with PD rights you could build a hip-to-gable and full-width rear dormer creating a big dual-aspect bedroom with an ensuite and a dressing room.

What Can You Create?

The Stairs & Landing

At the top of the new stairs to the loft will be a landing and its location will determine how well the loft works. The landing is only required to be as deep as it is wide but needs to be located to give direct access to the rooms in the loft. Corridors lead off the landing use valuable space and should be avoided.

All habitable rooms in a loft need must have fire door. If you only have one habitable room in your loft the fire door could be either at the top or the bottom of the stairs. Where there is more than one habitable room in the loft all habitable rooms must have a fire door directly on to the landing.
Ideally, the new stairs and landing at the top will have natural-light either from a window in the dormer or the side gable or from a roof light.

Usable Space in the Loft

Under the skieling (the sloping ceiling) and beside the dwarf walls in your loft, there will areas of the loft you can’t stand up in. You can use these areas for a chest of draws or for other low furniture. If you ask your loft designer to draw a line on your loft plan indicating where you can stand up (1.8m) you will have a good idea of the usable space in the loft.

Bedrooms or Other Habitable Rooms

You’re likely to be spending the most time in your new bedroom, office or chill-out room. I favour rooms with dual-aspect windows or roof lights, they give light from two directions, allow cross-ventilation and enable you to see out in two different ways. Your requirement may be for more rooms, which may prevent you having dual-aspect rooms.
In a good loft conversion, the new rooms feel part of the existing home. If the new stairs follow the existing this is easier to achieve.

Bathroom or Shower Room

What do you want, a bathroom with a bath or just a shower? The end of a bath can fit under the skieling, showers need full height ceiling but they take up much less room than a bath.
Generally, home-owners want to maximise the size of the habitable rooms and squeeze the bath or shower room in where they can. In an Edward terraced property, you can often fit a shower room behind the staircase.
It is desirable for a bath or shower room to have natural light and ventilation from a window or a roof light.

Dressing Rooms & Storage Areas

A dressing room with fitted cupboards and wardrobes can utilise some of the more awkward spaces you may have in your loft.
Dressing rooms and storage areas are not classed as habitable rooms so they can be inner rooms (not have direct access on to the landing) and can utilise parts of the loft where access and head height is limited.

Fire safety, means of escape

Building Regulations determine the fire safety and fire protection requirements for loft conversions. Whilst the regulations are national standards there are slight variations across Local Authority areas.
Conversion of the loft in a one or two-storey property where there is a protected means of escape from the new rooms should not impact upon the layout of the new loft space.
If the floor of the new loft space will be more than 7.5m from the ground level or the property has an open-plan ground floor or there is not a protected means of escape there will be design implications and limitations on what you can do. In such cases, it would be advisable to have detailed discussions with a specialist or building control before proceeding with plans.

The space you can create will be limited by the footprint of your home and restricted by planning legislation. The floor areas, the volume you can build, your wishes and building regulations will determine how you loft works.
The challenge for your loft designer will be to take these sometimes conflicting elements and come up with something that really works for you and give you what you want.

For details of my other loft blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of technical and/or legal information.

Clean out the Gutters

Did you miss National Maintenance week, which ran from 17th to 24th November? I did too. The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) runs a National Maintenance week every year. The SPAB week focusses on older buildings but much of what they say can be applied to your home. Maintenance is often low on the list of work to do to our homes. We all want to extend, convert and improve rather than protect what we’ve got. Results of the English House Survey 2015-16 show that 18% of owner-occupied homes failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard and 3% have damp problems.

Checking your gutters & gulleys

The SPAB maintenance week finished with National Gutters day. Next time it rains hard put on your wellies and a waterproof, go outside and have a look at your gutters and downpipes. Is there water streaming down the exterior walls or are the gutters doing their job? Inspect the gulleys at the bottom of the downpipes. Is the rainwater flowing away freely or is the gulley overflowing and potentially adding to damp in your house?

At this time of year gutters and gulleys can be blocked by leaves. If you have leaves in your gutters and gulleys, vegetation growing in the hopper heads or water streaming down the walls you really need to fix it.

Internal Damp

Whilst you’re checking, are there any damp patches inside your house? If you have water streaming down the outside walls there is likely to be a corresponding damp patch inside. Check around chimney breasts. An open chimney can cause falling damp – rainwater entering the chimney and wetting the walls below. Alternatively, the pointing or flashing on the chimney could have failed.

Check the Loft

If you can get into the loft can you see any signed of water penetration? Dampness to the chimney breast may be more obvious. Can you see light through the roof? If you can this is a sure sign some tiles have failed and that your roof is pretty old (newer roof will have a waterproof membrane under the tiles).

Symptoms and Signs

Mould has a distinct smell, we all know the aroma that hits us as we walk into a damp basement. Wet walls are often a different colour from the surrounding paintwork. Condensation on internal walls, often in the bathroom or other hot damp rooms, is indicated by black mould. Mould spores are bad for your health. Low-level moisture, possibly caused by rising damp, will cause emulsion paint to bubble and flake off.

Why basic maintenance is essential

Wet walls and structure damage the fabric of your home, they are bad for your health and leaving a damp problem will cost you more money in the longer term. High humidity in your home can lead to a dust mite proliferation, which causes asthma. Poor ventilation can cause a build-up of chemical compounds and /or mould spores, which can result in repository problems.

A damp free and well-maintained house is a healthier and more comfortable house. If you are planning to build an extension, convert your loft, renovate or carry out retrofit measures, ensuring your home is well maintained and damp free should be one of the first steps in this process.

For details of other blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of technical & legal information.

Converting Your Loft – Design Implications, the Exterior

In my 1st blog, we looked at the outline issues in converting your loft. This 2nd blog looks in more detail at the limits on what you can build and the resultant implications on the overall volume you could create.

Fixed physical boundaries

Your loft has fixed physical boundaries (the roof, the ridge and the ceiling below). These will ultimately be the limiting factor in the additional space you could create.
The extra space you can create by converting your loft will be determined by the size of the overall structure you are allowed to build and how much you can and want to push these fixed physical boundaries.
The size of the structure you are allowed to build will be primarily governed by whether you need planning permission or if can do the works under Permitted Development (PD) rights.

Unless you have other limitations (finance?) you may wish to go for the route that has the least ‘regulatory hoops to jump through’ and the one that should allow you to maximise the space you can create.

Planning Approval or Permitted Development?

If you need planning approval for your loft conversion the restrictions imposed upon you by the planning authority will limit the additional space you can create in converting your loft.
A loft conversion carried out under PD should enable you to exploit the full potential of your loft space. However, there are limitations when converting your loft under PD and you cannot do just as you want.

Planning Approval

Your Local Authority will have their own policies and design guidelines for converting lofts. Planning policies vary across the country but planning authorities do not usually support planning applications considered to have a visual and a negative impact on the roofs of properties. These will often include; alterations to the front roof slope, un-balancing pairs of houses by adding a hip-to-gable at the side and full width or box dormers to the rear roof slope.
You may be able to get planning approval for one or more small dormers, which will create more standing space in your loft. If you are lucky you may be able to get you loft stairs to fit into a dormer.

Permitted Development rights

Your Permitted Development (PD) rights for loft conversions are set out in a nationally produced document [link to doc].

Summary of the key PD rights for loft conversions

Any additional roof volume (including previous loft conversions) must not exceed: 40 cubic metres for a terraced house, or 50 cubic metres for a detached or a semi-detached house
No conversion works (except roof lights in the same plane as the roof slope) to extend beyond the plane of the existing roof slope that faces a road
Materials to be similar in appearance to the existing house
No part of the conversion to be higher than the highest part of the existing roof No verandas, balconies or raised platforms
Side-facing windows to be obscure glazed and non-opening below 1.7 metres
Conversions, apart from hip-to-gable, to be set back 200mm from the original eaves, measured along the roof plane

What can you do under PD?

Provide you keep within your PD rights, particularly the volume limitations, you can maximise the volume of your loft conversion by;
A Box Dormer. You can build a full-width box dormer to the rear roof slope of your home
A Hip-to-Gable. You can convert the hipped roof at the side of your home to gable
Convert the Outrigger loft. If you have a loft over your rear-facing outrigger this could be part of your conversion works

Interpretation of your PD rights

Interpretation of your PD rights can be quite complicated. If you are in any doubt or if you require legal confirmation you should submit an application for a Certificate of Lawfulness. A Certificate of Lawfulness is legal confirmation you do not need planning permission for the proposed works.

For details of my other loft blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of legal information.

Converting You Loft – Some Definitions & Information

To accompany my weekly blogs on converting your loft I enclosed some definitions of commonly used terms.

Building Regulations

Building Regulations are the minimum standards of design, construction, and safety that must be achieved when converting your loft. Building Regulations aim to create a safe, healthy and secure space. All loft conversions which create new habitable space must be compliant with building regulations.

Planning Permission

Planning permission is the formal approval of your Local Authority for the proposed alterations to the exterior of your property. Whether you need planning permission for your proposed loft conversion will depend upon the location, type, and status of your home and the works you wish to carry out. If you need planning permission for your loft conversion proposals you must get this before you start work.

Permitted Development rights

Permitted Development rights allow you to carry out certain building works without planning approval.

Certificate of Lawfulness

A Certificate of Lawfulness is confirmation that you do not need planning permission for the proposed works and that you can carry them out under Permitted Development rights.

Flats & Maisonettes

If you live in a flat or a maisonette you do not have Permitted Development rights and you will need to apply for planning approval to convert your loft. As a leaseholder, you should check you own the loft space (the details of ownership should be on your deeds). You will also need to obtain consent to the works from the freeholder of your building.

Designated Areas

These include conservation areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), The Broads, National Parks & Word Heritage Sites. You have restricted or no Permitted Development rights in designated areas and will have to apply for planning approval to convert your loft.

Structural elements

Some definitions for structural elements found in typical lofts

Bracing – sloping timbers that support the purlins
Ceiling joists – horizontal timbers that hold up the plaster ceiling in the rooms below your loft space. They are designed for a ceiling and are not strong enough for a new floor
Floor joists – Horizontal timbers that support the floor. New floor joists are always required when converting a loft
Gable or gable-end – The vertical triangular upper part of a wall at the end of a ridged roof
Hip – The peaked part of the roof where two roof slopes meet. A hipped-end is typically found at the side of 1930s semi-detached houses
Hip beam – A sloping structural timber, which runs in line with the junction of the two roofs (the Hip) and that supports the roof load
‘Hip to gable’ – Where a hipped-end is converted to gable-end as part of a loft conversion
Purlins – large often square horizontal timbers that are at right angles to the rafters and that support them in the middle
Rafters – sloping timbers that support the tiles or slates on your roof
Ridge – The highest point of your loft
Ridge beam – A thin horizontal timber at the highest point of the loft. Pairs of rafters join at the ridge beam
Skeiling – The inside of a sloping ceiling, the finished underside of the rafters
Trusses – Structural elements running from the front to the back of loft that hold up the roof
Valley – A depression where two roof slopes meet creating a valley

For details of my other loft blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of legal information.

Converting Your Loft – The Basics

Converting your loft is one of the most cost-effective and space efficient improvements you could carry out to your home. You convert space you own and the basic structure is already there.

This is the 1st in a series blogs that share my knowledge and experience with you. Over the weeks I will go through the steps to help you establish; whether you can convert your loft, the potential restrictions and how to maximise the space you can create.

I did my first loft conversion 25 years ago on my own house in Manchester, since then I have designed 100s of lofts conversions for customers.

Rules and Regulations

Whatever you want to do and where ever you live there are rules and regulations governing what you can and can’t do if you want to convert your loft.

Building Regulations

All loft conversions which create new habitable space must be compliant with building regulations. If your home is over 3 storeys fire safety regulations may impose limitations on what you can do with your loft.

Planning Permission

Whether you need planning permission for your proposed loft conversion will depend upon the location, type, and status of your home and the works you wish to carry out.

Some Initial Questions

Can it be physically done?
Are there any restrictions that may limit your wishes?
How much is it going to cost, can you afford it?

Can it be physically done?

If you can answer yes to the following questions you should be able to convert your loft using the existing structure as a starting point.

I have got loft, which I can stand up in
I can stand up and put my hand up above my head below the highest point.
(I am about 1.73 m (5’ 8”) high and I can reach up to about 2.2 m, which is the minimum height required prior to works.)
Have a look outside. Have any neighbours with similar houses got lofts? Look for rooflights on the front roof slope or a dormer to the rear.

If you cannot answer yes to all these questions you may still be able to convert your loft but you will have to alter the structure.

There are no restrictions that may limit my wishes?

If you can answer yes to these questions you should be able to do a loft conversion under Permitted Development rights.
I live in a Freehold house or bungalow
My home is not in a conservation area, an AONB or a National Park
My home is not listed

There are restrictions that may limit my wishes?

If you answer yes to some of these questions you will not be able to convert your loft under Permitted Development rights
I live in a flat or maisonette
My home is in a conservation area, an AONB or a National Park
My home is listed

If you live in a flat or a maisonette you do not have Permitted Development rights and you will need to apply for planning approval to convert your loft.

Local Authority planning controls are stricter in conservation areas, AONB and National Parks. In these areas, a loft conversion will need planning approval.

If your home is listed, Listed Building Consent will always be required from the Local Authority for any works you wish to carry out to the exterior and to the interior of the property.

How much is it going to cost?

Try to find someone on your street (or a similar house in your area) who has had a loft conversion and ask them. There will be an element of guess-work setting your first budget. An initial sum of £30k is a very rough starting point. Increase the sum if it’s a big loft, take a bit off if it is very small.
Remember, any price given by a builder is exclusive of VAT so a quote of £25k will end up costing you £30k.
You will need money to cover the cost of decorating the loft and the new stairs and probably redecorating the landing as well. The loft rooms and stairs will need new floor finishes. If you have central heating you may need to replace your boiler to power the extra radiators required.

For details of my other loft blogs please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/news/

Please note this is a guide and is not a definitive source of legal information.

Don’t Move Improve – Stay-put and invest in what you have

Don’t Move Improve! Convert your loft, build an extension, renovate your home, carry out internal alterations? This slogan seems to be back in the headlines.

Ideal Homes

A recent article in Ideal Homes is titled “Don’t move improve, is the home owner’s mantra after base rate rise”.
In the article, a survey of 1000 homeowners concluded that it was better to stay-put and improve their existing house. The article goes on to say that adding another bedroom and doing a loft conversion would on average add the most value to your home.

New London Architecture

New London Architecture is a forum for discussion and debate about architecture, planning, and development in London. They have been running a Don’t Move, Improve! competition since 2009. The competition celebrates London’s best and most innovative home extensions and improvements. The 2017 winner was a Japanese-style sunken bath tub encased in glass. The runners-up were an office in the garden and a light-filled extension with a courtyard.

Halifax

A recent Halifax survey says that house prices are rising at the faster rate since January 2017, driven by lack of supply, historically low mortgage rates and high employment.

Cost of Moving

If you need more space or another bedroom and want to move you may find it difficult finding your ideal property. If you do find one and it costs over £1/2m, your moving costs and SDLT will be in the region of £25k.

Uncertain future

We live in times of uncertainty. Brexit, the continued rise in base rates (albeit very slowly), house prices, inflation, job security, the list goes on. Who knows where we will be in one or two years time?

‘An Englishman’s home (or occasionally, house) is his castle’

A historic and somewhat dubious statement but for all of us our home is a place of refuge, where (subject to appropriate approval) we can do as we please. More importantly, it is a place to live, to enjoy and to rest our heads. I have done 100s of loft conversions, extensions and alterations over the past 14 years and every one has loved what has been created. A good number have said, “why didn’t I do this years ago.”

Staying-put & Improve

If you improve your existing home you stay in the community. Improving your existing home uses existing resources as much of the structure is already there. If you specify a low energy build it will save energy (and your money) and be good for the environment. Improving your home benefits the local economy, you keep local trades people working.

A sunken bathing room in the garden is a fantastic option but perhaps a bit of a luxury for most of us. If you need more bedrooms for the expanding or returning family or if you want a family living area where you can all be together or just need another bathroom then maybe improving your existing home is the solution.

In 2008-09 I ran an advertising campaign, advertising my architectural services titled ‘Don’t Move Improve.’ It could be time to resuscitate the old slogan.

For more details of my work please check out my website: https://www.mccurdyarchitecture.co.uk/