Navigating Building Regulations - should we expect more of Building Control?


Following Tuesday’s announcement that a phased reduction of Building and Planning Regulations is underway as part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge, I breathed a small sigh of relief.

I have had enough close encounters with Building Regulations to make me wary of them - and like me, there are few homeowners or sole traders who can claim to know their way around them...

..but ignorance is no excuse for non-compliance, Gary O'Neill, Chartered Building Surveyor and Lecturer at Coventry University tells us, writing in a recent blog post about Statutory Approvals (in relation to Building Regulations and Planning).

No excuse perhaps but in my view, understandable. Building Regulations run to hundreds of pages and they can be a nightmare for an ordinary homeowner to navigate!

O'Neill points out that "...there is a general lack of awareness (amongst members of the public), sometimes complete ignorance of which statutory approvals (permissions) may apply to any works they are proposing to undertake."

With serious implications for failure to comply, there is a burden of responsibility that property owners cannot afford to ignore. With such high stakes, you would imagine a robust framework exists to help property owners meet their responsibilities. You should be so lucky!

There are several ways to ensure works comply with Building Regulations: have local Building Control or a private sector Approved Inspector sign off the works, or have work carried out by a tradesman who belongs to one of the Competent Person schemes - organisations authorised to self-certify and notify low-risk work to Local Authority Building Control.

O'Neill points out that many Local Authority websites provide good levels of information and guidance. In my opinion, Local Authority websites at best offer a short list of FAQs peppered with links to the Planning Portal - but all too often, useful content is given over to veiled threats about what might happen should you fail to comply. Solihull Council adopt a positively hostile approach on their website:

"We do not fulfil the role of a ‘Clerk of Works’ as is often assumed, quite inappropriately and furthermore, have no responsibility for dealing with poor workmanship and issues of quality, unless they impact on compliance with building standards."

My personal experience of working with Local Authority Building Control reflects this standoffish attitude. When I refurbished my house, I submitted a building notice because I planned to replace a window and the builder did not employ a FENSA installer. Building Control wrote to me, explaining that the window should meet current energy efficiency standards and use toughened glass. The timber frame and glazing units were supplied by a reputable company who manufactured all of their products to meet Building Regulations standards (it would be crazy not to). The Building Control officer agreed that the windows appeared to be well made but wanted to see proof that the windows were compliant. Building work resumed a week later after suitable written evidence had been gathered.

Now, Local Authorities are legally obliged to provide a building control service under the Building Act, whereas Approved Inspectors are engaged in a commercial contract with their clients. Both organisations are obliged to ensure works are compliant with Regulations. The key difference is motivation. In my case, an Approved Inspector would have possessed or had access to meters capable of confirming that the glazing was toughened and had a Low-E coating to meet energy efficiency regulations.

The Building Regulation Matrix

The Building Regulations themselves comprise fourteen highly technical documents. Even the Planning Portal cautions casual visitors, for which read ordinary homeowners, who happen upon their section regarding Building Regulations:

"This part of the Portal contains information aimed at users with a degree of familiarity with the Building Regulations and the Building Control system."

The Planning Portal actually does a much better job of explaining the ins and outs of the planning process. As do many Local Authority websites and their staff, who are able to offer better planning guidance and support to the general public. By contrast, Building Control are the clip-board wielding administrators. Often unwilling or unable to advise, yet quick to point to the rule book when a violation is suspected.

Even after providing the documentation I was asked for, my Building Control Officer then insisted that trickle vents should be installed in the windows to meet ventilation requirements. I had to point out that the window was situated in a through-sitting room with two open fireplaces, two doors, a large draughty bay sash window and floorboards with gaps in them. My challenge would be keeping my fuel bills down in winter, not adding more ventilation. His response was that fireplaces are designated as flues and are not considered ventilation.

It's been an eductaion and you can be sure that next time I won't go it alone. I'll use a tradesman registered with one of the Competent Person Schemes or I'll go private and use an Approved Inspector. It will be less of a headache, which is more than I can say for my current encounter with Local Building Control. I have yet to receive my completion certificate from Building Control but I have high hopes for 2014!

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