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Building Regulations

July 2015

What are the regulations for?

See the English government web site on Building Regulations. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are listed below. Slowly an increasing number of details in the regulations are diverging between the countries.

Building Regulations deal with whether the building is built properly and is safe and energy efficient etc.

The Regulations are the legal basis for how you are allowed to construct a building. They have traditionally been about making sure that the house was basically safe in terms of public health. This concerned its structure, how durable it was, that it conformed to fire regulations, sanitation etc.

Over the last few decades they have increasingly taken on a broader societal rôle concerning energy saving and levels of insulation. They have also increasingly made reference to a range of standards and technical approval methods. To quote the Regulations:

This web site concentrates on the English regulations with references to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish mainly where they diverge. See below for links.

The regulations are administered by Building Inspectors who in general have a sound practical knowledge of the building industry as well as the regs themselves. They ensure a decent standard of building quality which is very uniform throughout the UK (although they do differ slightly between the countries and both Wales and Scotland are in the middle of making updates which are quite complicated to keep up with).

As a self builder it is probably a good idea to stay sweet with the building inspectors. On a bad day they can condemn almost anything you have built badly. On a good day they may offer helpful advice about how to best comply with the regulations and achieve a sound quality of construction.

They are not to be confused with Planning Consent (which is to do with the size, location and appearance of a house). The building inspectors are either employed by the local council or are private companies approved to do the work. You can choose which you want to use. The local authority inspectors are represented by a body called the LABC.

Some types of building are exempt or partly exempt from the regulations. The regulations also deal with demolitions.

The government Planning Portal links to the regulations (and also to Planning Permission).

It is quite likely that if you are employing an architect or building consultant or someone else to do your drawings and self build design work that they will handle the drawing and form-filling necessary to obtain Planning Permission and Building Regulation consent. However it is useful to have an understanding of what is going on.

You sometimes hear complaints about the regulations being old fashioned and moribund. This is maybe true in some ways but is not an intrinsic problem with them.  The people who sit on the advisory committees are usually well on the case with the latest ideas and technology. It is just that there can be heavy pressure exerted by traditional elements of the British building industry who tend to favour the methods that they have invested in and will make them the most money. They want a status quo unless they see a greater competitive edge to be gained from some innovative technology they have already got to grips with.

Interestingly the history of British Standards has suffered the same drawbacks. Advisory members drawn from industry have bent the standards in directions which have favoured their existing products. One only has to look at our enormous 3 pin electric plug or our over-engineered plumbing ball cocks and compare them with other northern European equivalents to see the hand of big business protectionism at work. Scandinavians and Germans are not being electrocuted in their millions because they don’t use British Standard plugs!

More emphasis on insulation and air tightness

At present the Building Regulations are going through so many reviews and changes (not only because of the greening of the regulations but also because of fitting in with European legislation and because England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are developing slight variations) that it is almost impossible to keep up with them, even for a professional.

Over the last few decades there has been a new emphasis on how well buildings are thermally insulated and the rules have been getting stricter every few years. Not only does the insulation have to be to a much higher level but heating systems have to be more efficient and better controlled and the latest requirements cover airtightness (prevention of drafts and air infiltration). Many of the recent updates on energy conservation are contained in sections L1A and L1B of the approved documents.

By the very nature of regulations there is often a temptation to see compliance with the regulations as something to try to achieve rather than seeing them as what they are – a minimum legal standard. For instance the Passivhaus standard is at present light years ahead of the current Building Regulations in terms of energy saving.

The regulations can be very complicated indeed and it is important to know at what level you want to be involved with understanding how they work

At a minimum you can leave everything up to your architect or architectural technician (with a couple of exceptions – see below). In order to get your plans approved for building regulation purposes they will have to draw details of most of the construction giving dimensions of structural materials etc. Qualified trades people will then execute the work properly (hopefully)

At the other extreme you might want to understand the regulations in detail for several reasons

  • the regs are being rapidly updated at present to allow for vastly increased standards of insulation and air tightness so doing a bit of chrystal ball gazing now may allow you to achieve standards that will look respectable in 10 years time
  • you may want to use some innovative or non-standard technology which the regulations don’t cover in the Approved Documents. (say straw bale construction)
  • you may want to design in certain features which will allow for change in the future (e.g. fire walls or sound insulation so that you can split a house later)

How the regulations work.

The regulations cover most aspects of how a building is constructed and are usually framed to operate at three levels of detail:

  • The first level is simply a general overall statement. Take structural loading as an example. The statement simple says

  • The second level is the most used one. It relates to what are called Approved documents (England) , Approved documents (Wales), Technical Handbook for Scotland, and Technical Booklets for Northern Ireland. These are sets of details including statements, drawings, tables etc which show practical methods of achieving the necessary standard. If you use the Approved Documents approach then you are guaranteed to comply with the regulations.
  • The third level is typically for when you want to do something which isn’t covered by the Approved Documents you are free to prove to the building inspector that it will work. This is very commonly done with structural calculations when the situation is a bit more complicated than what the Approved Documents cater for. Of course it costs a bit more because you have to pay an engineer. It can apply to all sorts of construction methods and there are usually British Standards (now changing over to European Standards) along with industry standard reports which can be used to prove your case.

There is a kind of fourth possibility where you want to do something very non standard and prove somehow that it will work. For this you would need considerable professional help.

Occasionally you can get a relaxation of a regulation. This typically happens if you can show there is no reasonable way of meeting the regulation, e.g. when there is not sufficient height over the stairs in a historic building conversion.

Two approaches to approval

In England and Wales there is a choice of two ways of getting the work approved :Full Plans method or a Building Notice method.

Full Plans

This is the more long winded but safer approach. You will have to submit the following:

  • A completed application form
  • Appropriate charge (which you can get from your local council web site)
  • Detailed drawings of the proposed building work including site boundaries and drainage systems
  • Structural design and calculations
  • Specifications of materials which go with the drawings
  • A location plan, drawn to a scale of not less than 1:1250. (Councils can usually supply you with a location plan for a fee)

With “full plans” you normally pay the charge in two installments: the first part when you make the application and the second part after the first site inspection. The council has up to five weeks to make a decision on the application but the time scale is usually shorter than that. If there is something incorrect or missing they normally contact you (or your agent) so that it can be remedied. Once it has been approved you have the safeguard that, providing you build it as specified, you cannot be made to change it. (There may be odd exceptions to this – for instance if ground conditions turn out to be different from what is expected and foundations need to go deeper). Note that you can actually start work before the plans have received approval, providing you give the council 48 hours notice. However you do this at your own risk and could be asked to redo work if it does not comply. The Building Inspector will send you a notice of the various stages of inspection which they will want to carry out (and will normally require 24 hours notice from you).

The main stages they will probably want to inspect are

  • foundations and oversite concrete
  • drains
  • damp proof course
  • roof structure
  • final inspection on completion

When the work is finished a Completion Certificate can be requested. You also have an Approval Notice which you can pass on to any future purchaser of the building.

You can see typical building regs drawings on google images

Building Notice

This is a much shorter procedure than Full Plans as you only have to submit a site plan rather than a full set of drawings. The fees will be the same and they have to be paid in full at the time of the application. It may be appropriate for small jobs where you are absolutely certain it is going to comply with the regulations. (However the council may request extra plans and calculations if they think necessary). Some councils will not issue a Completion Certificate. The building inspector will make inspections as and when they think fit and can ask you to redo work which does not comply.

With both methods of application the permission is valid for three years after the date of the application.

As with the Full Plans method you can start work after giving 48 hours notice, but at your own risk.

Note that some lenders will not accept Building Notices.

There is an on-line method of submitting plans for all local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There is the excellent but confusingly titled Planning Portal web page (because it is not about Planning Permission issues) with technical guidance on the regulations.

There is also a section called  Accredited details with building details which are considered to work well. Bear in mind that while these are well produced and extremely useful as principles, they are nowhere near the standards of insulation provided by the Passivhaus standard.

the Competent Person Register

There is another, recently introduced method of conforming with the regulations which is mainly related to services such as plumbing and electrical work, and also to replacement work such as for windows, doors, roofs etc

Competent Person Schemes (CPS) were introduced by the UK Government to allow individuals and enterprises to self-certify that their work complies with the Building Regulations as an alternative to submitting a building notice or using an approved inspector.

see the register and the Certass web site

England and Wales

The Welsh Assembly is in the process of taking control of its building regulations with a view to completion by 2013.

Mandatory site inspections are carried out by building control at certain key stages of the building work:

  • Commencement of work
  • Foundation excavations
  • Concrete in foundations
  • Oversite preparation
  • Damp-proof course
  • Drainage before covering
  • Drainage after covering
  • Occupation of the building or part of the building
  • Completion of the work

Other inspections may be require depending on the nature of the work and councils will have varying minimum notification periods for the inspections although in practice it is usually possible for an inspection to be carried out on the same day that notification is given providing they received it before 10.30am that day.

Scotland

Scotland is in the process of reviewing its Building Regulations to reflect its autonomy from England and relate more to local circumstances. Things are changing subtly and quite rapidly.

In Scotland the procedure for obtaining Building Regulation approval is similar to that in England and Wales except what you apply for is called a building warrant.

No site work can be started until a warrant has been approved (unlike other countries in the UK.) However it is possible to go for a staged warrant. Typically you can first get approval for the groundworks, foundations, drains etc. so that you can get started and then apply for the other stages as you go along. This helps speed things up.

The actual regulations The Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 are broad and not very helpful in terms of detail whereas the  Procedural Handbook and the practical details in the Domestic Technical Handbook are more useful. There is a useful section of generic construction drawings which cover energy conservation in traditional and timber and steel frame buildings called Accredited Construction Details

Northern Ireland

There is an on-line method of submitting plans for all local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

see the  Northern Irish Regulations with their Technical Booklets

As procedures vary slightly from council to council it is important to check your local council’s web site first.

Fees

Fees are payable for Building Regulations consent and these are usually in two parts: at the submission of plans and at the stage where the building inspector does the site visits. The fees vary depending on the type of work and it is best to contact the local building inspectors department by phone, although many local authorities do have it on line.

Future policy

The government originally stated its intention that by 2016 all new homes shall be “nearly zero energy” in line with EPBD legislation which sets a 2020 deadline. It has now backtracked on that plan.

This will almost certainly have a hugely detrimental effect on green building initiatives (not to mention encouraging more jerry building). It has been a matter of conjecture as to how the UK can fulfil the EU’s target for all new housing to be to EPBD standard by 2020, given the poor standard of building generally and the low skill levels of much of the industry. It’s almost like moving from cave man to rocket science in a few years. Who would blink first? the industry, the designers or the government? Looks like the government because the industry is generally greening up with quite an appetite and architects are falling over themselves to get green projects under their belts.

It remains to be seen how the raising of standards will progress.

Although it is always easy to complain about regulations, the UK building regulations are not particularly difficult to meet compared with much of northern Europe and given the huge amount of energy and materials which go into houses, and the longevity of buildings, it would seem to make sense to build better rather than worse in the future.

However, self builders are not always looking for the cheapest job: often quality and design are major considerations and they are working to higher standards than the minimum allowed. Certainly running costs for heating, lighting, maintenance etc. are important factors.

Maybe there will be a divergence in the quality between self build and the spec housing market with self build showing the way towards eco build. More info on the Red Tape Challenge

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