humblebee hive – retrofit #5
Planning and Building Control
What’s the point of the Planning system? It’s to decide nationally and locally what we want to see and prioritise in our built environment. So in the face of a climate emergency and biodiversity loss, what is the most immediate action government could take to ensure we build the “right kind of stuff” as our legacy? You’d think it was a series of nudges in the direction of climate and nature positive actions – lower fees, fewer hoops, incentives – and a number of obstacles or sanctions in the face of over-consumption for the sake of it. Time and again we find the “system” encouraging economic activity without consequence for people and planet, not working FOR people and planet, as we feel it ought to: the tail blatantly wags the dog at every step. And here’s our experience.
Let’s rewind a little then to have a more detailed look into the overall process. For a project of this type, we needed Planning Permission. Every borough is different so do check local Planning Rules. Cheshire East default to National Planning guidance in terms of “Permitted Development”. So despite the numerous meetings and volume of correspondence between the Council (who declared a Climate Emergency in 2019) and some of the groups I volunteer for (Transition Wilmslow, Cheshire East Climate Alliance), and given the numerous barriers to deep retrofit we all face, we still lack local deviations to the rules as climate positive “nudges” in the right direction.
Are we in a Conservation Area? No. Are we a site of natural beauty? No. Are we extending, or building new? No. We are making building upgrades and planning to use “materials that differ from the original construction” and therefore this is not classed as “Permitted Development”. This may still be a legitimate stance, if the goal were to ensure quality of build and check up on environmentally-friendly claims. However, under Permitted Development you can build an extension (within certain parameters) and only need to meet minimum building regs standards, or simply re-render without taking the opportunity to improve energy efficiency.
You see the problem? It’s a complete system disconnect, which happens at every level of government when it comes to addressing the major crises we’re facing right now. What I mean is that if you’re doing something worthwhile (in this case reducing a household’s carbon footprint) you jump through hoops, but you can carry on business-as-usual without any such checks and balances.
Having checked out what we needed to do, we had to go through the process of applying for Planning Permission. And having previously guided a friend and client through this on her own retrofit – she WAS in a Conservation Area, but her property wasn’t one of the more notable houses on the road and we weren’t changing the overall appearance of her property – we knew that there were delays, with misguided austerity cuts followed by covid-19 having sucked Council budgets dry. But boy, were we in for a long wait.
We duly submitted, via the Portal, site plan / location plan, elevations (existing and proposed), completed form and payment at the end of May 2021. They accepted what felt like noddy sketches, elevations, block plan, and site & location plan (don’t forget to include a scale and basic dimensions), all drawn in Sketchup and Bluebeam and none of which were particularly accurate as this wasn’t done off survey information. If you can afford to do this properly by hiring an architect, you would save yourself a lot of personal time and worry – but as it happened I was keen to learn to use Sketchup so that I could use the Passivhaus Planning Package plugin DesignPH at some point.
It was a lot more time consuming than I’d hoped (a recurring theme) – not least because if you’re forced to draw something, you’re faced with having to make decisions, which is a good thing – and it took me a while to get it to the point that I could submit. Because even though we’d been in lockdown, my husband and I seemed to be working more: in his case because those that were still working were picking up some of the workload of those that were on furlough, in my case because suddenly people had time to think about their homes and energy efficiency, so enquiries sky-rocketed, and all on top of home schooling and keeping our kids’ emotional wellbeing on some sort of even keel. We were lucky our children were old enough to be largely autonomous – those with much younger or older children, I think, had it much worse – but it wasn’t without its challenges.
All in all, it was an important process to go through and the sketches proved useful for communication further down the line. But it’s still unclear to us now what the point of the actual process was. After some chasing, we were appointed an officer – the lovely Emma – in early November. She came round for a site visit and to take some photos (which we’d already provided), and with Google Maps you do wonder if that was the best use of her time and therefore the fee? We received Approval, again after some chasing, in late December. In other words, nearly 7 months from submission. We’re still none the wiser as to what made our application worthy of approval.
The costs for Planning weren’t immediately obvious, but at least they were communicated as part of the form filling process. For Building Control they were even less transparent – once you’ve made the application and it’s been “validated” (another online portal registration, another password), it’s incumbent on you to call and find how much (how much??) you need to pay. We went down the “Building Notice” route for small projects and on-site approval, which was relatively staightforward and they only require a short description of the works – I included U-values for good measure even though I wasn’t specifically asked for them. Both transactions appeared to be not much more than a formality and not a real measure of quality.
One thing we did decide to do in the meantime was to include Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) into this phase of the works. I was creating extra work for myself in this phase, but after over three years of talking to people about retrofit, and the more I learned about it through webinars, masterclasses, my own head spins and speaking to the experts, the more it became clear I had to ensure good ventilation so it was time to bite the bullet and make it happen. I originally hadn’t thought we could afford to do this straight away, but we came into an additional chunk of funds. (A big thanks go to my parents who decided that gifting us some of our inheritance now was more useful than at any point after they were gone. For this we are grateful.)
I notified Building Control two days prior to work commencing, as was required, and emailed / called a couple of times to arrange for a visit mid-works by the BC officer. Richard dealt with her questions – they were generally about fire – while I was confined to quarters (covid, and that’s another story!). We’ll need to arrange a completion visit and then the job’s a goodun. No paperwork as far as I can tell even though we had U-value calculations, standards for humidity in building fabric, ventilation rates and fan efficiency criteria to meet as part of the Building Regulations, and again we’re left feeling not particularly satisfied, and wondering what the point of the BC process is. Answers on a postcard.
Fees for Planning £234, Building Control £374.
Total Retrofit cost to date: £53,141 (£483/m2 GIFA)
A little side story about a porch…
As we’re going back in time with this post, I should have said that part of the site prep works was to get rid of the back porch, a small lean-to with brick walls and single glazing, rotting timbers, wasps nests and a propensity to grow mould which I was glad to see the back of.
In fact, part of my description in the Planning submission was the suggestion we would re-use the bricks for the front steps. Our friend Jonathan – who helped us with the porch – showed us how it was in fact quite difficult to reuse bricks: the cement mortar is so strong it pretty much renders them useless.
As part of some of the work I do – mainly as a member of the Positive Collective – on embodied carbon calculations, the circular economy and waste recycling, I found out that demolition contractors and skip hire outfits have a really high rate of reclamation and recycling: they sort the skip to avoid landfill as much as possible and non-usable bricks do have a second use, usually as loose rubble. DEFRA figures indicate recycling from Construction & Demolition is over 92% in England, and some organisations boast 99.9% landfill diversion rates. So I stopped feeling sick every time I saw a skip outside people’s houses a few months ago, and Mark ordered one with a clear conscience, so that we could take the porch down one weekend (we needed two in the end as we mis-calculated – LOL).
Our heartfelt thanks to the very generous and capable Jonathan and his gem of a son S, Mark and our son T for spending a few hours with sledge hammer, drill and chisel. A satisfying time was had by all, topped off with a Fish & Chip supper with both families and plenty of mirth. Friends with skills are gold.
Skip hire £170. Demolition work, no cost just fun, food and friendship.