A lofty price to pay.

We are sometimes asked to resolve the problems homeowners have been left with following some building work. It nearly always involves loft conversions and the story is often similar to this:

Woman sees ad in a newspaper advertising loft conversions. She meets a builder, who seems credible and knowledgeable, he says he can convert the loft for about £10,000. He says she won’t have to worry about a thing as he will arrange all the building consents needed and will not require any money until the work is finished. No plans are provided, but the work proceeds apace. The day comes when the stairs go in and a short time later the client is invited to take a look. Wow, is often the first reaction, because out of a dark, inaccessible space that was only ever seen from the top of a ladder, a bright spacious new room has been created with its ‘interesting’ geometry for walls and windows that flood the room with light. That is probably the pinnacle of the experience for many, as the interesting geometry becomes a challenge when you try to position the furniture or even getting it up there. The sun blazes in and you are surprised by just how effective the sun can be at melting chocolate at 10am in the morning. Of course, the little design issues can be reconciled with the knowledge that you have a new bedroom or study space at a relatively low cost. Then the Building Inspector knocks on the door and it transpires that no application was made, no stage inspections took place, let alone a formal approval. A list of queries from the Local Building Control is received in the post some days later and the builder has disappeared off the radar.

Sometimes the issues can be resolved for a few thousand pounds, but occasionally the only advice that can be given is to remove the stairs and forget the new room and the money. How do you avoid the above? Get it designed before the work starts so you know what you’re getting, and choose a builder that has been recommended by an independent credible source. Loft conversions seldom cost less than £18,000 and often more. A good thorough design process can keep the costs down and make the on site a bit more efficient.

A photo in the style of an oil painting of a yellow safety helmet typically worn by builders.

Building is not just about putting one brick on top of another.

The other month I commented on how the public seem to rely on builders to problem solve, and how sometimes that trust in their knowledge is misplaced. Before I continue, please let me explain that I have a high regard for most builders as they are used to dealing with problems and finding a solution. The problem is that their good will and endeavours are not always matched by their knowledge. The phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know” comes to mind here. The main problem is that builders and the general public don’t appreciate that despite the fact that the building process looks so crude, it’s still a technology. People seem to think that architects do pretty pictures, and builders convert these pictures into reality. Of course there should be a process in the middle where the pretty pictures get converted into detail which the builder can price up and build from, without this, it becomes guess work.

I happened upon a project this week where the builder (for good reason) had departed from the plans, had taken delivery of some beams 7 metres long and was about to use them without any intermediate support. What a mistake that would have been! He had assumed that if they came this long, they would span this far. On checking with the manufacturers, the beams needed intermediate support and would only span 4 metres maximum. The building inspector would probably have spotted this, but that can’t be guaranteed. The floor would have been very bouncy and any floor tiles would have cracked. There was nothing on the delivery information to give a clue. It’s very scary. We need to respect the technology of the building.

The UK used to be much respected for its building technology and standards at one time, but it would not be justified now I feel which is a shame. I would like to see this technology taught at a basic level, perhaps in design technology in schools or even as an apprenticeship, so that at least those indotrinated would have a starting point from which to go on and learn more. They would know that there was more to the subject and that for instance it can matter which way up a brick is laid.