Back in 2009, I volunteered to sit on a Steering Committee looking at the future of the Building Regulations in England. They were looking for someone to represent the small builder/self-builder/DIY enthusiast and, as it’s an area I frequently write and talk about, I was interested to see if I could add anything to the debate. But, to be honest, it sounded deadly dull and no sooner than I had put my name forward I began to have regrets. But there were no other volunteers – there’s a surprise – and so I duly headed off to London to put in an appearance, hoping that I wouldn’t let the side down by nodding off during the three-hour meeting.
Nod off I didn’t. Now I find myself champing at the bit, looking forward to the next meeting. The other delegates seem equally enthused. Could it really be that the Building Regulations are becoming, well, sexy?
For the vast majority of self-builders and renovators, the ‘Regs’ are anything but. They are seen, at best, as a hurdle to be navigated or, more likely, a set of arbitrary rules which the building inspectors use to cause unnecessary grief. But behind every rule and regulation is a story: an accident maybe, or some problem or troubling statistic.
There is also social history embedded in our Building Regulations: they started after the Great Fire of London in 1666 (now Part B – Fire Safety), and were greatly expanded by the Victorians who built the sewer systems but struggled to keep foul smells out of their homes (now Part H – Drainage and Waste Disposal). Research was undertaken into getting chimneys to function properly (Part J), but no one bothered about saving energy until the 1970s when Part L was introduced. In the past decade, lobbying by the disabled access groups has resulted in a new addition – Part M – which requires us all to make provision for wheelchair users in new homes. Interestingly, there are no rules about either room or house size or, indeed, ceiling height. What does this say about us?
Some radicals have called for a complete dismantling of the Building Regs. “Belgium has no Building Regs,” they say, “let’s do away with all this red tape.” While Belgium, like other countries, doesn’t have Building Regs, new homes built there do seem to be enforced — albeit, with a much lighter touch than in the UK. In Britain the trend seems to be going in the other direction. The energy-efficiency Regs are due for another ‘upgrade’ soon, Part M is set to become even more onerous, and rules on water usage are about to be introduced for the first time. It’s unlikely that our Building Regs are going to disappear anytime soon.
But they are going to be streamlined — which is where this Steering Committee comes in. Exactly what is going to happen remains unclear, but the sort of issues up for discussion include separating out the domestic and non-domestic Regulations. The domestic Regs are generally much simpler and they account for 80% of all Building Regs applications, so having a set specifically for domestic work would probably be a boon. Scotland has already done this and it doesn’t appear to have caused too many problems there.
Another idea is to have more project-specific Regs, so that works like extensions and loft conversions could have their own publications, with all the relevant Regs in one easily referenced guide.
But perhaps the biggest area of contention is how to deal with the Regs online. At the moment you can access (and download at planningportal.gov.uk) all the Building Regs for free. What you get is a simple PDF of the paper document. There exists the possibility, however, of making the online versions much more interactive by including hyperlinks to other reference material, hover-over definitions and some vastly improved illustrations or even video links. The internet has the potential to transform the Regs from a rulebook into an encyclopedia or even a lecture theatre. Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — all these connective media have relevance to the way we build, and to the dissemination of best practice, which is ultimately what the Building Regs are all about. The problem is, we could end up with two different sets of Building Regs – one on paper and one online – which might not quite agree about every detail.
In trying to make them more ‘user-friendly’, we could just end up causing confusion. But the hope is that, in a few years time, you will be able to access lots of officially approved advice online, and that it might even be interesting and informative to read or watch. If this Steering Committee gets its way, we will be sexing up the Building Regs.