Part L: the view from Building Control
John Neal, head of building control at Rushcliffe Borough Council, Nottinghamshire, discusses the impact of Part L 2006 on his team
Raising the bar
Energy efficiency is catching up in the eyes of building control officers. We see Part L 2006 as a great opportunity to slow down global warming, and widen our role from evaluating the technical and structural aspects of a project. Our job is no longer just about whether a wall might fall down; it’s to be sure that buildings don’t consume more energy.
Unfortunately, we were thrown at the deep end. Our biggest problem was that information about Part L was not available even two weeks before it came into force in April. We had planned to get our staff very well trained up beforehand but the regulations were not published on time. It has been a real challenge to educate our clients and train our staff and has made life very difficult. We have had to get our heads round very big differences. Before, for example, only very large buildings were tested for air-tightness, but now we have to manage this on smaller dwellings too.
And we’re aware that Part L 2006 will soon be the basic minimum. A consultation is under way to create a code for sustainable homes, so we’re expecting changes to rainwater and recycling systems early next year.
We’re ready to face revisions to Part L quite regularly, given the political impetus at the moment. I’d be very surprised if it weren’t upgraded every two to three years.
Under Part L, applicants now have to supply us with their carbon usage calculations and we need to check them. We decided to buy the Standard Assessment Protocol 2005 software only for housing and repairs of dwellings because it’s straightforward to use.
It would be considerably more complicated to train our staff to use software for commercial dwellings. On this kind of project we expect the applicants to be working with consultants who do the calculations for them. In some cases we might employ a specialist consultant to check the calculations, but if they look reasonable, it should be fine without a double check. We prefer to help at the lower end, for example with small residential developers.
The Department for Communities & Local Government has planned a scheme of “competent persons” or consultants to carry out energy assessment of buildings, which would mean we could accept their calculations without further checks. But unfortunately the system isn’t up and running yet.
We don’t plan to spend more time on site checks than we used to. For example, for a small housing scheme of five units which has just started on site, the insulation had to be upgraded to comply with the new requirements. An air-tightness test for which the developer is responsible will be done at the end, and we need to receive a copy of the certificate saying the houses pass the test.
Six to eight months ago there was no air-tightness test for residential dwellings so we’ll see how big a problem it will be to reach the standard. We might get more involved if remedial work is necessary. But all being well, our only role will be to get the certificates.
‘L’ stands for ‘longer’
Since the new version of Part L came in it’s started to take significantly more time — I’d say 25% longer — to check a plan than it did under the older regulations. This is because there are more documents to refer to for Part L, and we shouldn’t forget that Part L is only a portion of the regulations we have to check.
We’ve noticed that whatever the new regulation is, it takes up to two years for people to really get the hang of it. With Part L there was no software available on time either, although applications are more correct now than they were six months ago.
We’re still the same number of staff and we still have to give a decision within five weeks — or two months maximum if the applicant agrees. I work with a team of 11 people, seven of which are building control officers.
This year we’ve seen an overall fall in applications of between 3-4%. We don’t attribute this to Part L but to increases in house building costs. As all building control officers know, this figure can
easily go up again. We know which time of year we’ll get overwhelmed with applications. Over the course of the 1,200 applications we
receive at Rushcliffe Borough Council every year, 600 are sent in a period of about three months. There’s always a lot in early spring because everybody is planning then what they’re going to build in the summer.
We’re not electricians
Besides Part L, the revision to Part P on electrical safety has had a dramatic effect on the building control profession. We first realised it was happening a fortnight before it was done. When it came into force at the same time as the revised Part L, it brought a tremendous change. We are now required to carry out electrical testing, whereas under the previous regulation, applicants simply had to supply the certificates. We are very reluctant to do it because we think the applicants should take responsibility. It’s already very difficult to recruit building control officers so the last thing I want to do is send my staff that are not trained as electricians to go and electrocute themselves! Then we’ll have even fewer…
John Neal was speaking to Sonia Soltani.