The Building Regulations - it hardly needs saying - must be greeted with fear and loathing. But oddly, says Gus Alexander, they can instil a feeling approximating joy - if only for 10 seconds

I daren’t look at any post delivered to my door that looks official. But in the same way that Roman emperors had food tasters, I have a long-suffering architect colleague who has recently tested, and then handed onto me, the latest installment in So You Thought You Knew Everything There Was to Know about the Building Regulations?” Actually what it said was: “Prepared for the New Building Regulations?” to which my answer was emphatically “no”.

Forget about architecture being the poetry of construction, this was ’nobody cares what you build this out of as long as it satisfies the conditions of clause 2(a), etc, etc’

At my end of the construction industry, we pass below the radar of much of the legislation. Most of our clients don’t store huge amounts of flammable liquids and we seldom go higher than two or three storeys. A lot of the buildings we work on are listed (or listing) so there is a lot of “to match existing”. What mainly concerns us is fire, the means of escape and insulation of all kinds. But now that we have to face up to our role in saving the planet, there is lots more that we have to deal with.

Perhaps it is just that everything becomes more complicated. A few years ago a planning consultant was someone you were on friendly enough terms with to ring up and ask what the policy was on small dwellings in the Thames corridor. Now they are someone you have to book an appointment to see on the way back from your first visit to a prospective client so you can check if there have been any changes to the draft PPG15 strategic outline guidelines (19(b)(ii)) which means that as from last week everything you have known for 30 years is obsolete.

It is getting the same with Building Regulations. Already there are four new publications that are just guides to the new regulations (parts F, L, J and G). In the past, it was hard enough working out the solution. Now I can’t even understand the problem.

I rang up one of my building control contacts in the Royal Borough last week. He did not ooze sympathy: “I don’t understand, Mr Alexander. A month ago you persuaded me that I did not have to make you reinstate a wall on a means of escape, and now you are asking me what I think of the new regulations.”

I was hoping he would say that if we thought it was difficult out here at the design front, what did we imagine it was like for them at the sharp end? Not a bit of it. Being regulators, they just love new regulations. They go on courses to discuss them and courses to implement them, and probably anger management workshops to deal with people like me who ring up to complain about them. To be fair, they do run explanatory courses for the benefit of people in the industry, so I can’t really complain.

Already there are four new publications which are just guides to the regulations. In the past it was hard enough working out the solution. Now I can’t even understand the problem

Building control used to be all about drawings, but recently it’s become more about notes. I remember looking at some housebuilders’ layouts pinned on a wall in a site hut and there seemed to be no construction details at all. They were basically the planning drawings with a few numbers written on the doors and windows, and an airbrick or two, and then what
looked like excerpts from the Bible printed in tiny writing all the way down both sides of the drawing. Forget about architecture being the poetry of construction, this was “nobody cares what you build this out of as long as it satisfies the conditions of clause 2(a), etc ,etc”.

The key thing is to know the manufacturer with the right software. One day you are suicidal because you think you are going to have to line a tiny room with 150mm of insulation, which means your client can no longer fit their cherished baby grand into it, the next you’ve found someone in the bowels of the technical department of Miraclo Extrusions who has a specification for Wonderboard Mark 3 that means you can keep the inspector happy with 28mm.

However onerous the regulations are, once you have learned how to deal with them, there is that wonderful feeling of “knowing the answer”. Like the 10 seconds after you find out about where to source transparent intumescent paint. This feeling is a great deal more agreeable than the one you had two hours before when you’d seen a message that your client - the one with the four-month-old invoice outstanding - was hysterical because the building inspector had thrown a wobbly about the tinderbox nature of the Georgian polished pine panelling on his principal stair.

Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London