Complex regulation documents have often left small builders scratching their heads. But a new guide aims to help them comply – starting with the humble loft conversion

There was a time when building a domestic extension was relatively straightforward. Armed with experience and a grasp of the relevant regulations, a competent small builder could tackle most projects with confidence. But as Building Regulations have become more complex, so has the task of complying with them. Even domestic builders may need to wade through 14 approved documents to make sure their designs comply. The problem is compounded by the fact that the documents try to cover a wide range of building uses and situations, rather than specific types of project.

According to Graham McClure of McClure Contracts, complying with the Building Regulations can be arduous. “I’ve stopped doing loft conversions because they are so onerous,” he says. “The approved documents seem incomprehensible at times. I now focus on more technically challenging projects, which we have architects and consulting engineers involved in.”

This concern has not escaped the government’s attention. Its Future of Building Control consultation, carried out in March last year, highlighted the growing technical complexity and length of the approved documents. It also drew attention to the fact that most small builders rely heavily on Building Control officers to give them the information they need to comply and keep up to date with new regulations.

In response to the consultation, the Construction Products Association (CPA) and warranty provider the NHBC drew up a 192-page draft guide on loft conversion, which is now out for public consultation.

But why lofts? According to Chris Derzypilskyj, technical policy adviser with the CPA, who put together the guide, the CPA carried out a survey of local authorities to find out which were the most problematic domestic projects – over half said lofts.

“This is partly because of the variety of projects and also the fact that a lot of work is undertaken on a building notice, which means problems are often not realised until the work is well under way,” explains Derzypilskyj. “The quantity and quality of free guidance available on loft conversions is both limited and outdated.” It’s also an area that can attract less scrupulous builders, so clients need clearer guidance to give them a better understanding of what is required.

So what does the guidance aim to achieve? According to Derzypilskyj, it has been produced to help architects and contractors better understand the relevant Building Regulations requirements and make compliance easier. “It is not intended to cover every aspect of the design and is not a replacement for the approved documents, but it does offer a good starting point,” he says.

I’ve stopped doing loft conversions because they are so onerous. The approved documents seem incomprehensible

Graham McClure

From structure to sustainability, the guidance pulls together all the information from the approved documents that might be relevant. It also includes the second and third-tier documents that they might refer to.

As well as pointing out likely pitfalls, the guidance shows where clients can go beyond the basic requirements of the regulations and sets out ways to achieve “good” or “best” standards, such as providing advice on what kind of thermal insulation might result in improved energy bills and a better energy performance certificate rating.

Producing comprehensive guidance wasn’t without its problems, however. Fire safety information added to the length, says Derzypilskyj, as it is repeated due to bungalows, two-storey and three-storey homes being covered separately. And the chapter on insulation had to cover all the most common varieties – including rigid board, extruded polystyrene, mineral wool, multifoils and expanded polystyrene.

“I have worked as a building inspector for a local authority and as an approved inspector,” says Derzypilskyj. “I can see why manufacturers want more consistency in applying the Building Regulations, to ensure their products are installed correctly.”

The big question is: will the guide deliver? According to Tony Fenton, head of building control at Westminster District Surveyors the idea is a good one. “It is usually the small builders that come to us for guidance on complying with the regulations. A lot of the time what they are looking for is simple, prescriptive guidance rather than regulations that need interpreting”. He does add a caution though. “These type of guides need to be short, they want something simple and specific”.

The loft conversion guide’s approach of bringing together solutions offered in the approved documents with third-tier guidance may go a long way to demystify regulations. If it is a success, it is hoped that there will be many more such guides to come.