Why the Governments changes to Permitted Development are not such a great idea – Planning changes

The changes

At the end of the summer the Government announced in a blaze of publicity that for one year only the rules on Permitted Development (work that can legally be undertaken without planning permission) would be relaxed. The story indicated that the relaxation would double the size of extensions that could be built without permission. The change it was said, would free householders of the red tape that usually accompanies a home extension, thus allowing more building work which would aid the economy.  The story made the main 10.00pm news and for a couple of days was chewed over in the national papers until they lost interest. The headline figures quoted were that householders would be able to extend a detached house to the rear by up to 8m in depth without obtaining Planning Permission and a semi detached or terraced property by up to 6m.Changes to Permitted Development

Permitted Development = less red tape

For a week or so after the story broke I found myself having to explain to clients the potential impact on their proposal. Not that I purposely set out to design schemes that will not need consent, but removing a layer of red tape in not having to gain planning permission has to be a good thing or not?  I don’t take any planning application for granted, but on the smaller projects the demands of many planning offices are disproportionate to the scale of the proposal. And as every application boils down to a subjective view as to whether the planning officer or the local councillors support the scheme, it is an obstacle I would rather not negotiate unless needed. So on smaller projects it is appreciated when the project can proceed as permitted development without the uncertainty and extra hurdles that a planning application entails.  So given my position you would think I would relish the opportunity to design larger extensions without the interference of the local planning authority. However, despite the benefits of greater freedom from planning I strongly oppose the changes.

The existing rules 

The current rules on Permitted Development which can be found on the planning portal extend back to 2008 when a project and impact based approach was introduced to determine whether something required permission. The project impact based approach, allowed a greater degree of freedom for householders to extend their properties controlled by various dimensional constraints that protect the surrounding neighbourhood. The dimensional constraints are the only protection that neighbours’ have from unneighbourly poorly designed or located extensions.  For example an attached house can currently be extended by 3m to the rear with a single storey extension.  Whilst the 3m depth is most likely an arbitrary figure with little logic or science behind it, it does never the less allow an attached house to be extended by a reasonable but small room depth, or more often when opened up to an existing room at the rear of the house, can create large room depths which are typically 6 to 7m deep. In addition 3 m is around the depth that a lean to tiled roof can comfortably be pitched to allow a waterproof roof to be installed beneath most upper windows.  The 3m depth invariably has an impact on the outlook of adjoining neighbouring windows, creating partially restricted views when looking out of windows which are sited close to the boundary and a degree of shading which varies with the orientation of the property.  But at 3m a neighbouring extension is unlikely to appear as a dominant or be highly detrimental to the neighbours’ outlook.

The changes have no logic

If the existing rules on Permitted Development have little logic or science behind them, the proposed changes have absolutely none.  The changes can only be viewed as a knee jerk reaction to a politicians’ question of “how can we double the number of extensions built without planning?” to which the response by some civil servant was presumably “Double the permitted depth.” This statement assumes that there is the same number of people wishing to add 6m to their homes as there is wanting to add 3m. My experience as a designer having talked and listened to over 1000 people wishing to extend their home does not support that view. In my opinion the distance needed to double the number of projects not needing planning would be around 3.6 to 4.5m.

What people want when it comes to extending

The very notion that doubling the permitted depth would double the number of extensions that could be built without planning, shows a complete lack of understanding of how the majority of people think about extending their homes. Typically people want to add a room or add extra space to an existing room, adding 3 to 4m gives them that space. Adding 6m to an existing room would create a room depth of say 9 to 10m which on an attached house which are usually narrower than detached houses would be a crazy size, that arrangement or one that involved the space being divided up into smaller rooms would also create problems of natural lighting in the old part of the house. The suggested 6m depth also overlooks the fact that the majority of householders care about the look of their house and do not necessary extend to the maximum permitted, but will limit the size if it can result in a pitched roof that better matches their home.  These same people will often have an interest in not upsetting their neighbours and would again limit the size of the extension near the boundary so as not to cause offence.

It is therefore people who do not consider the need for their own property to have a particularly good layout with natural lighting that will benefit from the proposed changes. These same people are unlikely to care whether their extension echoes the style of their house and will ignore any consideration of the neighbours in their bid to build the maximum permitted extension.

Impact on neighbours

Under the new proposal, a householder wishing to add a flat roofed extension could build a 3m high wall, 6m long on the boundary with an adjoining neighbour.  Such an extension would severely restrict the outlook from the rear of the neighbouring property and subject to the orientation cast large areas of shadowing on the rear windows whilst rendering parts of the rear garden in shade. If this were to happen on both sides of a terraced house, the outlook would be tunnelled and the shade would make parts of the garden effectively unusable. The middle neighbour would suffer at the cost of allowing the neighbouring properties to extend. In the existing course of events these extensions would require planning permission and would rightly be refused by any sensible planning authority.

If the existing rules on Permitted Development are based on a project and impact based approach, the proposed changes will throw away any regard for the consideration of the neighbours and could no longer be said to be based on impact.

PS. Following the introduction of the new rules on Permitted Development read how the changes will be implemented to safeguard the views of neighbours in Permitted Development – the Changes 2013.

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Form follows function

We all know that the planning system has an impact on the final design of a home extension or new house project and not necessary in a beneficial way, but what part do Building Regulations play in shaping the design?

Building Regulations and design

The Building Regulations control the manner in which new buildings are constructed and how they will be used to ensure that they are structurally sound, energy efficient, safe in case of fire and have suitable access for disabled people. Among other things they also control services such as electrical wiring, boilers, flues, drainage and ventilation. But it is the non services regulations that have a direct impact on home design and our lives.

In ensuring a home and its components’ are suitable in deflection, shear, stress, bearing, buttressing as well as lateral stability and roof spread the overall design is often shaped in the process of making the home buildable. When considering a home’s structural stability, it really is a case of form following function.

In achieving the regulations’ goals as far as fire safety is concerned, open plan layouts in three storey houses, with the staircase open to lower rooms is a non starter. And the regulations regarding access could be viewed as being even more restrictive to design freedom. However, whilst the majority of regulations are applicable to all work, the rules governing access are only applicable to new homes. So, stepping the ground floor down when entering a large room as a way to gain better proportions and creating a generous feeling of space can be achieved on an extension but not on a new house.

The objectives for energy conservation also dictate the design of houses in the UK. You only need to look at the small windows in estate housing from the early 1980s to see how big developers shied away from installing compulsory double glazed windows (in larger openings) to discover how even quite soft regulations can shape our homes.

Shaping design

So designing your dream home or extension is one thing. However, shaping a home that balances the needs of the home owner against the plethora of requirements for Planning and Building Regulations, requires not only a knowledge and understanding of the requirements, but a canny application of their use (and possible avoidance) with a focus on the overall design.

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Knock down or rebuild?

When undertaking a large project such as remodelling or the heavy extension of an existing house, the question that often arises is; wouldn’t it be better to knock the lot down and start from scratch? To fully answer that question, involves having a thorough understanding of the red tape, logistics, design and economics that may go with it.

Red Tape

Compared to extending and remodelling, carrying out a new build will add significantly to the administrative and technical requirements needed to satisfy the planners, building inspector and the mortgage company.

An extension or remodelling project will involve a householder planning application, whereas a new house will require a full planning application.  The planners will invariably impose a whole raft of extra hurdles to overcome that wouldn’t have been the case with the simpler householder application.  Depending on the location the extra information required could include flood risk assessments, ecological and biodiversity reports, noise impact assessments, community involvement statements all alongside the mandatory design statement. Bizarrely you may find that the house does not fit with the local authority’s goals as set out in their local plan for new housing, in an urban setting they may consider the site warrants more than one dwelling and / or that your proposal is too large if in the countryside.

Applying Building Regulations to the whole building as opposed to simply the extended or altered areas will invariably result in carrying out or installing features that you hadn’t banked on. Not that these features are bad in themselves, but once the entire building becomes subject to current legislation as opposed to simply say the extension, things can go a little array. For example the house would need to be wheelchair friendly on the ground floor. This might mean that the WC compartment needs to be larger than the one it replaces, or that you couldn’t have a step in the ground floor levels. Building Control will also require the whole property to meet present day energy conservation regulations, this will result in air testing, higher specifications and practices in the build.

Unless the project is financed without a loan and there are no plans to sell the completed property in the next 10 years or so, the house will require a building warranty. Even if the project isn’t financed through a loan it would always be prudent to secure a warranty on the home, so as to be in a position to sell it to someone that might need a mortgage should the need arise. The need for a building warranty will bring about additional controls and measures into the planning and the build process.

Logistics

Where to live during the build, is usually the greatest logistical problem faced by most people knocking down their home. Whilst moving out can apply to extensions and remodelling, there is no getting away from the fact, that relocating home, at the same time as embarking on a large project is a daunting prospect. Ideally it is best to have a base  close to the site so that you can keep an eye on things and respond to issues that arise.

The additional red tape will result in the project taking longer to commence and when it does finally get off the ground, demolition will mean that the work goes into reverse before it can move forward.  Demolition will require materials to be sorted for recycling, services being disconnected and any adjacent buildings being weatherproofed or even shored up. However, once the existing building has been removed and the site has been turned into a brown field, work should be more straightforward with little need for extras from unforeseen work.

Once demolished, speedier progress can be made on the areas of the property that would have been altered. For example forming a structural opening in an existing wall can take longer than building a new wall and placing a lintel or beam on it.  Material movements in and out of the site will be just under doubled on a total rebuild, which on a small site or one with poor access could be an aggravating factor with neighbours.

Design

The design will play a large factor in whether it is viable to retain the old house or demolish it. If the design necessitates moving every window and door position, knocking down so many walls and removing the roof so that the original house becomes unrecognisable, then you would be right to question whether it is better to demolish the house. This situation becomes clearer when heavily extending a small property to create a very large home. In this case it would probably be wrong to dictate the scale and design of the smaller property on to the larger home.

A remodelling scheme that works well with the existing house will cleverly use the existing scale and shape of the building, whether this is maintaining existing window apertures, or retaining large areas of walls and roof lines, all will help to keep the budget under control. If however a design is imposed on an existing house that is not suitable, either the cost will spiral out of control, or the result will be a bodged design, in that scenario it would be prudent to knock it down and start from scratch.

Economics

The big saving on a demolition and rebuild is due to regulations which allow the 20% VAT paid on eligible goods used in the construction to be claimed back at the end of the build. There are a number of rules and restrictions limiting what can and cannot be claimed for, all of which nibble away at the headline saving.

Offset against the VAT saving is the added cost of demolition and works associated with building a modern house. Demolition and disposal of the old house is best contracted to a professional demolition crew which could cost £3,000 to £10,000 depending on the size of the existing property.

Living in a second home, even if that is simply a large caravan onsite will eat into the overall saving, as will the increased bureaucracy and additional work needed to satisfy regulatory requirements.

The new home warranty will add around 1% to the budget for the paperwork. The actual cost of a new home warranty could rise to much more due to the need for the builder to be a paid up registered member of the warranty scheme, which effectively removes a lot of smaller extension builders from the equation.

Conclusion

Totally demolishing what is likely to be your greatest asset to create a brown field site for a new build is by anyone’s standards a scary thing to do. Even with such a bold step the savings are not likely to be the headline 20% which can be claimed back on VAT.

Careful planning and design of a remodelling project that works with rather than against the existing house will keep the budget under control. Only by fully costing and appraising the options of remodelling against demolition and rebuild will the true benefit if there is any, be determined.

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Planning – Timescales

Clients often ask; “How long does it take to get Planning and Building Regulation consent?” Unfortunately the answer is not always as straight forward as it may seem.

Most local authority planning offices are run as bureaucratic enforcers with a top down public sector management structure, that has little room for individual thinking or common sense application at the front line.  But enter the world of local authority planning we must, a world where time and common sense take on another dimension. The craziness starts with a Government target for how well a local authority planning services performs, which is all based on how many applications are decided within 8 weeks of registration, with 80% being the target.  I say the craziness starts, as it is worth noting that the target is for % of applications decided, it matters not whether the application is approved or refused as long as the local authority does it within 8 weeks.

However for the clock to start ticking, the local authority must first register the application. In the process of making literally 100s of applications to a dozen different local authorities, I have come across many tricks to delay this registration and trigger point for the 8 weeks to start. The most common of these is the registration clerk asking for additional information on the basis that “we are asking for it because we can and we always ask for it” rather than setting the tick box list aside and looking at the scheme rationally and asking “why do we really need this extra piece of information?” Ok, so extra information is supplied, the paperwork is completed and the Council staff can tick all their boxes to allow the application to be registered and the clock to start ticking towards the 8 week target, soon the applicant can get building right?

Wrong.  If the local authority fails to decide the application in 8 weeks and misses out on a Government brownie point, you would think they would pull out all the stops to decide the application in the immediate weeks that follow. Unfortunately, in the world of local authority planning where tick box mentality rules and widgets are the nature of the game, deciding the application in 19 weeks is just as bad (or as good) as deciding it in 9 weeks and if they can put their energy into someone else’s application that is only 7 weeks old then that becomes the priority.

During this period there is likely to be a dialogue with the local authority planners. However if you want an approval the two way dialogue is normally biased on the side of the planners. Even if the designer has put their heart and soul in to a scheme and the applicant loves the project and has pinned their hopes and dreams on the project going ahead, whilst the neighbours have raised no objections to the proposal, you are unlikely to hear a planner say that they also like it. I can honestly say that experience has never happened on any projects that I have been involved with. The first point of discussion is more likely going to be a criticism of the scheme in some way, or a requirement to provide yet another bit of paper to satisfy a different tick box that hadn’t been thought of earlier.

In short, yes 8 out of 10 planning applications are decided in 8 weeks, no sooner or later. However, the remaining 20% are a different story entirely. It is into this latter category that your project is likely to fall if your dream extension or new house isn’t the same as everyone else’s and it isn’t the mediocrity that the tick box system rewards, whilst blighting so many of our towns and villages.

Fortunately the last couple of decades have seen positive changes in the other regulatory service of Building Control, which until the introduction of competition had a similar reputation as a bureaucratic enforcer. The improvements in the service have been driven firstly by a change in regulation that moved from prescriptive to performance requirements and then the real threat from competition. Today most local authority Building Control offices are customer focused in a way that has driven down turnaround times for processing applications to a few weeks and improved technical support. Building Control Officers offer plain and helpful advice and speak with autonomy without constantly looking over their shoulder wondering whether their line manager will agree.

I have worked on projects that have taken less than two weeks to obtain the regulatory consents, where the work was Permitted Development to well over a year where the planners chose to block the project at every step only to be overruled by the Planning Inspectorate.  The bottom line is the sooner you start planning, the sooner you can start building.

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Small space big on style

Small home extensions when carried out with clever internal remodelling can create dramatic open plan layouts. These new internal spaces are best when they benefit from additional natural lighting and secret structural beams. One project where the addition of a small space has created a big style is Osborne View.

The original attached house had been extended in the past with a two storey extension and a conservatory to the rear. The resulting layout created three different spaces on the rear ground floor which felt disjointed. In late 2010 we were engaged to design an extension to replace the conservatory as well as remodel the interior. Working with a newly extended  floor plan of only 9.6m2 (3.5 x 2.8m internally) we came up with a design which when coupled with the homeowner’s choice of kitchen created a small space that is big on style.

Our design opened the new extension out to the existing separate kitchen and dining rooms and introduced a utility in part of the original kitchen. The kitchen moved into the new extension and folding sliding doors completed the look.

The original house and conservatory.

The kitchen in the space of the old conservatory.

The island lit by overhead windows.

Sliding folding doors replace the rear window.

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Open plan layouts

The trend for modern open plan interior floorplans in British homes continues.  In the last couple of years every one of our clients who has planned an extension has made a modern open plan layout top of their wishlist. The advent of less draughty buildings coupled with a higher insulated fabric and better performing doors and windows means people can afford and want us to get creative with their family spaces. These open plan layouts usually combine the kitchen with the dining and living areas to create a multi functional space that becomes the social hub of the house. Long gone are the days when family members were confined to different zoned rooms, today’s layouts are all about the experience of shared activities and family involvement.  All this is a long way from the developer designs of separate kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms.

Open plan extension design

Modern open plan layout design

Seemless blend

Even if homeowners are willing to embrace open plan living, from a technical point of view, not all properties are so easy to adapt to a modern layout. Often the rear of an older home is divided into two spaces of the kitchen and dining room, with the design requiring not only the removal of the rear wall of the house to open it up to the new extension but also the wall separating the two rooms.  Securely and discretely supporting the upper structure in a seemless blend of old and new is a craft in itself. Lighting, ventilation, traffic flow, drainage, services, furniture and cabinet layouts all need to be thrown into the mix and require early attention for the design to work well.

Change in lifestyle

How home owners use and live in a home with an open plan layout often requires changes in lifestyle. The transformation of the floor plan to an open layout, is journey for the house and more often than not the home owner is on a similar journey of change.  Moving from separate kitchen and dining rooms to an open plan layout means that noise from appliances spills out into quieter areas. The need to store and discreet clutter when there is less available wall space for cupboards, becomes important and more often the need to separate the laundry and create a utility area may become necessary.

Flexibility is the word

Often conditioned by the spaces we live in, the flexibility of open plan rooms allows the space to flow and change around us as we change. Need more dining area for that big dinner get together? then just grab the space from the living room. Need more space to watch the game with friends? then move the Dining table. Open plan layouts are in demand even if many of the speculative house builders hadn’t quite noticed.

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