Building control – constructing a modern, diverse profession

A fire destroys England’s oldest hotel; a car crashes into a Northern Ireland shop; a sinkhole opens up after heavy rain hits a Surrey village. On the face of it, these stories from the past twelve months are unrelated. But in each case building control officers were called to the scene to assess the buildings in question.

Of course, not every aspect of a building control surveyor’s day makes the news, but the role of enforcing national building regulations does have far-reaching impacts. On one day, a building control officer might be suggesting ways to improve the energy efficiency of a new building, and on the next, assessing whether fire-damaged property should be demolished.

A profession in the making

Building control goes back centuries. After the Great Fire of London wiped out 80% of the city in 1666, a new London building act banned the use of timber-framed houses and gave surveyors powers to enforce the regulations. The first national building regulations were introduced in the 1960s, initially in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK. Subsequent changes have improved the overall quality of new and altered buildings, provided practical guidance on compliance, and made provision for private sector approved inspectors to compete with local authority building control officers.

The first national building regulations were introduced in the 1960s, initially in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK. Subsequent changes have improved the overall quality of new and altered buildings, provided practical guidance on compliance, and made provision for private sector approved inspectors to compete with local authority building control officers. More recently – as our previous blog post explained – new regulations have introduced a requirement for new homes to have easy access to fast, reliable broadband networks.

The challenges of change

Changing legislation is just one of many challenges facing the building control profession. In recent years, increasing numbers of properties across the country have experienced severe damage as a result of storms and flooding – widely regarded as by-products of climate change. Meanwhile, a shortage of housing has spurred on ever-more creative solutions, such as building on top of existing structures, and extending apartments below ground (so-called iceberg homes). All of these developments have implications for building control. Innovations in building technology and a government pledge to build a million new homes by 2020 will only add to the future demands for building control expertise.

But Britain’s army of building control surveyors is growing older, with increasing numbers reaching retirement. A recent report for the Department for Communities and Local Government noted that building control bodies are likely to face “significant problems replacing experienced staff as their workforce approaches state pension age”.

Attracting a new generation

Skills shortages have been exacerbated by a poor pipeline of new recruits. Young people who may have a limited understanding of building control and its opportunities are unlikely to pursue it as a career. As a result, building control bodies have been accelerating their efforts to attract new talent.

One approach has come from the Association of Consultant Approved Inspectors (ACAI) – the professional body for the private sector of building control. In 2015, ACAI devised a new apprenticeship programme. The two-part scheme offers a 16-18 apprenticeship programme for school-leavers, and a graduate/career development option for those aged 18 and over.

Elsewhere, the Construction Industry Council (CIC), which represents professionals in all sectors of the built environment, has developed a building control technical support apprenticeship for individuals providing practical support on projects covering assessment of building regulations and inspection of compliance on site.

It’s also important for the building control profession to spotlight its high achievers. Local Authority Building Control (LABC), which represents councils’ building control teams in England and Wales, does this through its annual Superstar and Trainee of the Year awards.

A diverse and inclusive profession

The recruitment challenge for building control is all the greater when it comes to inclusivity. In 2016, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reported that 13% of the workforce in the land, property and built environment profession were female, and just 1.2% were Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). Those with disabilities were at less than 1%, and there was no data for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representation. The number of qualified female building control surveyors working for local authorities has grown from just 26 in 1986, but the proportion today is still a disappointing 15%.

RICS includes building control professionals among its 118,000 members, and in 2015 the institution unveiled a new initiative to make the property and construction sector more inclusive and diverse. Launching the Inclusive Employers Quality Mark (IEQM), RICS External Affairs Director Kim Worts stressed the need for the profession to respond to demographic changes and shifting employee expectations:

“We need to bring more skilled and qualified people into our sector, and until we change the culture in the workplace, we are not going to attract the brightest and the best.”

So far, more than 120 employers have pledged their support for inclusion and diversity. Among those signing up for the IEQM are Rolls-Royce, Gerald Eve property consultants and Northumbria University.

Selling the unsung heroes

Building control is much misunderstood, even among industry professionals. A senior manager from a major construction firm who was on the judging panel for the 2016 LABC building control awards expressed surprise at the full extent of the profession’s reach:

“I was amazed by the scope and depth of work carried out by building control and we saw many examples of great work by individuals covering training, emergencies and danger to the public, consumer protection and everyday support for good builders, architects, developers and property owners. It certainly helped me to see local authority building control in a new light.”

Building control is a keystone in the system that keeps our buildings safe, sustainable, energy efficient and accessible for all. But if it is to continue with its work and mission, it will need all the help it can get in spreading the word to the next generation of building control professionals.


Idox’s innovative technologies for the sector – including iApply and a new Building Inspector app – will continue to support building control departments and officers, whatever the future may hold.

Further reading

Building inclusivity: Laying the foundations for the future
This 2016 report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors looks at all aspects of diversity and inclusion in the land, property and construction sector.

Mind the gap – how can the construction industry tackle its skills shortage?
Published on the Idox blog in September 2016, this article considers the factors driving skills shortages in the construction sector, and looks at possible solutions.

Controlling the future
This article from the summer 2015 issue of the RICS Building Control journal (p.15) describes the ACAI apprenticeship programme which aims to attract new entrants into the building control profession.

Going underground: in London, basement digging is a cheaper way to property expansion – but councils are getting tough on “iceberg homes”

ANTHONY_SALVIN_-_11_Hanover_Terrace_Regent's_Park_London_NW1_4RJ_est (1)

London’s Hanover Terrace, where Damien Hirst is planning an ambitious basement extension to his 19th century villa. Image by Spudgun67 via Creative Commons

 “It was the newly dug three-storey basement that had the guests buzzing. Below the cinema, gym and spa (complete with sauna, pool and massage table) sprawled an enormous six-car garage. But how did the vehicles get down there? Our host, an American who worked in finance, was only too happy to demonstrate: The cars were lowered down by a custom-built automobile elevator built into the parking pad in the side garden.”
Maclean’s 29 July 2015

Basement conversions and extensions are making a big noise in London. In 2001, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea received 46 planning applications for basement conversions. By 2013, that figure had soared to 450 applications. Rising house prices in the capital are making basement conversions more attractive, mostly to super-rich owners. The expansions can add millions to the value of their already expensive properties, and for those needing additional space a conversion can be cheaper than moving home.

But the trend to build down is not universally popular. Some conversions have hit the headlines because ambitious projects by rich and famous owners have triggered objections from their rich and famous neighbours:

  • in 2015, Jon Hunt, founder of Foxtons estate agency, won a legal battle with his neighbours (the French Embassy) to build an enormous basement to house his classic cars (the Embassy plans to challenge the ruling)
  • in 2013, Daimler-Benz heir Gert-Rudolf Flick got permission for a two-storey basement beneath his £30 million house in South Kensington. More than 50 local residents, including the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, had objected to the construction plans, which they described as “entirely selfish”
  • last year, Queen guitarist Brian May launched a campaign to ban “iceberg homes” that can occupy more space below ground than the original property above

The bad feeling caused by these subterranean grand designs has spawned a new type of nimby – the “numbing” (Not Under My Bloody Idiot Neighbour’s Garden). Disgruntled neighbours’ concerns include:

  • the disruption caused by traffic, plant and equipment
  • the effects on the structural stability of nearby buildings and roads
  • the noise generated during construction (an experience described by Brian May as “an instrument of torture”)

The role of planning

Beyond the headlines, it’s planning authorities who have to deal with applications for basement extensions and to consider the implications.

Conversions of existing cellars don’t always require planning permission, unless the external appearance of the building is altered, for example by adding a light well. However, excavating the ground under a building to create a new basement may require planning permission, and these are the types of projects that can ignite disputes. As Westminster City Council’s 2014 planning guidance observes, with admirable understatement: “basement development is often contentious…”

Rewriting the rules on basement digging

In 2014, the rising tide of concerns prompted the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to revise its policy on basement development. The new policy restricts the extent of basement excavation to no more than under half the garden or open part of the site and limits the depth of excavation to a single storey in most cases.

Westminster City Council has moved to make similar changes to its basement extension policy, as has Richmond Council. As well as acknowledging residents’ concerns about noise and disruption, councils are anxious to address the wider environmental impact both during and after basement development. Westminster’s policy notes that:

“The uses associated with basement spaces may be more energy intensive due to additional requirements for lighting, ventilation and pumps, particularly where underground rooms house swimming pools and media rooms.”

Even if planning permission is not needed for basement development, the changes must comply with building control rules on fire safety, ventilation and structure. Neighbours affected by basement projects should also be aware of their legal position:

The only way is down?

The number of planning applications for domestic basements in London may have more than tripled since 2011, but a sharp deceleration in the rate of growth last year indicates that the trend may have peaked. As more boroughs tighten the conditions imposed on basement development, building costs are likely to rise and planning processes may be prolonged.

For some owners, however, thousands of pounds in additional costs is a drop in the ocean. Last month, artist Damien Hirst overcame council objections to extend the basement of his home in Westminster. Once the work is complete, it could more than double the value of his historic mansion, making it worth £100 million.

Grand designs: the Glasgow office for Idox is one of Scotland’s best buildings

By James Carson

As a proud Glaswegian, I feel lucky to live in a city with an abundance of eye-catching architecture. With styles ranging from the classical and the exotic to the medieval and the ultra-modern, a walk through Glasgow can be like a journey across the city’s history.

So, it was a particular pleasure to learn that the office building from which Idox conducts its business in Glasgow has been selected as one of Scotland’s 100 finest buildings from the last century. The list, chosen by the Scottish public, was announced by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) to launch a year-long festival celebrating the best of Scottish architecture.

Bothwell3

Historic foundations

The Scottish Legal Life Assurance Building is located in Bothwell Street, in the heart of Glasgow’s central business district. Work on its construction began in 1927, when architecture here was beginning to respond to the influence of steel-framed commercial buildings in the United States.

The chief architect was Edward Grigg Wylie, whose practice had also designed the Glasgow Dental Hospital and Hillhead High School. When it was completed, in 1931, the eight-storey building became the headquarters of the Scottish Legal Life Assurance Society, which had grown from a burial society founded by six working men in 1852 to become one of the biggest life insurance firms in Britain.

Bothwell2Bothwell5The honey-coloured Northumberland stone façade of the building reflects the values that an insurance company would want to endorse. Bas-relief carved panels depict Prudence, Thrift and Courage, and above the triple-arched entrance a gilded crest evokes a proud heritage. At either end of the building two majestic clocks mark the passing of time. Inside, the impressive features continue, with an imposing staircase, marble tiling and art deco light fittings.

The building has been part of the fabric of Glasgow for the best part of a century, and may also deserve a footnote in the history books. One of the stories associated with the building concerns Rudolf Hess. In 1941, Adolf Hitler’s deputy made a dramatic flight to Scotland, claiming that he wanted to hold peace talks with the Duke of Hamilton. It’s believed that, after being captured, Hess may have been held in the basement of the Scottish Legal Building, pending his transfer to a prisoner of war camp.

An enduring legacy

Today, Scottish Legal Life Assurance still operates from the B-listed building, while other floors are occupied by companies providing construction, engineering, property and financial services. The seventh floor became the Glasgow home for the Idox Group in August 2011.

Bothwell4

The architect died in 1954, but the name of Edward G. Wylie lives on, not only in the title of his architectural practice, but above the doors of a pub occupying the ground floor of the building he created.

An exhibition showcasing Scotland’s best 100 buildings will go on tour during 2016, as part of the Festival of Architecture. After that, the public will be invited to vote for their favourite from the list.

Whether or not the Scottish Legal Building wins the crown, its important position as one of Glasgow’s commercial landmarks is set in stone.

Bothwell1

All photographs: James Carson


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in our previous posts on the subjects of architecture and heritage:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Des res or deposit box? The impact of foreign investors on UK house prices

by James Carson

Foreign investment in UK property is an issue that’s been attracting increased media coverage, mainly because of claims that wealthy overseas investors are driving up property prices and locking millions of UK citizens out of the housing market.

Properties in central London are attracting the lion’s share of this foreign investment, primarily from Asia, Russia and the Middle East. Last year, the Civitas think tank reported that 85% of prime London property purchases in 2012 were made with overseas money.

The Civitas report highlighted concerns that, as well as driving up prices for domestic buyers, overseas investments might be distorting house-building priorities by persuading developers to focus on wealthier buyers, rather than affordable housing. Civitas argued that the UK should follow Australia’s lead in preventing non-residents from investing in residential property unless their investment adds to the housing stock.

Moves towards constraining inward investment have set alarm bells ringing for those who believe that it provides economic and social benefits to the UK, and delivers housing that would otherwise not be built. A report from London First in 2013 made the case for continued foreign investment:

“London is a – perhaps the – international business city. Its economic success, which delivers jobs and prosperity for Londoners and the country as a whole, has been built on international trade, in past centuries primarily in goods and now principally in a range of services. If London is to continue to thrive the city must be open to housing those who come here to do business.”

While London continues to attract the bulk of foreign investment, there are signs that overseas buyers may be starting to look beyond the UK capital. One estate agent told The Daily Telegraph that international investment in Edinburgh’s residential market was increasing “at a phenomenal rate”. The article went on to highlight the city’s pulling power for overseas investors:

“It’s largely down to the schools, which are the main attraction. Russian buyers are sending their children to Merchiston Castle School, George Watson’s College and Edinburgh Academy. We have also seen an increase in Chinese buyers, who are attracted to Edinburgh for the freehold properties.”

Some observers have sensed an undercurrent of xenophobia among the opponents of overseas property investment. Writing in The Guardian last month, Dave Hill observed:

There’s something discordant about the stress on the foreignness of those “rich foreign investors”. Would rich investors in London be alright if they weren’t foreign? Are foreign investors alright if they live in London, as many do? Are we not a “world city”, suddenly?

For others, such as Peter Wynne Rees, the former planning officer for the City of London Corporation, the real problem is an unresponsive planning regime:

“A residential development in central London is now likely to make four to six times more profit than an office scheme. Without planning control, much-needed offices have given way to piles of “safe-deposit boxes” rising across the capital. These towers, many of dubious architectural quality, are sold off-plan to the world’s “uber-rich”, as a repository for their spare and suspect capital.”

Rees was one of the contributors when the Greater London Assembly’s Housing Committee met to consider the issue of overseas inward investment in March.

The issue is likely to maintain its high profile up to and beyond the general election. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has suggested that overseas owners with second homes in the UK could be forced to pay a larger contribution than people living in their only home. The Conservative Party rejects this approach, but in his 2014 Budget chancellor George Osborne extended stamp duty to include more wealthy foreigners who buy homes in Britain to avoid tax, and in December he increased stamp duty on house sales worth more than £1.5m. It appears that this, along with uncertainty over the election outcome, has begun to affect the market.

Underlying all of this is the shortage of affordable housing. In London, 809,000 new homes are needed by 2021 to meet existing and new demand. But while all sides agree that the best way to address house prices without damaging foreign investment is to build more homes, there is no consensus on how that can be achieved.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on planning and property development, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service.

48-hour flash sale (overseas exhibitions promoting UK properties)

Storms gather over London residential (foreign investment in London property)

A roadmap for the regions (property forecast for 2015)

Spotlight: the world in London – dynamics of a global city

Honey trapped (Russian investment in Britain)