I’ve been working on the conversion of a one bedroom flat for the last month now and we’ve finally got to the point of getting building control in for their first visit. Ordinarily you’d get them in before works started, but we had a few issues that had to be addressed immediately. The flat was bought at auction, it’s on the second floor and started out as a studio with separate kitchen and bathroom. It was in a very sorry state because it had been uninhabited for a number of years. This meant that the boiler and cooker were considered unsafe and that whatever the client did within the space, we had to have new appliances factored into the building costs and scheme.
Not only that we had a structural engineer assess the building because there were a number of unusual cracks in the walls – and the roof joists were deemed to be unsafe. The roof had been changed at some point in the recent history of the building and they’d re-roofed with concrete tiles – too heavy for the size of the joists. So the first job was to make the building structurally sound. This involved the inspection of the junction between the ceiling and the walls and calculations being done by the structural engineer for the support of the roof. He advised and supplied all drawings and calculations for the installation of a steel girder spanning the width of the building.
This sounds terrifying, but in fact this type of job happens all the time. Supporting a building that isn’t able to cope with modern materials is one of the most common issues encountered during refurbishments and many people simply don’t realise that the integrity of the building has to be considered when they plan a refit. That sounds fundamental, but if you’re planning a wonderful new open-plan kitchen, I bet you were only looking at the costs of the kitchen units and not at the costs of taking out the walls that are currently making the space so annoying. Making sure your property is structurally sound is the reason why you would pay a master builder to do the work, because without it your investment is compromised to the point of unsaleability; the reason this property had ended up at auction. And that’s where Building Control comes in.
Don’t mess around with supporting walls, pilings and roof trusses without knowing your stuff. Too many people think that they should be clever and ‘pull the wool over their eyes’ but Building Control are there to protect you, not to try and make life hard – the only time things get sticky is if you ARE trying to hide something! If any of the work you want to do requires any changes to the structure, get it assessed by a structural engineer – your builder will probably advise you to do this anyway, because he will need to know the ‘stresses and strains’ involved in the project. Arrange a meeting with both engineer and contractor and then you know that both are on the same page, that they’ve talked about the project as a whole and that the building is being looked after for the safety of its inhabitants and those who work there. Just as importantly, it will also have the certificates to prove it – something you will need when you come to sell.
Building regulations have changed a lot over the last ten years and this means you need to be informed when you’re thinking about a project. Even window replacements can be considered outside of the regulations, so it’s important you know which parts of your project will need to be inspected. For example on this project we need to have the RSJ inspected. They will also want to see the new boiler, the wiring, the plumbing and the extraction used for the bathroom and kitchen. We will also be insulating between the floor and the ceiling of the flat below, but because its internal, the council don’t need to inspect it. Every local authority is different so make sure to check with them at the same time as you consider doing any work. Their website will have lots of links and forms that you can download.
So are there times that you don’t need to have work inspected? Yes. If we hadn’t been working on a flat bought at auction with condemned appliances and known structural issues that needed to have its walls reconfigured we wouldn’t have involved Building Control because the work would have been cosmetic. Kitchen and bathroom fit outs that don’t include any structural changes don’t need to be inspected. (The individual trades have governing bodies that regulate the installation and registration of gas appliances or electrics – but because the works don’t HAVE to be inspected, there are a lot of projects that look less than polished because they don’t need to be signed off by an authority.) However the minute you want to make changes that involve the fabric of the building – and particularly a shared building – you need to document the process. That’s all that Building Control are doing really; making sure that the way your works are undertaken is in compliance with the regulations that keep the occupants safe.
I’m all for people having a go themselves, but doing DIY doesn’t mean you can operate outside the regulations. Being enthusiastic is no excuse for ignorance. If you are going to take a sledgehammer to a wall, you need to know first and foremost if it’s supporting anything above. Any time you create an opening, be it window or door, you compromise the structure of the building. You can’t just ‘think’ it’ll be ok. It HAS to be more than ok, it has to be safe. If you can’t answer yes to that, you have to use a structural engineer on your project. It’s sheer madness to take risks with the biggest investment or asset you have.
So as always, ask questions and make sure you’re happy with the answers. Ask friends for a referral to a structural engineer that they have used and get advice. Do this before the work starts and before the costs spiral. It may be that there are other ways to achieve your building works without making structural changes, again a structural engineer will see more than you do during the assessment of your home.
And don’t be afraid of structural changes – but don’t take silly risks either!