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Monday, 26 June 2017

Blinkered energy efficiency focus brings death and dispair

This tragic fire has been attributed to a faulty fridge freezer and the cladding that was put onto the building. So how could a simple electrical fault cause the deaths of so many and strike fear into many more living in and around tower blocks in the UK?

We have been on a drive for the past few years to reduce carbon emissions. This is laudable as climate change is bar far the biggest threat facing the natural world. However, this drive has been blinkered. We have dumbed down the issue to one of carbon and carbon alone. Governments and industry like this, as they think that it can be a. measured and b. profitable. However, when you are purely focused on cutting carbon emissions you miss out on the beautiful complexity of life and the systems that surround, and are embedded into, it.

At Grenfell, the problem that was overlooked was fire risk. What happens when you cover a building with a flammable covering and you don't fit fire breaks? Well, we all know what can happen now. So what went wrong? Well one of the key issues, that underpin so much of the construction industry, is that or testing and specification. Many of our testing regimes are old, tired and not fit for purpose. They are rarely updated or questioned as entire industries are built on them. Companies have developed products that meet the basic test levels and they don't want to go through the cost of having to change these and make better ones. The complexity of the industrial structure also allows these factors to get lost. Main contractors, sub contractors, system suppliers, building control, planning etc all have their say and it makes it very easy for key things to be assumed rather than checked and insisted upon. The focus in the process is money and time, not quality. We await to hear the findings and recommendations, but one can predict that pinning this onto one party will be difficult / impossible as really it is the whole capitalist system is in the dock and no-one in power wants to find that guilty!

This can be seen to full effect in Fishwick, Preston. Never heard of it? Not surprising as the whole debacle is being covered over by the Government and Industry. 387 homes had External Wall Insulation (EWI) fitted, again for all the best intentions. All have failed. 100% failure. Now each of these homes has mould and damp problems.

In this instance it appears (believe me you have to know how and where to dig to get any information on this whatsoever) that the EWI used was one of the standard products. However, against all the advice of groups like the STBA and the BRE (i.e. those people who know about this stuff), they slapped this EWI onto traditional solid walled properties. Now on paper this is fine. The whole industry thinks that this is standard practice and they even offer a 'warranty' to go along with it (this is of course a complete waste of time and not worth the paper it is written on - ask CIVALLI (

The trouble is that the moisture test that the whole industry is based on is fundamentally wrong! The standard even says that it will not work in in-situ conditions. It only looks at water vapour in a one dimensional manner. Last time I looked water came in liquid and solid form as well as vapour. Water also appears to have the ability to go both in and out of a structure. It even has the audacity to move sideways. So the whole industry is based on a one dimensional world with only one state of existence. I think that even the least enlightened know that the world is not quite like that. However, all the technical decisions about insulation is based on these tests. No wonder that Fishwick went wrong. They must have three dimensions, water and ice up there! Who is going to pay for this? Well, I will let you make up your own minds whether it will be the contractor, the 'insurance' industry or the tax payer.

So, if you have 3 dimensions where you live and / or it rains or freezes at any time then you too might face similar issues.

If we are to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks (and the many others that exist - these are just the biggies) then we have to be smarter. We have to use the right tests to get answers that might actually happen in the real world. We have to realise that the world is a complex and interlinked place. What we do in the name of carbon reduction has other implications. It can cause fire spread, it can cause mould and damp issues, it can cause structural failure, it can cause health problems....... It also can have its benefits, of course, in many cases we are able to reduce emissions and make homes warmer etc, but there is not much point doing this to the properties where we ruin them in the process! This is very much the situation for solid walled and narrow cavity properties (these make up around 35% of our building stock!)

The STBA and others have been saying for many years now that we have to look at things in the round; holistically. We also have to understand how products work in the REAL world, not just on a bench in a testing laboratory. we have to take this knowledge and apply it to each individual case. One size fits all is blatantly false. We have to use our skills and experience wisely, not just follow outdated and inappropriate testing regimes. Unfortunately this goes against the common thinking that the construction industry needs to be dumbed down so that even the least educated can get jobs in it. We should celebrate the fact that our building stock is varied and complex and train our crafts people and professionals appropriately. Some people have the knowledge on how to do this right (and hence do it once), but do we get a look in? The inertia and power of the mainstream industry is enormous and they don't want any boats rocked thank you very much.

So, we know how to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks, but Government doesn't want to listen to the voices of reason and truth. It wants easy solutions that address the needs of now, so it turns to Industry for answers. The whole of the Each Home Counts review (that references Preston / Fishwick) is being run by Industry. It doesn't fill one with joy and hope. We really do need to wake up to see how the system works and who it actually works for.

I am not a do-nothing type of person, I agree that we need to do the right things and address the issues like climate change, BUT we have to be clever and learn from mistakes, not cover them up. We need to make it easy for people to use their homes in a less carbon intensive manner, this might be using EWI, but we need to use the right materials in the right way otherwise we are just going to have to do it all over again in the future. That is a waste of time, money, resources and carbon!

I might have a rant now about modern buildings: It is accepted that ALL new homes (yes the ones that the House Builders are building now) will all need retrofitting for energy efficiency in the future. What are we doing people???? Can't we see that Redrow, Wimpey, .... all need to be told to build carbon negative homes NOW? Trouble is Government is too weak in the face of big business. It would be laughable if it weren't so serious.

Knowledge is power. We need to get the answers to Fishwick out in the open. We need to ask questions of our politicians, we need to question the integrity and focus of industry, we need to demand proper recompense for mistakes in the construction industry, we need to act within the constraints of fairly allocated planetary resources. We are effectively been trodden on by uncontrolled capitalism in pursuit of the free market. Well the free market only seeks profit. We need to demand proper controls from the Government (who are after all elected by the people for the people) so that we and the planet are put on a level par with profit. Only then can the three pillars of sustainability truly start to exist.

Economics, Environment and Society must all be treated equally.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Maintenance Matters

Rhyd-y-car Terrace in St Fagans Museum of Welsh Life
For those, who have not been to St Fagans in Cardiff, it is worth the trip. Great place and an ideal way to start to understand how buildings have changed over time.

One of the key elements of the museum is Rhyd-y-car Terrace. It illustrates how one style of property (in this case a Welsh terrace of houses) has been altered over time to address the cultural needs / desires / aspirations of the residents. (click on the photo for a link to discover more)

The original terrace house is represented by the home on the left and the team has made alterations to each subsequent house to reflect the changes to terraces in Wales. So when you reach the last house it has a covering of render on the walls rather than limewash, tiles on the roof rather than slates, modern casement windows rather than sash, large window panes rather than small etc. The internal layouts and services have also changed. Fascinating, but intuitively we sort of know this. However, what is not really explained on site is whether these changes were positive or not.

Of course, we do not want to live in houses anymore that have open coal fires, draughty doors and windows etc. However, neither do we want to live in houses that suffer from trapped moisture in the walls, rotting timbers and poor internal air quality. Unfortunately, some of the 'improvements' that are illustrated in the terrace have caused problems like this in the real world.

In time you could add another cottage to this terrace, with its original stone walls now clad in polystyrene (EPS) external wall insulation. This is a reflection on where we are blindly heading without due regard for the original structure. Again we shall then have a warmer property that is at high risk of overheating and likely to suffer rot and mould issues from penetrative damp and condensation.

Designing improvements to buildings is important, but we must get it right. So again, I urge you to read the STBA documents and guidance on retrofit of older houses. See

However, this article is about maintenance. So where does this fit in with the retrofit agenda?

Well, when you read all the underpinning documents about retrofit, they all say that any building should be in a good state of repair and stable before any work starts. So before even contemplating any improvements the house should be damp free and well maintained.

This is where much of the trouble has started. Organisations like the Government have targeted their initial efforts on those properties that were in urgent need and these tend to be the ones in a poor state of repair. So they started putting a load of retrofit measures on properties that weren't ready for it. Putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall, just seals in the damp. This would be bad enough, but putting a load of non-breathable cladding / insulation over a wet wall badly so that more water can get in, well, you can guess what has been happening!

So, we need to ensure that our buildings are in a good state of repair first and then we need to ensure that we do any retrofit works well. The second element is starting to be addressed (slowly and still with little real knowledge of the characteristics and pathology of traditionally built houses), but the issues of maintenance is less attractive to business.

Large companies delivering large scale projects are not really interested in minor works, or leaving buildings to become stable over time before starting with the big tools and toys. They just need to crack on, come rain or shine, cold or heat and get the job done ASAP and as cheaply as possible.

So we need to take a step back. Assess what we have, understand it, fix it, let it settle and become stable and then start to improve it sensitively and with the right amount of care and caution so that we don't mess it up.

So the first rung on this retrofit / improvement ladder for traditional buildings is not EPS wall insulation, it is Maintenance and Building Pathology.

CADW have produced some guidance on maintenance, but people see this as being for conservation areas and heritage buildings. We need to make maintenance relevant to the 34% of buildings in Wales that are traditionally built. This means all the terraces and stone / solid brick built homes that litter the landscape that we are so familiar with and proud of. After all it is these buildings that define the character of our inner cities and valleys.

Maintenance in itself is relevant to the retrofit agenda. A wet wall is 1/3 less efficient than a dry wall for example.

Building pathology is equally important. The recent Each Home Counts report for the UK Government highlights the recent case in Preston where the race for energy efficiency and the lack of understanding of older houses has left a trail of catastrophe. The details are being repressed by those concerned inc the Government as it really is a tale of woe, but suffice to say the underpinning issue was the lack of knowledge on traditional buildings within the mainstream construction and retrofit industry.

So we need to understand our homes, their history, how they work. This means getting to grip with material science and building dynamics. A good surveyor should be able to tell you these things, but most just refer on to 'specialists'. Unfortunately most of these are not really specialists, just glorified sales people. So we need 'Power to the People'. These are your homes and you are the ones paying for works to be done. So I urge you to understand older buildings and look after them well. Most of the things that I see when visiting homes are simple maintenance issues that can solve many ills.

As a starter for ten, have a think about the following:

A hole in the junction between a window and a sill. Water running down the window above the hole will go into it. What then? Well generally a damp patch and potentially a rotten floor joist. Solution? Fill the hole with some silicon sealer. Cost? 10p in silicon? 10 minutes in time. Potential savings? £350 for a damp report, £1,000 for DPC injection and replacement plaster, £2,000 for replacement joists,....

A crack in render on a west facing wall. Water above the crack will flow down into it. It cannot get back out if it is a modern cement render. So a damp patch. Rotten timbers maybe... Solution. Fill the crack. Cost? DIY solution, maybe £10. Contractor, maybe £100. Potential savings? Well, see above.

Dislodged guttering pouring water down and into a wall. Replacement bracket cost, maybe £1. Cost of leaving it? Easily into the £1,000's of pounds.

So check things like seals around doors and windows, leaf build up in the gutters, cracks in render, mortar and stonework. Make sure external ground levels are kept 15cm below internal floor levels, that extracts are working properly, that floor vents are not blocked by litter and dirt, that pipes through the wall are sealed up properly, that slipped tiles are replaced quickly, chimney stacks are in a good state and that any repairs are made with lime mortars etc etc.

I could go on. But I hope that you get the message. Preventative maintenance is cheap, relatively easy and essential both in terms of keeping you and your home healthy both now and into the future.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Rubbish Mechanical Extractors

This is what an extractor fan louvre should look like when in operation. I am not sure that I have ever seen this in practice. Wracked my brains, but apart from louvres on commercial systems I cannot recollect ever seeing much more than an occasional feeble movement. Certainly on my home there is rarely more than a flutter.

So if the louvres aren't moving, then the fan is not working properly, but this is the situation with virtually all extractors in the UK. So this in turn means that we are not dealing with ventilation as we should. All the calculations in Part F of the building regs etc are just a waste of time if the equipment we use is just rubbish.

The real life situation is made worse of course if the vents are facing the prevailing winds. With such minor pressure coming from the fans any extracting doesn't stand a chance against any sort of wind. Then we also fit any draught devices that just make it even more difficult for a poor fan to extract the volume of air required to keep condensation down to acceptable levels.

So what to do?

Well, it is worth having a look at a video from Envirovent. This helps to show the effectiveness of different types of fan on the market.

This video looks at standard type fans, but you could also look at a dMEV fans. dMEV are Decentralised Mechanical Extract Vents. These work by continuously extracting air from a localised position (like in a bathroom). There are various manufacturers and types. So you can have more sophisticated ones that work by sensing factors like humidity, so as humidity increases, so the fan will respond according by extracting more air. They can also be controlled by timers & pull switches and combinations thereof.

So, if you have mould etc in your kitchen / bathroom, despite having an extractor fitted, almost guaranteed it would have been the £10 model from the local electrical factors or DIY store. So I would recommend that you look to replace it with a good quality fan that actually works rather than just making some noise.

I will be replacing mine at home very soon. I will have a standard fan in the upstairs bathroom (as this is an ensuite and also made of breathable materials) and a dMEV in the downstairs bathroom that can run continuously. The downstairs room is more prone to mould as it is less well insulated and more heavily used, hence the decision. I will be changing the one upstairs myself as it is a simple case of changing leads over from one unit to the other, but the downstairs one is currently operated by the light switch and so we will need to get a continuous live feed into this. Probably a simple job, but not being a 'sparky', I would prefer the confidence that a professional brings to the task.

So, as ever, it seems like you get what you pay for. So as a special note for people living in older properties. We have spent much of the past decade sealing up houses in the name of energy efficiency and carbon savings. This has meant that many of the sources of fresh air have gone and we are living more and more in warm, humid and still environments. This is not good for your health or for the health of the building. We need ventilation. We need fresh air. We need to remove warm moist air in order to reduce the risk of mould growth. So look to get a good working ventilation system in place at home. This starts with mechanical extract from high risk zones like bathrooms, toilets. kitchens and utility rooms.

Get good fans that actually work.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Great News for Lime Lovers

At last the revolutionary lime product that we have all been waiting for:

I have known for sometime that someday, someone (well I knew whom) would create a special lime product that would answer all the concerns that people have about lime on their buildings. Well folks, that day has arrived.

Vivus Solutions have just launched their website to you access to their amazing materials. Have a look at Lime has never been easier, quicker, better. Forget all your prejudices, this is a series of products that can be used by virtually anyone on virtually any old building.

We have known for many years that we have been ruining older solid walled buildings by applying modern non-breathable to them. Almost every traditionally built solid walled house is covered with hard cement render or an impervious paint, walls have been re-pointed with cement mortars that lock in moisture and cause the bricks and stones to spall. This has been due to a large amount of ignorance in the mainstream industry and a lack of awareness from owners. Time and time again I, and many others, have stated that lime mortars and renders need to be used on projects, but clients end up listening to mainstream builders and surveyors rather than conservation specialists.

For years, the industry has moaned about the fact that lime is slow, difficult to use, expensive, unreliable and just out of reach for most. Well I think that this is a game changer.

As well as being an Air Lime (which provides a highly breathable mix) this new series of products are sent out dry. No longer will we have to pay for wet mixes to be delivered. So already it is money saver. The 20kg bags are designed to be mixed up in a standard mixing tub with a plaster whisk.

The small bag sizes are important for two reasons. Firstly Health and Safety but also the fact that each mix will be dry in a day. So you don't want to have it sitting around for long.

Dry in a day! That is truly remarkable for a non hydraulic lime. However, it will still carbonate like a putty over time, so it will still absorb CO2. So the trick has been to get an Air Lime to set this quickly. Great stuff. This means that suddenly you are not there waiting around for days for first sets / coats to dry etc. As I say, a game changer.

I would highly recommend that people have a look at all the products available - there are internal plasters, external renders, mortars and even some pre-formed laths. Spread the news!

Note: We do not benefit commercially at all from this product, or from Vivus Solutions, I just think that it is great.