Having EPC Difficulties

You really have to like filling in forms at this stage in the build. It helps if you have kept meticulous records and if your spreadsheet of all money related information hasn’t unaccountably disappeared off your computer.
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Unfortunately I have been slightly remiss in backing up my computer and now I have had to go back to a version I last updated in May. Which, in the lifetime of building this house, is an awfully long time ago.
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It isn’t just about the pain of paying bills and yet more of bills, it’s about keeping track of all the various paperwork, permissions, schedule of building control visits and other official things. It’s been a trying time for someone as uninclined towards forms and form-filling and crossings of ‘T’s and dotting of ‘I’s.
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And it isn’t really helped that, last month, George Osbourne announced the decision of a huge cut to the feed in tarrif for solar electricity. After January payments will decrease by 87%. This has come really suddenly with the initial consultation published at the end of August, after we had installed our panels.  Kenneth the electrician first alerted me to how soon this is and how we really need to get a move on with everything.
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To claim the feed in tarrif I need to fill in a form and attach screeds of documents. One of which is an Energy Performance Certificate.
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Fortunately I already have an Energy Performance Certificate in one of my numerous files on my computer. I seek it out and breathe a sigh of relief. It looks OK to me. I show it to Stephen the builder who points out that the certificate number is 12345678. ‘It’s useless for claiming FITs’ he says.
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As you can imagine I am rather puzzled. I have an EPC but it’s no use for claiming my Feed in Tariff. I call the architects. Matt explains that the EPC he produced was for building control purposes. It looks the same (apart from the registration number) but in order to produce an official EPC he would need to be properly certified to do them. He, and a few people in the office, have done the training but they are all waiting for their official certification to come through and that could take weeks, or months.
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And even if they were certifyed it wouldn’t be a simple process to convert my EPC into a proper EPC. All the information would need to go into the official computer package and be done again.
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I also need an EPC for my completion certificate and I asked whether the EPC I had was sufficient for that. I think the answer to that was no but, to be honest,  I couldn’t get my head around the process Matt was explaining to me about how his EPC becomes official for building control purposes via the whole building tender process and contract.
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As readers of this blog will know, I’m not making anything simple for myself in building this house. And so I don’t have one contract with one builder to build it (get up to date here. And here. And here)
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So I need an EPC for my feed in tarrif claims and for a completion certificate. I ask Stephen and there’s one company in Oban that does EPCs, I call them up and talk to a chap called donald. He explains they do EPCs for existing houses. It’s a simple process of visiting the house and making assumptions about type of construction and putting it into the computer package. It’s called a reduced SAP EPC. He’s not sure whether it’s valid for a new house but he can come and do one at my house as soon as it’s complete. He recommends I check that it would be valid for a new house.
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I call the Energy Saving Trust. It’s apparently my energy company who deal with FIT applications. I call Scottish Hydro. Surprisingly I get put through to a human being straight away and without negotiating a ‘press one for accounts, press two for ….’ decision tree of epic complexity. I suppose one must be grateful for small mercies.
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The man I speak to isn’t at all sure what I need and there isn’t anyone who can answer my questions. ‘We just type in the certificate number and press a button’ he says. ‘I didn’t know that they were any different for existing houses and new houses’
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At some point in all this process, I also call Al, an architect who I only know from Twitter but who happens to be a neighbour in Appin. I’m on my way to the house at the time I call him and stopped for a coffee on the drive up. He helps me get my head around things.  I definitely need a proper certified certificate.
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And will this certificate do for building control? I call my friendly building control officer. It’s straight to answer phone as usual. But one thing that is especially fantastic about my building control officer is that when you email him, he emails straight back. Usually within 15 seconds. The email may just say ‘Noted’ and nothing else, but it’s a comfort to know that your building control officer cares enough to email back.
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I emailed him to ask and it seems building control needs a full post completion EPC.
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This sounds more complicated than the certificate Donald had described. It needs to incorporate all the changes made during the build from the original building warrant and the air tightness test results. I think. (Please, dear reader, don’t take what I’m writing here as fact as I have spoken to so many different people who have said so many different things my head is swimming with alternative universes of EPC form filling)
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So I call Matt the architect back. He has a colleague working in another practice who is registered and can do my EPC. And it will be valid for both building control and my Feed in Tariff. And apparently she can do it without visiting the house. I need to provide  all the updates to building control and the airtightness test. And, hugely importantly, she can do it in a week and cost-wise it was very reasonable. I am a happy woman.
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So it seemed a good day in the main. Like watching a TV thriller and feeling the satisfaction of almost understanding how the plot fits together at the end. But not quite, and going to bed with a few puzzling questions that fit together in your head by morning. (That’s a very generous way of looking at the process of getting an EPC anyway…)
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So after a long day at the build and a long drive back in the dark and a day on the phone working out my EPCs and all the other paperwork (amendment to building warrant, Renewable Heat Incentive etc)  I was chatting with Husband over dinner and a few medicinal glasses of wine.

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He asked how things were going at the house.
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‘Well. Ok I suppose. But I’m having some EPC difficulties.
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Husband looked mildly puzzled.
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‘So….. What exactly do you mean when you say EPC?’ he asked
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I began to explain the blaringly obvious in painful detail when it dawned on me that EPC is common parlance to behavioral ecologists, but one that I’d totally forgotten in the years since my PhD. It stands for Extra Pair Copulation
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I have to admit that I don’t think I stopped laughing until well into the next day, such is my juvenile sense of humour.  I suppose it’s only fortunate I wasn’t thinking of my biologist past during my day of sorting my EPC difficulties or I may well have not been able to hold it together on all those serious and important phone calls.
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Eco-house or just …. a house ?

Of course it’s going to be an eco-house! Isn’t it pretty much compulsory for all self-builds to be eco-homes?

We want an environmental, ecological, toasted wheatgerm and hand-knitted jumper kind of house; of course we do. Who wouldn’t?

However, if I’m blogging the design and build of our house then I suppose it would be useful to explore what we are aiming for in the design and the motivations and reasoning behind it in a bit more depth, so here goes….

Since we have lived in it, we have been trying to make our (Edwardian terrace) home’s carbon footprint as low as possible.  Admittedly we have gone for the relatively low-hanging fruit – we haven’t stripped the entire house back to bare walls and started from scratch.  But I checked the meters, then turned down thermostats, insulated, draft-proofed, re-checked the meters, hung duvets under curtains, installed a woodburner that heats the water, and solar thermal too, and kept on checking he meters.  I even founded my own NGO about 8 years ago to encourage others to make their own homes more sustainable.  It was called eco-renovation network and was established of a frustration of policy makers focusing effort on lowering energy use of new buildings while ignoring the millions of existing new homes.

These efforts have left me with a house that does, admittedly have very low gas and electricity bills, but it isn’t really properly warm,  has irritating residual drafts, and where you are only really guaranteed a steaming hot bath on a hot summer’s day, when you least need or desire one.  The disadvantages and challenges of retrofit have become very evident to me during the years of my (admittedly relaxed) mission to greenify my house.  Older houses are not designed to be sealed units, and will become damp if you seal them too much, solid walls have a high heat capacity but are hard and expensive to insulate, and our hot water tank is in the attic where the heat that leaks from it and the pipework is useless to warm our home.

So I have come to the conclusion that you can only go so far with an old house and this is my opportunity to see what can be achieved when you start from scratch.

The next question hanging on everyone lips now is ‘Well what exactly is an eco-house then?’

Is it a house which has very low energy use? Or perhaps it’s a house with renewable energy made on site, or a house whose materials have a low embodied energy – being made with recycled materials or those that take only low energy to make.  It could be a naturally-breathing house made with traditional materials and techniques, or perhaps one made with modern and technological ecological materials manufactured from natural products and minimising chemicals and petroleum products.  What about a home that makes space for nature, with swift and house sparrow next boxes, bats in the attic and a wildflower meadow in the garden?

Confused? You bet I am.

In the end, though, it comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what your priorities are. Having measured my own carbon footprint for years I know that our current lifestyle in the city does have a low carbon footprint. Work, school, activities, friends and leisure are all a walk, cycle or, at most, a bus-ride away.  And we live in a small terraced house, sharing two walls with neighbours, and having a relatively small volume of air to heat within the house. Moving to the country, where everything (except the countryside) is a car-ride away is only going to increase our carbon footprint in total.

It is clear that building ourselves a house on the west coast of Scotland is not going to decrease our carbon footprint, so what do we want it to do? Our priorities are that it is as sustainable as it can be, in materials choice and in energy consumption. We want to use wood from a friend’s sawmill just across Loch Linnhe in Morven, we want to take advantage of the boggy plot to make a little stream, pond and wildlife-friendly garden. We sought out and found a south facing plot so that we can take advantage of solar gain in the design. We would like to use ecological and recycled materials where possible and build a masonry stove, like my in-laws had in Switzerland to heat the house very efficiently.

That is a long wish-list. We will have to see how far we get with it.  So in the meantime we’ll just call it the House at Cuil Bay. But if anyone asks – it is an eco-house – of course it is!

The Evolution of the House at Cuil Bay

I said that I would do a blog on the various iterations that the house has gone through on the long road between twinkle in the eye in January to planning permission-ready this week.

So here I present a kind of ‘Decent of Man’ for the House at Cuil Bay.

We started with a veritable Cambrian Explosion of ideas and sketches. The single-story flat-roofer went extinct early on. But a couple of designs made it into the computer software.

The first was a barrel-roofed house reflecting the shape of the big red barn in the field by the plot…we ruled it out right away

At the same time we saw a pitched-roof, slit window house with one of the rooms a single story on the end.

Next came a set of three variations on a solar-gain design: First with a single pitch sloping room on the back…

Then with the roof on the back room sloped up to the back (not pictured). And lastly with both roofs single pitch

We preferred a conventional pitch and so the next design made the front more attractive

However, never satisfied I asked for a change in orientation and general look and the house became this… ..Now we really were getting somewhere. I liked this one a lot.

But the quantity surveyor told us it was way over budget so I asked Matt to look at making it smaller. The next was a bit smaller but rather odd looking – the turret had a raised battlement behind which the solar panels sit. It had lost the eves and reprised the box-extension theme.

Back to what we liked originally and a shrinkage in the ‘east wing’. What you can’t see from this picture is that it is looking a bit awkward around the side you can’t see. But still too expensive and a few things that didn’t work yet in terms of layout.

Now we are pretty much there. Smaller, and a lower roofline but a change in entrance configuration to allow for utility room.

And at last, on 2 October, this is the house that went to planning (I think). As far as I can see this house is pretty much identical to the last apart from the addition of the wood/bike shed (and an extra car!).

We’re going to planning!

The final dots are going on the ‘i’s and crosses on the ‘t’s and our house is nearly ready to go to planning.

After a monumental amount of work from our devoted architects (55north/John Gilberts) we are at this stage at last.  There appears to be a huge number of documents associated with planning and these will all be up on the public website soon.  When they are on the web I will link to them here.

One of the many documents is a design statement where many of the surrounding houses have a starring role.  Its a bit of blurb all about vernacular, character, building form, prevailing textures and the like.  It’s classic architect-speak.  My favourite phrase ….

‘The interior style of the house is reflected in a confident modern exterior style rather than a pastiche’

The Yearly Review

It’s been nearly a year since we saw the plot at Cuil Bay on an Oban Estate Agent’s website. So it seems a good time for a look back at progress.

When we visited the site the weekend of the Glasgow September holiday last year, I imagined that we would be well into the build by now …. what wishful thinking that was! However, we now have a design of house that we really like. It is exactly what I was hoping for, despite being unable to articulate it. It is now on its 6th permutation and we think we may even be able to afford to build it – just.

I’ll get round to putting the various permutations of design on the site at some point: a kind of ‘descent of man’ for the house at Cuil Bay. Changes have been made as we move towards the house we yearn for, to bring the staggering cost down, but also in response to comments from our neighbours after I sent them a letter introducing ourselves with initial designs for the house.

Most recently we sent our designs to the planning department to get initial advice on the design. Since January, when I called them to discuss the application and they were happy to chat things through with me, they have changed policy and now only accept queries regarding the pre-application process in a format akin to that of a full planning application.  The sainted architects duly sent in the designs but these were returned a couple of weeks later with the comment that the extent of the plot was outlined in black, not in the required red.

Having submitted something very similar to full planning, we received comments, generally supportive, with the main issue being orientation of the house.

So, changes having been made (again) we are now almost ready to submit to planning permission.  The plot already has outline permission. We are only awaiting the results of a topographic survey which will enable Matt to place the house at the right height on the plot among the other houses and landscape, and also determine whether we will need a retaining wall behind the property.

We’ve also had an enginner and a digger and driver on site to dig the holes and look at the conditions of the ground.  The results were encouraging: the water table is very high (we already knew that) meaning that we can’t use a conventional septic tank, but the ground conditions are close to ideal with bedrock overlain by gravel which means that we will be able to use strip foundations and the excavations will be a bit cheaper than we had anticipated.

So, in short, we are ready to go….. well ready to go with the monumental planning effort, then building control, then builders, then…..perhaps it’s best if I just don’t think about it.

First Design Your House …

I suppose I’m just a wannabe architect.

I have images of what this house might look like bumping about in my head, morphing and circling.  I spend the moments between laying my head on the pillow, and my flight through sleep, trying to solve the problem of how to fit a bathroom between a door and a window. I spend stolen moments while children play at the park, or while peeling potatoes, trying to work out what happens when two sloping roofs meet (that one took a trip to the scrap paper drawer and a bit of origami.)

It’s nice to have an inner life again.  Welcome activity for the mind, displacing the constant rolling of to-do lists, and the buzzing of urgent tasks.  Reminiscent of the feeling in the run up to finals as facts and concepts birled around my mind trying to grab onto everything else and wrap it up in a theory of everything.   Or the challenge of trying to work out the way the international financial system works after a programme on Radio 4.

I have actually started to get quite opinionated about what this house should be like over the months of the design process.  I know exactly what I like when I see it, but can’t put my finger on exactly why or explain what I want in the abstract.  In short, I must be utterly infuriating for any architect to work with.

At the start of the process, our architect Matt asked me to send photos of houses to give him an idea of the kind of thing I liked.  I totally failed.  In all those years of looking for a plot secretly, I hadn’t felt that the project was concrete enough to actually venture into the real and start capturing images of what I wanted.  And then things started happening really really quickly.

Matt sent me some photos of houses he suggested I might like – all stunningly beautiful, all flat topped or barrel roofed and all utterly not me.

So what do you like, he asked. “Well I like…eves” – I couldn’t think of any other way of putting it.  I don’t know whether it is the product of being married to a Swiss, but I do like eves, and steep slopey roofs and the distant ring of cowbells on the alp…..  I couldn’t help notice that most of Matt’s house designs didn’t have eves, in fact they didn’t have many jutty out bits.

Matt soldiered on, with incredible efficiency and he and his colleague produced reams of beautiful drawings of potential homes for me.  They started with a trio: tall and barrel-roofed, reflecting the large red corrugated barn next to my plot; low slung, single story with a flat roof; and two-story steep pitched roof, with a flat cube to one side.  Nope; Nope; Nope; was my ungrateful response.  I took the liberty of having some ideas of my own, mulling indulgently through the possibilities, and sketched them out, trying to explain it to the architects.  It had a slopey roof and eves.

What I discovered was that things that are eminently possible in my head, often turn out to be completely impractical when it reaches the realms of the real world.  Stairs for example are strange things to get your head round, and it really matters where they are. Rooms need to have doors that can be opened and closed. Weight-bearing walls hold up the roof or floor. You need to be able to stand up while going to the toilet.

The next iteration of design bore no relation, to either the original three drawings, nor to my own. This time they called me in to give me the blurb before presenting me with the options.  Architects are good at blurb. I wonder whether they go to blurb classes at architect school.

They had me convinced: what I really wanted was a house of two stories, wood-clad, with a single-pitched metal roof and big windows across the front.  More or less as far as it was possible to get from the outline planning consent on the plot (one and a half story, harled and slated, 45 degree angle roof, windows predominantly vertical). The design progressed to incorporate a couple of my suggestions – it was part harled, part wood and returned to a conventional roof-shape.  They had also done a lot of work making the front of the house look lovely with large south-facing windows in all the main rooms and a balcony all across the front.

Whenever I spoke to them I was convinced it was right, but when I came home, I had niggling doubts that chased the plans and ideas from my head and kept me awake.

Feedback from neighbours following a letter I sent round the neighbourhood to introduce ourselves and our plans for the house, suggested that, in general, they thought the house not suited to the site so, with weight of neighbourly opinion behind me, I met Matt to discuss the project.  It was, of course no problem to change the designs and, in fact, a relatively small tweak: keeping the floor layout in the main, but changing the orientation by 90 degrees and changing the windows gave us something much closer to what I was looking for.

Since then we have had a couple of re-sketches, but we are moving incrementally to something I am beginning to get rather attached to.  The excitement has been rekindled and I have started to imagine what it would be like to live there…at least I had until we heard back from the Quantity Surveyor.

It was bad news: our plans massively outstripped our budget. And I mean MASSIVELY.  What a blow.  Yet another rethink looms.

Postscript.

A rethink on my wannabe-architect ambtions is probably also in order.  Setting aside the decade of retraining I’d need, and the question of intrinsic aptitude; if architects invest a fraction of this emotional energy in their projects (and I suspect they put in a great deal more) then they can keep their jobs.  I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at (while retaining the prerogative to be opinionated about my house!)

Photo: Garbh Bheinn in Ardgour taken during a walk from Cuil Bay