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Blame Where It’s Warranted

24 November 2016

chris-coxon-talking-headThe Government wants More Homes, Fewer Complaints. What’s needed is competence, technical knowledge and experience – these do exist, if you know where to look, says Chris Coxon, Head of Marketing at Eurocell.

A 2015 survey by the Home Builders Federation and the National House Building Council (NHBC) revealed that 93% of buyers report problems to their builders, with 35% of these finding eleven or more issues.

The problem of excessive defects, and how to avoid even more occurring if we build more houses each year, was the subject of investigation by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment. It published a 44-page report on the matter, More Homes, Fewer Complaints, in July this year.

There’s certainly no silver bullet. The report makes several recommendations, many of them related to regulation but it doesn’t address the elephant in the room: modern procurement methods mean homes are built by a disparate collection of contractors, sub-subcontractors and their suppliers. Far more could be done to harness the knowledge and technical capability of those who supply the materials and products that make up a home.

Long time coming

We could look back thirty years to see the beginnings of this way of working when two very well-known construction characters, Sir Stuart Lipton and Peter Rogers were developing Broadgate near London’s Liverpool Street Station. They came up with a new way of procuring buildings: rather than having a main contractor build everything with a directly-employed workforce, they split the building works up into packages with the main contractor overseeing lots of specialist contractors.

The 1980s also saw the design and build form of procurement start to take hold, where the builder takes an outline design and performance specification and carries out the detailed design himself. Critics of this form of contract translate this approach as giving carte blanche to seek out the cheapest possible products and materials that will just meet the required criteria.

Changes in contract forms also saw the disappearance on many house building sites of an important character: the Clerk of Works. Traditionally employed to look after the client’s interest, the role of the Clerk of Works was to generally make a nuisance of themselves by being a stickler for detail.

Today it is more often than not the time-pressed site manager who assumes that role on a housing site. And if you talk to professional snagging firms – which started to appear in the early 2000s as defects in new homes rose – the one thing that impacts on the number of defects in a new property is the calibre of the site manager.

Analysis by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), referenced in the More Homes, Fewer Complaints report, shows a direct correlation between the number of housing completions and a decline in customer satisfaction – the more houses built, the less satisfied buyers are. One could surmise from this relationship that as more house building projects start on site, there are fewer experienced site managers, and the challenge of the skills shortage faced by all within the sector becomes an issue.

How bad is it?

NHBC ‘s latest statistics about claims made by new home owners related to 2014*, when there were 7,100 valid claims made equating to around 6 claims per 1000 homes. This was lower in both total number and frequency than for 2013.

However, the NHBC’s annual accounts show that its bill for claims paid out rose in 2014/15 to £87m, up from £79m in 2013/14. There is a caveat here, however, in that storm damage was a big contributor in 2014/15.

Though the total number of claims was down, the number of valid claims made in the first two years rose in 2015. The biggest problem area was services, fixtures and fittings, accounting for 37% of claims, followed by superstructure 35%, roofs 12% and ancillary buildings and external works 11%.

The most common cause of superstructure claims in the first two years is problems with doors and windows, followed by DPCs and cavity trays/closers, brick and blockwork, render and chipboard flooring. Doors and windows suffer from poor installation generally, problems with seals and ironmongery which is damaged, missing or inadequately fixed. Often the cavity tray and DPC issues relate to doors and windows too, with poor detailing around the openings.

There is some good news on the windows front however. NHBC has recognised that the production of PVC-U windows has improved to such an extent that it no longer requires an additional quality mark for product that meet BS 7412: 2007 Specification for Windows and Doorsets made from Unplasticized Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC-U) Extruded Hollow Profiles.

Claims made in years three to 10 of NHBC warranty cover are dominated by two elements: roofing and superstructure. In 2014, these accounted for 55% and 37% of all claims by number respectively.  

Although not a warranty triggering issue – it’s not just about inspection and workmanship – there is much evidence of there being a significant gap between design and specification; and ‘as built’ performance. One major housebuilder relates that in a survey of its own sites all the U and G values were not performing to design criteria. More broadly, there were also issues with compliance to standard specification and descriptions in approved SAP calculations.

The way ahead?

One of the messages to emerge from the various guidance notes issued by NHBC is that sometimes there can be conflicts between different sources of regulation: British Standards, Building Regulations and the NHBC’s own standards. For the inexperienced site manager, the picture can be confusing.

What this tells us is that there is no substitute for experience and competency: in those running sites, in the specialist contractors installing the various elements and in the suppliers who, if reputable, will have technical experts who are familiar with the plethora of regulations.

In respect of performance derogations ‘as built’, developers should consider issuing tighter specification details to manufacturers and then establish mutually acceptable QA processes are in place to ensure fabrication is taking place to housebuilder specifications. A good manufacturing partner should welcome the opportunity to have input to improving standards.

Finally, the More Homes, Fewer Complaints report makes two recommendations around issues of quality and workmanship: that housebuilders should adopt a new quality culture and that the industry should significantly increase skills training programmes.

These are both areas in which suppliers can offer expertise, advice and training. More communication and information flow up and down the supply chain is the only way to banish problems with defects forever.

Recurring Problems Most frequent defects
  • Pitched roofs – mortar and detailing
  • Cavity trays/closers – incorrectly installed
  • Internal services – hot and cold water, soil and waste, space heating
  • Doors and windows

Most costly defects
  • Pitched roofs
  • Drainage, curtain walling and cladding
  • Balconies – waterproofing detail
  • Waterproofing basements

Source: NHBC Technical Extra July 2015

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