HPH149 : Can airtightness tests on developer homes be trusted? – with Paul Buckingham of Sustainable Lifestyles
Paul Buckingham explains his frustrations about building standards in volume built houses.
Interview with Paul Buckingham
In Episode 99 we spoke to Luke Mahon about what it had been like living in his new, developer built, home. In this episode we are turning attention to the insights of someone who has worked within the industry and has been frustrated by the practices he has routinely seen.
Paul Buckingham is a trained electrician but his interest in the energy efficiency of buildings led him to complete a Masters degree in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Over the last 4 or 5 years his work has predominantly been in airtightness testing, and estimates in that time he must have carried out tests on over 2000 properties, of which he says none of them were properly airtight. Until recently much of the work he did was on volume built houses and he shares some of his experiences of that time.
Paul now runs an independent consultancy, providing advice on achieving energy efficiency.
The airtightness testing is about making the house pass the test, not about making it energy efficient
Paul claims that his experience of testing was about quantity and not quality, getting as many houses to pass the test as possible.
“All you’re doing is effectively bodging to get it through an air test…. And it doesn’t matter how good or how bad the building is, it will pass eventually.”
He uses the example of dry lining which should be solid dab and fully sealed around the tops, bottoms, electrical outlets etc, but invariably the builders are not using anywhere near enough plaster. After the boards have been put up on the walls this can be spotted with a thermal camera to see where the dots and dabs are.
Paul tells of a house he visited where the building failed the airtightness test because of a lack of mastic around the skirtings. He says the builders then put in the mastic, only for the carpet fitters to cut it out again. After it was then replaced by the builders and subsequently passed the airtightness test, Paul noticed them once again cutting it out as he was preparing to leave.
“So they’ll go round, they’ll mastic it purely to get it through an air test but it does look a bit messy because they go in there, they literally just throw this stuff on there just to seal the skirtings up so they can get an air test pass on it. And once we’ve finished they come in and cut it all out again. It happens on pretty much every house I’ve ever been to.”
Some builders were prepared to take advice onboard
Paul says there was a often a shortfall in knowledge on site about what airtightness is and how to make a house airtight, and it was his aim to advise people how to improve on this, rather than just get the buildings to pass the test. He found some site managers and builders more receptive than others to his suggestions and they were prepared to work with him to get the houses built right, rather than patching them up at the end.
The tight schedules mean quality is often not a consideration
On a large housing development the builders are given such tight schedules that Paul claims the builders themselves say they're just throwing the houses up in order to meet deadlines and targets.
“And when the guys that are building them turn round and say I wouldn’t buy one, then there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.”
Paul was eventually fired from his recent airtightness testing job. He says his employers weren't happy that he was spending time trying to get the message across and get the builders to change their ways, when he should have been keeping the customers (the volume house builders) happy by helping them to just get a pass on the buildings. Things came to a head after he wrote a report where he had used thermography to show missing insulation, air leakage around windows and air blowing in behind the plaster board.
“But I think had they not sacked me I would have quit anyway because I got to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just felt like a total fraud.”
Use an independent surveyor or airtightness tester if you're planning to buy one of these homes
Paul points out that when it comes to the airtightness test, “the trouble is the builder pays for it so the builders effectively own the compliance companies.” He suggests that if it was instead carried out by an independent tester or surveyor, and paid for by the potential purchaser, you could be sure of a more impartial result. He says this might be a step in the right direction of putting pressure on the builders to improve standards and practices. He would also like to see a tightening up of legislation, where things adhere to the Building Regulations to the letter, not just an interpretation of them which is what he currently sees.
“I know how we can make energy efficient houses, it’s just that none of the main builders seem to be doing it. They just seem to be throwing up boxes and selling them. If I could work with these builders and advise them on how they can make them properly energy efficient then yes I think I’d be quite happy with that but at the moment I’m not seeing any of that!”
Find out more
Visit the Sustainable Lifestyles website
Follow Paul on Twitter
Download a transcript of the interview with Paul Buckingham.
The Big Green Home Show – National Self Build and Renovation Centre
A reminder that Ben will be speaking at The Big Green Home Show at the National Self Build and Renovation Centre on 8th and 9th October. He'll be talking on the topic of what it's like to be a self builder. He'll be drawing on his self build experiences so far, some of the challenges that you might face, and also offering some of the tips that he has picked up from visiting a number of Passivhaus self builds across the UK.