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The voice of pragmatism

17/09/2013 19:48:17

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The house belonging to Cutland Consulting Ltd’s director, Dr Neil Cutland, is surrounded by scaffolding at the time of writing.  He is having a loft conversion carried out by a small local builder.  We asked Neil if it's the most energy-efficient building project ever.  After all, that would be a reasonable expectation given the main business activity of his company.

“Our regular clients won’t be surprised to hear me use the ‘P’ word again, ” said Neil.  “I’ve always favoured pragmatism over idealism when the chips are down.  Idealism is very important, but in my view we might as well not bother with high principles if there isn’t at least a reasonable chance that we will be taken seriously by the mainstream.”

So how is this pragmatism reflected in Neil’s loft conversion?  “Well, clearly I wanted very high standards of insulation and airtightness.  Naturally I considered Passivhaus, for which I’m a strong advocate.  But, even leaving aside the technicalities of adding a Passivhaus element to a non-Passivhaus building, it was ruled out by the realities of both my budget and my builder’s experience.  And I’d suggest that this is the reality for most people.”

We asked Neil what compromises he’s had to make as a result.  “The original home is pretty good – it was built in 1997 but to considerably better energy standards than the Building Regs of the day, with a SAP of 100 and NHER of 10.  I wasn’t prepared to go lower than that, so I specified 130mm PIR insulation between the rafters plus another 25mm over that.  The builder is a super chap, with more than 30 years’ experience of building houses, extensions and lofts, but he isn’t an energy man.  In fact he thinks I’m rather mad to want so much insulation up there.  I happily let him think this, because then I can point out the odd cold bridge without him taking offence that I’m criticising his artisanship.”

One would assume that a builder who doesn't major on energy might also struggle with Neil’s airtightness aspirations.  How has that panned out?  Neil said, “My approach is threefold: firstly I specified in writing that things like the PIR board joints should be taped, now each morning I gently point out the bits where the tape isn’t fully stuck down, and finally, to be honest, I sneak up the ladder in the evenings and use some more of his tape!  I imagine he thinks someone is pinching it.”

“It’s all bit of a game, but the result is I’m getting a building with a performance close to what I’d ideally like, and at a very much lower cost.  Part of the trick is to use a relatively cheap local builder who has traditional, but not necessarily leading-edge, expertise, and then to establish a non-confrontational relationship.  It’s no Passivhaus, but I’m happy.”

Is this a cop-out?  We suspect that plenty of people will have something to say about Neil’s ‘pragmatic’ approach.   “Bring it on”, says Neil, “I’d genuinely welcome a lively discussion!”

September 2013

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