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Reach for the Sky? – Your Loft Conversion Guide

Friday, 21st October 2011 | by: Peter Barry

What do you do these days if you live in London and need additional space? Moving to a larger property might be out of the question for a number of reasons and many London properties have such small gardens that a traditional ground floor extension might not be practical.

One possible, and increasingly popular, solution is to extend upwards with a loft conversion.  In this blog we will look at some of the benefits and problems associated with loft conversions. It is worth noting at the outset that loft conversions are not just restricted to houses.  If you have a top floor flat with a roof space above it you may still be able to have a loft conversion.

In order to carry out a loft conversion you will need to obtain a number of consents and fulfil a number of statutory obligations.  The first thing that we need to look at is whether you will need planning consent from the Local Authority.

The owners of houses, but not flats, will often have what are known as ‘Permitted Development’ rights.  This means that some types of extensions, including loft conversions, can be built without having to apply for planning consent.

The rules governing permitted development are quite complex and there are a number of areas where there are no permitted development rights.  Typical examples in London would be a Conservation Area where the Local Authority has issued what are known as ‘Article 4 Directions’.  If you have access to the internet there is a very useful document on the Planning Portal web site that is called ‘Permitted Development for Householders – Technical Guidance’.

If there have been no previous extensions to the roof space it will normally be possible to construct some form of loft extension to a house without having to apply for planning consent.  In the case of terraced houses the volume of the roof space can generally be increased by 40m3 and in the case of semi-detached and detached houses the volume can be increased by up to 50m3.

There are a number of other conditions that also need to be fulfilled.  For example you would not be able to put dormer windows on the front elevation of the house or increase the original height of the roof.  In simple terms this would mean that if you have a terraced house you could only have a dormer window on the rear elevation and the highest part of the new dormer window would have to be below the height of the top of the original roof.

This does not necessarily mean that you could not build a loft conversion that doesn’t comply with the above rules, but you would have to apply for planning consent from the Local Authority.

In view of the complexity of the rules it is always best to talk to the Local Authority Planning Department at an early stage to check whether you need to apply for planning consent and whether your scheme is likely to be approved before you incur too much expense.

If you live in a Listed Building you will also need to discuss your proposals with the Local Authority as you will need to apply for Listed Building Consent.

Having established that the proposal is viable from the planning point of view you will need to consider the other legislation that has to be complied with.  Any loft extension will require Building Regulations Approval.  Surprisingly you do not necessarily have to use the Local Authority to obtain Building Regulation Approval!  All Local Authorities do have a Building Control Department, but there are also now a number of private firms who can carry out this role.  You will have to pay a fee for Building Regulation Approval whether you use the Local Authority or a private firm, but you can shop around as not all firms’ charges are the same.

Building Regulations are designed to ensure that buildings or extensions are built to acceptable minimum standards in terms of structural stability, resistance to fire, thermal insulation etc.  The emphasis is to ensure that minimum standards are met rather than to be prescriptive as to what materials and methods of construction are used.  It is worth noting that the Building Regulations are minimum standards; there is nothing to stop you building to a higher standard!

Unless you live in a detached house it is almost certain that your loft conversion will be covered by the Party Wall Act as you will probably either be altering a party wall or at least building support beams into the Party Wall.  You will need to serve Party Wall notices on any adjoining owners that will be affected by your proposed works.  Our experienced Party Wall Surveyors are always available to advise you with regard to any potential party wall issues.  Again, it is always best to get advice on this issue at an early stage, as it may be possible to adjust the design of the scheme to minimise the costs.  Generally, if you are carrying out works that affect a party wall you will usually be responsible for paying the adjoining owners’ reasonable fees in connection with any Party Wall Awards.

As we said at the start of the article, even if you live in a top floor flat you may be able to carry out a loft conversion.  You will need to check your lease, however, as the loft above your flat may not necessarily be included in your lease.  You will, in any event, need to obtain the consent of the landlord (usually the freeholder) of the building, as the lease will normally say that the landlord must formally consent to any structural alterations to the building.  Again, and this will probably come as no surprise by now, you would be responsible for paying the landlord’s reasonable legal and professional fees for approving the alterations!

Having decided that it is feasible to go ahead with a loft conversion how do you actually go about getting the work done and what are the practical benefits and potential problems?

There are really two routes that you can go down with regard to the design and construction of the loft conversion.  The first route would be to appoint a designer who would produce detailed drawings and make submissions for planning and building regulations and any other necessary approvals. The designer will them advise on the selection of suitable contractors to carry out the works and will also be able to oversee the building process and ensure that the work is carried out to the correct standards.  If the works are complex you may also need the services of a structural engineer to design the supports to the loft conversion.

The second route is to go direct to a specialist company who will provide what in effect is a one stop service.  They will design the loft conversion and produce any necessary drawings and structural calculations and obtain any necessary statutory consents on your behalf.  They will then carry out the construction work.  Normally their fees for the design element will be included in the total cost that they quote for the job.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The first option, which we will call the traditional approach, means that you have to employ more people and you will have to pay fees to your designer and structural engineer as well as paying the contractor for the building work. The benefit is that the designer has only your interests in mind and will design the loft conversion to your requirements.  The designer can also ensure that the contractor has quoted a reasonable price for the work and will be your eyes and ears on site and ensure that the contractor is not cutting any corners.  If a dispute should arise with the contractor the designer will be able to act on your behalf in resolving the dispute with the contractor.

With the second approach, which we will call the design and build option, you will only have one person to deal with and one person to pay.  This does not mean that you will necessarily pay any less, as the contractor will still be charging you for the design, but the fees will usually be included in their overall price.  The major disadvantage from the building owner’s point of view is that the designer is not truly independent, as they are being paid by the contractor and he or she will not be acting on your behalf if any dispute arises over the quality of the work.  The designer is also not able to give you impartial advice over the design of the loft conversion, as the contractor may have a vested interest in building it in a certain way or using particular materials that are more advantageous to him.  Many building contractors will have contracts with certain suppliers and they will want to use particular materials or fittings as they are getting them at a better price.

Both methods of construction have their advantages and are both capable of producing excellent results.  At the end of the day it is for the building owner to decide what suits them best, but you do need to be aware of the potential benefits and pitfalls.

As we mentioned earlier, it will almost certainly be necessary to serve a Party Wall Notice on at least one adjoining owner, unless you live in detached house.  It is important that this should be done by an experienced Party Wall surveyor, as it is very easy to get the service of the notice wrong.  This can lead to costly delays.  Our experienced Party Wall Surveyors will be happy to give you further advice in this regard.