Attic conversion and building regulations

25 May 2012
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United Kingdom
I have lived in my three storey 100 year old terraced house for the past decade. It has two bedrooms on the middle floor and originally had one (front) bedroom on the top floor, with a staircase between middle and top floors in the centre of the house and a dead space under the attic at the back of the house, walled off by the original lath and plaster wall.

About fifteen years ago the previous occupants opened up the void, fitted a dormer window with flat roof and thereby created a second room on the top floor facing the back of the house. Apparently they got all the necesary planning permission and involved the building inspector throughout but never had it signed off, as they intended it to be a bathroom and so didn't need it to be "habitable". When I bought the house it wasn't picked up by the surveyor that it hadn't been signed off, and I stripped out the bathroom fittings and used the room as a study until now.

Incidentally, having just looked at the regulations from 15 years ago, I am not sure whether it would have been totally compliant as the opening window fitted was quite small and would have been difficult to climb out - but since modern regulations don't require you to climb out of a window in event of a fire the size of the window is now a moot point.

As there recently developed a small leak in the flat roof I need to have it repaired, and thought it would be a good opportunity to reclad the outside timber weatherboard with more weatherproofable material. My roofer advised me to speak to the building regulations inspector. Having recently discovered the oversight of not having been signing off, I thought this would also be a good opportunity to have the room signed off as habitable, since if I ever come to sell the house it would be good to call it a 4 bedroomed house rather than a 3 bedroomed house.

His advice however was that the room doesn't meet current fire standards regardless of whether it ever did 15 years ago. For the room to be considered habitable, and to be able to sell the house as a 4 bedroom property, he said I would need to reclad the outside and inside of the room in fireproofing materials (if the existing materials aren't fireproofed), then add additional insulation (which could be tacked to the inside of the existing ceiling if necessary). But wait for it - in order to have a safe escape route down the stairs from top floor to middle and then ground floor, remember these stairs have been in the house for the past 100 years - he said I have to either have hard-wired smoke alarms in every room of the house, or hard-wired smoke alarms on each floor in the hall or landing areas, and replace every internal door to be fire-resistant. Now replacing the nice original Victorian doors isn't going to be easy, the frames are all warped and current thickness doors are too thick for the doorframes, so it sounds like I need smoke alarms in every room of the house. All for the sake of protecting a 100-year old staircase that was put in when the house was built, which services the top floor's existing 100 year old bedroom and the 15-year old attic room. And he would have to return several times during the building works to check on progress. Something to do with "material alterations" to the house apparently.

I'm at a bit of a loss how to proceed from here. At one level all I need to do is to fix a small leak in the roof, but I figured that it would be a chance to put additional weatherproofing on the dormer structure since it's only accessible by scaffolding and is due for at least a new coat of paint. But if by doing that I have to also fit a false ceiling, replace all my doors and rewire the entire house with wired smoke alarms (despite having recently redecorated) to upgrade this one room to "habitable", as opposed to having been perfectly useable for the past 15 years, it's going to be a total nightmare as well as potentially taking months and costing a small fortune to bring up to present regulations regardless of how complient it might have been 15 years ago. And if he says the room doesn't meet current regulations, would I have to reverse the conversion? In fact, the entire house doesn't meet safety regulations in so far as the internal non-load-bearing walls are 100 years old and made of lath and plaster which doesn't meet modern standards and the current smoke alarn system I have fitted consists of battery alarms in all key areas. Surely I can't be expected to replace all my internal walls too? Any suggestions on how to take this forward senibly and pragmatically?
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the problem you now have because you are planning an alteration then modern regulations may have to be complied with
in general do nothing have it regularized as it was then if possible
then repair not modernize if you modernize then present sound and heat insulation/fire precautions/ ect apply
There isn't really a 'sensible' solution. If you want that fourth room you will have to comply with regulations - and that's not straightforward in your type of house. There are options but all cost money and involve changing or upgrading doors, walls, floors/ceilings, smoke alarms etc. Your best option is as big al says. Regularise what was there when the loft room was built. That way you only need to comply with regulations in force at the time - not current regs. But your going to have to find out exactly what those regulations were and work out what you need to do to comply. That might require some opening up. You will also have to produce conclusive evidence as to when it was built.
Thanks for replies. Some further questions based on "regularisation":

1. What happsn if it didn't actually meet requirements 15 years ago as a habitable room. Recall that I said it was intended to be turned into a bathroom, not a bedroom, but the previous occupants never got as far as kitting it out with shower etc. The windows are big in glass area, but it's only a small pane oin the window that is the bit that opens. From what I could find, the regulations said 15 years ago that you had to climb out of the window, and it would be a bit of a squeeze to get out. But the regulations have since changed and you no longer have to climb out the window as it's at second floor level. So if I change the windows now for something that opens wider, that would have been OK 15 years ago, but isn't needed now. So should I change the windows for something wider or not? In other words, the planning regulations of 15 years ago kind of contradict current regs, so if I build it to the levels expected of 15 years ago, that is the opposite of what is now the regulation.

2. If I decide it's too much expense and hassle to modify the entire house for the sake of calling the room a fourth bedroom, can I just get the roof repaired and forget about regularisation, and if I ever sell the house, just sell it as a three bedroom house with an attractive, perfectly usable but "not habitable" loft room? That after all is how I bought it and the surveyor never picked up anything amiss with the dormer conversion.

3. If I don't go for regularisation or upgrading to current regs for habitable room, can I still request the builder to replace the current felt roof and wooden cladding with more durable materials to reduce the risk of a recurring leak in the future, since access to the roof is extremely difficult and requires lots of expensive scaffolding every time it needs servicing?

4. Can someone please explian the logic behind saying that for a three storey house, I must have mains-wired. wireless smoke alarms with battery backup in every room rather than battery-operated wireless smoke alarms in every room? Whilst I understand the rationale that people can remove batteries, the product data sheets for the mains wired alarms with battery backup that I have read say that the battery backup lasts only a few years, up to 10 years, before the unit has to be replaced. Long life battery operated smoke alarms last a similar length of time. So why make it difficult and insist on digging up all my floors, walls and ceilings to fit mains wired alarms that have only the same functional lifetime as their "lifetime" ten year battery-powered sister models?

Thanks for any further thoughts!
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His advice however was that

Whos advice? Has someone actually inspected it?

If the work was done under a b/regs application, then it does not need to be regularised - just completed. Nor does it matter what today's standards are

Anyway its a long post and I have only skimmed it, but what are the actual issues? Why can't you just fix the roof, clad the external and put your ceiling in?

The original dormer work has been done so long ago that it is no longer an issue - whether it has a completion certificate or not
Whose advice?

I got the building regs inspector out to look at the room and asked him to tell me what if anything else needed doing for it to be signed off as a bedroom, given that, with a recent leak in the roof that needs fixing, I'm about to get the builders in to fix the leak and I figured (well, actually the builder advised me) that I should ask the building inspector to take a look first just in case anything needed doing. I wasn't aware of the term "regularise" until I posted here but that essentially was what I was looking for. But the building inspector seems to have gone overboard telling me that I have to rip out every single internal door of the house, fit wired alarms on every floor, reclad the dormer with fireproof material if it wasn't already clad in them, add an additional layer of insulation regardless, etc etc, all because they never signed it of 15 years ago when it was first done. And I'm now stuck in limbo land because I don't know what to ask the builder - whether to ask him to just fix the leak, whether to ask him to to fix the leak and replace the cladding and the flat roof material with something more weatherproofable (since past experience has been that the room gets the brunt of the weather when it rains so I'm wanting to improve the existing weatherproofing if possible) or whether he's going to have to completely reconstruct the thing plus get an electrician to run smoke alarms throughout the house and get a carpenter to replace all my internal doors. And it's not like this is a true loft conversion, since there was always one big room on the top floor for the past 100 years, and now there is one big room and one small room from 15 years ago and it's just that the small room hasn't been signed off.
Your building inspector has given you wrong/bad advice. He is assessing the work by current standards, not those of 15 years ago

You have the option of going through the whole malarky and rip the thing apart for the sake of a bit of paper (which you have not needed for the past 15 years), or you can just get on with the work you want to do, and get on with your life
OK so the inspector got back to say that they could issue a "no action" letter, whatever that means, but that the major work including smoke alarms in every room still stands if I want to "regularise". They said if I just went for the letter I wouldn't then have to worry until I came to sell the house.

But I'm worried now. I mean, if the work must be done at some point for the house to be saleable, I might as well do it now (though it didn't stop the house from being sold to me and nothing was mentioned of this in the survey when I bought it). Or can I sell the house as three bedrooms plus storage room? And does it mean that I can't actually use the room as a bedroom, study or anything else in the meantime?
There is nothing to stop you selling the house as a 4 bed, or using the converted bedroom
does it mean that I can't actually use the room as a bedroom, study or anything else in the meantime?

Correct, because a council official will come round every night (excluding Sundays and Bank Holidays) at around 11pm to check that no-one is sleeping in the room. Should anyone be found sleeping in the room, they will be required to leave and the door will be sealed. You will then only be able to gain access to the room with the express permission, in writing, of the council.

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