UK house builders rumbled

Obfuscation is a handy tool for those who wish to improve the profitability of their business at the expense of the consumer. And often a good place to start is the use of measurements. Now a new report has placed UK house builders in the spotlight.

On 15 September, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) published a report, which drew attention to the lack of space in many of the homes newly-built for sale in the UK:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/news/uk-14909066

The report suggests that buyers should look more closely at the total floor area rather than the number of rooms. Unfortunately, this information is sometimes not easy to find in the house builder’s sales information. For example, readers are invited to find from this web site the floor area of each of the house types in this new development at Kings Langley in Hertfordshire:

http://www.crestnicholson.com/nashmillswharf/

Needless to say, the spokesman of the house builders responded to the RIBA report by saying that newly-built houses with rooms of greater size would cost more. Furthermore, he gave no indication that the UK might follow the common practice of countries on the continent and in North America by publicising total floor area as well as number of ‘rooms’. For this information, prospective purchasers may have to continue to demand sight of the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) for the home.

Under a cryptic headline, The London Evening Standard on Friday 16 September linked the RIBA report to the announcement of poor results by a UK house builder:

“Barratt fails feline rotation test

Housebuilder Barratt posted a loss of £13.8 million on Wednesday, the same day that the Royal Institute of British Architects reported that 31% of homebuyers would not consider a new home because they are too small. The RIBA examined the floor plans of 1100 one-bed flats and 3400 three-bed homes. The minimum space standards for publicly subsidised new homes in London are 50 square metres for a one-bed flat and 96 square metres for a three-bed home. Barratt’s flats average 45 square metres, its three-bed homes 89. The company has written off £725 million from the value of its land bank. A 5% fall in house prices would wipe off a further £300 million, analysts were told. Why not enlarge the market by nearly a third and buttress prices by building homes in which a cat can actually be swung? Far too expensive, will be the unthinking answer.”

The Standard’s arithmetic may be wrong – the market could increase by 45% if homes were made larger – but you can’t fault its argument, or the call for greater transparency in the description of the size of new houses in the UK.

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18 Responses to UK house builders rumbled

  1. John Steele says:

    @Derek,

    Respectfully may I rise to the challenge. The interior area of the Buckingham is approximately 113.45 m². See: http://www.crestnicholson.com/NashMillsWharf/development/Phase1Plot.aspx?type=TheBuckingham

    I was able to piece together maximum interior width and length by adding the dimensions of a couple of rooms and multiplying by the number of floors (4.73 m x 7.995 m x 3). The dimensioned floor plans are actually pretty good and I commend them for using the arrowheads to show where the dimensions are taken. I would prefer to see a scale added to the drawing to facilitate estimating other dimensions. The rooms and the total house are quite small, but the plan seem pretty honest.

    The US square footage is generally based on the exterior wall dimensions surrounding the habitable space as shown in the sketch on this page: http://homebuying.about.com/od/realestatecareers/ss/square_footage.htm
    It is good general screening tool, but without a dimensioned floor plan, it is hard to determine whether the interior space is usable or chopped up with too many halls, stairs, etc. In my estimate above, I was not able to include exterior wall thickness, so as measured by a US realtor it would be around 4 m² larger (estimated 150 mm exterior walls). I see many plans advertised that give total square footage (based on exterior dimensions) and an undimensioned floor plan. That may be a more dishonest practice.

    All builders and realtors are out to present it in the best light. You had best take a tape and a gridded sketch pad with you before deciding whether to make an offer.

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  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Yesterday I went to look at a house that my son wanted to buy – a typical two-up two down very nicely kept, but unfortunately in breach of a number of modern-day building regulations – stairs too steep, bathroom opening out onto the kitchen and double glazing openings too small to use as a fire escape. Unfortunately this is all too prevalent in the British building industry – every time a good sense improvement in building regulations is proposed, the building industry is up in arms crying “It will cost too much”, but what they really mean is “We still want to rip the customer off in this way”. Like Pinocchio, their noses are growing longer and longer.

    Lord Kelvin (after whom the kelvin was named), said “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it …”. Unfortunately, if the proposed regulations are passed, the losers will be those people who have been persuaded to part with vast sums of money and are up to their necks in debt to buy small properties – people who have been denied the knowledge of understanding what they are really buying – people whose debts might become sub-prime overnight.

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  3. John Steele says:

    There are many ways of calculating the floor area of a structure. I found the State of Wyoming has placed a pdf of the ANSI standard method on the web. I don't particularly like the exterior dimensions method, but it is the standard. The many notes on finished and unfinished space and "what counts" may be useful to the discussion, or at least present one way of doing it.
    Link: http://www.wyoming.gov/loc/02252011_1/APPRAISAL%20FORMS/ansi20standards%20z765_2003.pdf

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  4. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The “Bricks and Mortar” supplement to today’s (Friday’s) Times had an article “Does my house measure up?” In it they said that the average three-bedroom semi in the UK is 88 m² - 8 m² less than the required space for a family of five living in a two-storey building. They went on to say that the average new three-bedroom house is 74 m². Other useful figures that they gave were that a one-person flat should be at least 50 m² and a two-person flat should be at least 55 m².

    The article itself used metric units, but was spoilt by giving property prices across Britain in pounds per square foot and likewise, an associated article of trivia, written by another journalist, was also in square feet.

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  5. Pier says:

    The US square footage is generally based on the exterior wall dimensions surrounding the habitable space as shown in the sketch on this page: http://homebuying.about.com/od/realestatecareers/ss/square_footage.htm
    It is good general screening tool, but without a dimensioned floor plan, it is hard to determine whether the interior space is usable or chopped up with too many halls, stairs, etc. In my estimate above, I was not able to include exterior wall thickness, so as measured by a US realtor it would be around 4 m² larger (estimated 150 mm exterior walls). I see many plans advertised that give total square footage (based on exterior dimensions) and an undimensioned floor plan. That may be a more dishonest practice.

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  6. Steve says:

    As a working journalist for more than 25 years I'll tell you the reason we still use imperial units. People like them and in many cases they are more user friendly and understandable. People write in and complain if metric is used in the same way they do about American spellings.
    Ever heard of police looking for a man who is 1.82metres tall yet we all know exactly how tall 5ft 10ins is. Babies are always in lbs and ozs, anything else is crazy and slimmers always lose pounds not kilos. Same applies to land which is acres and sport which is always imperial except, curiously, rugby and athletics.
    Face it, many UK people don't like metric measurement as they don't fit the style of the English language and are associated with the discredited EU. IMHO the only ones truly accepted are cc for car engines and medical measures.

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  7. Alex Bailey says:

    @Steve, it's the way that the press continue to use imperial units and often omit metric completely that is at the heart of the problem. If metric were shown, even as supplementary to imperial, in all stories rather than just a few, the general public would become used to their use and would be less likely to get upset when imperial measures were missing.

    The use of Fahrenheit by the press is one example of this... some of us just don't understand this unit other than the fact that many consider 100 to be hot, likewise I can't even remember the last time I purchased a gallon of petrol and so headlines banging on about the high price per gallon seem to do nothing more than add to the confusion.

    The police looking for a 1.8 metre tall man would not look so crazy in this day and age if newspapers in the past hadn't been so adamant at converting 5ft 10in to 1.778 m, let alone 1.82 m as you incorrectly state - but then this illustrates the point that 1.8 m is close enough and you don't have to convert so precisely.

    Much the same with weight. It is absolutely crazy when we still insist on babies and diets being in lb and oz when food, gyms and hospitals all work in metric. If people would just accept that a lb is about half a kilo and that for most things the difference doesn't really matter then people would be a lot less stressed about it.

    Many Brits seem to dislike metric because it's been so badly presented to them by the likes of the press, my personal experience is that people who have been put in a position where they have to use metric will generally find it to be much easier than they first envisaged and soon wonder why they even bothered with the alternative.

    Even the English language argument doesn't fit so far as I'm concerned. How many countries speak English as their first or primary language? How many English speaking countries don't use metric? How many of the English speaking countries that converted to metric have experienced major safety or economic issues linked to the use of metric? And I bet the press played a massive part in helping those countries convert!

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  8. Ronnie Cohen says:

    @Steve: If you think that imperial units are more user-friendly and understandable than metric, I suggest that you read my report, "Made in Britain: Not made to measure". You can download it from http://www.ukma.org.uk/articles/rcohen. For a start, try doing calculations with multiple imperial units and working with fractions of inches.

    Many Britons may be more familiar with imperial than with metric because that is what is commonly used on road signs and in the media. Familiarity with measurement units comes with usage. In continental Europe, people have no trouble with understanding their weight and height in metric units. For almost 40 years, we have taught generations of school children the metric system yet their metric education is constantly undermined by the imperial environment around them, especially in the media. No wonder the UK does badly in international league tables for maths, science and technology.

    If your readers are having difficulty with understanding metric units, you can inform them about the UK Metric Association's Think Metric website, http://www.thinkmetric.org.uk/. This will help them to understand the metric system with examples of real-world objects and without using imperial conversions.

    Your comment about sport is factually incorrect. This year, London will host the Olympics, which is an all-metric event. Measurements will be used in virtually every sport in the Olympics in one form or another.

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  9. philh says:

    Steve said:
    "Face it, many UK people don’t like metric measurement as they don’t fit the style of the English language and are associated with the discredited EU."

    You know Steve, every time I read this kind of criticism of the metric system in the UK it is almost invariably linked with anti-EU sentiment.

    I've got news for you. If Britain came out of the EU tomorrow the case for completing metrication and clearing up the measurement mess would not be diminished one jot!

    In case you didn't know it, the metric system is used world wide, not just by member states of the EU.

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  10. Michael Glass says:

    Steve, one thing about the English language is that it changes and updates. Queen Anne's gallon was banished to America more than 150 years ago and as for the league, it was last heard of in the Battle of Sebastopol, where one half of it was forgotten and the other half was slaughtered by the Russians. Apothecaries' measures have also disappeared from your local pharmacy. And let's not mention the hogshead, the pennyweight, the rood and the Winchester bushel.

    Despite your assertion that Imperial measures are more user-friendly, metric measures work fine in Australia and most other English-speaking countries. Many Australians valiantly try to shed those extra kilos and if you about losing a stone or two the younger generations will look at you in puzzlement! Yes, many people still visualise their height in feet and inches, but centimetres and metres are steadily taking over. I asked my coaching class to tell me their height and weight and how far they lived from the coaching college. All heights were in centimetres, all weights were in kilos and the distances were expressed in the time it took to drive to the college or were given in kilometres.

    We travel round Australia with all the signs in metres and kilometres and no-one is at all put out by it. Land is measured in metric measures, and though the acre hangs on, it is losing ground to the convenience of the square metre, the hectare and the square kilometre.

    All Australian hospitals give the weight of babies in grams, and even though some want baby's weight in pounds, the ounce is dropping from view, because so many divide the pound into tenths for finer gradations.

    As for your dreaded EU, that is almost half a world away from Australia. The EU had little or nothing to do with our switch to metric measures. We switched over in 10 years without all the fuss and bother that happened in the UK. All the political parties agreed that it was something that had to be done, and though they fought tooth and nail about other matters, metrication never became a political football.

    So I would say that the UK has a choice about metrication: it can complete the job quickly, and get it over with or it can drag it out and have infinitely more trouble and expense. I can assure you that the former policy is far superior to the latter.

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  11. michduncg says:

    Steve, I am 42 years old, 190cm tall and weight 95kg. I've lost 7 kgs in the last two years. At school, I ran the 100m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m. I could high jump up to about 1.6m, long jump 1.5m. At my local gym, the scales are in kgs as are the health assessments they hold. I run in kilometres on the treadmill and push Kgs on the bench press. I use grammes and litres when I cook. I do my DIY using mm's metres etc. I dispense my petrol in litres, filling the 65 litre tank in my 2.4 litre car. When I travel in the motorways I notice the distance markers every 100 metres and distance boards every 500m noting the distance in km's from the start of the motorway. When I travel to the supermarket, I note the height limit on the car park are in metres, all items are unit priced in g's or litres - the list goes on.

    Steve, you seem very proud that the UK is stuck in system where people use measurements without really understanding them. You say people are Imperial - but do they actually understand yards, chains, miles, fathoms, lbs, ounces, fluid ounces, pints, gallons - if you said to someone that something measured 148 inches, how many could actually even convert that to feet ? I can you tell you now, cos I deal with it every day, about 1 or 2 in 10. People use these measurements, because you, the Press insist on using them. You say people complain if you use metric. Well let me tell you it works the other way too - people complain when you use Imperial. I know cos I complain about it on a daily basis! I am interested to note that SKY is broadcasting more and more real-life dramas such as the Biggest Loser and Duty Free based in Australia. These use metric measures throughout. Are they inundated with complaints? I doubt it.

    As far as I am concerned the resistance to the UK completion is a source of embarrassment to our country. We think we are being different and clever and that 'its one in the eye for the EU' cos thats how you Steve and your colleagues present it. You can't even get that fact right. The decision to go metric was taken by a British Government in 1965 acting on the advice of British Industry. This was foresighted, particularly in light of projects like the Concorde and Airbus airliner projects as well as the Jaguar, Tornado, Puma, Typhoon, and many other international projects. Our manufacturing future relies more than ever on external investment from companies like BMW, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Tata and Siemens, to name but a few? Any of these companies Imperial? Don't be daft! The only ones that are tend to by American who use another system altogether, USC and manufacture using the system to help prevent foreign companies bothering to bid in any of its military contract!

    So Steve, in whose interest is it that the British Media are acting by stopping us making the final few steps to metric? Certainly not in the long term interest of the UK or its workforce.

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  12. Wilfred says:

    @Steve
    If imperial measures are so user-friendly and understandable, then why don’t they use them in France, and Germany, and Brazil, and Russia, and China, and Japan, and 180 or so other metric countries around the world?

    And if metric measures don’t fit the style of the English language, then why have they been adopted with ease and enthusiasm by nations using English as a first or second language such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Malaysia, Cyprus and many of the other countries of the former British Empire, now the Commonwealth.

    And if metric measurement has been linked to the EU, then why is this so? Because journalists, some of whom are now more discredited than the EU ever was, have done so in the pursuit of easy headlines, and circulation and profit for their employers.

    And if metric measures are only truly accepted “for cc for car engines and medical”, then how should we measure electrical power, energy, current, voltage and so on?

    And, finally just out of interest, why has this discussion been linked to an article that is not, primarily, about metric measurement, but about the way companies use obfuscation in measurement, regardless of system, to confuse customers?

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  13. John Steele says:

    Well said, Wilfred.

    Without metric measure, besides electricity, it also would not be possible to measure magnetism, light, or ionizing radiation; none of these were commonly measured when Imperial, or US Customary, were defined, and no units were ever designated.

    I also notice dieters count calories (they should count kilojoules), but they certainly don't count British Thermal Units for energy content of the foods they eat.

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  14. philh says:

    Wifred said
    "And if metric measurement has been linked to the EU, then why is this so? Because journalists, some of whom are now more discredited than the EU ever was, have done so in the pursuit of easy headlines, and circulation and profit for their employers."

    One of the counter-arguments that you will get from the media is that they only reflect opinion and don't form it ("don't shoot the messenger" type argument). I don't really accept this in its entirety because opinion is formed on the basis of information and given that the media are one of the sources they are bound to have an influence, especially when journalists temper it with opinon of their own.

    Nevertheless we have to deal with the reality that imperial units are deeply ingrained in British culture. For example I have been attending weight watcher's meetings recently and no one apart from me at my local group weigh themselves in kilograms. Can't really put that down to the media.

    It would be more accurate to describe it as a case of what they've never had they don't miss. If British people were historically used to working in metric for weight management and suddenly intoduced to stones and pounds they'd think it was nuts (14 pounds to a stone? What on Earth for? They would say).

    Having said that I am equally aware of the likely rebuttal that people are entitled to do things the daft way if they want to. That's democracy, some would say. We are human, not robots, and our freedom of expression is more important, the argument would go.

    Well, as human beings we also benefit from living in advanced mutually caring and protective societies which have developed as a result of co-operation and finding a commonly valued set of rules. A system of measurement that everyone can understand and use is essential to it. We might get by with the present muddle but it is an insult to humanity to regard it as incapable of rising above it.

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  15. derekp says:

    Radio Times this week has a short item on this topic:
    "Q: Why make a series called 'Make my home bigger'?
    A: New homes in the UK are the smallest in Europe.
    UK 76 sq m
    Iceland 88
    Spain 97
    France 113
    Denmark 137
    Australia 206
    USA 214"

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  16. BrianAC says:

    I wonder what took them so long to realise UK houses are too small. I wonder what would happen to, say the car industry if they only made minis or TV manufacturers if they only made 30cm TVs.
    Two experiences I have had, back in 2001 looking to downsize to a town house I was shocked at the rubbish offered on the new house market and the difficulty of getting the actual size of the house in other than 'bedrooms' just how big is a bedroom? When does a ‘bedroom’ become a ‘box room’? All I knew from overseas is that 50 sq m was ‘small’ and 100 sq m ‘big enough’. We settled for a 1960s' house eventually, footprint size = 2(9 paces by 6 paces) + (6 paces x 3 paces) = approx 126 sq m.- wall thicknesses. That is not the way a house buyer should have to spend their life savings.
    Last year I was asked to buy a house for a single person on a commission basis, one of the few requirements was that it had to have 'at least 150 sq m of floor space', basically to carry on an expansive hobby. Now, not only did the estate agents freak out on the area bit (how many bedrooms? We only do area on commercial property). One actually refused to have anything to do with meters (they went out of business). Most others at best converted rooms to sq ft then I converted to sq m (fairly easy, /10). Only one gave real metric sizes, none the floor area. Some were helpful, most seemed not to understand even the basic principle of area, not rooms. It is that fact I find perplexing together with the fact that buyers seem to be equally baffled by ‘real world measurements’.

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  17. Erithacus says:

    It is not only estate agents who are unable to cope with floorspace in m². Insurance companies and even the 2011 Census questionnaire use "bedrooms" - whatever they are. I once challenged an insurance salesperson to define a bedroom, and all she could come up with was "a room with a bed in it". So my 7-room house was regarded as a 2-bedroom house. I refrained from asking whether a bedsettee in the living room would make it into a bedroom.

    However, it should not really be a problem for estate agents. The Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007 (available at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2007/991/contents/made) require "an estimate of the total useful floor area of the building" (see 11(1)(d)(iii)) which must be in m². A house cannot now be advertised for sale without this certificate, so the information is available - albeit rarely used.

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  18. michduncg says:

    Interesting and timely for me as we are looking at buying a house some time this and so are looking closely at property information. So far, my search is purely on the internet, using rightmove.co.uk. This search engine is used by all the estate agents in my area and works very well. What does vary a lot is the quality of information you get to see about each property. Chancellors Estate Agents produce great floor plans with each entry, and clearly show metric room sizes as well as the sq. metres of each property. Many of the independent estate agents show similar levels of details. Connells estate agents, one of the UKs largest national chains (if not THE largest) don't even have floor plans, their energy certificates are minute (font size 2 or thereabouts!) and do not show the floor space at all. I know find myself ignoring properties from Connells, and going straight for Chancellors and the others!

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