Beefing up the ‘Home Improvements Pack’

The ‘Home Improvements Pack’ is the Barbican Estates rule-book for people who want to do building works in their flats. This is something you can influence now, if you act fast. By good fortune, it is up for amendment right now. This is our last chance to get some sensible anti-noise rules into it. But you need to act fast! – It is about to be concluded. Then this window of opportunity will have slammed shut.

If anyone wants to do work on their flat, they need to get written permission from the Barbican Estate Office before starting, because their lease says that they can’t do alterations without first getting licence for alterations from the City as their landlord (which is handled by the Barbican Estate Office).

The Barbican Estate Office have a guidance booklet which tells would-be developers and their builders what they can do, how they must do it, and what they can’t do. This used to be quite a short booklet, but like everything else in our age of digital paperwork, it has ballooned into a massive 21 pages of guidance called ‘The Home Improvements Pack’.

By good fortune, the City are at this moment updating this Home Improvements Pack, and various committees of our house groups, the Barbican Association, and the RCC are involved in seeking to negotiate amendments. There’s already been one draft, and they’re currently finalising their comments on the second.

So this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a bit like seeing Haley’s Comet, but a lot more important – to get into it all the protections we need against noise nuisance.

The problem is that there is very little in it so far about noise, although, as far as 2,100 residents are concerned, noise is about 99% of what concerns us about neighbours’ refurbishment works. There is a danger when you revamp guidance like the Home Improvements Pack, that you end up concentrating too much on issues which have arisen in the past, but are in fact no longer a practical problem, and really you should be taking the opportunity to anticipate problems which are raising their heads – such as the noise problem from more ambitious and invasive building works.

I have made some proposals, which I really think are extremely reasonable, proportionate, balanced and necessary – as I obviously would, since they’re my ideas, but please judge for yourselves.

The headings below are headings from the Home Improvements Pack

Introduction

It’s 21 pages. People probably aren’t going to read it all. But the chances are they will at least read the introduction before they get bored and fall asleep (assuming no one is channelling cables next door).

The Introduction already contains a statement that the flat owner owes a duty to fellow residents about health and safety issues such as the removal of asbestos, so I want to add in “and statutory nuisance issues, such as excessive noise and vibration“.

There is a paragraph saying that landlords’ consent is a safeguard, and if you don’t get it, it may slow up your future flat sale, because you will need to get it then. That seemed very lame to me. The Barbican lease says you absolutely cannot do works without prior consent, and there is no guarantee a retrospective consent will be given later. So I want to add: “You must obtain the landlords’ consent in writing under the terms of your lease before starting any relevant works.… If appropriate, consent may be refused and you may have to reinstate the flat as it was before the works were carried out.”

That is truly the more accurate statement. What is in the draft now is inaccurate. It’s very important that people apply for a licence for alterations in advance, because that’s the only way that they get told what they can and cannot do. If they are led to feel they can just go ahead and worry about it later, that’s where the problems start.

I also want a couple of warnings put in the Introduction like this:

“Noisy work. Please carefully read the guidance on noisy work on page [14] and the guide to being a good neighbour on page [15].

Contractors. Applicants will be advised not to use contractors who persistently breach these guidelines.”

Before the poor reader falls asleep, I want him or her to know that there is guidance on noise later in the booklet that they really should read. And I want contractors to know that there may be business consequences if they flout the rules.

Chart saying what works require landlords consent.

There is a kind of flowchart which shows you what typical works do or do not require landlords’ consent. It says consent is needed to refurbish bathroom fittings, but it doesn’t mention consent being needed before jackhammering the walls or ceilings. I wanted this added to the list “Cutting or drilling into the walls or ceilings”. That is surely not contentious. All it does is bring a true fact to their attention.

Roles and responsibilities

There’s a long statement from the Barbican Estate Office, which says, in part, “We are not responsible for ‘policing’ your alteration works but we will investigate issues raised by your neighbours.” Then it reminds the flat owner that the lease contains an indemnity to the City if the flat owner breaks the lease terms. But it then ends up with the feeble warning that they reserve the right “to charge you for the cost of officer time incurred in handling complaints”. In terms of a refurbishment budget, that would be peanuts. So I want them to add – again, something which is perfectly true – “This means that the City can take legal action against you and recover from you the legal costs of doing so”. I mean to say, that is surely the real relevant threat if you breach the covenants in your lease.

Checklist

This one is a bit more of a try-on, but I hope to persuade you it’s a good idea. This checklist contains a numbered list of things that the flat owners and their builder should do. I want to add this to the list of things to be done right at the start:

“Provide details of any mechanical drills, jackhammers, or similar equipment to be used by your contractors, and consult us on alternative, less intrusive, methods, which do not harm the fabric of the building.”

There is no legal obligation anywhere on the flat owners to do that, but what possible harm is there in asking them to do it? How many of them are going to check with their lawyer and say, “I don’t have to tell you”? They will just ask their contractors to list the equipment, and then, when they see that jackhammers and sub-machine guns are about to be used, and they notice the frowns on the faces of the Barbican Estate Office Staff, they might rethink things. It’s only inserting three lines into a 21 page document.

Rules for considerate working.

This is the section to which I wanted the flat owners’ attention drawn by my proposed note in the ‘Introduction’.

This is what I want to add (showing the Home Improvement Pack’s existing wording in normal type or crossed through, and my proposed additional wording underlined).

“NOISY WORKS
Due to the Barbican’s concrete structure, chasing out works are very can be unbearably noisy. Noisy work such as drilling or removal of structural elements or partitions and installing suspended ceilings may only take place between 10.00 and 16.00. Given the distress and the potential risk to the health of residents having to suffer excessive noise for extended periods, and the annoyance to the residents who will be your neighbours when you move into the flat, you should consider carefully whether to carry out substantial works to the concrete structure. There are alternatives, such as dry lining walls, which are just as effective and cause far less misery to other residents. You should be aware that noise which becomes prejudicial to the health of those affected (your neighbours) may lead to prosecution for statutory nuisance by the City or by way of private prosecution by affected neighbours.”

All that is perfectly true staff. If you read my earlier blog post about the law on noise, you’ll see that the threats of prosecution are accurate. Why shouldn’t they be told about them? It would certainly concentrate the mind.

Admittedly, my wording could be said to be a bit exaggerated. So make it more neutral. But keep the essence in.

There’s also a section on communication and this is my proposal for that:

“COMMUNICATION
You must inform your neighbours in the form of a notice to be delivered to individual flats or placed on the notice boards with an indication of the duration of the works (if possible). Highlighting episodes of especially noisy work is also useful for your neighbours though it is not always possible. Highlighting episodes of especially noisy work is essential for your neighbours and it is always possible to be aware and to give proper warning, preferably a day in advance. Periods of noisy work should be kept to an absolute minimum and you should consider less noisy alternatives.”

I am sorry, but as drafted, it just seems to be saying: “Sorry, m’lud, but if you could possibly see your way clear to just giving us an eensy, weensy bit of notice …. No? … Well sorry for troubling you, sir.” Of course they can give notice, and it always is possible. How could it not be? You certainly don’t want to be putting that idea into their heads.

Declaration of compliance.

At the end of the whole thing, the flat owners are asked to sign a declaration that they’ll comply with the rules, and I want to amend it like this:

“I will ensure that adequate measures are in place to reduce dust & noise at all times to an acceptable level, taking the needs and health of neighbours into account

My rationale is that simply saying “reduce noise” is meaningless unless you say what you must reduce it to. Noise should be kept to an acceptable level.


It could be that all the suggestions I put forward will be accepted. My own house group, which is my appropriate route for passing on these points as a resident, has put some of them forward but, at this second stage of amendments, it may be difficult to introduce many new amendments. But in the scope of a 21 page booklet, it is quite a small amount of text and much of it is just stating facts. Anyway, I copied my letter to all the other house groups and BA and RCC representatives, so I hope that some of them will also argue for my points, or have their own suggestions to contain the noise issue.

Obviously, it would help if any of you who agree with them, would also try to get these points into the Home Improvements Pack, now, while we still have a window of opportunity.

13 thoughts on “Beefing up the ‘Home Improvements Pack’

  1. Valy

    The sheet you distributed on excessive noise is a masterpeice – thank you. The two cartoons are fantastic – did you draw them?

    Reply
    1. Michael Post author

      I didn’t draw the cartoons. I called on a very clever friend, who wanted to be anonymous. We would probably all be amazed if we knew how much talent there is hidden here in the Barbican.

      Reply
    2. pollypet

      I welcome this initiative. I live at number 62 in the Tower blocks. I was informed by new purchasers of flat 52 that they were renovating their flat with Thomson brothers. The noise was horrendous, like an industrial jack hammer drill was going off beside me. It continued through the “quiet times” and the only recourse was to beg the builders to at least notify me in advance so I could go out. The House officer was powerless to help. When I told the builders that I would put this information on the Barbican website I was told that they “had a deadline” and that if I did so they would “take legal advice”
      I am currently sitting here with the noise of a drill (during the quiet time) because of course now number 42 has announced three months work with a different contractor who has “been informed of the Barbican code” to which the builders pay no attention . I am retired and my flat has been unliveable in for almost six months. To add insult to injury some residents have asked me if all the noise is coming from my flat! A new code with the house officers being able to monitor the VOLUME and VIBRATION is long overdue

      Reply
      1. Michael Barrett Post author

        Why not ask the House Officer to arrange a meeting with the owners of these flats to discuss the distress being caused, and explore what steps they could take to minimise it? There is nothing like a face to face meeting to persuade people to be human about these kinds of issues. Much easier to be uncaring when you are on the end of a phone or email or hiding behind builders. It is perfectly feasible, for example, for all drilling to be condensed into one day or two, during which you could perhaps go out during the day. Not a perfect solution, but better than long drawn out torture. I think some fellow residents affected in Defoe House would accompany you if you wanted some support.
        I am sure most people would be very disturbed at the idea of builders threatening residents with legal proceedings.

        Reply
        1. Gill Thomas

          I have experienced a very similar and distressing situation a few months ago – in terms of noise levels, disregard of agreed time frames and threats if complaints were made – during an extensive project by Thomson Brothers in Defoe House.

          I would be very happy to join or support anyone in the estate who found themselves in a similar situation. I know how distressing it can be and how unsupported it can feel.

          Reply
  2. dave king

    living in ben jonson house (9 years) means that whenever and where ever drilling work is being done within
    about 50m (even diagonally) the whole structure ‘sounds’. I’m lucky these days – I’m an architect who was based here representing a liverpool firm (my own) and now have an ‘escape’ office just nearby in golden lane. before this it was out to the library, a cafe, the RIBA, the RSA – or anywhere to avoid the torture….
    also the timber floor which was installed upstairs at great length (works on that flat took about 3 months) causes a lot of aggravation – depending on which tenant the owners happen to have in at the time.

    to put in false ceilings, chase out walls etc is obviously not only detrimental to the structure but also (as you say in your flyer) not necessary. trouble is that the BEO are just too nice – too fair… some things that form a part of the lease should be enforced at source ie; before the work starts. it’s no good just processing complaints, making checks, visits etc. if people want to substantially alter barbican flats then the listed status needs a conservation officer doing what they do elsewhere – preventing! OK we all moan about bureaucracy and I’m no exception, but the famous slogan ‘enough is enough’ should apply here in the wonderful and totally unique barbican.

    there are a load of old people – old people who are sometimes ill in bed and live here. should they have to move out whilst some ‘buy to rent’ developer noisily cuts the place to pieces, or suffer airB&B visitors kids jumping up and down on timber floors laid directly onto concrete (building regs no longer allow this in new buildings – there has to be an air gap and shock pads…)

    yes, the improvements pack definitely needs beefing up – also lease requirements should be politely enforced….

    Reply
    1. Michael Post author

      Unless they’re in the building game, new owners wouldn’t know how much noise and distress is going to be caused. (I’m taking a positive view about humanity here.) I think most people, if alerted to the potential problems at the design stage, would happily do something about them. I think a key step would be to give people more information in advance, such as the points you have highlighted about the need for proper air spaces and insulation under the timber.

      Reply
      1. Izzy

        Hi there,

        I agree with Michael, people need to be better informed.

        During most of these type of works the actual residents are not present and I don’t think they have any idea how noisy it is. We all at some point need home improvements and if there is a better neighbourly way, I also support your “Home Improvements Pack”.

        I do feel some of the builders do not care about the noise or inconvenience they cause, they are the ones giving the ideas of false ceilings and the unnecessary noisy work! I have lived in the Barbican Estate for 20 years and noticed how much more noise there is and works going.

        I had to put up with over 8 weeks of constant drilling / jackhammers being used, above my flat it was horrendous and agree the noise is “indescribable” and extremely stressful, it makes it impossible to work from home and when I contacted the builders involved to see if they could alter a particular day following a notice from them they said they could not.

        During this time, I was on the phone one lunchtime when it was quieter and sudden the drilling commenced, I was asked by my caller what the noise was and I had to end my call and leave the flat. When trying to work from home I had to work in the Barbican Centre which was better than putting up with the noise. Fortunately, I can leave my flat but there are residents who this may not be so easy for. We should not be made to feel unwelcome in our own homes.

        Reply
  3. Anna Godas

    Hello, I live in Cromwell Tower. I support you with Home Improvement Pack. But I would like to also support you to negotiate better noise-prevention terms on the lease in general. e.g. the flat above our has originally lino flooring. Rules should be linked to complaints, rather than outdated carpet rules. Also, if someone wants to lay hard flooring, but they use the right sound-proof system/technology, why not letting them do it?
    After many complaints from previous residents in my flat, they laid a fine layer of carpet. Now, according to the lease, that is all they need to do: “wall to wall carpet”. But truth is that we hear every step of people above, every single step.
    I’ve even offered to pay for sound-proof underlay thats how desperate I am, and even I tried to raise the issue with Barbican office, nothing has ever been done.
    I’d be happy to talk to you. Thank you very much.

    Reply
    1. Michael Post author

      This is definitely something we ought to communally think about in a practical way. The lease says you must carpet, wall-to-wall. The BEO aren’t going to enforce that, but they’re stuck with that being the rule, so the result is that they never give any guidance about installing wood floors. It would be much better if they had some standard guidance on underlay, sound deadening material, and construction methods that would actually prevent the problem. For as long as people are forced to do it illegally, it’s just going to be trial and error by whoever is the contractor, with unpleasant consequences for the people underneath.

      Reply
  4. Nic.

    Agree with everything you are trying to achieve. Now retired so spend more time in the flat and one of the many , many reasons for moving here was the idea that high noise levels between flats were discouraged.

    Reply
  5. Fiona Lukes

    I heartily agree with the proposal that the Estate Office should write much stricter rules on noise from jackhammers into the Home Improvement Pack. If people cannot have simple respect for their neighbours, then such rules must be brought in to force them to be considerate.

    Reply
  6. Alan

    The flats above and below us in have recently been sold. The noise from below has been horrendous as they drill into the concrete to fit lighting. We had a polite note from the new owner apologising for the noise from the upcoming building work – which would last for three months up to Christmas. It’s May and they are still at it! Not quite as frequently as before, but it has been awful. The builders told me that the owner kept changing their mind on the spec, hence the changes.
    Also there were 5 or 6 major projects going on in the tower at once (mostly by Thomson Brothers), and this puts an awful strain on the day to day life of the building and it’s residents.
    Thank you for doing something about this, as I can only see it getting worse as prices rise and flats get older.

    Reply

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