Tolerances used by builders to defend poor quality new homes

A Consistent Approach To Failure?
Have you ever heard the phrase “within tolerance”? If you are a new home buyer the chances are it will have been said by a housebuilder’s representative using an industry-agreed degree of tolerance to dismiss your complaint of poor quality and justify an aspect the finish of your new home as acceptable and “within tolerance”.

The NHBC’s publication “A Consistent Approach to Finishes” was originally written for its inspection and a claim staff and was distributed to house builders in Spring 2000. It was also made available to homeowners who were in dispute with their house builder.

A Consistent Approach to Finishes” set out to formally publish guidelines that could be used to settle disputes with disgruntled new home buyers, especially useful and often quoted and used by housebuilders when any remedial action would be messy, very expensive, inconvenient and time consuming to carry out!

These tolerances are now contained in Part 1 General Information of NHBC Standards – Chapter 1.2.

Brickwork wall at PersimmonThe NHBC state that:
“many sources of information relating to tolerances and finishes have been reviewed in the preparation of this Chapter. The tolerances and finishes given here are considered to be appropriate for the house-building industry and take precedence over other recommendations. This Chapter is not intended to deal with every situation that may arise and discretion should be exercised in its application in specific circumstances. The nature and extent of work necessary to remedy minor variations from the tolerance and finishes given should be proportionate and appropriate to the circumstances.”

Here are a few of the tolerances stated in the NHBC’s “A Consistent Approach To Finishes”:-

Brick walls: – can be + or –8mm out of plumb (vertical) in 2500mm. They can be up to + or – 8mm out of line in any 5m section.
Doors: – can be 8mm out of plumb. Doors can be warped or twisted by 5mm in width or 9mm in height.
Windows: – reveals can be 4mm out of line in any 1000mm and be 5mm out of square in 250mm.
Cills can be 3mm out of level. Minor scratching to glass within 6mm of the frame is acceptable!
Walls: – Cracking is to be expected up to 2mm and up to 4mm at staircase strings.
Duct casings; – can be + or – 5mm out of square in 250mm on both faces.
Internal walls: – can be 8mm out of plumb (vertical) with external corners 10mm out of square when checking using a 500mm square.
Floors: – can be out of level by up to 4mm per metre for floors up to 6m wide – a total of 24mm!
When checking for surface blemishes, walls and ceilings should be viewed from a distance of 2 metres with wall lights and uplighters switched off. You can imagine why!

Skirting and doorFar from raising standards, the NHBC has published a list of set measurable, benchmarked standards that the house building industry can and is working down to. The new acceptable, is 25mm out of level, 8mm out of plumb and out of square everything meets the required standard too.

So when a house builder is reassuring you that your home has been built to the required standards, what he is really saying is that it won’t be perfect, but it will be within tolerance to the minimum standards.

“A Consistent Approach to Finishes” is little more than a housebuilder’s ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card. If poor quality to any degree is considered as “acceptable”, where is the drive and necessity to improve the standard of new homes going to come from?

“A Consistent Approach to Finishes” is a mandate to build poor quality homes. If house builders can get away with building out of vertical, out of line, out of level and out of square, where is the incentive to check and rectify their work? If the house builders don’t care and clearly they do not, what incentive have the tradesmen that actually do the work?

If it is right, it is right – anything else cannot be justified by moving the goal posts using the industry’s “accepted tolerances.” It is not impossible to build a wall vertical or corners square. Site managers should carry a level and check the work as it is being done, rather than after they receive a buyer’s complaint to check it is “within tolerance”. Unfortunately, this would mean work being re done, time lost and targets missed. So tolerances are being used for commercial reasons to justify acceptance and the inevitability of poor quality workmanship in UK new homes, rather than a means of requiring a consistent approach to higher standards from house builders.

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