Home is where the superstructure paint job is – thank to Edinburgh’s planning department

Until the weekend I thought I lived in a bungalow. Not very glamorous, I know.

But I’ve had the builders in and now I can claim to live in a fully paid up superstructure rubbing shoulders with:

What all these marvellous edifices (I used the word advisedly in decscribing my hoose with its princely total of 10 modest-sized rooms) have in common is the particularly expensive, toxic and toffee-like paint used on the steelwork.

In the normal word it is a pretty routine to convert a bungalow and create additional rooms in what was formerly unused attic space. But in the weird and wonderful world of Edinburgh’s Planning and Building Control departments this simple job is considered on a par with building an airport or a high rise office block.

My builders were baffled by the amount of steel beams they’ve had to use in an otherwise straightforward conversion – and they are absolutely clear that it would have been easier, more practical and cheaper to have done it in timber.

Insult was added to injury, however, when they read the small print of the building warrant, which insisted that every beam would have to be treated with “intumescent paint”. This magical stuff has the consistency of toffee and is smeared on steel – requiring up to 15 coats. However,  in the event of a fire it expands to a “meringue like consistency” which gives up to an hour of additional protection from inferno temperatures, ensuring the steel doesn’t melt buckle or otherwise give way in the event of a fire. In short, it’s the kind of stuff which might have kept the Twin Towers standing.

Now, as far as I’m aware, steel is a lot more fire resistant than timber anway – however the City of Edinburgh Council have obviously now decided that we live in a city which defies the normal laws of physics.  I wonder what, exactly, are the chances of a normal detached home being consumed by a conflagrations so intense that it could melt untreated steel beams? (untreated steel melts at warmish 1370 degrees celcius – while house fires rarely get above 850 degrees celcius).

So far, so ludicrous. But the situation worsened. After breaking me the bad news about the paint job, builder Robert McDonald (who was also left sputtering with disbelief at this entire farce unfolded) then informed me that to treat the five separate steel beams (total length no more than 70ft) would take a frankly astonishing 13 GALLONS of paint. For the metric minded, that is 60 litres.

This stuff isn’t the kind of paint you can buy in the shops either. Oh no. First you send off the exact dimensions of the steel to be treated. Then some arcane calculations are made to establish how many gallons will be required. Finally, the paint is delivered – by Federal Express, no less – to the location, where is has to be applied by a certified expert. Then, once some very efficient council officials have been round with special measuring devices (calibrated magnets, apparently) and decided the paint is thick enough, we will finally be granted a certificate – allowing the rest of our building work to continue.

Two things struck me. Firstly, our builder, who spends his life converting bungalows and taking on other such domestic conversion and extension jobs, has never dealt with anything like this. Secondly, all the people I’ve ever known who’ve converted or extended (and let’s face it, it’s not exactly unusual) have ever mentioned this problem. So it’s either very new, or very, very unusual.

My first port of call was the website of the company who make the paint – Jotun. They seem rather proud of their sticky white goo and its protective properties. They also list all sorts of places where they expect it to be used. Unsusprisingly, bungalow conversions wasn’t on the list, which did include:

  • airports
  • shopping centres
  • high-rise buildings
  • sports stadia
  • factories
  • office blocks

My next port of call is the planning and building control departments of the City of Edinburgh Council.

I can’t even begine to tell you how much I’m looking forward to hearing the offical (with emphasis on petty) version of exactly why it is necessary to go to such extraordinary lengths to add an upstairs bedroom in a perfecly ordinary suburban bungalow. But I don’t expect I’ll get an answer any time soon.

What I can absolutely guarantee is that, when I track down the official who finally has to speak to me and explain what has happened, the only thing melting will be his or her ear.


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