Issue: 7/03

It may be a guiding principle that keeping one's professional activities separate from one's home life is a good idea. If so, then over the past six months I have contravened that principle. Some readers may recall we live in Edinburgh in a Victorian house of stone construction erected as Lincoln set out the principles of "government of the people by the people" at Gettysburg in 1863. While inhabiting dwellings of this age may be desirable--a recent correspondent to this column was extremely complimentary as to the quality of such buildings in the U.K.--there are disadvantages, not least the provision of modern plumbing and bathroom facilities.

We decided to upgrade our basement bathroom, 14' x 5', by knocking through into an adjacent storeroom that included the below ground shape of the bay window above and a disused coal chute. We required a builder to remove the wall, which was stone and 18 inches thick, and a plumber and electrician to install a suitable shower and ventilation fan in the re-opened coal chute. We also required Planning Permission, a process made more complex because the house is "Listed," a strange British custom where buildings over a certain age are protected by the state.

Readers of this column know that I have views on modern plumbing, and as chair of the Water Regulations Advisory Committee, I helped formulate the U.K. regulations governing the plumbing to take place in my basement and the standard of the installed appliances. What followed was a journey of discovery along the frontier between regulation and practice.

It is amazing what people will tell you if they think you don't know enough about a subject. (It's also more fun to pretend ignorance.) An early exchange in a very up-market bathroom design studio started with "What's your budget?" I prefer to say what I need and await a quote. This exchange started an odyssey through the Edinburgh purveyors of bathroom designs and appliances, from the up-market to those specializing in web-based sales. In these discussions, the question of whether appliances met the government's test specifications was never raised, putting into perspective our efforts to generate a test specification for the 6-litre flush volume w.c.'s now standard in the U.K. Point of sale control is not available in the U.K. for plumbing products--it is legal to sell a product but illegal to fit it if it contravenes the regulations. The labeling of appliances with flush volume and conformance to regulations is being resisted by the manufacturers and may have to be introduced as a mandatory requirement. This experience undoubtedly influenced my input to the final recommendations of the Water Regulations Advisory Committee on appliance conformance and labeling.

Eventually, we received permission to start work by removing the wall, finding rocks covered since 1863 the size of microwave ovens that appeared from behind the plaster. Such a wall would be a good idea to hold up the rest of the house; however, it only supported the floorboards above, suggesting the use of enhanced structural safety factors in 1860. The demolition was complicated by an electrostatic damp-proof course installed in the 1950s consisting of a half-inch wide copper strip inserted into the wall at ground level in a continuous loop around the whole property. (Answers, less than 100 words, explaining how this works will win another of our mythical bottles of red wine). The floor was duly dug up to reveal soil pipes that ran in exactly the opposite direction to that imagined and headed downwards alarmingly, indicating a drain level 15 feet below outside ground level. After much discussion, new connections were inserted, and the floor was covered up and tiled. The number of trades simultaneously onsite was around half a dozen, each displaying particular characteristics, from an extremely dour electrician who felt that my previous re-wiring of the bathroom was suspect, to cheerful and fastidious tilers who have the advantage of arriving when the worst of the mess has subsided.

While "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and "those that can do, while those that can't teach" are both undeniably true, I found my approach somewhat different to that of the plumbers. I started a panic when I pointed out that, theoretically, the proposed pump connections, necessary to generate 3 bar for an enhanced shower and replacing the 1 bar gravity system, could lead to airflow into the system from any open hot tap when the pump kicked in. This led to emergency discussions with the pump manufacturers, who explained the need for a special fitting for the house hot water cylinder. (The U.K. still uses gravity-fed systems with loft storage. This has some advantages but reduces shower pressure in most homes to less than 1 m head, as many readers who have stayed in U.K. guest houses or bed-and-breakfasts will have experienced.)

Finally, we have almost finished. Minor problems, such as forgetting to put the bath waste in before tiling the floor, have been overcome, and the underfloor heating circuit was not after all severed when the floor tiles were laid. The final tradesmen--a painter and decorator--are due next week. Whether having spent the past 30 years researching building drainage systems and the past seven chairing a government committee was an advantage or not, well, I don't think so. After all you can't fix a bath waste by waving a computer program at it or reading selected passages from the regulations.