You'd think a construction lawyer embarking on his own building work would draw on his experience to ensure that he didn't end up at a well-known creek. Well …
My tale is in two parts. It is about the wrong kind of water, the expensive kind of building work and the sins of the past. This first part is about taking wise and farsighted precautions to ensure that the works go smoothly. Part two, which will be published next week, is about what happened next.

In 1996, my wife and I bought a Georgian end-of-terrace house in west London. As prudent people, we made sure a full structural survey was undertaken first. Although there were the usual caveats – the surveyor was not able to carry out a destructive survey or test the drainage – the house got a clean bill of health. Even so, before the sale went through, my architect father and I poked about; we found nothing of import. Ditto the damp man. So we bought.

A happy year passed. Then, in July 1997, the heavens opened. My big-with-child wife rang to say she was up to her knees in sewage water in our basement. I quickly learned about invert levels, the practical effect of a head of water working on a four-inch drain, butterfly and flip valves and hydrostatic pressure. I also learned that the fire brigade did not pump out sewage water from basements. They only dealt with "clean" water. So I bought an aquavac and a drum of disinfectant and set to work.

My local authority said the drains were a Thames Water thing. But funnily enough, I could not get Thames Water to do anything about them. Unusual. My powers of persuasion are usually rather good. After six months of dehumidification my insurer paid up and we were back to something approximating normal life.

Then the flooding happened again. More fun and games with Thames Water. Little was done, and I did not want the house blighted, so self-help was my only recourse. I designed a throat-check valve to restrict sewage backflows while maintaining drainage capability for run-off from our rear patio and kitchen appliances. I constructed a penstock gate to our back door to seal us in, like those sliding sluice gates you see on properties by a tidal river. Rain increased. The valve was not enough. I hooked up a sump pump to a float switch in case my valve failed. These devices were not pretty, or child-friendly, but they worked most of the time. Boy, you should have seen the water that pumped into our garden and what came with it. Then again … Two children and the need for more suitable flood-free space brought more action. We engaged an architect, plans were prepared, and planning permission procured for the extension and engineering works associated with improving the drainage arrangements.

I thought I might be able to avoid the woes of many a dilettante to this building game.

I had, after all, been there vicariously many times for my clients. There was no way I would be compromised by ignorance or lack of understanding.

I thought I might avoid the woes of many a dilettante to this building game. I had, after all, been there vicariously many times for my clients. There was no way I would be compromised by lack of understanding

So, I assembled my team. As well as my chartered architect I had two chartered engineers – one for substructures and one for the superstructure – and a chartered quantity surveyor.

Attention then shifted from water to neighbours. I took the precaution of not signing a building contract until party wall matters had been addressed. I brought in a party wall surveyor early to protect the party structures. I had a survey made to plot the line and position of the party walls. Party wall notices were served. However, despite the straightforward nature of the party wall act, my neighbours put paid to my plans for a clean start. They challenged, without evidence or authority, our claim that the party wall fence was our boundary wall and insisted that we build atop the wall on "our side" only.

Short of a lands tribunal or chancery action, which would have seriously held up the work, there was nothing we could do except draw up fresh plans and a small Maginot line. In fact we kept faithfully to our side of the bargain; my dear neighbours, however, were not satisfied – resulting in something of a dispute between them and my contractor, architect, wife and local authority building control officer. This created rather an unfortunate atmosphere, to say the least. And believe me, the law is useless in such situations. But more about all that later.

So much for the international dimensions of the problem. On the home front, I was determined to avoid the five of the six main ways that jobs go wrong. To wit:

  • An inadequate design brief
  • A poor contract document insufficiently setting out the design and finishes
  • Cost vulnerability caused by the failure to properly specify mechanical and electrical elements
  • Discoveries in the existing structure that derail the programme and put the budget at risk
  • A client in residence
  • Problems with the neighbours.

Here, I was more confident. The professional team produced a pukka set of documents. The contractor was caring and familiar with this type of work. And before the contract was let, preparatory opening up works were undertaken to discover the make-up of given walls, timbers and floors.

I had thought that, armed with our preparation and a plethora of documents, we were well set up. But I was in for a rude shock. I thought there might be some unknown peculiarities with the house – that was to be expected in a property constructed in 1830. However, we soon discovered that things were not as they seemed.