Tony Bingham Here's another take on the controversial case of the architect who got sued after specifying the wrong panels, despite the client's giving false information
Mr Singh had had a long day at the food factory. He hadn't read the instructions for using the gas pans. Not surprising, really; he couldn't speak a word of English. Came the end of the long day, he forgot to turn off the gas. He didn't do too well on the amount of oil needed for caramelising onions, either. It should have been a depth of 10 mm. It was 100 mm. The onions cooked ever so well, and so did the whole of room G49, and the roof and walls and everything else in the factory. The fire destroyed the lot!

Pity really; the place had just had a complete architectural refurb.

The factory's owner and occupier, Sahib Foods, was responsible for the negligent act of its employee. It was negligent also because it chose not to install non-combustible wall panels in room G49. A blind eye was turned to the naked gas fryer in there; worse still, the fryer had a broken thermostat and no maintenance contract. This was culpable negligence on the part of Sahib, but that didn't stop it blaming the loss of the factory on the architect. Oh, come off it, I hear you say. Yes, it sued Paskin Kyriakides Sands Architects. Surely, it didn't succeed? It did!

Alan Erwin mentioned this case last week with respect to getting building insurance. It also offers a lesson for architects and others involved in the design of buildings. The architect in this story thought the client was an expert, thought it knew what it was doing and, dear, oh dear, relied on it.

Now let me tell you what seems to have happened. Sahib Foods is a successful, respectable maker of chilled and frozen food. And Paskin Kyriakides Sands is a successful and respectable architect that works closely with its clients. Early on in the design process for the refurb of the factory, which is in Southall, west London, one of the directors of Sahib checked with a colleague about ensuring that room G49 was lined with non-combustible panels. No need, said the colleague; the room is only to be used for steam cooking. Wrong: it had an open gas flame. Meanwhile, the director told the architect that there was no need for non-combustible fire lining.

If a man designs a bridge that falls down because of a design error he made, he can’t defend himself by declaring that he is only a milkman

When the fire began, it ran wild. Room G49 was gutted in minutes; it flashed across the rest of the factory. The fire experts explained that had room G49 been a compartment of mineral wool panels, fire-resistant doors or automatic shutters, a one-hour containment would have occurred. The fire would probably not have spread outside the enclosure. So, if the originator of the fire was the client's negligence, was its spread down to the architect?

Designers are required to carry out their task with reasonable skill and care. Someone professing to have design or engineering skills has to match the ordinary level of skill of people in that profession. If a man designs a bridge that falls down because of a design error, he can't defend himself by declaring that that was only to be expected, because he is a milkman.

But what does an architect do when a client fobs him off with information that is later found to be untrue? The answer appears to be that the duty of care extends to examining the circumstances, to see if it is reasonable to accept the client's remarks. A fire in room G49 was, it seems, always on the cards. It was not on to take the client's view that a fire compartment was not necessary. But here there is a difficulty with everyday human behaviour. The architect knew he had a knowledgeable client, so it was hard to say: "Yes, yes, Mr Client, I hear what you say but I must check you out." The judge explained that it is no excuse for an architect to say that its client is also an expert. "If I, as a lawyer", said the judge, "go to a solicitor for advice and pay him for it, I do not see why I should be criticised if I fail to do that solicitor's work all over again and check whether he has got it right."

Room G49 ought to have been a fire compartment and the architect should have designed it as such. He should not have taken the guidance of his client. This was negligence.