Gus Alexander doesn’t like to get involved in spats over party walls. Scumbag neighbours he can deal with, but overpriced surveyors who think they’re auditioning for Boston Legal? Never

I’m doing a small job that involves taking out a few structural walls to open up the ground floor in a London terraced house. I asked my client if he knew his neighbours on the side likely to be affected, because of the party wall implication. “She’s just been through the whole process herself,” he said. “He’s a builder and she’s an architect.” I suggested he let them know work was going to start soon, and that he pitch up with a case of wine. I thought I’d look efficient and write them a grown-up party wall letter so I dug out the explanatory booklet from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. By page two I was losing the will to live.

I used to do party wall awards when I was struggling even harder than I am now, but one can’t go taking the bread out of surveyors’ mouths indefinitely. And I’m not interested in the work. When I do things I’m not interested in, I don’t do them well, and am therefore more likely to incur the wrath of the person writing the cheques. A surveyor is a professional you pay not to have any imagination, although you don’t have to look far to see that clients seem quite happy to pay architects who don’t have any imagination either.

It’s probably a bit like solicitors. Your solicitor is a sweetie, but the other person’s solicitor is a ruthless bastard. I’ve found the best way of resolving party wall issues is for everybody to agree to appoint a joint surveyor. Everything can be sorted out by nice chaps (or chapesses) wearing Barbour jackets, corduroy trousers, Viyella shirts and those shoes that look like cornish pasties. Clipboard. Camera. Six hundred quid a side. Job done.

Unfortunately, there is another breed of surveyor that prefers to present itself as something out of Shark or Boston Legal, whose aim is to foment dissent. Actually it’s not always the surveyors’ fault. They are responding to a set of other drivers that can be summed up by the phrase “disgruntled neighbour”. When an architect has gained consent for something that the neighbour’s application was turned down for, they can be very disgruntled. Sometimes they stir it up just because they realise they can’t get any compensation, unless, of course, there is the remotest chance of someone losing any light.

A surveyor is a professional you pay not to have any imagination, although clients seem quite happy to pay architects not to have any imagination either

I finished a job last year where there were eight party wall agreements. I imagine that in the commercial world with leaseholders, head leaseholders and freeholders, clients would kill for as few as eight awards. In this case my client’s surveyor would ring up almost in tears, after yet another failure to agree the eighth award. The would-be Boston Legal would complain he’d been served the wrong notice, or that he needed a fuller method statement for fitting the deep padstone, or that he only had drawing revision D showing the door swinging from left to right, and he needed 28 days to respond to the engineer’s revised mesh sizes. All the other surveyors’ fees would be about eighteen hundred quid, but his would be four and a half grand. I can’t bring myself to charge my own time spent on party wall work, but at least it makes my client realise that the information he’s paying the architect to generate actually results in something.

If you have some scumbag neighbours who have taken on a DIY project to dig themselves a basement, of course you need someone to protect your interests, but increasingly party wall disputes seem like an elaborate job creation scheme. It’s a shame it’s not like Building Control, where the local borough appoints an inspector to prepare joint agreements and the fee is based on the weight of the steel.

It is gratifying though when these aggressive types miss a trick. I had a really tiresome one a few years back. Lived for the rule book. About six months after the work was finished, I asked our surveyor how much the adjoining owner’s rottweiler had charged. I’d warned our client it might be five or six grand. “Well,” he said “Matey boy was so busy telling me why he couldn’t respond to my notices, that it wasn’t until everything was to his satisfaction that I realised he’d forgotten to charge us anything.”