If you wanted advice on a medical matter, you wouldn’t turn to your butcher, so why go to a landscape architect when you need design advice? Choose the right person for the job

Tony Bingham

I couldn’t make out why the owner of this building, one needing a fair amount of repair work, went for design advice to a firm of landscape architects. Why on earth go to a landscape architect instead of, well, an architect? The reason is that that’s what people do - and then get into rows and tears. Test it for yourself. 

Susan Wiles spotted a romantic 200-year old coach house in the delightful village of Slapton, just down the coast from Dartmouth in Devon. Sensibly she commissioned a survey. The surveyor reported movement on the structure with extensive distortion of the walls and roof. There were cracks in external walls, defective pointing, defects in roof tiles, flashing and roof verges, broken or missing gutters and down-pipes, rot in the external joinery, uneven first floor with wood beetle infestation, a substandard attic floor, distorted roof trusses and dampness in several areas. The RICS firm added: “get yourself a structural engineer”. I would have added - and an architect too. 

But what did Susan Wiles do? She went to a landscape architect instead. Don’t scoff. It was someone she knew, and presumably trusted. She asked this firm to sort out making the coach house into holiday flats. But what about all the landscaping: there isn’t any, is there? And the highly qualified landscaping architect produced plans for the flats. And then a builder was asked to price it. The landscape architects fee was £2,195 for all this. Not much is it?

The landscape architect’s ability to landscape is sound but is he really the right bloke for drumming out the specification, the details, the answers to a seriously out of order building?

Yet these events so far strike me as a tad wrong. The landscape architect’s ability to landscape is hugely sound but is he really the right bloke for drumming out the specification, the remedies, the details, the answers to a seriously out of order building? I bet the fellow was doing a favour, masses of good faith. But there is a line to be drawn. The job cried out for my very simple model for building buildings: get yourself a fully trained architect with all the letters after his or her name, get them to get another professionally qualified engineer and drum out a specification down to the last nail.  Then and only then get a builder or three to give a price and time. KISS it’s called - “keep it simple stupid”.

As to the tears down there in Slapton. They flowed in the county court, then, oh dear, flowed again in the Court of Appeal. Let me tell you what happened. The builder came on board. It was £35,000 “to do the work” indicated by those drawings of the landscape architect. Susan Wiles lived in it for a few years then decided to put it on the market.  Buyers came and went, mainly because their surveys came up with adverse comments.  So, Ms Wiles decided to call for a structural surveyor at last. She hadn’t bothered before, nor had the landscaping architect recommended it. The bombshell was the engineer’s comment that the recent building works had caused the need for radical works.  The building was racking, leaning over. Ms Wiles phoned the landscaping friend. I bet it was a warm conversation. And, yes, here we go, the landscaping architect said that any structural problems were the builder’s responsibility. He probably truly believed that.  After all, the landscaping fellow did a few drawings and the builder priced on those. Do you see how the blame game gets under way? 

They can take whatever soundings from the contractors and suppliers of widgets, but the buck stops and remains with the specifiers

My model is simple. The specifiers are the architect and engineer. They can take whatever soundings from the contractors and subcontractors and suppliers of widgets, but the buck stops and remains with the specifiers. The builder simply obeys the specification, and if he nods that the architect could do better, so be it. 

Too tricky to blame the supply chain: Susan Wiles simply sued the landscape architect for professional negligence and won. His job was to meet the standard expected of the sort of person who designs answers to defects in a poor building. It doesn’t matter that he is damn good at landscaping. Put yourself up to give advice about a building structure and you have to meet the standard expected of such qualified folk. He specifies what’s wanted; the builder does as he is told. The builder here wasn’t sued.

The point of the story is that if you want to build something, get yourself an architect and get that fella to design and fully specify the work. That’s his job. Then, and only then, get a builder to give you a price and time. 

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple