Things often go awry with domestic projects, but they may not always be the fault of cowboy builders
I have always been privileged to work with the bigger developers and contractors and the best consultants on (for the most part) formidably well-managed projects. At that end of the market, though problems do occur and mistakes do happen, they are for the most part sorted out sensibly and those responsible put their hands in their pockets.
But even people with the best knowledge and experience seem to run into problems with their domestic projects – extensions, swimming pools, conservatories. The sums involved are not huge, but they often prove very intractable. Adjudication is not available as a matter of course to sort them out, though perhaps it should be.
The standard response over lunch and in meetings when pontificating about the problems encountered is that we are all victims of the classic rogue builder. However much you try to bring good commercial practice into the domestic market, you fail because of the cowboy builders. We all nod sympathetically because you just cannot beat these cowboys who have been the subject of so many reports. You get what you get: they cut corners on quality at every turn; they take labour off the street which is not qualified; they do not supervise it properly; they de-spec the building and so on.
Perhaps in our more reflective moments we blame this on tendering practices at the lower end of the building industry – even though much of this work is negotiated. Perhaps it is not all down to the cowboys and there are some extenuating circumstances: poor margins, bad clients and labour shortages.
Recent personal experience makes me wonder whether there are other contributing factors. We recently commissioned some extension work and engaged a local firm of architects and told them that we would have to rely on them actively to run the project for us since we would not be around. Our project was late, there were endless problems, things didn’t work and some of the defects were even health and safety hazards. We are finally tidying up now – as we approach a year and a half after the completion date.
Many of the issues were quite clearly caused by bad design – windows shown on plans that could not be fitted because the architect had failed to take account of the roof structure; showers so badly designed that they cascaded water out on to the floor.
In other areas of the project, we have come to realise, there was simply no design at all and the builder made it up as he went along rather than stopping work. he has, heroically, got us over the line
In other areas of the project, we have since come to realise, there was simply no design at all and the builder made it up as he went along rather than just stopping work altogether. The builder has, heroically, just about got us over the line.
We have recently been doing the final account negotiations with the builder, having long since given up on any input from the architect – except letters about his fees. After we had shaken hands our builder admitted that he had simply taken on the chin the costs of carrying out the remedial works, even though they were caused by the architect. He did not ask us to pay because he did not think it was right that we should and he did not feel able to ask the architect to pay because, in the small local market, he knew this would result in him being blacklisted from any further work. He took the costs out of his own profit and contingency which he assured us he had learned to build into his pricing when working with architects and I suspect some of his subcontractors felt the pain too.
This is not fair. And we did not offer to reimburse him – should we have done?
I am not in any sense suggesting that this is common practice on small domestic projects – simply that there is the odd cowboy among architects, too. I am not suggesting that most architects are incompetent, just that there are a few who are. And I am not suggesting that architects are unique among professionals in having a few “rogues” – solicitors and estate agents certainly spring to mind. But there is an issue here.
So next time we are debating the failings of the construction industry on domestic projects and knee-jerk criticisms of the contracting industry are made, I for one shall be suggesting that there may be other issues in play.
Ann Minogue is a partner at Linklaters