One of those complications is finding yourself in a position where you can't really send someone a realistic bill for the amount of time you've had to spend on something. If you manage to squeeze a contentious planning application out of a difficult council, then you would expect your client to whizz off a cheque pretty pronto. And sometimes they do. But how can you charge for 15 hours' work drawing something up, only to have a design office change its collective mind and insist that you stick with the original proposal? "What do you mean it cost you fifteen hundred quid to try and get the extra floor? They obviously weren't going to let us have it."
For building contractors it can be even more difficult. Maybe not for big firms that don't actually employ any tradesmen, but it definitely is for smallish firms trying to maintain a regular workforce. Your client selects some fancy taps. Continental European go-faster taps, as like as not. They're supposed to be in stock but take 10 weeks to get there. The tap turns out to be longer than you allowed for so you have to remake the mount ducting. Then you find they haven't sent you a reducing piece to fit your 18 mm supplies and before you know it your plumber has cost you £200 faffing about with it, instead of £40 you've got in for it, and you've lost a whole day.
But sometimes you can win on the roundabouts. "We used to do a lot of work for a big property company," a long-suffering maintenance firm boss told me as Eric, his plumber, was trying to assemble a shower thermostat. "We looked after these blocks of flats in the West End. We were constantly getting called out to unblock people's sinks and stuff, and had to make three or four visits because they were never in, and by the time we'd got to them, the blockages had gone of their own accord. Usual stuff. One day I was called up over a bank holiday. I was only in the office because I was expecting my son to call from the airport. It turned out there was a gas leak at one of their blocks.
"They were desperate. I had no choice; I had to attend. As it happened, Eric was fitting a heater in a restaurant round the corner, so I picked him up and we went down to Mayfair. The place was more or less deserted but you could smell gas alright, and some emergency plumber had been frightening the life out of the residents leaving big stickers everywhere. We dug up around the intake, but the main was OK, as was the meter connection. Eric said he thought it might have come from next door, and as he was feeding his meter in the street he saw a Transco fitter who told him that they had just replaced a faulty valve serving a huge block a few doors down.
He screamed at me: ‘I don’t care what it costs, just stay there until you’ve sorted it’ – and hung up
"As we were packing back the screed, the agent rang. I was about to explain what had happened but he just screamed: 'I don't care what it costs, just stay there until you've sorted it.' Then he hung up. Nothing about thanks for giving up my weekend.
"We made the screed good and Eric said he'd pop over on Sunday and Monday to check. Come Tuesday, I had to decide what to charge. I owed it to myself to bill more than six hours call-out, especially on a holiday. There were 80 flats and I thought they could afford a score each. Then I reckoned that one of those plumbing chancers would've charged £120 just for the call out, so I made it £80. I was about to make up a bill for £6400 when the agent rang. He couldn't have been nicer, so I thought I'd add some materials, and bunged on another £500 as Eric deserved a big drink.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.