Who was also the client from hell, asked Gus Alexander to refurbish his flat. He then proceeded to give a masterclass in arrogance and incompetence. Here’s what happened
The Foreign Office’s embassy-building programme has come under attack from our friends in HM Treasury because some buildings are 10% over budget. We construction professionals instinctively flinch when we hear this, but at least there’s a building at the end, which is more than you can say for the £12.7bn project to give the NHS a new IT system. Alistair Darling told us in December that this might be scrapped.
When the Treasury steps in to show us how to deliver buildings, I hope they don’t rely on the procurement technique demonstrated by a former client of mine. “Treasury” as I called him, was a big shot in Ministry of Defence procurement. When I saw his HM Treasury platinum Visa card I said: “I suppose you can buy a Ferrari with that.”
“I can buy a Challenger tank with it,” was the smug reply.
Mr Treasury had recently returned to England and had decided to buy a flat in the listed block where he’d been renting. A builder who had just refurbished one for his neighbour recommended me. I told him that as he was in a hurry, we should negotiate a tender with the same builder.
Treasury told me what he wanted and I said it would cost about £80k, or about 20% of what he’d paid, which is what people generally spend to remodel a flat like that. He said: “I only want to spend £50k, and I’ve been told I can get it done for that.
“Well, we’ll get it priced up and then we’d better decide what you can do without.”
“Oh, I expect to have everything done.”
I sketched out a schedule and it came to a little over £80k, with lots of provisional sums. My client then said he was off to Hong Kong for three weeks so we should get on with it and he’d work out what savings he wanted when he came back. “Oh, and I’d like the lofts boarded out so we can store all our furniture in them. And I want those fold-up ladders. And you’d better insulate the lofts, too.”
Three weeks passed; we heard nothing from Treasury. We’d done most of the plumbing but could get no further until he’d agreed the bathroom layouts. We thought we’d start on the wiring, and use up some of the provisional sums on the joinery.
He telephoned the day he returned. ”This place is a disgrace! Why haven’t you finished the bathrooms?”
“Well, if you tell us what fittings and tiles you want, what you’d like on the floor … ”
“I want a meeting here tomorrow morning, and I don’t want any builders present.”
When I pitched up Treasury was pacing about the place like a demented polar bear. ”What the hell is all this cabling everywhere? And these holes in the ceiling?”
“Er, that’s the first-fix wiring.”
“Well, it’s too expensive. I’m getting someone else.” Here we go. I said, fine, I’d get Pat to finish the wiring and the plumbing, tidy up and plaster round the structural alterations and leave Treasury with the finishes and the joinery.
The next time we met I found the whole place was full of chaps in grey jeans and check shirts. One of them said: ‘Plumpink not goot’
“Listen, I’ve got someone to take over the plumbing and the wiring, but I want your men to do the joinery.”
“But that’s ridiculous. I mean the services are three-quarters finished, just choose some fittings and we can connect them.“
“When will the joinery be here?”
“A few weeks. But apart from the stairs, you don’t need it. How much do you want to spend?”
“That is none of your business! I’ll expect the joinery in three weeks.”
The next time Treasury summoned me, the place was full of chaps in grey jeans and check shirts. One of them said: ”Plumpink not goot. Vyrink not goot.” Treasury glared at me. “I told you your builder was incompetent.”
“Incompetent? The work’s practically textbook. You’ve just appointed a bunch of chancers hanging around B&Q!”
“The man in Wickes assures me they are competent which is more than I can say for your builders.”
“My builders? They were working for your friends. How much is this costing, anyway?”
“They are charging me time and materials. They assure me it’s the cheapest way.”
“You’re joking. I thought you were in a desperate hurry!”
“How dare you tell me what to do. I’ll just have to do it myself.”
“But you’ve got a young family and you’re never here and you can’t seem to make the simplest decisions. You’ve completely lost control. This is madness. I mean, is this how you go about procuring helicopters?” There was a long pause. Obviously it was exactly how he went about procuring helicopters.
The builder delivered the joinery and went off licking his wounds. I spent two years rebutting Treasury’s 500 closely reasoned pages listing my shortcomings before I prised some money out of him. Meanwhile, the work was never finished. He’s still renting. And HM Treasury itself is going to take a bigger interest in construction. I can’t wait.
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell