The programme was tight and the contract was JCT80. So, I bet you're thinking, here comes the story of a whopping great dispute between builder and client. Wrong. In fact, the job went so well that the site manager, David Hurricks of Willmott Dixon Construction, won the Building Manager of the Year award.
This is the annual shindig organised by the Chartered Institute of Building, when hundreds of builders turn up in the hope that they will win the coveted prize. It has been going for 21 years. It is a great do and I think all construction lawyers ought to be obliged to go as well.
This year's winner, Hurricks, announced that he had bunged his JCT80 contract in a drawer and locked it up. The lawyers would gasp at that, since JCT80 is heaving with requirements to give formal notices before the foreman can sneeze. But that's not the reason lawyers should go. No, no, it is so that we law folk can be reminded of what construction is actually about: working with people to build good buildings. And that doesn't happen when the builder is obliged to send the sort of letters that JCT-style documents demand.
I really do have a theory that the obligatory letters (yes, obligatory) demanded in contract documents sow the seeds of a damn big row.
Anyway, there was none of these on Willmott Dixon's site, at least none that I know of, and I hope that Hurricks and his subcontractors all turned in a profit and have been well paid.
One more thing about the prizegiving was this: when Hurricks was announced as overall winner, his competitors – the Bovises, the Amecs, the Laings, the Shepherds, the Wates and more, all stood up and applauded. Building ain't easy – and these folk know it.
When Hurricks was announced as winner, his competitors – the Bovises, the Amecs, the Laings – all stood up and applauded
The same feeling arose this week at the National House Building Council's Pride in the Job awards in Cambridge. Five hundred people turned up to discover which contractors had been awarded the Seal of Excellence. It goes to the site manager who has run his site and built homes to the very highest calibre.
True, the judges were mainly looking at the finished house, but they also wanted evidence of programming, customer attention, fair play with subcontractors, good site safety and building sites that looked professional and workmanlike. And these new home builders are not necessarily building for professional clients, as in the commercial sector; they are faced instead with highly knowledgeable consumers who will, at the drop of a hat, remind the housebuilder of its legal obligations. The top NHBC award went to Peter Rust of Rust & Sons and to Richard Price of Bryant Homes. A quality that impressed the NHBC judges was that these two chaps had good communication skills. Which brings me back to us lawyers. There are those of us who sweep up after the building process is all done, or even sweep up during it. What I mean is that we have to sort out rows and disputes and quarrels. Then there are those lawyers who are involved in getting parties into building contracts. These are the shoehorn lawyers who shift risk here instead of there.
But the actual work of the brickie or chippy or plumber is the same, irrespective of the contract form. What gets me about these prizes is that I always get the feeling that these top-quality managers don't give a fig for all our forms.
And what's worse is that I always feel that all the disputes – ever-so-ordinary disputes – are a terrible waste of time and money. These site managers are actually distracted from doing a good job by having to administer standard form contracts. If Rust and Price are good at communication, I bet it is nothing to do with sending formal letters of delays and variations, or certificates or notices. I bet it's just about face-to-face co-operation with give and take.
I really don't know if the Fortnum & Mason job had a surveyor or contracts manager who fired off contractual letters as required by JCT80. But if it is true that they locked up the bloomin' forms and then did a marvellous job and made a profit, then there is one helluva lesson for us lawyers to learn from these prize-winners.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EU, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.