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We can work it out: How to keep your architect and contractors onside (and on site)

Building projects are never easy, and can become highly stressful if you fall out with your architect or contractor half way through. This article gives a few pointers how to minimise the risk of a fall out.

Select your architect carefully…

Take time to select an experienced architect who you are happy to work with: interview him, look at examples of his work, and talk to his previous clients.

The standard of the architect's design is important, but don't forget that architects are also usually responsible for administering the building contract: satisfy yourself as to the architect's abilities in this direction. If you find a brilliant designer who lacks management skills, consider appointing a separate project manager.

And finally, make sure that you are not fobbed off with "the B team": if there is a key person, make sure that he will be working on your job.

… and appoint him under a proper contract

At the outset of a project, when all is enthusiasm, it is easy to overlook the legal details. However, if the project goes wrong and you fall out with your architect, you will regret not having a proper contract which spells out the rights and responsibilities of each party.

Standard form appointments are published by the RIBA and these will be sufficient for many smaller projects. For larger projects, or those where there are particular complexities, you may need to take legal advice to draw up a suitable architect's appointment.

The contractor...

The same goes for your contractor. Remember that price is not everything: a contractor who is experienced at building high quality property is unlikely to be the cheapest.

Look at previous jobs that the contractor has worked on, talk to previous customers, and take the advice of your architect. Ask to meet the person who will be running your project on a day to day basis, and question his experience of this type of work.

But above all, satisfy yourself that you are comfortable working with the contractor and his key staff.

The building contract

Few people enter into commercial projects worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds without taking proper advice and ensuring that a suitable contract is in place. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with residential construction projects and this can have disastrous consequences: a proper building contract is essential, safeguarding the rights of each party.

A range of standard building contracts is published by the "Joint Contracts Tribunal", a body of representatives from all sides of the property world. These contracts range from those suitable for small refurbishments or extensions up to multi million pound projects. They do need to be properly completed, and are often amended by specialist lawyers, particularly on larger and more demanding projects.

Make up your mind …. and make sure that the design is complete

Few building contracts are genuinely fixed price or fixed programme: building works are complex, subject to regulatory controls, susceptible to the weather, and involve multi-party procurement processes.

Many of the factors which can lead to price increases and delayed completion are outside your control - and also that of your competent and carefully selected contractor.

But there are a few things that you can do: work with your architect to finalise a design that you are happy with, and make sure that this is sufficiently developed before you enter into the building contract. That design will form the basis of the contract: if it needs to be further developed as the job progresses, the contractor is likely to see this either as the late provision of necessary design information or as a variation to the original design. And these are factors that will entitle the contractor to extra time and money.

Don't keep changing your mind

Building contracts allow for design changes, or "variations". However, a common feature in projects that are completed late and at increased cost is a large number of variations. If you want to avoid delay and increased cost, keep these to an absolute minimum.

Most building contracts provide that a variation will entitle the contractor to additional time and money. Apart from the time and cost of doing the additional work, a relatively small change at a late stage may require substantial opening up and re-instatement work, and may seriously disrupt the contractors planned programme of work. So the total impact, in terms of time and money, can bear little relation to the apparent size of the change.

Jaw jaw is better than war war

And finally, if things do start going wrong, engage with your architect and contractor as soon as possible: negotiate an agreed way through the difficulties. It is all too common for problems to be ignored until they have blown up, with the consequence that the parties adopt confrontational positions. It's far better to engage in serious discussion at an early stage, and to avoid expensive dispute resolution proceedings.

This article first appeared in Prime Resi in February 2014. Read more about our Construction services. 

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