Time to stand and deliver

We love to complain about our builders, says Penny Jackson. But there's a new breed on the block who are seeking to restore the industry's poor image
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The Independent Online

Most of us emerge from building projects at home promising never to put ourselves through the experience again. Over-budget, over-schedule and over-emotional pretty well sums it up, even though we cling to the thought that it will all be worth it in the end.

Most of us emerge from building projects at home promising never to put ourselves through the experience again. Over-budget, over-schedule and over-emotional pretty well sums it up, even though we cling to the thought that it will all be worth it in the end.

Having builders in can be as stressful as arranging a wedding, buying a house or having a baby - and worse than spending a week with the in-laws, according to a recent survey from the Federation of Master Builders. Top of the irritation list are builders who don't finish on time, ones who don't turn up when they say they will and those who run over budget.

But does it really need to be like this? Although a certain amount of disruption of domestic life is inevitable if we get the builders in, a great deal else is not, according to one firm of builders who have seen enough of the top end of the market to know that the problem is universal.

Michael Brady Ltd, a London-based company, is a new breed of "super-builder". The company specialises in the refurbishment of the kind of expensive homes that feature in the glossies - ones that use beautiful, unusual timber, thick marble, acres of glass and flawless contemporary finishes.

But while the quality of their workmanship places them in the top flight of the trade, what really separates them from the boys is their business ethos. They have even gone so far as employing a public relations agency to establish themselves as a brand name - not common practice among your common or garden builders.

But is it PR puff, or does the company really have a different approach? Seamus Cusack, a director at Michael Grady, says that he and Brady started the company more than 10 years ago to fill a real gap in the quality market.

"We deplored the tactics used by some builders of not doing what they say and jacking the price up. We have taken jobs where the wrong materials have been used, the workmanship is shoddy and, in at least a couple of cases, we were horrified by what we saw under the painted façade.''

That is a view undoubtedly shared by numerous building companies, small and large, but at Michael Brady they believe there is a simple way forward.

Cusack explains: "If everyone on a building site did what they promised to do, or explained immediately why something couldn't be done, savings could be made that would translate into a 20 per cent reduction in charges to the customer. If someone is supposed to have a ladder in place at certain time, a chain of people depend on it being there. When builders cover up the fact that a job's not been done, it wastes everyone's time and money."

It is often overseas buyers who are most shocked by British builders - like the tale of an American who bought a house in London that he set about refurbishing at enormous expense. He would fly all the way over from the States to find that nothing had happened because the electrician or the plumber had failed to turn up. Finally, after getting nowhere, he was forced to sell it before it was finished.

Cusack wants to see an end to this cycle of blame that seems to predominate in the building trade and would like to set up a Big Brother-style video of a job's progress to reassure his overseas clients.

At Michael Brady, they will say that credibility and integrity are as important as skilled craftsmen. If things go wrong or can't be done - or even if the customer has a change of mind, they are all regarded as the builder's problem. "On one occasion, we had just finished all the lighting when the owner said he wanted it changed. The electrician thought he was mad, but as the client said, he was paying for it and he wanted it done - so of course we did it," says Cusack.

"We have no opinions other than that something should be done perfectly," says Cusack, who is also working on a project with developer Capricorn Mayfair in Grosvenor Street. "Designs can be tricky and we work closely with specialists who keep pace with developments."

One of the key roles that architects can play is keeping the builders on their toes. At 21st Mayfair, a new block of flats in Davies Street, London, the detail of the work is stunning, from the terracotta exterior right down to to the joinery of the doors. Fred Pilbrow, from architects Kohn Pederson Fox, found a team of exemplary builders to meet his exacting demands.

The biggest headache with any scheme, says Pilbrow, whether a large development or a project at home, is the complexity of services below the surface. "Imagine all the people involved in fitting out a bathroom and you can see how it can go wrong. It is dispiriting for someone to see their work damaged and it can easily happen."

At 21st Mayfair, there are no cornices or skirting boards to cover imperfect joins, but shadow gaps that require a perfect alignment. "It takes a great deal of effort to achieve that standard," explains Pilbrow. "But a good builder knows the effect of getting it exactly right. He has to see that all the elements come together often with very tight tolerances."

In the end it is the detail that counts. At the Federation of Master Builders they say that the image of the building industry is improving and that the testimony of homeowners across the country shows there are still plenty of builders with pride in a job well done. "And people do value their opinions. We often hear from people that their builder's suggestions have saved them thousands of pounds," says a spokesman.

Michael Brady Limited: 020-8900 2345, www.michaelbradyltd.co.uk

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