Those architects of misfortune and misery

The professionals have a way of insisting you are taking their advice, not buying their services
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The Independent Online

The new Scottish Parliament building is, by some accounts, a contemporary masterpiece, an edifice that will stir Scots' pride for generations to come. It has also run 10 times over budget and, after heavy rain last week, shown a disturbing propensity to flood. I have no strong view one way or the other on the merits of the Holyrood design: the building looks elegant and original enough. I have, on the other hand, followed every twist of the cost v. competence row, as something of a reluctant mini-authority in the field.

The new Scottish Parliament building is, by some accounts, a contemporary masterpiece, an edifice that will stir Scots' pride for generations to come. It has also run 10 times over budget and, after heavy rain last week, shown a disturbing propensity to flood. I have no strong view one way or the other on the merits of the Holyrood design: the building looks elegant and original enough. I have, on the other hand, followed every twist of the cost v. competence row, as something of a reluctant mini-authority in the field.

For it is not so long ago that I was contemplating my own tiny version of the Scottish Parliament dispute with the refurbishment of our flat. Even after the cost had risen to twice the stipulated budget, a host of problems - watery and other - had emerged. What is more, like the Scottish legislature, we had little option but to pay up. Nor was it as though we were complete innocents in the ways of architects. A few years before this, while having the top storey of our house rebuilt after a fire, we had encountered the self-same problems: sub-standard work, multiple delays and a criss-crossing chain of responsibility that leaves the client carrying the can.

Of course, disputes between clients and architects are hardly new. The most eminent in the profession were known for their epic disputes with clients. The course of true art never did run smooth, and someone who just wants a flat stylishly refurbished, (or a parliament built), is ever the supplicant, the philistine with no appreciation of what "quality" costs.

Our unrealistic expectations, our optimism, about cost is the first reason, we are told, why it is our fault things go wrong. Small matter that there is an estimate on paper which we signed up to. Is it really unreasonable to expect that the final account will bear some resemblance to what was agreed, barring unforeseen factors?

Ah, those "unforeseen" factors. This is the next reason for over-runs. Just when your "artist" has finally completed drawings that resemble some sort of useable space (having delegated to a junior, who has left, and then to another, who knew nothing about your instructions to the first - or, in the case of the Scottish Parliament, tragically died), suddenly every architect for miles is tendering for contractors. Labour is at a premium. No one needs your work. Another 20 grand (200 grand for Holyrood) is slapped on to the estimate. Heads are shaken: it's just not a good time for this to go out to tender...

Then someone finds asbestos under the kitchen floor: down tools, off the job, in with the inspectors. The project is at a standstill, and no one is liable for the delay. Or the pipes do not run where the plans showed them, or the new boiler does not fit under the rafter, or the water pressure is defective: the flat is "too" high up. I don't know about those who commissioned the Scottish Parliament, but I would have hoped that the architect and the contractors might have checked these details before they started.

Lastly there are the actual mistakes: the ceilings and bathrooms painted the wrong colour; the wrong carpet that was fitted (and not receipted); the huge, noisy pump that was rigged up, superfluously, to rectify a "fault" with an incorrectly connected boiler; the radiator that was unsuitable for the system it was attached to so that it sprang myriad leaks, flooding our bathroom and the flats below with scalding water.

And guess who is liable; or rather, not liable. You (and I) might have thought you had a contract with the architect (which you do), but it is not for the quality or competence of the work. You may also have thought that the architect was responsible for supervising the work to your satisfaction. You commissioned him, after all.

But this is not necessarily how things function. The architect sets out what is required of the contractor and authorises the payments that you must make. The responsibility for completing the work to standard, though, rests with the contractor. That is a separate contract between him and you, to which the architect is not party. From the time the work begins, the architect becomes a sort of broker, calming passions on either side, determining whose complaint is more reasonable. If you want someone on site to look after your interests, you must hire someone else.

In our case, the building contractor vanished, with some of the mistakes rectified, some not, and some still to emerge. And although we had settled most of the bills, it emerged that he had not paid many of his subcontractors. This is fraud. But it is between him and his subcontractors. Thankfully, we are not liable, and neither is our - well-regarded - architect. As always, it is the little man at the end of the chain who loses.

Here, in a small way, is some of what may have gone wrong on the grand scale in Scotland. As a consequence, Scottish taxpayers may be as interested as I am in wanting changes in a system of commissions and contracts that leaves so many loose ends and so many clients disgruntled. As with lawyers, bankers and financial advisers, so with architects. The professionals have a way of insisting that you are taking their advice rather than buying their services, so that the responsibility for what follows is all yours.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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