Philip’s Advice: Building Control Can’t Protect You from Corner-Cutting Contractors

Monday, February 5, 2018

When you’re buying a house, you’re also buying any works that have been carried out on it, whether they were finished decades ago or just prior to selling in an effort to increase its value. One of the ways that buyers can be reassured that these works haven’t compromised the house is with a Building Control certificate, which certifies that the works followed regulations and are – in theory – safe.

Unfortunately, one of our recent projects taught us and our clients a lesson in the limits of what Building Control is able to verify and enforce, and why a Building Control certificate isn’t quite the airtight seal of quality you might expect.

Horrors were hiding in the walls

When our clients bought their house, its roof had been recently converted in the typical style for a London terraced house: a full rear mansard and a rear dormer box, which added a couple of extra bedrooms and a bathroom to the second floor.

On the surface, it looked like a well done conversion, and our initial scope for the project included no more than than light painting and decorating for the second floor so that it would match our work in the rest of the property.

However, when we started stripping back the rest of the house, we saw some worrying signs. Deep cracks were running through the ground and first floor, which looked alarmingly fresh. We brought in structural engineers to get a closer look, and they confirmed that whatever was causing these cracks would be found in the freshly converted second floor.

Our clients agreed for a structural investigation to be carried out on the roof conversion (which involves stripping the walls back to their structural components), and it’s a good thing they did, because what we discovered was worse than they could have ever expected.

It was clear that the roof conversion had been built to an appallingly poor standard. Essential structural elements were either installed incorrectly or missing entirely. Most serious was the complete lack

of any padstones, concrete blocks that should be placed beneath steel beams to spread their load, without which the force is pushed straight down through the masonry.

The whole thing was a disaster, and the structural engineer had no choice but to condemn the second floor.

Of course, this was very upsetting for our client, who suddenly found that an entire floor that they hadn’t planned to work on had to be rebuilt at significant cost.

What made us especially angry was that the poor workmanship was clearly not a mistake. The structural failings were so numerous and fundamental that even the most amateur builder would have noticed them. Instead, corners were clearly cut deliberately, either to rush the build or reduce costs, and then covered with plaster and paint before anyone could notice.

Unfortunately, our client had no legal recourse against the Design & Build company. Their contract would have been with the previous owner, and any ties were cut the moment our clients bought the house.

An example of the structural damage we found hidden in the walls. This arch was being split in two from pressure from the floor above.

Were Building Control in control?

But what about Building Control? The works had received a Building Control completion certificate, which – along with the clean finish of the roof conversion – reassured our clients that there was nothing to worry about.

However, in our discussions with Building Control, it became clear that if a contractor is determined to cut corners and hide their failings, there’s little Building Control can do to stop them.

Building Control officers only visit a project a few times during key stages, giving contractors plenty of time to cover up problems in between visits so that, by the time Building Control shows up, everything looks above board.

This is especially easy to do during a fairly quick project like a roof conversion. Progress is so rapid on smaller projects that the entire structure can be plastered and painted before anyone gets a chance to check if the underlying structure can stand the test of time – or, in this case, still stand after a few months.

How you can protect yourself

So if Building Control certificates don’t always protect you from shoddy workmanship, what can you do to reduce your risk when you’re buying a house?

One step you should always take is to purchase an in-depth pre-purchase survey from a chartered surveyor, who will be trained to identify any structural problems and give you the opportunity to renegotiate with the seller to cover any works required to repair them.

Last month, Dan Butt from Now Chartered Surveyors wrote about what’s involved in a pre-purchase survey and how they can help you avoid buying a house for more than its condition is worth.

However, in this case, while a surveyor may have been able to spot warning signs, it’s likely the problems would have remained hidden. We only discovered the cracks when we stripped back the lower floors to begin our renovation, which is more invasive than any investigation a seller would allow.

Had we not been working on the lower floors, the cracks would have grown and grown until they were impossible to ignore, but the roof conversion was so recent that they hadn’t yet revealed themselves. In that respect, our clients were lucky; had they stayed in the house as it was, the second floor could have collapsed.

When purchasing a house, look closely at its records and check for recent works and who built them. While there are plenty of legitimate Design & Build companies out there, there are many who use the lack of oversight in the Design & Build procurement process to cut corners, as they did in this case.

You should also be cautious about works completed shortly before the sale. There’s a risk that the work was rushed to be quickly flipped on the market before any problems could show themselves, leaving the buyer with a compromised structure and no legal recourse against the contractors or the seller.

But no matter how careful you are, there’s always a chance that you’re going to fall foul of shoddy workmanship; it’s simply part of the inherent risk of buying a house. It’s also nothing new, and our work on period houses demonstrates that for as long as people have been building homes, they’ve been cutting corners.

Is Design & Build to blame?

Ultimately, our client would have never been put in this unfortunate situation had the previous owner gone down the traditional Architect & Contractor procurement route rather than Design & Build.

Design & Build companies may be cheaper, but in the process of condensing the project you lose accountability. When the designer and contractor work for the same company, who’s there to make sure that they deliver what they promise? And would you have the knowledge to notice if they cut corners?

In our projects, contractors are hired on their merits during the tender process, and the chosen contractors are then obligated to build our designs down to the millimetre. There’s no room for deviation, and with a structural engineer on board as well, there’s an additional level of independent oversight to ensure the project is structurally sound.

I’m going to expand on the risks of Design & Build projects in a future blog. For now, if you have any questions about a project of your own, feel free to get in touch with us at [email protected]