Guest blog: Having property work done – understanding the basics

30 January 2014

Private Wealth law is my specialism but even I have to admit that tax and wills are not the be-all and end-all! We have an enduring love affair with bricks and mortar here in the UK, so for this blog I have invited Gillian Birkby, a partner in our construction practice, to give us some quick tips of interest to anyone about to embark on a construction project.

Gillian writes:

If you are planning to do some construction work the contractor should, before he starts work, produce the small print – either a contract or at the very least conditions on the back of an order form. If he does not, it is probably best not to use him.

Construction contracts are notoriously long and complex, but so is the construction process itself, so this is not really surprising. They can be broken down into what is often referred to as the time/cost/quality triangle. There are other elements, such as the scope of the work itself, which are just as important, but let’s stick to the basic three to start with.

Probably the easiest way to understand how these three factors interrelate with each other is to think of them as a slightly fuzzy equilateral triangle.  There is some limited scope to adjust one of the factors, giving it more prominence than the others.  For instance, you may want the work to be completed so that you can invite friends and family to stay at Easter.  In the past, the start of the Olympics imposed a similar absolute deadline.  If the project must be completed by a particular date, the time corner of the triangle ceases to be fuzzy and becomes immovable; unless the work has started early enough, allowing for the usual delays which seem to beset construction, the cost may increase and the quality may suffer. On the other hand, if a very high standard of work is crucial this will almost inevitably increase both the time and the cost of the works.

Sometimes it is fairly easy; the three factors are in balance, because none of them are more important to you than the others.  Alternatively, you may know exactly which of the factors is the most important and the consequences for the others will fall into place. Often, however, it is not quite that simple. If you want superb quality for a low cost and quickly, the chances are you will be disappointed; it simply cannot be achieved within those constraints. Most building contracts are a compromise between these various competing factors.  It is worth identifying at the start which of them matter most for your project.

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Gillian Birkby
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