Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Remembering John Ruskin

From time to time one is reminded of the sage words of the 18th century English writer and poet John Ruskin. 

Ruskin was well known for making what in our modern world might be referred to as “one-liners” but whereas the modern 21st Century version is commonly made by entertainers of the comedic variety, Ruskin’s were more often than not attuned to the mindset of the (as we might view it) typically staid, God-fearing Victorian – possibly as a result of Ruskin’s upbringing which was largely influenced by his Mother, a devout evangelical Protestant.

I was reminded recently of one of John Ruskin’s more frequently-repeated quotations which was:-

There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply.  The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey

Applications for approval under the Building Regulations may be made either under:-

§         A “Full Plans Submission”:  Where detailed architectural drawings are submitted for checking and approval before the work commences – this can take up to 8 weeks in some cases, or;

§         A “Building Notice”:  Where the works can potentially commence on site two working days after submission of the “Building Notice” and detailed plans are commonly not required 

NB: The Building Notice was brought in as a means of enabling householders to have minor alterations (new door openings and the like) carried out without the need to incur the disproportionate cost of architectural plans and specifications being prepared beforehand. 

The case which brought this to our mind was in regard to a loft conversion project at a domestic property where, in order to “save costs” the householder had agreed to the builder’s suggestion that the work be carried out under a “Building Notice” application to the Local Authority rather than making a Full Plans Submission for Building Regulations Approval.  The builder had proposed this method as a means of saving the cost of the architectural plan-drawing service (which he told the client was “unnecessary” anyway) and also presumably, to cut out the 3-6 weeks that it would probably take to have the plans checked and approved. 

This was all well and good, except that:-

o        There was no agreed scope for the works – either in the form of a detailed specification or even drawings depicting what the finished conversion would look like

o        The builder had provided a “quote”, but because there were no drawings or specification documents, there was no means of establishing precisely what had been included and perhaps just as importantly, what had been excluded from the price the builder quoted to the Client (the builder’s quotation letter was pretty vague in that regard, also)

o        There was no “pre-agreed” detailed specification that was expected would comply in all respects with the Building Regulations

The whole project ground to a halt when the builder presented the client with a quotation for the additional cost of materials and labour due to “improvements” in certain aspects of the work.  These “improvements” turned out in fact to be necessary only because the builder was not aware that the part of the Building Regulations dealing with thermal insulation had been superseded by a new document some months prior to the work commencing.  Thus, all of the thermal insulation that had been installed to the ceiling and walls of the loft rooms – much of which had already been covered over by plasterboard and skim finish – was of insufficient thickness to satisfy the then-current requirements.  The claim was not just for the extra thickness of insulation, but for renewing the plasterboard and skim finishes and, for re-installing all the other fittings (door/window architraves, radiators, electrical sockets, light fittings and so on).

The client thought that he had agreed a fixed price with the builder for “the project” and so one can imagine his response when the builder presented him with a further quotation for in excess of £1,600.00!  In fact, we calculated that the additional cost of using the correct thickness of insulation materials in the first place would have amounted to just £70.00 for the whole project.

Not surprisingly, the client refused to pay this extra £1,600 to the builder – who promptly “downed tools” and vacated the site stating that the client was being “unreasonable”.  The client was then left with a partially-finished attic room that remained non-habitable and with the prospect of either kow-towing to the builder’s demands for extra money or else, paying another builder to step in and finish the job – probably at similar cost to that quoted by the first builder.  Alternatively, the client could of course sue the builder for this cost, but without a pre-agreed drawing or specification determining the precise scope and extent of the works, such legal action could potentially prove to be fruitless and expensive.

We were asked (by the client’s solicitors) to provide a professional opinion on the situation and upon inspecting the work completed thus far, we identified in addition to the thermal insulation issues, a number of other items of defective workmanship that we could not in all honesty advise the client should be left untreated.  In all, we estimated that the total cost of rectification works to bring the project to satisfactory completion would be in the range £4,000 to £5,000 or thereabouts (dependant upon what other defects might be uncovered as the rectification works progressed).

At this stage, the client had paid the builder all but the final £1,500 of the agreed sum for the whole project and so he was likely to be considerably out of pocket.

The problem as we see it is that in our modern age there is an ever-increasing emphasis (for example via price comparison websites and the like) upon getting “the best price” for a product or service.  Too many people however, still confuse “best value” with “lowest price” and in some instances, the two are mutually incompatible.

We took the view that at that stage that it might be rather cruel to repeat John Ruskin’s “words of wisdom” to this particular client, but they nevertheless ring true and in a similar vein, the same author also wrote:-

“It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money - that's all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you
bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot - it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well
to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.” 

Wise words, indeed……

John Ruskin (1819-1900)