When asked if he had any skeletons in his cupboard Alan Clark, who recently died, said: 'Dear boy, I can hardly close the door '. Jobs sometimes create skeletons for architects, as this story will reveal . . .
Some years ago, a loyal client returned to us with a commission for a new building when his screen-printing business outgrew the facilities that we had designed for him only a few years before. We were of course well pleased and set to work, hoping to better reconcile the second time around the conflicting demands on space arising from the company 's continued increases in market share, the anticipated growth of its business sector, and the economies arising through 'shrinking' technologies in screenprinting.
Two years later, the relocation complete, I learned that the client's old building (originally designed by us in the mid 80s) had been sold. Sadly, the purchaser was hit by the recession and went into receivership. I heard from friends living near the site that the building on which we had worked with such commitment and care was unoccupied, and being vandalised.
Then, some months later and out of the blue, I received a telephone call from a company director who told me that his firm had just bought the building which was to be converted and expanded as its Birmingham headquarters - would we do the job? This was great news and, to our further delight, appointment terms were agreed that day - no fee haggling, they wanted us, simple as that!
And so, to the skeleton in my cupboard.
I knew that there had been occasional problems, over many years, during certain weather conditions. It seemed likely that there was an installation failure somewhere within the vapour barrier and that condensation was forming under the metal roof sheet and finding its way into the main entrance hall where it revealed itself with a steady 'drip '. However, symptoms had been very intermittent and seemed to occur only when heavy overnight freezing was followed by bright sunshine on the south-facing roof slopes. Some years the 'dripping ' returned; other years no problems were evident. (For further information on the effects of condensation on insulation within industrialised wall and roofing systems see this column aj 2.4.98.) Should I tell our new client?
This led us to review carefully the issues of responsibility for any defects in our earlier work. We knew of no problems other than this matter of condensation, but our contract and responsibilities for the original building were with our first client.
Should I now seek to limit our liability to the alteration work to be commissioned by the building 's new owner - ie expressly excluding our earlier design work? (Hardly the way to impress a new client, or to demonstrate confidence in our past services.) And what of the work of the other consultants? Alternatively, should we suggest that our new client commission us to carry out a conditions survey of the building and review of the previous architect 's (our own!) work? Certainly this is something one would normally consider with any other alteration job.
We ultimately chose a middle course. Nothing was said about the intermittent fault with the vapour barrier. (I decided that as no problems had been reported for some four years. It was probably something that only occurred in freak weather conditions.)
On the big issue of limiting our liability to the new work only, we did nothing. Some would argue that architects should be firmer on matters like this and seek every opportunity to limit risk. Perhaps that is right, but it didn 't make commercial sense to me to risk losing the client 's confidence, and possibly the job, by trying to expressly exclude responsibility for work that to our knowledge had no problems. Either way, the new commission was finished without incident and the building has now been occupied for some five years without any reported defects in either the original fabric or the alteration work.
That said, be careful when revisiting past work - you inevitably open up a hornet 's nest of liability issues.
'Should we suggest that our new client commission us to carry out a conditions survey ... of the previous architect's (our own!) work?'