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Thin line divides sharp practice and malpractice

Many years ago, I designed a scheme that included a loft conversion which the client intended to use as a child's bedroom. Unfortunately, the 1972 Building Regulations required minimum ceiling heights to be provided over a prescribed proportion of a habitable room's floor area. Having consulted that wonderful illustrated text, A Guide to the Building Regulations, by A J Elder, I was in no doubt: the application would be refused. I pointed out to the client that the standards could not be met without restructuring the roof. However, if the space was marked as a boxroom, not a bedroom, consent would be forthcoming. Weighing up the alternatives, in terms of cost and compromise, the client decided to proceed with a conversion to provide a boxroom, which I suspect he ultimately used as a bedroom.

Did I do wrong? The arb might like to think so, but I would say that I explained in writing the limitations on use. If the client thereafter chose to breach those limitations, that was his prerogative and a matter between him and the Enforcement Officer. Either way, I lost no sleep over the matter, for the space provisions would be better than within many delightful cottage bedrooms in the area - no harm would be done.

The issue is, of course, now academic, as under the subsequent sweeping reforms to construction legislation, such restrictions on space standards were 'lifted' - so what did it matter anyway? Well, it mattered a lot because as professionals we have a duty to comply with the legislation of the day - so, insofar as this arrangement didn't comply, I could be criticised. But I was instructed to design a boxroom . . .

Youthful enthusiasm had of course spurred me on, but caution in these circumstances is essential. Over-zealous endeavours on behalf of a client can lead to tears, not to mention to very serious charges.

In a recent case, a surveyor (not an architect) had arranged for major demolition and alteration work to be carried out to a listed building without having obtained consent under the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. He advised the client, in writing, that the work should be carried on 'behind closed doors' using a 'softly, softly, incremental approach'. Injunctions duly followed . . .

Incompetence? Negligence? No, this was simply gross misconduct. The surveyor and builder had each knowingly committed a criminal act. Sadly, and despite his ignorance, the unfortunate client was also implicated.

In another case, an architect submitted an application under Building Regulations which included an 'as existing' drawing showing a staircase to an attic where no stairs existed. He explained in a subsequent court case that there was insufficient room in this old house for a complying staircase, so deception had been his tactic for securing consent. Again, this is just the sort of gross misconduct that the arb's disciplinary committee should be dealing with. No proper attention had been given to means of escape, doors to lower floors had not been upgraded to the required fire rating, and the architect had wilfully misled the building inspector.

The line between sharp practice and malpractice can be very fine but it does exist and, when events fall against you, that line may be judged by others very harshly indeed - especially if a coroner is involved . . .

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