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Don't underestimate small projects' ability to cause big disputes

It is a popular misconception that small projects carry less risk of dispute and claims, writes Mark Klimt

Consequently contracts and arrangements can be approached in a somewhat more relaxed manner. In fact, proper care needs to be taken from inception.

‘Small’ is usually synonymous with ‘domestic’, which is an indication of why such projects are often so fraught. The personal element is particularly powerful because for the people affected, it is a running sore and something that they see every day. Allied to this is the fact that domestic clients will frequently change their minds as their project unfolds. Budgets too can be rather fluid, so an innovation considered to be beyond the client’s purse at the outset is nonetheless opted for as work proceeds.

Domestic projects are perhaps more often characterised by a personal relationship between architect and client, which will frequently be volatile because so much is riding on it. A domestic client will see you, having presumably been involved from the outset, as the party with central responsibility, entrusted with the success of the whole endeavour. You will likely respond enthusiastically to that role, expending considerable time and energy beyond the quoted fee and business hours to realise your client’s dreams. Both sides, therefore, will feel particularly let down and sensitive if problems arise and accusations fly.

Small projects are likely to include both a high level of client involvement and narrow cost margins, leaving minimal room to manoeuvre. Therefore, even where a dispute is not charged by emotion and principle, it may become intractable because of financial constraints. As with so many things, the best chance of a project having a successful outcome lies in how it is set up.

Key to achieving that is to understand where disputes come from in the first place. Common sources include the quality of the work, the time it is taking, cost, unwelcome planning conditions, unrealistic client expectations (including unreasonably trying to ration your involvement) and rising professional fees.

So it is very important to take the time to prepare your appointment document carefully and clearly, rather than thinking that the scale and scope of the project does not warrant it. Consumer protection legislation, anyway, recognises the need for domestic contracts to have been demonstrably explained to the client and for the client fully to understand the nature of the transaction. To avoid later misunderstandings, it is in both parties’ interest for your client to have a proper understanding not only of the services that you will provide, but also the limits. Too often architects are prepared to take responsibility for something which nobody else is attending to, which in turn gives rise to an expectation that you are the default target.

The need for clear communication will, of course, continue throughout the project, and is particularly important in relation to client variations, so that your client can understand fully the cost consequences. For example, the client will accept that the construction cost has increased, but will not appreciate that you are entitled to more money, say, for prolongation or redesign.

Much of this is common sense and, anyway, addressed in the RIBA standard appointment documents. Perhaps, though, the central (and hardest?) lesson for architects is to set boundaries and be prepared to say ‘no’ when occasion demands. Some disputes, particularly those fuelled by personal pique, are unavoidable, however tightly drawn the agreement between the warring parties. However, by understanding where those disputes come from and trying at least to take sensible protective measures, you give yourself the best chance of being handily placed to repel and short-circuit attacks.

Mark Klimt is a partner at law firm DWF Fishburns

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