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An architect cannot guarantee that your dream will come true

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Buildings, and houses in particular, are not just bricks and mortar: they can be the stuff of dreams to some. If the dream turns into a nightmare, because a negligent surveyor failed to detect the signs of structural movement, or because the dodgy builder bodged the extension, or because the architect was reckless as to budget, can disillusioned householders claim compensation for the distress and frustration of their rude awakening?

It depends upon the reason for contracting with the professional or builder in the first place.

Most contracts have some commercial purpose at their root. There are exceptions, however, and some contracts have as their very object, the provision of pleasure, relaxation and peace of mind. Before your imagination runs away with you, the sort of contracts the courts have in mind in this 'exceptional' category, have nothing to do with saunas and massage parlours: they are usually for holidays.

Claims for ruined holidays are all about disappointment and vexation and compensation is calculated accordingly. If the contract is the ordinary business arrangement, however, damages can only be awarded if the breach causes physical inconvenience.

In actions against surveyors, claimants claim the difference between the value of the property as negligently described by the surveyor and its true value in all its damp-infested, structurally unstable or fungus-ridden glory. Similarly, claims against builders arising from bodged extensions are for the cost of rewiring the electrics, relaying the floorslab and refelting the roof or whatever. The catalogue of disaster is usually concluded by a claim for damages for the distress and inconvenience caused by living in a house that is falling apart and the turmoil caused in remedying the situation.

We have seen previously (AJ 16.9.99) that the courts have a rather stingy approach to these claims and award relatively paltry sums, however great the hardship. The reason for the courts' apparent tightfistedness is that, unlike a contract for a holiday, the purpose of retaining a surveyor or engaging a builder is not to provide pleasure, relaxation and peace of mind. If it all goes horribly wrong, therefore, no compensation is payable for the mental aggravation, as opposed to the physical inconvenience, caused by the breach.

These fine distinctions were explored to their limit in the recent case of Farley v Skinner (No 2) (2000) where a claim for damages for distress and inconvenience arose out of rather unusual circumstances. The claimant was interested in buying a house in East Sussex some 22km from Gatwick Airport. When he retained the defendant surveyor to carry out the usual structural survey, the claimant asked him to ascertain the extent to which the property was affected by aircraft noise. The surveyor correctly advised that the house was not on the flight path. What he failed to find out was that it was below the Mayfield Stack where aeroplanes circle at busy times in the early morning and evenings waiting for a landing slot. The claimant, an early riser, found this aircraft activity intolerable and claimed, among other things, £10,000 compensation for the discomfort caused. The Court of Appeal held that the claimant was not entitled to the compensation unless he could show that the sole purpose of his contract with the surveyor was the provision of pleasure or peace of mind. Not surprisingly he could not. The court said that the purpose of the contract as a whole had to be looked at, and not just the particular request as to aircraft noise.

In the case of Knott v Bolton (1995), the claimants had engaged the defendant architect to build them their dream home. In particular they wanted a wide staircase embracing a gallery area and an imposing entrance hall. They did not get it and claimed compensation for their shattered illusions. The court found that although the architect hoped that the clients would be pleased with his work, their pleasure was not the very object of their contract, the true nature of which was to design a home.

So in the courts' view, architects are engaged to build buildings and not to make dreams come true.

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