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Which course to take?

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In an episode of his Channel 4 television series, comedian and satirist Armando Iannucci played a geek who admitted to a car mechanic that 'he knew nothing about cars'. From the contemptuous look in the mechanic's eyes, you knew that he was going to be taken for a ride.

Another example of a business relationship where the purchaser is powerless - or at a clear disadvantage - is damp-proofing.

Architects regularly attend refurbishment sites, uncalibrated damp meter in hand, to provide a cursory inspection, so that they can recommend that the 'suspected damp'be inspected 'in detail' by 'an expert'. This tends to mean getting a couple of local damp-proof firms to attend and pronounce that, yes, the building is rotten and that all the plaster will have to be hacked off to the height of 1m and reinstated with their own proprietary plaster mix.

We asked two damp-proof companies to provide a report on an occupied property to ascertain the level of damp and to suggest a recommended course of action. Their sketches indicate two distinct assessments together with two different costs. It should be noted that not all the walls in this building which have been identified as being in need of remedial treatment were actually tested by the damp-proof companies.

Indeed, two of them were inaccessible because of shelving and units and the kitchen wall was not inspected. In both instances the surveyors have assumed damp. In the two reports:

the costs provided were £340 and £460 - the main difference resulting from an allowance for dubbing out the plaster walls if the plaster was found to require additional thicknesses; and the high ground-level identified was still more than 350mm below floor level.

The actual cause of damp within this solid-walled stone building was seasonal surface-water impacting on the neighbour's side of the party wall on the sloping site. Remedial treatment should have comprised a French drain, or equivalent, to be installed underfloor.

For many architects, copying damp survey reports into specification documents is a knee-jerk reaction representing just one more item to push up the capital costs (and percentage fees) and an area of work that is farmed out, hopefully with liabilities, to a third party. Looked at it in this way, remedial damp-treatment specialists are just another party to the enabling works contract.

However, if viewed from the perspective of a homeowner having to undergo the nuisance of remedial works, then maybe architects might be a little bit more circumspect about what they are signing up to.

Dan Brough is an architect in the northeast of England

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