All that Glitters is not Gold

  • Building Design Expert
  • 6 years ago

Bearing in mind, if you are buying a five year old building that has never been occupied, you are either onto a straight winner because it’s yours to customise to suit your every need; or, the more cynical amongst you might ask “..Why has it lain empty for so long?”. A perfectly reasonable question, to which the selling agent immediately produced his bottle of calm oil, pointing out the buildings were completed just before one of the longest recessions much of the world has endured for several decades. Good answer, so let’s get on with our customisation lay-outing then!!

A new carpet will always help distract the casual observer

After just a cursory glance around, what was difficult to see due to the glare of the unmarked carpet, the uniform suspended ceilings – complete with recessed light fittings and air conditioning condensers, was that every facet of this building, inside and out, was oozing ‘Cheap’. Now cheap is okay, in the right place and in the appropriate quantity. But when everything is cheap, there is no chance for a razor sharp edge on anything. Even the gloss paint finish to the office doors (it seems even a nice cheap veneer couldn’t find its way onto this specification menu) was a little dull, and not well brushed out. So when the new decoration can’t succeed in elevating the visual first impression, you know instinctively there may be trouble ahead.

But this type of building is in short supply –

trumpeted the agent; on its own secure site with copious amounts of dedicated parking, and even a little bit of ‘green’. He actually had a point. In principle this was absolutely right for the prospective purchaser; who still retained the presence of mind to commission the building survey, on this ‘new’ building.

I learned some time ago, that it is a good idea to give any building that has remained standing a number of years without bending, breaking or cracking, the benefit of any doubt for achieving that notable feat. So having seen through the cheap gloss, it took a super-human deep breath to acknowledge the absence of any damp or differential settlement, which, for a while, provided a smattering of honest comfort to the process. You don’t need to go back and re-read because I will say it again

…for a while…

This building was speculatively built, the agent was honest enough about that. So perhaps those two words were hammer and gong to any reasonable survey findings. What caused a small diversion was the agents presentation of the recently acquired Building Regulations completion certification. Now it seems this piece of paper had not previously been requested by the developer, to exploit a small loophole which triggered the building’s eligibility for payment of business rates, once issued. Okay, you can’t criticise a businessman for using the ‘system’ to keep his costs down. So after a break of five years, a phone call was made to building control requesting a final inspection.

Pleased to finally release this project from the ‘under construction’ register, the local building control officer walked onto site, and into the building. Seeing the nice clean carpet, shiny recessed light reflectors and the low gloss, but clean paint finish to the doors; he must have taken his pencil from behind his ear, opened his notebook, and placed a large tick in the finished box. Oh how he was going to rue that moment for a number of years to come.

Did I mention the building survey? This was a three storey ‘spec. built’ office building of steel frame construction, brick cavity wall cladding, with barely double glazed aluminium framed windows, and a concrete tiled roof. It had been designed by a respected local firm of architects and accommodated a simple vertical circulation core, with sanitary and services installations. The rest was open plan office space; so nothing too complicated, or so you would have thought.

Can we forgive building control for not checking that the construction had been carried out in accordance with the building regulations? Thats a tricky one, complicated by the elapsed time that may well have seen a change to the original inspecting officer, and a build up of dust on the application file. Lifting one suspended ceiling tile was the only action required to expose the brightly coloured label on this can of worms.

Had the installed fire cladding been able to withstand a fire for 60 mins it still would have failed owing to its incomplete coverage, open joints and exposed fixings into timber grounds

The compartment wall into which the door is installed actually stops at the underside of the suspended ceiling

Had the fire resistant board used to clad at least some of the steel frame, been capable of withstanding 60 minutes of blazing inferno, the structure still would have melted, as it had been fixed to timber noggins on the steel frame, with open board joints, exposed fixings, and indeed forty percent of the frame treated at best. If the occupants failed to be affected by the collapsing building, there was always a chance of suffering the affects of smoke inhalation where the contractor simply forgot that compartment walls and compartment floors had to meet and be sealed in order to perform their function.


Similarly with unsealed services penetrations through said walls and floors. While they were waiting for the fire to strike there was always a chance they may begin to show signs of symptoms of exposure as the majority of the roof had not been insulated. Lower that ceiling tile back into place and those worms are returned to darkness once more.

The entire roof above the suspended ceiling is uninsulated – Imagine the electricity bills as the comfort heating gets more and more uncomfortable

Did the contractor forget to insulate All of the roof? Did he not really understand that pink fire line board is not a ‘catch all’ for just any fire protection requirement? And, did the brickie go out for some more blocks only to find that someone had fitted the whole suspended ceiling by the time he got back? These are questions that may never be answered.

A little research revealed that our local architect was retained to produce drawings to obtain planning permission, oh, and approval under the Building Regulations as well. Lets not forget those. An appointment which smacked more of a kitchen extension than a multi-million pound office development. The structural engineer was also employed on an ‘Only if you must’ appointment too. Having filed his LPA approvals, our civil engineering and building contractor/developer opened the cage doors on his team of sub-contractors for the start of this ‘Build and Design’ fest. We can only hope they had their contractor insurance in place and up to date.

A true salutary tale that may well have had a very unhappy ending. As it was, a copy of the building survey forwarded to building control gave them the ammunition needed to rescind the completion certificate. Now the building developer is a proud owner of a classic ‘pig in a poke’. Cannot be sold or let without LPA approval, and just too logistically expensive to put right. I know a good demolition contractor though.