The Good Builder Disconnect

  • Building Design Expert
  • 4 years ago

The Good Builder Disconnect

How many times have you heard the expression “Oh I’m looking for a good builder”? Can we actually define what makes any builder ‘Good’? Chances are the lay person will reference standard social attitudes such as: He turns up on time, he brings the right materials with him, and he finishes the job a round about when he said he would. “Oh, and because he made a really good suggestion about the bathroom waste pipe that we really hadn’t thought about”.

But, as we know, anecdotal evidence tells us that even such simple aspirations have a social disconnect in too many cases. A disconnect that is, from technical accuracy, competency and indeed ultimate compliance with those guiding lights that are the building regulations and British standards.

The public measure of a ‘good builder’ is not therefore a reliable thermometer set against performance and workmanship. A below average quality build, that is masked by copious quantities of filler, mastic and thick paint, will sadly, generally achieve ‘good builder’ status.

I met one such ‘good builder’ at a social gathering. He regaled one or two tales about his recent experiences on the various small domestic job circuit. I was interested to hear these, as another side of the fence perspective always comes in handy. Plus, he had a local area reputation as, yes, a good builder. In fact I know that he has a waiting list of home owners keen to use his services, and I was keen to find out why.

His most recent project, a loft conversion, had been completed to the client’s huge satisfaction, but with an interesting twist if only the client knew or understood: – Building control had arrived for their final inspection. In the finished loft bedroom stood the builder, the experienced building control officer, and a trainee surveyor that had come along for some on the job training. It was the young surveyor who spotted the glass blocks installed alongside the fire door access from the landing, that were not on the approved drawing. “Are those blocks fire rated?” he casually enquired. The builder addressed the senior officer, requesting that the young surveyor might go and look over the rest of the job. Our builder has a six feet, five inch frame, and with a switchable demeanour that can match that brick outbuilding, spoke very plainly, explaining that the client had obtained the glass blocks and asked him if he could install them. He did not see that it was something that should concern the building control officer.

Unfortunately for our building control officer, our builder is very much a ‘local’ builder, and they come across one another more often than not. So it was on another job, under a building notice, it happened that the entire ‘fire strategy’ for escape from that loft was flawed. On a fixed price agreement with the home owner, the cost to the builder for compliance was significant; in the several hundreds of pounds region at any rate. The building control officer obviously got away with that one, but a chance comment at the end of the job earned him a very direct offer to leave the premises by a most unorthodox route.

The whole conversation I had with this individual begged two questions in my mind. How much intimidation of this kind are the likes of building control officers subjected to at the hands of out of control builders who believe that they are above law? Secondly, how many home alterations and extensions are simply not safe due to non compliance with building regulations?

The home owner is blissfully unaware because they trust in their builder. The builder truly believes that bending, or breaking the odd regulation here or there won’t matter too much; “.. how can it? The rest of the job was just fine …” The poor building control officer should be reporting violent threats to his, or her line manager. But here stems a further disconnect that would otherwise put grass root relationships in jeopardy, – certainly on their next job together.

The media has not done the ‘small builder’ too many favours over recent years. The spot light has been focused upon those producing substandard workmanship, whilst massively overcharging. Quite rightly the public are concerned and afraid of being ripped off. But this only heightens the demand, and serves to further distort the perception of the ‘good builder’, with the story above as testament. The public considers that inspections by Building Control are their line of defence against anything their builder might get wrong. Reasonable, one might suppose, given that they are paying several hundred pounds for this particular privilege. But in reality the LABC inspection regime is a single prescription that has more holes than a colander, due to it having one size that fits nothing particularly well.

Fortunately the building regulations are changing in this regard, and project complexity and involvement of other design professionals will influence the building control prescription for inspection. It promises to be a significant step in the right direction, but the proof of that pudding awaits its consumption.

Another step that has been in and out of favour for some years is the prospect of licensing building contractors, and indeed building designers for competency to design and implement. New Zealand invoked such a system in March 2012. The Federation of Master Builders have voiced doubts as to its police-ability, but we should watch the New Zealand model with interest. They may have found a way forward, or they may just have found another way for contractors to put their prices up.