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"I do not consider that this particularly ugly duckling can be turned into a swan" - What does it mean for a construction project to have the 'wow' factor?

It is not unusual in the construction industry to hear consultants make comments which are subjective in nature. Often these exaggerated statements are made to sell the consultant’s services and it is understood by many that these “mere puffs” amount to nothing more than self-promotion and are in no way a legal obligation under the contract. Yet a recent decision in the High Court has taken an entirely different approach following a promise by the architect to construct a home cinema at a client’s property with the “wow factor” they so desperately sought.  

The clients, a couple, had hoped in 2014 when appointing the architect, that their home cinema would be encompassed within a “sleek modernist cube” where it would “float” above the indoor swimming pool at their home in Totteridge, north London. The final result however did not match the couple’s expectations. Described as an “expensive white elephant”, the home cinema rested above the pool on six steel beams, giving the room an “industrial feel” rather than the “wow factor” promised by the architect. Unhappy with the final product the couple decided that the best course of action would be for the cinema to be demolished and rebuilt.

It was for this reason that the clients sought to claim £1 million from the architect for wasted costs and to cover the costs of demolishing and making good the works. The architect however argued that he had worked according to brief and that he had been intimidated by one of the clients throughout the course of the project.

The Technology and Construction Court ultimately found in favour of the clients. The architect had failed to prepare a written brief prior to starting work on the project and had instead acted on instructions provided on an ad hoc basis. As a result, the clients were unaware of what the final design would look like in terms of costs and level of finish. Stating that they did “not consider that this particularly ugly duckling can be turned into a swan”, Deputy Judge Martin Bowdery QC awarded the clients £500,000 taking into account the wasted costs on the project, the subsequent demolition works and general damages.

From both a practical and legal perspective it is clear that, for any professional working within the construction industry, a written brief outlining the scope of the work and the each party’s responsibilities is vital. Not only does a failure to prepare a written agreement suggest bad practice, it also leaves a consultant vulnerable to a potential claim for any statements made. As a result, take steps to proactively minute and distribute any notes from meetings or run the risk of having to turn an ugly duckling of a project into a very expensive swan later down the line…

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View profile for Christopher LambChristopher Lamb