Working as an Architect Expert Witness

Over the last 30 years I have been involved with work as an architect expert witness dealing with land disputes, planning, construction disputes and building defects. I wouldn’t drop my design work and go over to the dark side completely – indeed I consider it very important that an expert should also be an active designer – but a different view of the architectural world with plenty of intellectual cut and thrust brings a welcome touch of variety.

All aspects of this work have their specific challenges and complexities, but work on cases involving construction defects can be particularly involved and even hazardous. On one occasion, returning from a site in Somerset, I was almost arrested when a police officer spotted what she thought was a consignment of heroin in my bag – it was actually a sample of failed render which I needed for testing – and in another case involving major repairs to an occupied block of flats I found that my site visits were being logged by the police because one of the tiniest flats was being used as a brothel! Happily, I came through these and other incidents unscathed.

My first involvement with such work was in the 1980s when the practice I was with then was instructed by a Housing Association to investigate two seriously defective developments in Barnet. This was in the days when we still built large numbers of houses and flats in the UK, and in this case an architect, an engineer and a QS, having set up our client Association, had then been swamped by approvals for 30 or more projects in a very short space of time. The schemes were moreover intricately designed, increasing the density of dwellings on constrained sites but, at the same time, generating great numbers of complex detailing and construction problems.

As the schemes were finished and occupied, it became clear that they were riddled with serious defects, often with the same problems rearing their heads in several different developments where incorrect details had been passed from one contract to the next. A drawing for one particularly poor parapet detail had been passed from one team to another with a hasty note added: ‘We’ve had a lot of problems with this; hope you have better luck.’ Nor were the problems confined to those caused by incorrect and inadequate detailing; poor construction and lax site inspection were also major contributory factors.

Once the, often numerous, problems affecting each development have been identified the next essential is an understanding of ‘building pathology’. The huge damp marks on the ceiling of a flat may result from a roof failure, from interstitial condensation, from the builders’ failure to connect the bath in the flat above or from the empty scotch bottle bridging the cavity of the external wall. The huge cracks in the brickwork may be caused by clay heave distorting the foundations where a large tree has been removed, by the lack of movement joints or by the failure to ensure that balconies are adequately fixed back to the main building structure. Only when the problem has been understood can you begin to identify the party to blame and the possible remedy.

A completely different aspect of work as an architect expert is that involving property disputes and one intriguing case on which I advised involved the potential diminution of a very large London site which might result if a new rail line were to be routed across it. The process was to design two versions of a scheme, both taking into account some particularly complex constraints, one with the rail line in place and one without, so that two versions of a site valuation could be prepared. The catch of course was that the whole process had to be robust in the face of cross examination.

The whole byzantine process, taken to a considerable level of detail, resulted in construction of the new line going ahead but interestingly, more than ten years later, the site itself remains undeveloped.

At first it worried me occasionally to be pursuing other hard-pressed architects and the 80s were certainly a difficult time for the profession. Mandatory fee scales had recently gone but there was no possibility of practicing as a limited company, judgements were pushing liability ever further into the future and Housing Corporation policy was to pursue architects in all cases. PI insurance premiums shot up to reach 10% or more of turnover.

In the first case I mentioned though, my worries about acting against a brother architect were laid to rest when it became clear that he had recently been at Her Majesty’s pleasure for fraud and perjury and, looking at the matter more generally, it can never be right if a few architects take to cutting corners, however difficult the circumstances, so identifying those whose work is negligent has to benefit the profession in the long term. Often such negligence results from obvious causes - persistent failure to resource the work adequately and the use of junior staff without checking their work for instance – but there is also a particularly architectural failure where the client’s best interests are swept aside as the architect single mindedly pursues his or her vision of ‘their’ building.

I have acted in a case recently where, as part of his brilliant design concept for a house, an architect drew up an entirely bespoke window system with very large sliding and pivot doors, instead of selecting a tried and tested manufacturer’s system. Great care was lavished on the details, large numbers of drawings were produced, and the finished windows look very fine. The unfortunate reality though is that they were hugely expensive, the long lead in times contributed to massive delays, they do not keep the rain out, they suffer from serious cold bridging, they do not provide properly for ventilation and worst of all the doors are so enormously heavy that it usually needs two people to open them.  

This is difficult territory because I consider it essential (as I said before) that experts should also be involved in normal architectural practice and in that part of my life I spend a lot of time and effort resisting attempts by clients, quantity surveyors and others, to ‘dumb down’ my designs. I think it is entirely right that architects should push against the limits to create exciting new buildings, but at the end of the day a piece of concept design which has gone completely off the rails is as much a defect as the more mundane workmanship problems of bridged cavities and leaking parapets.

The case continues…