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How architects can avoid disputes arising

While the number of architects who face disciplinary complaints over their conduct or competence remains small (there is less than one professional conduct case per 1,000 architects each year), those issues complained about by clients remains consistent.

By far the most troublesome issue for architects is one most easily rectified: a lack of proper written Terms of Engagement being given prior to work taking place. Standard forms of appointment are available from publishers such as RIBA, or alternatively it is relatively straightforward for architects to draft their own.

Standard 4 of the Architects Code of Conduct expects terms to include such essentials as the scope of the work, the fee to be charged (or method for calculating the fee), the limitations of the service, confirmation that appropriate professional indemnity insurance is in place, and details of what will happen in the event of a dispute.

Such terms are not only essential for the protection of the client, who will require certainty as to the appointment, but also provides contractual security to the architect in the event that payment of fees is not forthcoming. In any event, providing adequate terms of engagement are a legal requirement under the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013.

Poor communication is a more common failing among architects than incompetence. Architects are expected to keep their clients informed of the progress of work and of any issues which may affect the cost or quality of the project, but too often there is also a distance in the understanding between architect and client which can lead to problems. Architects should put aside assumptions they have built over years in the construction industry – particularly when dealing with inexperienced domestic clients – and take time to explain what is happening and why. A failure to take time to do this early in the project will often lead to misunderstandings and recriminations.

The simplest way of avoiding such misunderstandings is to establish at the outset of a project what it is that the client wants, when they want it by, and how much they are willing to pay for it. Once that is in place and confirmed in writing, there is little room for disputes to arise.

In medium size practices it may often be non-architect staff that are undertaking some of the work on the project, and while there is nothing wrong with this approach in principle to encourage efficiency, care must be taken by the architect to adequately supervise unqualified colleagues. If a client has engaged an architects practice, then it is the architect that must assume responsibility for the work produced. A failure to supervise may well lead to inadequate quality in work, and this is something that the architect, not the subordinate, will be held responsible for.

Finally how an architect deals with a complaint about their work can in itself be of crucial importance. In ARB’s experience clients are often willing to accept failures on the part of their architect if their concerns are treated seriously and remedial steps are taken. Client complaints should be seen by architects as an opportunity to consider where improvements can be made, and even when they are considered unjustified a complainant should be treated with courtesy and respect. A complaint is best dealt with quickly, before it develops into a dispute, which is why architects are expected to have a formal internal complaints procedure, to manage all parties’ expectations as to what they might be able to expect when a problem arises.

Article Author, Simon Howard

Simon Howard is the Professional Standards Manager at the Architects Registration Board, responsible for investigations into the conduct and competence of the 34,000 registered architects in the UK.

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