My father, who was a construction contract manager, once told me that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, if you carry out work to a party wall or build on a boundary somebody will get upset.
I was working on a project in a basement flat a few years ago. Things were going well until I received a call from the owner of the flat above my client’s to say that her flat was filled with dust from our building work. A call to the contractor confirmed that this was indeed the case. Someone on site had used an angle grinder to chase out a section of brickwork and the dust had been forced upwards through the ceiling, through the floor void and through the floorboards into the flat above. I went to visit the flat and sure enough, there was dust there. The contractor had arranged for cleaners to come to the flat and he had arranged for the owner to stay in a hotel for the night while the cleaners sorted things out. This sounded great, but that was when things started getting messy: While in the hotel the neighbour decided she was going to take the contractor to court to sue for damages and she decided at the same time to stay in the hotel longer than the contractor had originally agreed to pay. (Here’s a question for the legal eagles: Should she have been taking the employer to court rather than the builder?)
In the mean time we had lent the contractor our office vacuum cleaner to go over the flat one more time as the owner felt that the cleaners hadn’t done a good enough job. I went back to try to smooth things out a bit and collect our vacuum cleaner and was greeted by the owner who said that she was keeping it as it contained evidence of what had happened and she was going to sent it to her solicitor. It was a difficult conversation, not least because she was speaking through a gas mask, which she felt was a necessary health precaution. Now, this all sounds crazy and in hindsight maybe even funny, but at the time it felt pretty serious. It was very stressful for everyone. In the end, as the dust settled both literally and metaphorically, talk of court cases faded away.
Through a chance meeting with another builder who was working on a project around the corner from this site we found out that my client’s neighbour had threatened suing them for dust in her flat as well. Was the whole story a fabrication – a ruse to extract cash from friendly builders? We will never know.
So what do we take from this? Nobody intended any of this to happen and it appeared to be an honest accident. Of course the whole saga could have been prevented, but construction is a messy business carried out by human beings. It was bad, but not as dramatic as the time a builder accidentally knocked a hole in a party wall while installing a steel beam on one of our projects. However in this instance, the neighbor was incredibly calm. These things happen he said. The hole in the neighbor’s hallway was duly patched up and re-decorated by the contractor. Everyone left the site happy. Maybe my father was wrong after all.