House Problems: Builder and Structural Engineer Liable
A couple whose new house developed cracks which made it unfit for human habitation recently found the court sympathetic to their claim that this was due to negligence by the builder and the structural engineer, who had failed to ensure that the foundations were sufficiently deep to avoid heave due to the removal of tree roots.
The planned house was a substantial property and, before it could be built, a number of trees had to be removed. The builder’s defence was that it had followed the standard guidelines issued by the National House-Building Council (NHBC) when following drawings produced by the structural engineer. However, the foundation depths in the NHBC guidance were minimum depths, which assume there are no issues with the subsoil. The structural engineer’s drawings specified that the foundations should extend to at least 0.5 metres below the depth of the deepest tree roots. The engineer based his defence on the fact that the builder had not carried out a site survey to determine the appropriate depths for the foundations and that it was a reasonable assumption that it would.
Firstly, the court had to decide whether the house was or was not unfit for human habitation. If it was unfit, it then had to decide which of the engineer and/or builder was responsible and whether damages, including general damages for inconvenience, could be recovered from the responsible party and in what sum. The cost of strengthening the foundations was estimated to be £70,000. As the house owners would have to vacate the property for up to a year while the work was being carried out, they also claimed compensation for that cost, as well as damages for distress and inconvenience.
The court concluded that the house was defective due to the inadequate foundations. The builder was liable to the owners under breach of contract because the house was not built to the appropriate standard as laid down in the NHBC guidelines, which were incorporated in the contract. The engineer was also liable, mainly on the basis that the instruction to lay the foundations 0.5 metres below the last tree roots was not a practical instruction and because the required depth had not been stated on the drawings, which was indicative of poor professional practice.
One interesting aspect of the case was that the judge commented on what makes a house unfit for human habitation. Unfitness relates to defects of quality but can be considered to occur even where the defects affect only part of the property. Unfitness can occur even if it is not obvious when the house is completed.
The judge awarded the house owners a total of £214,000, including general damages of £4,500 for distress and inconvenience.
Julie Russell comments, “If you have building or other work carried out and it is substandard, you may be able to claim compensation. Contact us for advice.”