The classic 19th century definition of a contract is 'a promise or set of promises which the law will enforce'. In the case of a building contract, it is the binding agreement between the client and the contractor to construct a project. It typically sets down the full details of the design, materials, standard of workmanship, costs and timescale for the construction, and in effect defines the legal obligations each party have to the other.
Separate from the idea of legal obligation is the much looser idea of expectation - a concept in the building industry which is very hard to pin down. What are your client’s expectations for the project? Are they the same as your expectations as a designer? What about the expectations of the building users? What are the expectations of the consultants with whom you are working? And the expectations of the contractor who will eventually construct the building?
Where there is a lack of clarity between the contractual obligations and what is in the minds of the parties i.e. their expectations, significant disputes can arise. In one infamous legal case, Walter Lilley Construction Ltd v DMW Developments Ltd there was found to be a gulf between the obligations set out in the contract, defined loosely by provisional sums and outstanding design work, and the private expectations of the client. This resulted in a long, expensive legal battle, award of damages and loss of reputation.
Tales like this make clear the importance of translating those expectations related to materials, workmanship, cost and timescales into clear and legal obligations. The contract which aligns the two, is the contract which is likely to provide less scope for dispute. When a project goes well and is carried out in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation, this process is a delight. To ensure the greatest possible chance for this working environment, it is crucial that every party’s ambitions are clear and open, for when projects ‘go wrong’, as in the aforementioned case, they do not satisfy anybody’s expectations.