Five ways to avoid a party wall dispute when retrofitting

James Freeth is associate director at McBains

With the oldest and leakiest housing stock in Europe, it’s estimated that 29 million homes in the UK will need retrofitting before 2050 to protect against uncontrolled heat loss.

Retrofitting projects will therefore become increasingly common as property owners seek to upgrade existing structures for improved functionality and sustainability. That means a big opportunity for contractors.

“Construction teams must be aware of party wall constraints and implement measures to minimise noise, dust and other disruption”

One crucial aspect that often comes into play during such projects – especially in older housing stock – is work on party walls and party structures. But those opportunities do not come without risk.

Take this example. One  of the biggest bills for damages one surveyor says he has ever seen was for £20,000, where a builder had drilled straight through a wall on every step of a three-storey staircase, which left a rising trail of holes in the neighbour’s wall, damaging wallpaper that had been discontinued and so could not be replaced. That surveyor’s advice is for builders and architects to make sure they are competent – and that they’re across The Party Wall etc Act 1996.

Contractors therefore need to be aware of, and be able to inform, a property owner of the legal duty to serve a valid party wall notice on an adjoining owner, adhering to the timescales set out in the act.  Typically required when building work involves excavation near or alterations to a wall or floor separating two or more owners, an agreement may also be needed should a neighbour dissent to the works.

This agreement is a legal document that is kept with the property and is vital for a successful onward sale. The agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of both property owners, and it is designed to safeguard the interests of both parties, thus preventing disputes arising from the construction process.

Here are five tips for both parties getting it right and preventing the contractor getting their client or themselves caught up in a costly legal dispute.

1. Make sure you know the legal obligations

Property owners planning retrofit projects must ascertain whether their renovations involve work on or near a party wall or party structure. Failure to notify or obtain a requisite party wall agreement can result in legal consequences that might involve halting or delaying the retrofitting process, including compensating owners for any damages incurred. It is recommended contractors speak to a party wall surveyor to familiarise themselves with the legislation to ensure that they don’t unwittingly contravene it.

2. Foster good relations with the neighbouring property

Open communication with neighbouring property owners is essential to demonstrate goodwill and prevent potential disputes during the retrofit. A party wall agreement provides a structured framework for dialogue, addressing concerns and mitigating conflicts between neighbours. Contractors need to play their part in this – building their own rapport with the neighbouring property owner is a good idea and enlisting a party wall surveyor to deal with these matters independently on behalf of the owner is advised.

3. Think about where there may be coordination challenges

Retrofit coordination projects often require precision and synchronisation to minimise disruptions to neighbouring properties. Party wall agreements can significantly impact project timelines, so careful planning and adherence to the statutory timescales involved in undertaking works to a shared structure helps to avoid delay.

4. Build in any design considerations

Architects and designers must incorporate party wall considerations into their plans to ensure compliance with legal obligations.  To ensure that risks are minimised on a retrofit scheme it is strongly advised that a Party Wall Surveyor provides their insight on the design to accommodate party wall requirements which may have an influence on overall aesthetics and functionality.

5. Consider the impact of construction

Construction teams must be aware of party wall constraints and implement measures to minimise noise, dust and other disruptions that could affect neighbouring properties. Most importantly, they should be aware of access rights associated with undertaking these works to abate trespass. Serving a notice under the act can be pivotal in obtaining access needed to complete the works satisfactorily.

Within retrofit coordination projects, party wall agreements play a fundamental role. Property owners, architects and construction teams must navigate these legal obligations with finesse, considering the impact on timelines, design and neighbourly relations.

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