Stick with what you know; know what you know; know what you don’t know; and know where to find the answer

Stick with what you know; know what you know; know what you don’t know; and know where to find the answer

In this episode, Michael Cooper, Director and Head of Neighbourly Matters at Colliers International tells us what you need to know and where to find your answers. He tells us the frustrations of party walls and what happens after the award

You can also watch this interview on YouTube.


Philippe: Hi and welcome to another edition of Party Wall PRO the Podcast. I’m very excited to have Michael Cooper with us today. Michael is currently a Director and Head of Neighbourly Matters at Colliers International with offices around the country.

Before that, Michael, you were with CBRE and Savills. He has over 25 years of experience and his knowledge is sought by many, including the RICS, who asked him to co-write the latest guidance notes for party walls. He is now also a London committee member of the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, if I’m not mistaken.

Michael: That’s correct.

Philippe: Welcome to the show, Michael. Very excited to have you here. So from your short bio, I see you’ve only worked with monsters. Colliers International, CBRE, Savills. Is that how you started?

Michael: No. Interestingly, I started post A levels. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and I joined a very small practice of surveyors as an architectural technician and this was through an introduction from my father who was a civil engineer and suggested that the construction industry might be a path to follow. So that was where I started off.

Philippe: And from there?

Michael: From there, I realised that this was a good career path and building surveying at the time was very sought-after professionally because there were very few surveyors around. I think there still aren’t to a certain extent. Then I went back to university. I got a degree and I got very interested in party wall surveying during that degree of course, and fell out the other end and joined a very small practice and started specialising in party walls, long before I moved on to the big corporate organisations that you mentioned. So it was through choice that I went into party walls as a specialism. But I did spend a couple of years with other organisations, learning general surveying and then got moving along to get chartered.

Philippe: So from very early on, you were interested in party wall. That’s quite interesting because normally people don’t kind of tend to fall into it whereas that was your path. So it would be interesting to know the difference working with the Goliaths of this world as opposed to the smaller practices and what are the kind of pros and cons?

Michael: Well, I think there are advantages to both. My suggestion is though that when, in party walls in particular, we come across a wide range of clients and from small residential development straight the way up to large commercial developments. But the approach dictated by the legislation itself is one of consistency. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a large project or small project. The difference between working for a large organisation versus a small organisation, I think there are advantages to both. In a larger organisation, the pool of resources and knowledge is more readily available particularly in-house and that’s very useful even as a party wall surveyor. We often come across things that we’re not familiar with and we use other professionals to advise us in the administration of the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. I think it’s quite advantageous to have those professionals sitting near you or nearby, that you can rely upon for that type of support. In a smaller organisation, you’ve obviously got to go looking for that type of information. It doesn’t mean to say it’s not available but it’s less readily available, should I say. But of course there’s also the disadvantages that come with a corporate structure and probably having to understand more internal law and how that affects your business on a day to day basis. It introduces an element for red tape. But I think from my own view, having worked in both, I’m a party wall practitioner. So I run a specialist team within a large organisation. I think that’s no different to running a small – a team within your own business or in a small business. Ultimately at the end of the day, we’re doing the same thing.

Philippe: In terms of workload, I guess in a smaller practice, you need to go out there and get work whereas in a big international corporation like that, you do get work from other departments as well.

Michael: That’s very true. Having said that though, my first corporate, for one of a better description, I was very much on my own and you have to still build up the confidence even within your own organisation. Other people will have clients and a client is a very personal thing, I find. It tends to be less corporate. Even within larger organisations, it tends to be individual contact and people within the organisation want to know that you’re good at what you do before they introduce you to clients. So nevertheless, I think you’re still building up a business within a business, whether you’re in a corporate or a small practice. It is about your own reputation. Whilst being in a larger practice does help for the introductions, clients are very – in the party wall world, they’re very used to using a particular individual for party wall, rights of light, or other neighbourly matters, and very reluctant to change. I think it’s convincing your colleagues and convincing their clients that you know what you are doing. I don’t think the work comes flowing in as much as you think it might. We still go hunting for it and we still have to convince clients that we’re good at what we do.

Philippe: So in terms of ratio, party wall support function of other departments versus standalone work, what would you say?

Michael: I would hazard to say that the majority of my team’s work comes through the contacts that I have established over the years. I’ve recently joined Colliers International within the last year or so and I think that there’s a recognition there, amongst the Colliers team that this is a very good service line. We’re introducing rights of lights services and other complementary services to neighbourly matters. I think that there’s a recognition there that we’re a growing brand within a brand. People are having a lot more confidence in us. So we’re going places, I think. Does that answer your question?

Philippe: It does. That fits in well with one of the questions that I wanted to ask you: let’s go back 25 years and what – how did you manage to get your first party wall instruction yourself? Not where you were working, where you got your first job per se, but as – you know, the first owner that came to you individually and said Michael, I need help with something.

Michael: Well, I had been working in the small practice for a number of years. Eventually I decided to sort of branch away from a very experienced and well-known specialist at the time and I went and joined a larger organisation. It was a client that followed me from an experience he had had with me as somebody else’s assistant strangely. He had the confidence to place an instruction with me as a named surveyor. I must admit, I had my own nerves at the time because moving from an assistant – albeit I was a senior surveyor, but still an assistant to a named surveyor into the role of being a name surveyor. I was quite concerned and I did as thorough a job as I could. Actually, we built on that relationship and he’s still a client now, I’m pleased to say. As part of his organisation grew and expanded, people joined and moved on and joined other organisations. They all remained clients to this day as well. So it was a great first job because it led to many, many more.

Philippe: So that was commercial. That was your first – it was not residential. It was commercial stuff.

Michael: It was a large house builder at the time and it was a job on the River Thames. It was a very interesting job. It was an awful lot that came out of it. I learned a lot. It was on the site of an old abattoir and before that, a candle factory and there are all sorts of issues with regards to contaminated land etc. large excavations had to take place, all of which were notifiable under the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996 on adjacent properties. It was really interesting and a real experience and quite exciting. It also brought in other areas in neighbourly matters, negotiation of licenses for access, over sailing for cranes, all of which we went into and delivered for the client at the end of the day. They got a very good development and I’m very happy with what they had. Strangely enough, that same client went on to instruct me on a small extension on his house. So it wasn’t entirely commercial development. But it led onto a smaller residential development as well.

Philippe: So how did you do to develop that from: there’s one client that came to you and to all the way to a sustainable practice over the years. What’s the next step?

Michael: Well, that was a struggle. It took time. It was word of mouth, the one client. As I said, people do work for him and moving on to other organisations. I think you have to deliver. You have to be professional. You have to stand by your own convictions and be reliable. But also it does help when you are starting off. You have the time to spend on every job and every client and that’s something that I press upon my team now is find the time to speak to your clients all the time. Keep them alongside. Make them understand that you’re there for them because when they have the confidence to use you, they will pass your name on to others and over the years, that’s basically how we’ve developed quite a strong presence within the party wall surveying arena.

Philippe: This comes back all the time. It’s consistency and there’s no kid of secret weapon to develop a fast-growing party wall practice, is there?

Michael: I wish there was. I think you have to demonstrate that you can do it. You have to learn to adapt. The legislation itself doesn’t change. But the case law behind it does and you have to stay in tune with that. You have to be on the ball. You have to recognise what those county court decisions or even higher court decisions mean in relation to the interpretation of the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. You have to be forward thinking, forward moving, and also at the same time, clients expect you to deliver perhaps more than what is on the packet and they want you to advise when something else might be coming, that they haven’t seen coming and be ahead of the game. So there isn’t a magic answer to suddenly getting clients.

Philippe: You said that the legislation doesn’t change but the case law does. How do you keep on top of case law?

Michael: There’s a very good network of surveyors. There are various clubs and organisations and some are better known than others and many of us are members of a particular club called the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, which is, as the club suggests, doesn’t make you an expert but it gives you the opportunities to meet with your peers and discuss cases that have happened or even be enlightened on a case you didn’t know about and staying in touch with other surveyors and understanding how opinions are changing or even how construction is changing and how we interpret that construction with the definitions provided by the legislation. It really is a case of networking with your peers and at the same time with the legal profession and keeping up to speed with county court or higher court decisions and sharing that information with others, because you would expect to share it with others as well, and it keeps us all on our toes, keeps us all enlightened, and we don’t necessarily all have the same opinions. But at the same time, we can help to formulate an interpretation of some awkward pieces of legislation or awkward interpretations and maybe come to a more – shall we say – or a better supporting argument where there are more people involved that have the same view and we could put that forward perhaps to encourage a discussion or development of ideas.

Philippe: So once you are in the circle, you will stay updated. So how did you get into that circle? So, as a young surveyor or even someone who’s just interested in the area, what’s the best way to get that?

Michael: You can join the club. You don’t have to be chartered. You don’t have to have any qualification. You don’t have to have years of experience. Come along. Meet with more senior surveyors and they’re always willing to share an experience or two over a beer, but also I think it is a case of asking questions, be prepared to listen. Learn from the word of the wise. I remember when I first joined the club, I listened to many experienced surveyors and heard their experiences. Now, I form my own opinions. I don’t necessarily agree with them all. But it was a great starting point for me and it was a good way to learn more and this experiences really – it is all about experience and being a good party wall surveyor is experience. But there’s no reason why you can’t have the experience of others when you’re learning and still being very, very good. You may not have had those experiences yourself. But to listen to others and learn what they did in a particular circumstance and how to get around all the problems will stand you in good stead.

Philippe: What makes a good party wall surveyor?

Michael: Well, I start with graduates that are straight out from university and one of the criteria for me is that they must have an interest in neighbourly matters. They must be interested in party walls. Whatever that interest is, is a basic fundamental to do party wall surveying. You have to have an interest and you want to develop that interest. The starting point I would suggest is reading the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. Give it your own interpretation and try understanding it. Then there are books that are available and being written by eminent surveyors and/or the legal profession and you can pick those up and read them. I would start with what we call The Green Book, which is published by the Pyramus & Thisbe Club. It gives an interpretation of the legislation itself via sections and then it’s application. We always start our graduates with understanding the basic forms, the form of notice, standard letters, standard documentation and then we do take the time to teach our graduates the purpose for various sort of sentences or phrases that we use in various lectures, why we use those phrases and how it came about. So we ask them to look at the history of party walls and we try and each them the history of party walls and an understanding of why we use certain terms or definitions to describe certain actions, et cetera, because it is – primarily it’s borne out of case law and understanding of what the works are, what’s involved, without wanting to preach the Party Wall Act itself. The Party Wall Act is there to afford one owner its rights to develop. But at the same time, making them look closely on what they’re doing and in the context of protecting an adjoining owner and ensuring that they are looking after the interests of the adjoining owner while having what they want, which is the development. We start our graduates with a job shadowing surveyors and more senior surveyors who will take the time to explain both the work and the application of the Party Wall Act. Then we encourage reading and CPD and turning up to events like the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, various other organisational events and CPD lectures. It’s another advantage I guess of being in a large organisation. We have the opportunity to have plenty of CPD talks. So we do encourage our graduates to turn up and learn more about the wider world out there and at the same time, focusing their attention on party walls and neighbourly matters.

Philippe: What makes a good – a lot of people have been saying that the knowledge of construction is very important because you can know the Party Wall Act inside out, but you need a practical element there. So are you looking for structural engineers and maybe a background in architecture and that kind of stuff as well?

Michael: Certainly we – for our graduates, we look for people that come from a background of a degree in surveying. I mean that’s not to say that an architectural degree won’t stand in good stead as well. But a professional qualification or professional degree and where there’s an element of understanding of construction and construction technique. It’s very important when applying the Party Wall Act that you understand what the works actually are and it takes a long time I think to learn the subterranean world. Party wall surveyors can call upon other experts to offer them advice and I often use an engineer who advises me on subterranean work. That’s not to say that over the years I haven’t developed a very good understanding of subterranean development. But nevertheless, my knowledge of certain aspects isn’t there and I rely upon other professionals to guide me. But I do need to know what questions to ask them and I think understanding construction is paramount to being a good party wall surveyor and the understanding of legislation is equally important. But you need to understand how buildings go together and the potential for an effect on an adjacent structure, because after all, I think our role as party wall surveyors is to mitigate the effect of construction and to warn both developing owners and adjoining owners of the potential effect and not understanding construction, not understanding what drawings are placed in front of view, not understanding what you’re involved in would be a very grave mistake.

Philippe: So you’ve been doing this for 25 years. You’re obviously enjoying it. But the flipside, what is the frustrating side of being a party wall surveyor?

Michael: Probably one thing sums it up: We’re there to resolve a dispute and a dispute – the term “dispute” in its very nature is something that suggests two neighbours at war. The neighbours don’t need necessarily to be at war. They’re looking for you to come in and advise, protect property and protect assets. I think some surveyors do take it personally and think that we’re there to create a dispute. I think that’s a frustrating thing. I would suggest that many surveyors need to understand that the role of the appointed surveyor is really there to look after the properties and make sure that the committed works are managed correctly and the works are permissible, first of all, within the legislation. But then also to understand that we’re not at war with one another. We’re both on the same side and we’re administering the Party Wall Act and we’re there not to create further disputes. We’re there to resolve the disputes at hand. I think that’s one of my frustrations – surveyors sometimes look too far beyond the actual instruction. I’m keen to ensure that when I’m involved, that we look very closely at what we’re there for. We do advise clients on matters that are outside of the act but we don’t necessarily become involved with them, unless the clients wish us to, and we’re not there to create further disputes. We’re there to resolve the dispute or resolve the matters at hand. So my biggest bugbear is having surveyors run off tangents. They don’t deal with what they’re supposed to be dealing with under the Party Wall Act.

Philippe: So other surveyors basically.

Michael: Well, no. I mean it’s probably unfair to say that. It’s often clients don’t understand the role as well. I think that it’s very easy for neighbours that don’t see each other and don’t understand what the works are, who don’t know how to explain – to go off on tangents and I think it’s very important for party wall surveyors to recognise where these tangents can go – can come in and help to guide the client away from conflict and point of resolution of dispute. It’s very important I think in our role as party wall surveyors that we administer the act with an even hand for both owners and correctly – as the Party Wall Act advises and not be led by a particular client or to go off on tangents where we don’t need to be. Deal with the matters at hand and get it done properly and professionally.

Philippe: Do you have an example of a case that went horribly wrong?

Michael: Horribly wrong? No, fortunately. But I would suggest that there are occasions when construction techniques that are awarded are not necessarily followed and as a party wall surveyor, we’re not there to enforce the awards that we make. I think we’re often seen as a policing organisation. We’re the person that people could run to and say, “Well, the chap next door isn’t putting the temporary works in.” Unfortunately, the legislation doesn’t lend itself to being policed once the award has been made. It’s for the owners to seek enforcement of the award and that has to rely then on the legal profession and injunctions and other various sorts of nasty mechanisms. I think it’s when the award isn’t followed, either by an owner or by a contractor, that things can go horribly wrong. We are making an award after all that is robust and it should be followed, and that’s when it does go wrong, when it’s not followed and that’s when it ends up in litigation. And with litigation comes all the horrors and expenses Nobody wins in litigation. It’s the cost and the expense involved with it and that is really when awards are not followed and nobody wins when that happens.

Philippe: So to conclude, the listeners are the people who are interested in starting a party wall practice or who are interested in joining a party wall firm. A word of advice for someone who wants to start a practice from scratch. Where should they start in terms of even education and then where to go from there, how to get access and maybe get their first instruction without scraping the Land Registry website obviously?

Michael: Certainly not scraping the Land Registry website. Cold calling is really not on either. I think first of all, the knowledge of construction and a background in construction is essential. So don’t start trying to think that you’re a party wall surveyor or any other type of surveyor, without being qualified in some way or at least having a good level of experience of construction and construction techniques. Don’t offer you are a party wall surveyor when you haven’t got that type of grounding because you’re not in my view. A party wall surveyor does need to have construction knowledge. Where you learn that is obviously through development in the career and normally starting with a university degree and moving on to a professional charter or qualification with the RICS or the RIBA. That’s a good starting point. Learning construction is first. Moving on to party walls, it helps to have some experience perhaps with another organisation, setting up practice on your own, when you’re a chartered surveyor means that you can actually go out and practice any field of surveying and I wouldn’t recommend doing any field of surveying. I certainly don’t touch certain aspects of surveying in which I don’t have training or experience in. Stick with what you know. Know what you know and know what you don’t know. But know where to find the answer is my advice to graduates. I would also say it’s important to recognise your limitations and even in the administration of the Party Wall Act. I call in as I said other professionals sometimes, like an horticulturist for instance when I need advice on whether or not a tree dies as a consequence of digging up an excavation, or an engineer when it comes to all sorts of investigations and loading capacities and so on. So I think you need to understand the limitations. How you go about growing a business, I would say it’s reputation. Do a good job and keep the clients informed and one of the biggest mistakes that we have now with ever increasing technology is not picking up the phone and not informing clients the steps that we’re taking and it’s very easy for us to go quiet for two months and the clients get disgruntled with the fact that we’re not telling them we’re doing something, thinking we’re not doing anything when we are actually flat out. We need to keep clients informed and I think if you are setting up your own business or start a new – any profession including party walls or building surveying is understand that at the end of the day, we’re there for our clients and we’re there for their needs and for their developments. We need to sort of keep them appraised of what’s happening. They don’t understand our world. We’re there to help them, guide them through what can be a tricky process.

Philippe: So you mentioned technology. Quickly, any tools that you recommend, not our tool obviously. What kind of technology do you actually use on a day to day basis?

Michael: Well, it’s strange. I mean technology has developed considerably. We take condition surveys on dictaphones but now I can speak into my phone. I have my phone translate that to Word document. Print it out almost word for word. Technology is certainly enhancing the way that we work and it’s adding value. But at the same time, it can hinder the way we work, if we don’t use it wisely and too many people send emails too frequently without consideration and quite often repeating themselves and typos, grammatical errors abound and I think we need to slow down a little bit in the use of technology and start talking to one another again. But it is helping certainly with digital age and cameras, et cetera. When I first started surveying, we used to have to print out thousands of photographs and took ages to stick into the reports. Now we can send it all on a disk to the client. It’s very helpful. So, yeah, I’m for technology. But don’t let it take over and make communication on a face to face or one to one basis with your clients.

Philippe: Well, thank you so much. Who do you think I should interview next?

Michael:There’s a young lady called Keeley Matthews at Malcolm Hollis. She’s now a senior surveyor I think. I’ve known her for a number of years. She has an excellent way with clients, very good communicating skills and I think that she would be a good advocate for the profession and for party wall surveyors and she is a very good party wall surveyor.

Philippe: Great idea, because I’m looking for more women to interview. Michael, thank you so much for your time. It’s great to have you and enjoy the rest of your day.

Michael: Thank you very much. Take care.

Michael’s firm: Colliers International UK


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