Ramblings on the dangers of being a Chartered Building Surveyor


Roger Watts

The good thing about getting old is that you can look back on your career with rose tinted spectacles. This is often a bit difficult to see when you are working flat out and worrying about some difficult client issue.

My career did not start well. In my first week we were measuring railway arches at the same time as a drain survey was going on. We took great pains to note where the covers were up. Within a moment I backed straight into a manhole up to the crotch. Extremely painful.

There are other things you only do once. This probably wouldn’t occur now but in the day we all wore ties and the obvious place to look for timber rot will be behind toilets. It’s that moment when your tie casually slips into the bowl and when you stand up you get a wet slap on your chest that you realise what a rookie you are.

In my youth I recall scrambling over parapets and over dormer windows in ways which we would never think about now. Fortunately, we are much more safety conscious. I do have vivid memories of the cradle system on a tower (now demolished) on London Wall, where you had to take the step of death over the parapet to get into the cradle staring at the ground umpteen floors below. The same cradle that gently swayed in the wind and when caught by a gust would sail unrestrained around the corner of the building like a conker on a small string. All you could do was hang on for dear life.

I am not good with heights, and I remember being at the very top floor of the NatWest Tower whereas I recall there were no hand rails. I am sure there was a safety system, but I don’t remember using it at the time and it was quite a gusty day. Viewing London from that height, or from the top of Centre Point is allways s a joy as the Thames seems to be underneath you when you know full well that it is not.

Probably one of my more alarming moments was during an inspection on the roof of the Treasury Building in Whitehall and seeing a small red dot moving up and down my legs. Being used as target practice from the Foreign Office roof was a bit of a shock. After the initial alarm I exchanged a cheery wave with a fully equipped gunman opposite.

I would like to say I have only dealt with glamorous buildings in my career but that’s not the case. How we survived intact is surprising. I remember a Mews building in Holborn where the pigeon guano on the staircase was several inches thick, which was tricky enough but when you got on to the first floor that guano extended into feet. You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t stay for long. Yes, those where the days when you did surveys like that by yourself.

Fortunately, not one of mine, but one of my colleagues had the pleasure of inspecting certain hidden voids at a large London railway terminus only to find that they had insulated the roof with horse hair which was later tested and noted as containing Anthrax. He is still alive to I am pleased to say.

It’s not all bad. Just the other day I was doing a survey when a kitten decided to attach itself to my leg and was not inclined to detach itself. I happily took notes for a few moments before we gently parted our ways. That was certainly a lot more pleasant than the various dogs, badgers, deer and foxes I have come across sculking around mostly industrial units over the years.

Despite all, I suspect most surveyors would prefer to be out doing what we do best, looking at buildings than being stuck behind a desk.

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