Fighting to get in writing

Sid Bourne independent flooring inspector

LAST year I was involved with a dispute where engineered wide plank flooring had been installed into a prestigious restaurant of about 400sq m.

The floor had correctly been fully adhered and was installed to a very good standard; the product was an oiled finish. The complaint was that there were splits through the flooring.

I was appointed as a single joint expert witness by the court to determine the cause of the splits. The restaurant had recycled air and floor-to-ceiling windows all round and the grade was what I can only describe as a very rustic one, with large knots and existing splits filled.

The architect had specified the flooring, but on discussion, he/she was unaware of what a rustic grade was, as the sample chosen had no knots in it. The floor was installed with all parties liking the overall finish, including the architect, even though they commented on the rustic appearance after installation. But they felt it looked good, so nothing was mentioned.

On the day of inspection, I walked into the restaurant and met the installation company, the supplier, the restaurant management and the architect, where we all sat down and went through everything including maintenance.

As we all sat there, a cleaner with a mop and bucket entered. I didn’t comment as I just wanted to see what would happen next. Out the bucket came a soaked mop, which wasn’t wrung out much. I took photos of this, then asked the managers if this was the way the floor was maintained. They said yes, so I asked how often the floor was cleaned like this. They said every day, and sometimes twice a day.

I asked the contractor whether he’d supplied maintenance instructions, to which he said: ‘Yes, we always tell people how to maintain the floor.’

‘Can I see written instructions to that effect,’ I asked.

‘We don’t give written instructions,’ they said. ‘We simply advise.’

I asked the other parties, who said they never advised as they thought that as it was a restaurant, they’d know how to maintain a floor.

This creates a problem as BS8201 states that manufacturers of the floor finishes should be consulted regarding regular maintenance, as this helps extend the life of the sealed finish. The customer should be provided with details of the maintenance required to enable the floor to perform satisfactorily in use.

This section gives recommendations the customer might need to be provided with, although it isn’t exhaustive and the information given should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
I asked the supplier why, when ordering the product, no maintenance instructions were issued with it, to which they responded: ‘All our installation and maintenance instructions are available on the website’ – which they were.

It could be argued that paper instructions should be sent with the product, so they can be handed to the appropriate person at the restaurant; however, with today’s technology, this info can be easily accessed.
On carrying out the inspection I found numerous issues with the flooring where the oil had been removed, leaving an unprotected wood floor. Cleaning products that have detergents will break down the oil quickly, leaving it prone to water ingress which is what had occurred in this instance.

I asked the cleaner what product was being used, at which they showed me the product which was bleached-based cleaner.

I asked why they were using this product and they said the floor gets so dirty we need to use this to get the floor as clean as possible. If you remove the finish, dirt will be forced into the surface leaving it dirty, which was happening.

Owing to the wood expanding and contracting and surface temperatures on sunny days being high, the wood, even though washed, had a moisture content of <6%. The wood will start to split as tension between the core and oak layer fight each other and the fact they’re glued together leads to further tension until the wood splits.

I think all parties knew what I’d found and started blaming each other. I said: ‘We must resolve this, so I’ll finish the report and see what the courts decide.’

The court awarded the restaurant, as they weren’t the professionals and were never given signed documentation on how to correctly maintain the flooring. The cost of replacement was to be split between the installation company and the supplier, the supplier and contractor getting a ticking off from the court stating they were very lucky the maintenance instructions are available online; however, the warranty clearly stated that unless the products they supplied were used, the warranty would be null-and-void.

It should be common practice that when they sell a floor, the maintenance product should be supplied. By not doing so it may be impossible for any purchaser to be aware the warranty would be null-and-void if they failed to use the recommended product.

So, learn a lesson here when it comes to maintenance of the flooring you’ve sold: get documentation or signed confirmation you’ve offered the cleaning products for the type of finish applied.

But in my opinion, nobody should be given the choice of not using the correct maintenance products - just sell it to them or even better give them a small introductory kit before you leave.

With respect to the grade of the wood flooring, taking into account if large glass windows are present and that the heat on the surface of the wood is likely to be at a higher temperature, then in reality you don’t want to sell a grade which has splits as these are weak points.

Regardless of this, always advise in writing that with respect to wood near glass (where it can be in contact with high temperatures), the floor is most likely to get splits. If they’re happy with this, then go ahead. Once again this is providing the required information has been submitted and signed for by your client.

Courts are more likely to favour the consumer in most cases, unless you’re able to present good written evidence you’ve done everything you could possibly have done.
What a court won’t accept is: ‘I told them how to look after their floor,’ with the claimant saying: ‘No you never.’

This is just hearsay and you can’t prove your case, so GET IT IN WRITING.
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