of Ensoul Interior Architecture
and author of the blog.
One only has to watch an episode of Grand Designs or Property Ladder to believe that any one of us is capable of managing our own construction projects.
After all nobody else will have the same level of passion or commitment and self builds also save a big chunk of money by not paying for a professional project manager. Right?
But there is a reason why such shows make good television.
And that’s not because every build comes in on time, on vision and under budget.
With depressing regularity the plucky homeowner discovers unforeseen obstacles and, whilst not all of these are catastrophic, a great deal of heartache, stress and financial expense could have been avoided if a professional had been involved from the start.
But don’t take my word for it, as Kevin McCloud said himself:
“If you are disciplined, add 20% to your budget. If you are not disciplined, then add 59%.”
So what are the three most common situations where self-managing can cost you dearly?
1. Builder goes bust
James had a budget of £300K and decided to project manage his own build alongside his architect, who also happens to be his nephew.
They engaged a contractor and pay £87,000 up front. However before work can be started the developer goes bust and James loses all of his money, he now has to find £387K to complete the project.
A professional project manager should run a tender for the works; vetting contractors beforehand, performing credit checks and then putting down no more than a 15% deposit.
2. Project runs late
Sarah works full time and, as such, is not around as much as anticipated to keep pressure on the builders. As a result their schedule slips 3 months.
Additional rental accommodation costs them £14,000 and because the builders weren’t on a fixed priced contract, their labour costs went up by about £20K.
A professional project manager should have detailed Gantt charts to map progress. Combined with site visits and strong builder communication any risks should be clearly telegraphed. A fixed priced contract is extra insurance against on-going costs.
3. Budgets are not realistic
This is probably one of the most painful and avoidable: Mark mapped out his house renovation project on an Excel spread sheet, as specified by his architect, for builders to quote against.
He and his wife wanted to choose fixtures, fittings and finishes as the project progressed and so estimates were used for planning purposes and the tender documentation.
Mark very quickly realised that everything they liked was way over the budgets that had been set. E.g. the builder had quoted £25psm for timber flooring, yet Mark wanted a range that cost £65psm. This alone had a £4000 impact as the floor area in question was 100sqm. With everything else selected, the project budget increased by over £100K.
A professional project manager will work with you and your designer and either establish realistic provisional sums for your purchases or encourage you to select and finalise the detailed design and finishes for your home before tenders are requested.
So what should a good, experienced project manager do to earn their money?
Draft a detailed tender package and distribute it out to at least three trusted builders plus various tradespeople and professionals.
Vet and contract builders and specialists such as structural engineers, party wall surveyors etc. to collectively produce your new home
Engage and mobilise all parties involved in the project, to the right timescales
Project planning the entire refurbishment / renovation so that you know exactly how long it is going to take; what and when every activity is meant to take place. This should be broken down in detail and will include things such as: strip out, steelwork, electrical first and final fix, plumbing first and final fix, plastering, decorating, kitchen fit-out, tiling, sanitaryware, carpeting etc
Scheduling when every fixture, fitting and material needs to be ordered and delivered to site
Chasing suppliers to ensure that every item is delivered on-time and does not hold up your builders/tradespeople
Controlling the quality of all on-site works and ensuring everything is built exactly to the drawings without any short cuts, misunderstandings or misinterpretations
Identifying and managing all potential project risks (e.g. weather conditions, access rights, health and safety, site security, impact to neighbours)
Resolving all day-to-day queries and issues on-site with builders and all trades. Involves a lot of availability and decision-making
Managing change control procedures to ensure that when you want to make a change along the way, all knock on effects are known and addressed whether they are just budget changes or affect other design and build aspects
Ensuring all deliveries to site meet their specification, quantities and quality. Managing returns and re-orders where appropriate.
Setting and controlling your budget, managing cash-flow and making payments for all products being ordered
Obtaining product manuals, safety certificates, guarantees for the project
Ensuring statutory building regulations’ approval from an approved inspector
If you still wish to proceed as project manager, here’s some top tips
Detailed design is the key to managing your budget
Removing as many variables as possible is the most effective way to maintain budget control so lock down the detailed design, scope of works and product specifications for the entire project before you enter into any discussions with builders.
Plan, schedule, Gantt!
Whether it’s on paper, in Excel or you’re able to produce a Gantt chart, plan and schedule every single activity and item of your project to a specific date.
You should also be looking for bottlenecks that can have significant on-going effects e.g. there is no point in a tiler being booked and tiles delivered if the shower tray isn’t in yet!
Once you have the design sorted be ready for things to happen that you couldn’t predict or plan for in advance, especially if you don’t have a detailed structural survey or experienced space planner/designer working with you.
Chimney breasts covered up fake walls. It’ll cost more but it’s a once-in-a-build opportunity to make the room bigger
Discovering damp which then needs fixing
Adding extra windows to brighten up rooms
And although “mid-build” is often an opportunity to act upon these last minute changes please do expect to be at your contractor’s mercy as they will know you are unlikely to ask another builder for a cheaper quote.
Be available for questions – thousands of them!
Once the builders get onsite, there will be what seems like a never ending list of detailed questions to answer – technical, logistical and design based. And your builder will want immediate answers to avoid holding up the project.
Make yourself available both on the phone and on-site. Communication is key to establishing problems and progress in a timely manner.
Get some technical support
Find someone you trust with technical knowledge so that you can get help answering those technical challenges that frankly if they fox the builder, they’re pretty much guaranteed to fox you.
Keep ahead of the builder
Always be a good staircase of steps ahead of your builder. If they don’t have the drawings, products and other details in time to do their job, they will have no choice but to down tools and delay the project. Critical factors to stay ahead of your builders include:
Provision of detailed technical drawings and structural engineeer plans
Have materials on-site at the perfect time – not too early that they take up valuable space on the site and get in their way, but they must be there in-time for each particular item to be fitted. It really is an art and science to get this detailed scheduling bang on across the whole project
Diplomacy & personality
Ensure you have the right personality traits and diplomacy skills to manage what will be a big team working for you. Tensions run high and personalities are often very strong in this world. Running a site with builders, engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, decorators, carpet fitters, kitchen fitters and more trades requires an organised and calm interface to provide direction and ensure perfect scheduling of everyone’s unique input.
So to conclude
Do not take on the role of project manager lightly and without a proper and serious review of what’s involved and what’s at risk. If you believe you have the time, skills and temperament to do the job and keep everything and everyone on track, we salute you and wish you well on your journey! One thing is for sure – you’ll never be bored!
If however you see the benefit of engaging a professional project manager:
Hire a specialist. Not an architect that says they offer project management. Not a friend who is a project manager in banking or IT But a trained specialist, Gantt chart eating, schedule dreaming, budget tracking project manager who is financially astute and has worked for at least 3 years in residential construction and/or refurbishment
Make sure you like and trust them. Sounds clichéd but these projects take a chunk of time and it’s important you like and trust the person you’re hiring to play such an important role and manage your budget/money
Ensure a fee that reflects the input required to keep your project and budget on track but isn’t more than a salary that would pay for somebody full time! Be careful not to skimp on less input ie site visits every 3 or 4 weeks instead of every 1 or 2 weeks. Your project will suffer and you will end up with more cost
And we’d like to leave the last word to our Grand Designs friend McCloud who said:
“Hire a project manager. A big project will drain you night and day, but the ride need only be as hard or as easy as you make it … People have got to get over the fear of not being able to trust others. I come across people who are very successful in their own sphere, and really believe they can do it all themselves, but they can’t.”
Ensoul Interior Architecture offers a rare combination of specialist talent and experience in what we see as the four pillars to success: architectural and technical design, interior design, project management and procurement. Why work with us? If design is important to you and you’re looking for a contemporary home with every detail thought through from the inside out. If you’re looking to have your project professionally managed from end to end. And if you want something individual rather a stock solution. We are based on Wandsworth Common and take on a range of work, some includes significant extension work such as basements, side returns, rear extensions and loft conversions. And some are pure refurbishment projects with very little structural work. There is no minimum budget with us, but we are committed to delivering beautiful, design led work.