How to be a good project manager

Follow architectural designer Greg Toon’s advice on how to organise your home-improvement project and manage a team of subcontractors

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‘Project manager’, in the context of a residential house redesign, means taking on the day-to-day running of the build. This is usually done by the main contractor, and is one of the reasons they are generally more expensive than other tradespeople. If you are hiring several subcontractors, you may decide to oversee the project yourself, looking after everything from budgets and schedules to managing deliveries.

Before taking the plunge and managing your own build, it is really important to understand the role and its demands. The first thing to note is that your job begins before a single spade is picked up on site. There are two critical areas that determine whether the job is going to run smoothly: having clarity on what is to be built and picking the right building team. The former may seem straightforward, as you probably have some planning permission drawings showing your designs, but in reality, you need much more detail to avoid confusion and areas of ‘interpretation’.

Plans will need to include exact dimensions, show locations for mains supplies and waste outlets, and list materials and finishes, as builders will rightly use the cheaper option if nothing has been directly specified. Make sure the detailed drawings include electrical layouts, showing light fittings and switches, and floor junctions to ensure the various finishes are all level, plus a written specification list to show what products are to be used where, and the required construction method. These documents, normally completed by an architect, form part of your contract with the builders and can be used to settle confusion and even legal claims.

For a successful and organised build, you’ll need the following:

  • Calendar
  • Printed plans pinned to a wall on site
  • Scale ruler for measuring materials to be ordered
  • Tape measure for checking key dimensions
  • Digital camera to record progress for payment
  • Broom and cleaning materials
  • Work gloves, boots and hard hat
  • A portable toilet for the builders to use

Once plans are finalised, put each part of the work out to tender. Choosing the right subcontractors is crucial, as a team that doesn’t mesh well can result in clashes. Use the recommendations of friends, view potential trades’ previous work and speak to prior clients. After you have done the groundwork of finalising the detailed plans and putting together your team, the rest of your role is mainly about being organised.

You’ll be the point of contact for all logistical aspects of the project, including: ordering materials and skips and ensuring they arrive on time; booking subcontractor visits; liaising with Building Control and the local authority’s planning department; keeping the site tidy and safe; working out where to store goods to keep them in good condition; and paying the various parties on time.

1. Establish your role as project manager early on

Communicate with the subcontractors at an early stage to find out what they expect from a project manager, and how they need the site prepared before starting their role.

2. Be willing to learn

Building is inherently technical so try to be a fast learner. There is a lot of jargon used in the building industry so do a bit of research beforehand, and never feel bad about asking for clarification when you don’t understand a term.

3. The knowledge

Know the job inside out – study the drawings.

4. Stay in touch

Be readily contactable to answer questions promptly. Leave your mobile number somewhere visible (such as next to the kettle) on site.

5. Have the right attitude

Be confident, but not arrogant. Subcontractors could take advantage of a weak personality.

6. Always question changes

Don’t be too trusting – get to the bottom of why a builder wants to change something before agreeing to any alteration.

7. Stay nearby

Live close to the build so that you can keep up to date with what is happening on site on a daily basis.

8. Have a dedicated workspace

Have an area at home where you do your project manager work. Pin the drawings and a calendar on the wall and update them regularly.

9. Get your hands dirty

Be prepared to do some physical work. The subcontractors aren’t going to unload your deliveries or tidy the site, plus there will be odd jobs that need doing which don’t fit in any trade, such as general site preparation so that trades can get straight to work.

10. Motivate your team

Main contractors dangle the carrot of the next contract to encourage hard work from their subcontractors, but you need to keep them motivated through your enthusiasm and efficiency.

greg toom project manager

Greg Toon is the founder of architectural design business Potential etc

He specialises in providing affordable concept designs to help homeowners and buyers visualise the potential of their properties.

He writes a regular column for The Sunday Times’ Home supplement on designing solutions for readers’ problem houses.