Project Planner: Managing your project

Whether you plan to hire a professional to oversee your build, or run it yourself, Michael Holmes advises how to bring it in on time, on budget

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What is the project manager’s role?

Their job is to take your drawings and chosen fixtures and finishes, and to deliver a completed home, just the way you want it, within a set budget and timescale. A professional can take away the pain of organising a home-improvement project, so all you have to focus on is selecting the look and paying the bills, without having to worry about build quality and schedules, or troubleshooting the day-to-day problems that are typical of all construction projects.

In addition to taking responsibility for the build, they should oversee the contractor and/or subcontractors, and deal with your local authority’s planners, building control, health and safety, and utility companies. They will also have to co-ordinate the rest of design team and any other professional consultants involved in the project; this will typically be a structural engineer, but other specialists include tree consultants, ecologists, historic building specialists and even archaeologists. For large projects under a formal contract, they may also take on the role of contract administrator, or be responsible for appointing an independent professional in this capacity. Last, but certainly not least, they have to manage the client – you, the person paying the bills.

Does every project need one?

For smaller-scale improvements, such as putting in a new kitchen or bathroom, relatively little project management will be required. Someone will need to co-ordinate the kitchen fitters, a plumber and electrician, the delivery of a skip, and perhaps a plasterer, together with decorating and tiling. Most people can find time to organise this sort of work themselves around their day-to-day life.

For medium-scale renovation projects, such as extensions, loft conversions and internal alterations, it is likely a main contractor will be required to co-ordinate the management of the build, but an independent project manager is not usually involved – you could decide to take on the responsibilities yourself, with the architectural designer in the background providing advice and design detail as requested.

For larger or more complex improvements, the role of project manager and contract administrator is often handled by the lead architect who has been responsible for designing the project, perhaps in conjunction with a quantity surveyor to provide interim valuations for completed work. This might suit you if you have limited time or knowledge and want to leave the job to the professionals. Project management services are also offered by professionals from other disciplines, including chartered building surveyors and quantity surveyors (rics.org), members of the Chartered Institute of Building (ciob.org), architectural technologists (ciat.org.uk) and even some interior designers (biid.org.uk).

The complete package

Some project managers also provide construction services, overseeing the organisation of the work in place of a main contractor. In this instance they are also responsible for establishing the build schedule, and managing the budget and cash flow. They will be involved in finding and managing subcontractors and supplying materials, plant and tools.

Can the role be divided?

Depending on the scale and complexity of the building work, the different facets of project management can be undertaken by a single agent, such as the lead architect, or divided between others such as a quantity surveyor to control the budget and a main contractor running the build.

What do they cost?

Good project management will help to ensure your home-improvement project is completed on time, on budget and to the required quality of finish. Naturally, for the convenience of leaving all the organisation to someone else, you have to pay a price – fees for contract administration (engaging and managing the main contractor) vary from 3-15 per cent of the contract value (the total cost of construction works). Fees on small projects tend to be disproportionately high because of the fixed costs, while percentages for larger projects will be towards the lower level. If your project manager is also taking on the role of contractor, and organising construction work, fees will be higher. They may charge a fixed day-rate for their time, or work on a prime-cost basis, plus a fixed margin, ranging from 20-25 per cent for smaller works, down to 10-15 per cent for large projects.

Can I take on the role myself?

Acting as your own project manager can save on professional fees for contract administration and many home improvers decide to take on this challenge, working in conjunction with a main contractor. Some also take on the role of contractor, hiring subcontractors and tradespeople directly. Managing a large home-improvement project such as this is a huge commitment but, provided that you undertake the role effectively, the savings can be as great as 10-15 per cent. In practice, though, while the rewards can be considerable, owner-run projects tend to take longer to complete.

What skills do I need to take it on?

Efficient project management requires considerable knowledge of the building trade in order to budget and schedule work accurately, to solve on-site problems, and to check the quality and accuracy of work. While you are running the project you are responsible for everything a contractor would normally be responsible for, including health and safety on site, welfare facilities, taking out contractors’ all risks insurance, dealing with the utility companies for services, and co-ordinating with the local authority for building control statutory inspections.

What is required day-to-day?

Organisational jobs include scheduling the work and making sure your subcontractors know well in advance when they are required and turn up on time, knowing exactly what they will be doing and have everything they need to carry it out. Much of the project management work can be done in the evenings and at weekends, but inevitably some tasks – site meetings, ordering and sourcing building materials and son on – have to be done either in or around working hours. You have to be sure that you have the time and the skills to do the job effectively, especially if you are in full-time employment.

How do I find good subcontractors?

The best way is through recommendation. Although this does not guarantee that the subcontractor is not a cowboy trader, it does mean it’s far less likely that someone working on a personal reference will jeopardise their livelihood by letting you down and damaging their reputation. Tradespeople are always aware that they are only as good as their last job. Once you have found one good reliable subcontractor, you are on your way, as they will have worked with many others whose work they know and respect. This can prove a useful source of contacts as a good tradesperson is unlikely to recommend someone unreliable or incompetent – especially if they are going to be working with them or after them, as it will have a knock-on effect on their own livelihood. Networking within the trade is very important and works both ways: if you’re a good employer and are fair and pay on time, word will get around, just as it will if you are a ‘cowboy client’.

Checking subbies’ credentials

Many subcontractors and tradespeople are members of a trade body or guild that acts as an industry regulator and standards authority, and also helps to promote members. Some trades, such as electricians and plumbers, have to be members of a trade body or certification scheme, as they are the statutory regulators of industry safety standards.

The Trustmark scheme is a government initiative designed to help the public find reliable and trustworthy building contractors and tradespeople. It has a vetting procedure and awards the Trustmark to those who comply with government-endorsed standards. To find registered tradesmen in your area, visit trustmark.org.uk.

What to ask when hiring subbies

  • Make sure they have relevant experience
  • Check their availability
  • Get references and check them out in person
  • Discuss how they will price for the work
  • Let them know any unusual materials or techniques

When should I pay the builders?

For a smaller job taking a week or two, you should agree to pay for the work in full once you are satisfied it has been completed properly. For larger jobs, you should agree on regular stage payments; for example, first-fix then second-fix for plumbers and electricians, or weekly or fortnightly payments for bricklayers and carpenters.

Make sure you structure the payments so that they are always working a week or two in advance of their payment. Never pay for anything upfront. If a subcontractor asks for funds in advance to buy an expensive item – such as a plumber needing to get the boiler on site – it’s best to pay for the item yourself, in your name. You should still benefit from their trade discount.

Do I have to pay VAT?

Most renovation work attracts VAT at the standard rate of 20 per cent; however, if a subcontractor is not VAT-registered, they must not charge it on their labour. Using individual tradespeople whose turnover means they do not have to register for VAT can mean a significant saving on labour costs. If your project is eligible for any concessions, such as the reduced rate for dwellings empty for two years or more, you will only benefit if you use VAT-registered subcontractors. Make sure that the subcontractor is aware that the work is eligible for a concession and that the appropriate rate is charged.

Preliminaries checklist

Before any work can start on site there are a number of arrangements that need to be made. If you’re taking on the role of project manager, these will be your responsibility.

  • Discharge any planning conditions
  • Arrange any Party Wall settlements with the tenants and owners of adjoining properties
  • Notify building control
  • Arrange utility disconnections/connections
  • Plan the layout of storage on site
  • Get insurance in place
  • Make the property secure with fencing if required
  • Arrange welfare facilities, a rest area and WC
  • Plan for compliance with health and safety
  • Check access for deliveries
  • Notify all subcontractors
  • Check lead-in times for materials orders
  • Check your title deeds and lease
  • Check all boundaries
  • Arrange skips and scaffolding, plus any permits required for street closure
  • Check for tree preservation orders
  • Arrange a building warranty or guarantee