Why it pays to hire a dedicated project manager for your home refurbishment or renovation project.

Watch any of the home renovation programmes and there is a suggestion that you can be the project manager for your residential construction works. Nobody else will have the same level of commitment and it will save a big chunk of money by not paying for a professional project manager. So they say.

They always start out confidently with the hope that Google can solve every question and problem along the way, and perhaps a couple of books from Amazon.

Whilst it is admirable that home owners roll up their sleeves and learn lots of new skills, being the project manager of what seems like a straightforward home renovation is not for the faint hearted. As seen regularly on Grand Designs, they nearly always end up late and over budget with an enormous amount of stress along the journey. Stress that can cause:

  • Difficulties in your day job from the amount of time your project is taking up
  • Major stress on your bank balance, mortgage and other borrowings
  • Worse still, stress related illnesses and arguments with their nearest and dearest

In Kevin McCloud’s words “If you are disciplined, add 20% to your budget. If you are not disciplined, then add 59%.”

Here are just 3 examples of where being a DIY project manager can cost you dearly.

Builder went bust

James had a fixed budget of £300K for his house project and decided to be the project manager alongside his architect who also happens to be his nephew.

They engage a contractor to do all of the building works and pay them £87,000 up front. Before any works start, the contractor goes bust and James loses all of his money and has to now find £387K to complete the project.

A professional project manager should have run a tender for the works, vetted all contractors shortlisted including credit checks and then negotiated no more than a 15% deposit.

Project ran late

Sarah had a full on, full time job and yet took up the mantle of being the project manager for her family’s house refurbishment. Because she couldn’t keep the pressure on the builders’ productivity and keep them on track, the schedule slipped 3 months.

As they had moved out into rental accommodation at £950pw, this delay cost approximately £12,000 in additional rent. Because she didn’t have the builders on a fixed priced contract, their labour costs also went up by about £20K.

A professional project manager would have a detailed project Gantt chart with all activities time scheduled. He or she should attend regular site meetings. These are probably once a week to ensure the builders are doing what they’re meant to be doing in the time-frame and discuss and address any risks quickly. A good project manager would negotiate a fixed priced contract with your builders from the outset.

Budgets are not realistic

Mark got his house renovation project scoped out into a list of detailed activities for builders to quote against.

His wife wanted to choose all of the fixtures, fittings and finishes as the project went along. When he sent out the tender documents to construction companies, he asked them to put in provisional sums against every item using their experience to best guess what they would cost. E.g. carpets, timber floors, a new kitchen, bathroom sanitary ware etc.

carpet selections

As the project went along, Mark’s wife quickly realised that everything she liked was way over the budget that had been set. So whereas the builder had quoted £25 psm for timber flooring, Mark and his wife fell in love with a range that cost £65 psm. This alone had a £4,000 impact as the floor area in question was 100 sqm. And that’s just one item that was costed unrealistically. With everything else selected, the project budget increased by over £100K.

A professional project manager would sit down with you and your designer and establish realistic provisional sums for your purchases. They would also encourage you to select and finalise as much of the detailed design and finishes as possible before tendering to builders.

So that’s a few examples of where it can go wrong. Here is a list of what a good, experienced project manager should do to earn their money for you and keep your project on budget, on time and on quality.

The role of a professional project manager:

  1. Drafting a detailed tender package and sending out to at least three trusted builders plus various required tradespeople and professionals.
  2. Vetting and contracting specialists such as structural engineers, party wall surveyors, surveyors to design your new home.
  3. Engaging and mobilising all parties involved in the project, to the right timescales.
  4. Project planning the entire renovation so that you know exactly how long it is going to take; what and when every activity is meant to take place. This becomes the bible for keeping all builders’ and trades’ activities to specific time schedule. This should be broken down into a lot of detail and will include things such as strip out, steel-work, electrical first and final fix, plumbing first and final fix, plastering, decorating, kitchen fit-out, tiling, sanitaryware, carpeting etc.
  5. Scheduling when every fixture, fitting and material needs to be ordered and delivered to site. On a large project there can be hundreds of these items.
  6. Chasing suppliers to ensure that every item is delivered on-time and does not hold up your builders/tradespeople.
  7. Controlling the quality of all on-site works and ensuring everything is built exactly to the drawings without any short cuts, misunderstandings or misinterpretations.
  8. Identifying and managing all potential project risks (e.g. weather conditions, access rights, health and safety, site security, impact to neighbours).
  9. Resolving all day-to-day queries and issues on-site with builders and all trades. This involves a lot of availability and decision-making.
  10. Managing change control procedures to ensure that when you must 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.
  11. Ensuring all deliveries to site meet their specification, quantities and quality. Managing returns and re-orders where appropriate.
  12. Setting and controlling your budget, managing your cash-flow and making payments for all products being ordered.
  13. Obtaining product manuals, safety certificates, guarantees for the project.
  14. Ensuring statutory building regulations’ approval from an approved inspector.

If you still wish to proceed as project manager, here’s some top tips

Control your renovation budget with detailed design:

The most effective way to maintain budget control throughout your transformation adventure is to lock down the detailed design, scope of works and product specifications for the entire project before you enter into any discussions with builders. The more you can define up-front and before builders start, the more detailed and accurate your budget will be, with only small variations.

Fail to plan, plan to fail:

Whether it’s on paper, in Excel or you’re able to produce a Gantt chart, plan and schedule every activity of your project. Identify the dependencies and critically linked events and become aware of the lynch-pin activities that hold the project plan together.

Project manager Gantt chart project schedule

Go through this with your builder and finalise a version that you both agree is acceptable to work to. And then hold them to it.

Expect to manage complexity & change:

Once you have the design sorted (and expect anything from 20 to 100 individual drawings and choices to define this in detail), allocate a further 10% of your budget to contingency. Things will happen on site 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. For example:

  • You discover a chimney breast that was covered up by a fake wall and you would like to remove it to make the room bigger.
  • The builder tells you that they’ve discovered damp – especially common in Victorian and old properties.
  • You decide that you’d like to add in an extra window because you’d like to brighten up a room which you hadn’t realised was quite dark and now there’s an opportunity to add one in whilst you’ve got builders in (subject to planning).

And expect to be at your contractor’s mercy to cost these variations as they will know that they have you by the short and curlies and are not going to bring in another builder with a cheaper quote!

Be available for questions – hundreds 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. Your builder will want immediate answers to avoid holding up the project. Otherwise you risk two outcomes:

  • Slowing up the project = more cost
  • Builder making their own decision = you don’t get what you or your designer intended and probably have to get them to do it again = more cost.

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 if you don’t have years of experience.

Keep ahead of the builder:

Always be a step 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 (if applicable) for room designs and any bespoke elements that they are building.
  • 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.

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. When there are either technical or personality disputes and issues (which there will be), you will need to help resolve them quickly and ensure no potentially damaging fall-outs.

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.

Negotiate 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 input i.e. 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.

Our recommendation is the same as this country’s biggest architectural figurehead Kevin 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.”

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