How to bring your project in on budget

Good project management is vital to a successful, cost-effective self build. Can you take it on yourself?
Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It
28th November 2012

Building your own home requires a variety of skills, but the one area have-a-go self-builders are most likely to take on is project managing, as it uses those life skills we all have already, such as organising, managing and budgeting. It’s a popular option: according to self-build expert BuildStore, as many as 20 per cent of self-builders project manage their own build, often making good savings along the way.

However, managing your own build is a major commitment, and it is vital you understand the full breadth of the work involved. Don’t underestimate the size of the job nor the value a professional will bring to your build, as no matter how good you are, you’ll never match someone with years of experience.

Key elements of the job

Essentially, a good project manager will take your build through to completion, drawing up a schedule and budget and then ensuring they are adhered to, keeping it on time and on budget. The job is a juggling act of contracting trades, paying sub-contractors, signing off on deliveries, hiring plant, liaising with inspectors and ensuring all aspects of the build run smoothly and properly, as well as scheduling the ordering and delivery of materials and labour on site.

Even more importantly, a project manager will also be responsible for ensuring all planning permissions, site insurances and warranties are in place before building commences – get this wrong and the results can be disastrous. It’s a huge commitment, and involves a minimum of one site visit a day, if not several, starting at 8am.

So, what are the options? It’s important to choose the right route for you. Contracting a professional will save you stress and time, and if you’re working full-time may be the only option for you.

Using a project manager

Professional project managers will save you a lot of stress in return for their fee, which can vary anywhere between 5 and 15 per cent of the build cost, or an hourly rate of around £40 to £60, (although in the current climate you may be able to broker a better deal). Ask around for local recommendations; your architect or frame-supply company will probably know of someone you could use, or search the internet for local people, but ensure they have experience of self-build and not just large commercial sites.

“Self-builders who are unable to dedicate the time or feel that they lack construction knowledge often employ a project manager,” says Neil Strong, Potton’s bespoke technical manager. “Basically, the day to day running of the project is looked after by an expert who will provide updates and reports at pre-agreed intervals to keep the client fully informed of progress. In our experience, typical costs for employing a project manager are around 6-8 per cent of the construction costs.”

Alternatively, use a specialist company, such as Abbonny Project Management Services. Abbonny offers everything from a full-build service to whatever level of involvement you choose, tailored to the needs of each project. Prices start from around £10,000 for a major job, and are influenced by the location and complexity of the project, and also the amount of involvement the owner is willing to put in.

“We only use tested and vetted contractors, so owners have peace of mind knowing that the job will be done well,” says Gerald Morroll of Abbonny. “We work on the rule of thumb that whatever we charge, you can expect to recover at least 50 per cent of this sum, either by coming in early/on time and therefore keeping interest payments at bay, or by savings made on labour and materials. What’s more it leaves self-builders free to carry on with their lives.”

Once you’ve found a project manager, set up a contract detailing payment terms, and establishing how much time they will dedicate to your project, including how much of this will actually be on site. Remember that however useful a project manager is, ultimate responsibility for the site lies with you, so ensure all the necessary elements and insurances are in place before any work starts with all contractors appropriately insured, as well as the site and structure.

Using an architect

Your architect or architectural technologist may be willing to project manage for you, which has the advantage that they will have a thorough knowledge of your build, especially if it involves unusual materials or techniques. Julian Owen, of the Association of Self Build Architects, says that if you want your architect to project manage be sure both of you agree on your understanding of the role, as some architects see managing the build as more of a ‘site agent’ role. Communication is key here.

Using a main contractor

Although not the cheapest route, employing a single contractor to undertake your whole build, sub-contracting as they go, takes a lot of the headache out of a build – and may be essential if you live far from your project, for instance if you’re building a holiday home. A building company’s experience will help things go smoothly, and they’ll be involved in specifying and ordering everything, ensuring it turns up on time and in the right quantities. This is usually for a fixed fee – expect this route to cost between 20 and 40 per cent more than managing your own site.

Using a package company

Many turnkey or package companies, usually timber-frame, will take on the whole project as part of the process, or take the house to an agreed stage, such as watertight. While not the cheapest option, it is hugely convenient and stress free, and you have the peace of mind that they will know their own engineering and materials inside out.

Doing it for yourself

Saving money by project managing your own build is a well-trodden route, but there’s a lot to take on board, so make sure you have a complete understanding of what’s required. As Neil Strong says: “Many self-builders successfully self-manage their Potton homes. This naturally requires a very personal involvement with every aspect of the project and can be a source of great satisfaction. The key to a successful self-managed build is dedicating the required time and being accessible and available throughout the build – in other words, being available to deal with whatever issues arise.”

One of the key skills you need is to be highly organised, as scheduling the right materials, tools, plant and people is vital, as is precise budgeting. Do a good job and you could save between 20 and 40 per cent on both labour and materials. Several companies and colleges, such as Abbonny or the Building Skills Academy, run courses in project management, teaching money-saving skills, including preparing tender documents and evaluating quotes. Alternatively invest in estimating software that allows you to cost as you go.


Money is the lifeblood of a build, and nothing will bring work to a halt faster than not being able to pay sub-contractors or materials suppliers. Make sure your finances are in place, stick to your budget and ensure funds are ready to be released when you need them. Have a contingency fund in place and don’t dip into it – it’s there for unexpected costs, not to up the spec beyond your original budget. Consider using a quantity surveyor, or try costings software that allows you to estimate and schedule is extremely useful here. The Build It Estimating Service, aimed at self-builders, enables you to cost and estimate your project, specifying materials with real-time prices linked to a range of builders merchants.

Time commitments

Be prepared for daily site visits – you need to be on site for 8am (a typical site day is 8 to 4pm) for deliveries – and expect to liaise with service providers, site inspectors and sub-contractors, and as well as resolving problems. This can be hard if you are working full time. As well as frequent site visits it is a good idea to have a meeting either last thing Friday or first thing Monday to go over the coming week’s work with your contractors. This will give you a chance to address any problems.


Co-ordinating what and who is on site – and when – is the secret to good project management, as all trades must arrive on time, in the correct order with the right supplies to complete their particular tasks. Poor scheduling costs money: materials that arrive early and hang around can get spoiled or damaged, while late or missing deliveries leave tradesmen waiting around with work on hold, costing you money. For example, if your second-fix electricians can’t get on site because the plasterers are waiting for a delivery they may end up starting another job, putting yours on hold.

Delays often arise when lack of experience means that long lead times aren’t factored in, such as for windows, which can have a dramatic knock-on effect on other trades. The key here is to be prepared – take on board advice from your architect, builders merchant or tradesmen to find out all what’s needed when, and work out the lead times in advance. It is good practice to use spreadsheets to draw up estimates of materials and schedules, not forgetting to factor in the availability of your sub-contractors.

Be thorough in your approach to deliveries, checking everything for damage and making sure nothing is missing. Keep a log tracking everything you do, from conversations – and with whom – to delivery notes, quotes and inspection dates. While you’re at it, don’t forget to factor in the VAT and get VAT receipts for all materials if you plan to claim it back.


If you verbally agree to quotes and work, make sure you follow up with written confirmation, and keep a hard copy for your files; this can be invaluable in stopping disputes before they gain momentum and become personal. Listen to the people that come on site – they will have more experience than you, and can be a valuable source of advice. Don’t forget to let everyone know if any plans change, and make sure that everyone is working from the same set of up-to-date plans – replace damaged copies with new ones.

Drawing up thorough and clear contracts is vital, both to protect yourself and ensure you get what you pay for in terms of timings, payment terms and the scale of the work. The Joint Contracts Tribunal has a range of ready-made contracts you can buy see for more details. And remember, a pleasant manner and willing ear will go a long way to stopping grievances in their tracks.

Site management

This includes everything from tidying, moving materials ready for the next day and generally doing as much as possible to keep things running smoothly, so be prepared to get stuck in. Don’t forget, it is imperative that you have all the site insurances, warranties and insurances in place, and as project manager you will also be responsible for health and safety of people on site.

Top 10 tips for project management

  1. Don’t deviate from your planning permission
  2. Make sure all your certificates, insurances and warranties are in place before you start
  3. Get your services on site as soon as possible, especially water
  4. Ensure everyone has the same set of current plans and strikethrough any old ones
  5. Know your lead times
  6. Create an area with hardcore for deliveries, and check and log each consignment
  7. Make sure everyone has a proper contract
  8. Bulk buy and use trade accounts
  9. Smile and keep communications open
  10. Keep your site tidy and materials dry and secure


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