The one job on a self build that sticks in most people’s mind as eminently ‘do-able’ is managing the project. Good project management requires a few basic aptitudes, not least the ability to be focused and organised – skills that most of us have applied to overseeing events in our work or private lives.
It’s important to familiarise yourself with the range of jobs involved on a building project, to get a sense of the order in which these events happen, who needs to be involved at each stage, and what materials they need to do the work.
There’s a lot at stake, and you should know what to expect before deciding to do it yourself.
Taking on the project management of your build is a balancing act of objectives. You can think of this as the self build triangle, with the three points being time, money and quality – which all affect each other.
Who can project manage?
Architects/designers: These may agree to manage your build for a percentage of the overall build costs – but beware that there’s little incentive to keep the budget down. Some may hand the job on to a contractor they trust and just act as an overseer – in this case both will make a profit from the arrangement. However, all of this can mean a hassle-free build process.
Main contractor: If you get a general builder to build your home they will, by default, be project managing the process – a great option if they’ve come recommended or you’ve seen evidence of their good work. However, you will pay a premium for this route rather than employing trades yourself, and you’ll have less direct control of the project.
Project manager: Dedicated professionals who work on individual projects charge anywhere between 10-15 per cent of the build cost to manage on your behalf. Although pricey, this can be a worthwhile alternative to giving up a good job to run a project, especially if you’re not planning to use a main contractor or package build route.
Package builders: The majority of package companies will take the shell to watertight, with you responsible for the foundations and the first and second fix, as well as any other jobs. For a fee most will take on the entire build if you wish.
You: Doing it yourself is a common route, but requires a major investment of time. A good head for figures, scheduling and the ability to get on with people are all needed.
Using this guideline will help you decide what the motivating factors in your build are. Should you wish to save money and still get quality, you’ll need to allocate more time to the project; while focusing on a quick build at a cut price will give you an average finish.
Read more: Expert Guide to Project Management
Knowing where you stand is an important starting point. Are you building the home you intend to live in forever and want to lavish everything on it, or is yours a super- tight budget meaning you’ll just want to get the house habitable and not be living in a caravan over winter?
Once you have this fixed in your mind you can think of the overall scheme, and the implications of the main deciding factors.
Time: A short build schedule means you will need to pay a premium to get the work done quickly and to the standard you want. If you push your regular trades to work too fast the quality will suffer. In the worst case, the job may need redoing.
Money: Using cheap materials or choosing low quotes for labour will save you money, but may be detrimental to the quality of the work. Physically doing work or project managing yourself will also save money, but both have big time implications. For the time-poor self builder, it can make more sense to earn the money to pay someone else to project manage and labour.
Quality: Paying for experienced labour and good materials will result in a fine finish. A longer schedule allows you to embark on time-consuming but high-quality work, such as ornamental brickwork.
Key to the success of any project is money – specifically, setting and keeping to a budget, and ensuring a positive cash flow so that bills are paid and the pace of work is maintained.
It’s imperative that you set a genuine contingency fund, rather than secretly allocating it for work at the end of the project, as you will need, and use, it in the course of the project. You should also set up a trade account, such as that offered by BuildStore.
How good a negotiator you are will have a huge impact on your budget and how far you can stretch it. You will be dealing with planning, building control, tradesmen, service suppliers and many others, at all times smoothing the path and brokering good deals.
Always plan extensively and attempt to stick to your decisions as far as possible. The more changes you make once building starts, the greater the cost and time implications. Building always throws up unexpected complications, so there will inevitably be some changes along the way.
As a guide, spend as much time planning as you intend to spend building – this will allow you to get to grips with what’s happening and when. With each task, think about who will be doing the work, what that work will achieve and when it will occur on site. Are there seasonal factors to consider? What trades must precede and succeed each task?
Be aware of the constraints of your project and site and realistic about what you can achieve. Budget and time will limit some areas, or you may have planning conditions to satisfy that must not be disregarded.
The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the work is delivered on time and on budget, and if you’re taking on this role yourself the buck stops with you.
You need to be fully aware of what has happened, what jobs are currently under way and what trades are booked to come on site next. A good project manager will need to make daily site visits and should hold a site meeting once a week – ideally on Monday to assess progress and decide what is to be achieved in the following days.
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Even if you can only get on site after work you will still stay on top of what’s been going on and what you’re not happy with. Assess the quality and ensure the work reflects the plans, and keep on top of site housekeeping by checking tools are locked up and the plot secure.
If work is not up to standard, materials are missing or short, or tradesmen are absent, then you need to act quickly to prevent a small hassle from having a costly impact.
Mastering this skill will make all the difference to how smoothly your build goes. You need to ensure that instructions are clear, everyone understands them and that everybody is working to a common goal.
Plans: Ensure that everyone is working to the same plans. Keep a laminated master (and a few dry pens) in the site office. Number and date any updates, collecting and destroying any old copies so nobody is working to out-of-date plans.
Listen: You’ll be working with all sorts of experts, including planners, site inspectors and tradesmen. Combined, they’ll have experience of most problems that come up on a build. You don’t always have to follow their advice (and be prepared for the odd bit of flannel because someone doesn’t want to do it your way or is upping the cost) but on the whole most professionals will want to help you out.
Ask: Don’t be put off if you don’t understand something – ask questions. Similarly, tradespeople who reciprocate with questions of their own are a boon as they are likely to hold a genuine interest in the build. Be prepared to explain your philosophy – especially if your way is different from the norm, for example if being green is more important than cost.
Instruct: You know the ‘big picture’ in a way that no-one else does. Make sure instructions are clear, understood by both you and the other party and confirm them in writing – either in a site diary, an email or even as a printed sheet if need be, pinned up in the site office.
Communication channels: Work out which methods suit your team and your site. For some, a Monday site meeting is essential, for others a chore to be got through that they will resent. Some may prefer an email report, while for others a chat will suffice. Figure out what works for them and what you can rely on as being sufficient.
As the prime decision-maker, the project manager needs a set of skills to help make the right decisions as situations crop up on a day-to-day basis.
You may need to question the quality of work, or even dismiss a trade if they fail to redress the problem, either by a general improvement or through redoing any poor work. Managing people can involve a delicate balance of getting on with them while maintaining a professional relationship.
Roles and responsibilities: Be clear about who is doing what. Let the trades know if you plan to do something yourself so they can adjust their costs.
Authority and delegation: You will not be available at all times. Make it clear who on site is responsible for making decisions/ordering materials in your absence, and ensure they know what they can spend and when they need to let you know about minor changes.
Set expectations: Be clear about what you expect – hours, quality of work, safety equipment and how you expect the site to be left and secured. Be diplomatic if you have an issue and appreciative if you’re pleased with something.
Motivation: Good will gets work done, so consider using rewards for targets met rather than punitive measures for any missed. A bonus of money or even a crate of beer can help sweeten a deal if you’re trying to catch up on work in time for the next stage to go ahead as planned.
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