Building relationships by Aidan Mortimer

—3rd March 2020

New to the RedBook Advisory Board, Aidan Mortimer shares some pearls of wisdom gleaned from 40 years managing major building projects and spells out why a professionally curated team is crucial for a successful outcome

One of the many projects (above) that Aidan has worked on over the years

Carrying out building work is widely thought of as one of the most stressful, expensive and unpredictable things you can do, and this often proves to be the case; we have all heard dinner party stories of building horrors. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take steps to avoid, or at least minimise the risk of the most common pitfalls of projects running for longer than planned, costing far more than anticipated and everyone falling out with each other.

In my experience the most successful projects have been those where all parties – the client, architect, builder, designers etc – are brought together as early as practically possible. Before this can happen there has to be, of course, a scheme, which needs an architect, and the right one for the particular project in mind.

The minefield of choosing an architect and what RedBook offers

To choose your architect, you can seek out recommendations through friends and colleagues or if you know one, a friendly builder, who is likely to have worked with a number of architects. However the make-up of your team is so critical to the success of the project that it is worth seeking professional help to get the right talent on board at the outset.

The main reason I have joined RedBook’s Advisory Board is that the agency uniquely offers a completely impartial view of the design world (and the associated skills in major building projects). Everyone else has some sort of bias – even professionals or sales or buying agents tend to recommend people they have worked with. RedBook is an independent organisation with 10 years plus of experience of just sourcing the right team and within the business there are several decades of experience. The roster of professionals is very strong and independently selected.

Before committing to an architect it is worth asking a shortlist to produce a sketch scheme for the work you have in mind; it always surprises me how many different and innovative solutions there are to even the most straightforward extension or alterations.

Having chosen your architect the next stages will be the development of drawings, agreement of a final scheme, planning permissions if required, building regulation approvals and detailed specifications defining exactly what materials and finishes you require. Needless to say this can be a lengthy process, not least because planning permissions can take months to get; give yourselves plenty of time.

The QS question and choosing the right builders

With design underway finding the two other key members of a successful project team should be the next priority. A quantity surveyor (QS) and a builder. A QS will advise on costs and monitor all financial matters; it is vital that the QS, if you decide to appoint one, has experience on the type of work envisaged. Redbook’s Guide to building a project team includes advice on choosing a QS and what value they bring.

The most common way in which the builder is chosen is through competitive tender; the architect and quantity surveyor send out a package of information to up to six contractors, giving them about four weeks to understand and price the work. A builder is then typically chosen on price and expected to start on site a few weeks later.

Unsurprisingly this process is often doomed from the outset as the builder has little time to familiarise with the project, may not even meet all those involved and certainly has no time to build relationships with the client, architect, QS and others he will be working with for many months.

Choosing a builder principally on price is risky. In the words of the art critic John Ruskin “It is unwise to pay too much, but it is worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money… that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the things you bought it to do.”

An alternative approach, which has the added advantage of including the builder very much earlier, is for the architect, QS and the client to consider a two-stage tender process. In this scenario builders are interviewed early on by the client, architect and others to produce a shortlist of two or three that are suited to the project – again RedBook can help here. These contractors are then asked to price a limited number of chosen elements of work, estimate the programme duration and so on. The responses can then be compared and a builder chosen. This selection process can take place early in the design phase enabling the chosen builder to contribute to many aspects of the project. See RedBook’s Guide to hiring a builder for further advice.

Once the scheme is fully developed the builder, working closely with the architect, QS and client, produces a fixed price for the work based on the parameters and rates agreed in the first stage. In my experience, bringing together all the main parties involved on a building project as early as possible and agreeing the right duration and cost for the work is far more likely to result in high quality work completed on time and on budget.

My key take-out

After 40 years in the industry managing major building projects, my key take-out is that every project is unique and trusting to fate and a cast of characters that happened to be recommended through different sources will be very difficult and the project will be much more likely to fall over. If you curate a hand-picked team, you have a much better chance of success. The team will want to work together and everyone is engaged in the process. Collective ownership is key. If you are the client, you have to remember that everything requires a decision. If you are creating a new kitchen, there are countless important decisions to be made. If it’s a whole house you have to multiply that by several factors, so you need really good professional advice from people who have a realistic view of the time and money each decision involves. Some people think they can do it themselves for a much lesser price and that rarely ends up the case.

Enjoy the journey

Finally I would say: enjoy the journey. If you are going to invest the time or money in a major project, it should be an exciting and enjoyable process. Let the team take the pain, but also enjoy their company and the journey together. It may be for several years and RedBook will make the journey enjoyable for you. It can be a memorable experience.

Pictured above: Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: