The RedBook Guide: How and when to hire a project manager

—29th January 2020

A project manager is often essential the success of a building project, but if you choose to hire one it pays to choose with the greatest care.

Think of an old-fashioned circus, with a troupe of animals and costumed artists performing with split-second timing in a tiny ring, rousing the delighted audience to applause. The ringmaster is your Project Manager.

He or she cracks the whip to tame the lions (your builders), ensures the acrobats and jugglers (your architects and interior designers) come on and do precisely what they should do, then disappear at the right moment. And all the while the project manager marshals the myriad of other supporting cast members of clowns and tightrope walkers (all your other consultants) as they weave in and out of the main stars of the show.

Above all, the project manager – or ‘PM’ – is there to keep you, the client, happy. That means ensuring everything runs smoothly, on time and on budget.

The PM works for you, not for anyone else on the project, certainly not for the builders or the architects. The best kind of PM is a combination of human aspirin, magician, strategist, diplomat and benign dictator, as well as technical construction specialist.

Safe to say that the worst problems and disasters we have ever heard about at RedBook over the years could have been avoided if an experienced and alert project manager had been engaged at the start, although it is certainly not every project that is complex or large enough to justify the cost of employing a PM.


So what do you need to look for in a project manager?

A good project manager constantly anticipates risks to your timeline and budget, and takes the necessary steps to avert delays or overspends. Many clients believe they can do the project management themselves, but when there are multiple consultants involved and a huge number of ‘moving parts’, the PM can bring clarity, focus and discipline in timelines and costs, and bring overall co-ordination between all parties.

While other team members such as architects may be focusing myopically on their immediate deadlines, the PM will be looking over the horizon to ensure any design information that the builders need in the near term, and that will cause progress to stutter if it isn’t delivered, is recognised as critical and that the project is moving ahead in good order.

The PM also has an unexpected yet vital role in managing clients themselves. If clients are slow to make decisions the effect is cumulative and can often be disastrous. A clever PM, therefore, gives clients plenty of advanced notice if an important decision has to be made, and presents the options and implications, along with recommendations in plenty of time. They also help manage expectations and allow you to make choices before it becomes too late.

At RedBook, we advise clients on the composition of their project team, and on whether they might benefit from having a PM — as well as how to pre-empt potential friction between team members.

As a result we have developed our own range of best-in-class PMs whom we recommend for projects that require their input.

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Without a PM acting as an early warning system for clients, time-critical decisions are likely to be sprung upon them by builders or others, leading to unnecessary stress and sometimes forced decisions.

Just as important for many busy clients, especially those with hectic work lives or based abroad, a PM keeps clients in close touch with the project—or as close as the clients wish to be kept—while protecting them from the avalanche of emails and daily micro-decisions that projects produce. In other words, the PM acts as a kind of high-quality air filter.

On a large complex project such as the refurbishment of a large listed house in London, or building a substantial new house in the country with major landscaping works, a project manager is usually seen as an essential.

Not every architect welcomes the involvement of a PM. The profession of project management has grown up very recently, and some architects still regard the PM’s work as belonging to property architects and perceive their input as interference. Conversely, there are other architects who will only work on a project if the client has appointed a PM. These architects have seen the advantages first hand of a good PM’s work.


Isn’t it the architect’s job to manage the project?

Some architects are much better than others at managing projects. So if your architect is mainly interested in designing your home—creativity is the most valuable quality most architects bring to a project, after all—and less interested in the intricacies of driving projects forward, then a PM may be what you need to balance the architects shortfall.

The bigger your project, and the more complex it is, then the greater the likely need for a PM.


Who to choose as your PM?

This is an easy question to answer: you want to choose a PM who has managed projects like yours before. And the more projects like yours the PM has managed, the better.

The PM at your initial interview has to convince you that he or she has successfully handled projects that are directly comparable to yours in terms of size, budget, and complexity.

You also want to be sure that your PM is someone with whom you have an easy, natural rapport. Avoid studiously anyone whose personality you suspect might annoy you if you spend time working with them over the course of a long project.

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If you have a listed house, do make absolutely sure to use a PM who has worked on listed houses—ideally lots of them.

If your project is in the country, you will want to know that your PM has experience of building there because building in rural locations has its own challenges. For example, access roads may have to be built across fields, soil compaction and damage to tree roots by builders’ heavy vehicles often needs to be carefully mitigated, and public footpaths can create issues.


Does a project manager need to be independent?

Some firms offer a ‘one-stop shop’ for property projects, with architects, interior designers, and PMs housed under one roof—they may even have their own builders, too. This can be attractive because it gives clients a single firm to deal with rather than an array of different specialists and firms.

But one of the potential disadvantages of using a ‘one stop shop’ is that the PM is no longer working solely for you, the client, with a free hand to identify failures, apportion responsibility for solutions, drive progress and suggest contractual remedies if required. For this reason, among others, RedBook generally recommends independent PMs. The PM can then be your single-point of contact, and can marshal all your other consultants.


Is an OK PM better than none at all?

No. Definitely not. A poor PM will waste your time and the expensive time of your other project-team members; slow up the project by creating unnecessary bureaucracy to justify the fees he or she is charging; and, generally, frustrate and divide the team. Avoid at all costs.


How much does it cost to employ a project manager?

It is difficult to give a hard and fast rule on cost because rates vary greatly. For instance, a PM managing the refurbishment of a big Grade-I listed house in a central London square will charge many times more than a PM working on a small new-build property in the West Country, for example.

As a broad rule of thumb, however, expect a PM to charge 2-3% of a project’s construction budget. This means that if your builders are charging you £1 million for their work, the PM would charge you between £20,000 and £30,000 to oversee the project from start to finish.

Often, PMs will be happy to charge a fixed monthly retainer instead of a percentage. Some clients also agree incentives with their PMs, so the PM is paid a bonus (fixed at the outset) if the project is completed ahead of time or on time.


A lifesaver—but no panacea

While having a PM is very often a huge benefit, a PM can never be a complete panacea.

A PM can’t stop builders going bust, for instance. Equally, if your builders insist on working more slowly than they promised at the start, your PM can cajole and urge them to go faster but will be limited in impact by the terms of the construction contract you signed at the start of the project with your builders.

Even so, we believe it is often well worth considering hiring a ringmaster to control your circus.

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: enquiries@redbookagency.com