The Project Manager – Why have one?


“Don’t be fooled by the thick glasses and the side parting – that project manager in the corner might just be the person who saves your bacon …”

So wrote Tony Bingham, an arbitrator and litigator and regular columnist for Building Magazine in an article in defence of the project manager. As it happens, thanks to the wonders of laser eye surgery, my thick glasses are a fading memory, but as for the side parting…

Tony went on to say: “The project manager is a crack-filler, sometimes a gap-filler, even a canyon-filler. He is the one who saves the procurement process from disaster.”

So what did he mean by that?

In the UK, we have a bad habit, it seems, of assuming that the job at tender stage is fully designed, drawn, detailed and specified after which we can assume everything has been covered and catered for. Then we proceed believing that what is in the builder’s quote is actually what is on the drawings. So, imagine our surprise when a few days after starting, the builder is back with the first round of ‘variations’, and we are left bemused, a pattern that can become depressingly familiar as the project progresses and deprives us of increasing amounts of sleep.

The word ‘procurement’ is often used specifically to mean the obtaining of materials for a project, but ‘project procurement’ is a wider term, one which takes us from a concept in the client’s imagination right through to that first holiday-let booking or commercial lease. It is this business of being everywhere, doing everything for everyone that sets apart the professional project manager.

“Never take the advice of someone who has not had your kind of trouble.” – Sidney J Harris.

When undertaking a conversion project of the type suggested in this series of articles, there would normally be an extensive ‘checklist’ of tasks to be undertaken by a range of different professionals and advisors to ensure a solid plan emerges. The preliminary stages, such as market feasibility, planning permission, overall budget, funding – including grant aid, etc. will doubtless have been covered in more detail elsewhere in these pages. However, if the project manager is truly to be the ‘glue’ that binds all the elements of the project together, they must be alongside the client at the outset to coordinate all of these inputs into the project as a whole.

Farm buildings are largely designed for one purpose, and although the Victorians particularly tended to over-design, the fact is that there are usually considerable structural challenges to overcome when converting farm buildings to another use, especially if additional floors or mezzanine structures are planned. Foundations, even of substantial brick or stone structures, are generally not sufficient for today’s building regulations, so structural design is essential, sometimes involving underpinning or stabilisation. Also, many features of period farm buildings are seen to be worthy of retention and often excite conservation officers beyond measure, despite the fact that some of these ‘period features’ were installed using whatever the estate could afford, using workers who were probably not skilled at anything in particular, let alone building. I generalise of course, but you get my point.

So, having assembled (or in some cases, inherited) the project team to include the architect, the engineer, maybe the planning consultant, possibly the grant funding consultant, the building control officer, the conservation officer (for listed buildings), the contractors, and, of course, the client, all with something to say, who pulls all of these inputs together? Who ensures that items are factored-in but not double-counted, that the Grant Funding timetable can be met while still ensuring that the contractor is only paid for work done to date? Our unsung hero, our fearless Project Manager, strategically stationed between the rock and the hard place.

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.

Anyone who has carried out a construction project, particularly a conversion, may well already know the answer. Let us nonetheless address this rhetorical question by picking out one or two issues that, from experience, are quite likely to arise.

  • Ground works and drainage often contribute disproportionately towards the budget. Farm buildings, not designed with Building Regulations in mind, may require underpinning which is expensive, but other techniques such as injection stabilisation may reduce cost and delays.
  • Structural defect repairs are often very hard to quantify at the outset, particularly if they relate to a listed building. A proper initial building survey will identify the majority of wants of repair, but once the strip-out commences, decisions will often have to be made ‘on-the-hoof’, which is where experience and technical knowledge, as well as control of the contractor (and the variations schedule!) are essential.
  • Services are often the cause of significant delays to a project, particularly where certain utilities companies (who shall remain nameless) are involved, and early programming is essential to avoid costly delays later on. Even with the best-laid plans, these companies are a law unto themselves, so the flexibility to re-programme around a delay is essential.
  • It is now confirmed that from Jan 2015 there will be new Leader Group and RDP funding available for eligible diversification projects. These have very rigid requirements both in the application process, requiring detailed specifications, three quotes etc. and in the timing of drawdown payments, so the valuation schedule of the project has to be carefully managed to meet these milestones, which can be tricky if the construction programme has slipped.
  • Snagging and hand-over is where the rubber hits the road, and, depending on the relationship with the builder, getting the final items completed, the building control certificate signed off and the project handed over with the appropriate warranties and defects liability period in place often takes a concentrated effort.

So to summarise, you have a conversion project in mind, and you need someone to think of problems before they arise, defend you as the client, manage funding, planning, statutory controls, think sustainably, consider who shall be in the design team, who shall be invited to bid for the work and who shall win the contract, and make the main contractor’s job a piece of cake. So why do you need a project manager? That’s why.

Click Here to see the Article on South East Farmers website