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Angst avoidance

Chris Mackenzie

Relationships and quality control can plague small projects. One practice decided it was time to take charge

Wireframe VW model.
Wireframe VW model.

As architects we want to make good buildings, but recently, when small projects dominated our work, we concluded that the most frequent obstacle to quality was contractors. We came up with the idea of taking on all the off-site management, putting our growing conviction that we could do better to the test.  

Private clients always ask us to recommend contractors. That can be tricky. A local builder will probably do a decent job but avoid risks and largely ignore contractual responsibilities. A more established contractor is expensive for small projects, and often appoints its ‘B team’, fails to manage site activities, and tends to make lots of contractual claims when the job doesn’t look profitable. While in traditional procurement the contractor theoretically bears a lot of risk, we find that when problems arise, the cost burden usually falls on the small project client. 

Total control

Our best projects are undoubtedly those where we have had a full appointment to see the project through the construction stage – although clients don’t always grasp the difference between a contract administrator and a project manager. What they really want is both, but don’t always want to pay for it, so may attempt the DIY route of ‘self build’ – and all its risks. Another important factor for most private clients is that VAT is charged at a full 20% but is not recoverable. Employing a non VAT-registered tradesman directly can save them a lot of money. 

So we took the plunge and offered some clients our alternative model. Contractors like the reduced risk and paperwork, and clients can balance a better service in return for assuming greater risk in terms of time and money. There is no fixed lump sum contract, but overall costs are potentially reduced, quality is improved and we manage any risks. 

We have recently completed our first ‘Construction Management’ project, and are engaged on three more to be built this year. The first was a small single storey building, with a very nice and ultimately very happy client, which gave us a low risk opportunity to test our theory. Thankfully it has been  successful: on time and (just) under budget. 

We aim to agree the procurement route before starting Stage 4 design (Technical), allowing us to format design information to suit the works packages. We use NBS Scheduler for specification/pricing schedules on a trade package basis, and BIM to help with procurement and construction: 3D component drawings and schedules, and/or 3D drawings describing just the works in a package. Builders and suppliers love this, putting our jobs in the ‘low hanging fruit’ category. 

  • Sketchup model.
    Sketchup model.
  • The house we built. The simple single storey extension in Kelston Road, Bath, on which Designscape tried out this method
    The house we built. The simple single storey extension in Kelston Road, Bath, on which Designscape tried out this method

It’s a team thing

Our in-house construction manager is supported throughout by the project architect on technical matters, reducing paperwork for trade contractors, and setting up trade accounts so the client can buy some materials directly without a mark up.  She maintains the programme and budget throughout so that the client, foreman and relevant trades are kept fully in the picture. It becomes a team environment, avoiding the usual aggravation.

The other key person is the site foreman. So far we have engaged (on behalf of the client) an experienced self-employed tradesman who can deliver one of the main packages, and also act as foreman. He co-ordinates all site activities – including health and safety. Designscape acts as principal designer throughout, and principal contractor on site.

It is important to us that we maintain the professional consultant relationship with the employer throughout. We have no financial conflicts of interest in this arrangement as our fees bear no relationship to the project cost and there are no mark-ups – only the client benefits from savings. But it is important that the client also accepts the risks, which we undertake to manage and advise on. 

We are taking this slowly and learning lots as we go – testing trades people and identifying the good ones. It won’t suit every project, but it does offer the potential for a better quality outcome from the same or smaller budget, and it is definitely less adversarial. The younger architects in the practice have enjoyed being more involved in the construction phase, and understand the process much more fully, including being able to see the contractor’s perspective. It offers a new respect for what they do, and why they’re paid so much! 

Chris Mackenzie is founder director of Designscape


Construction Management Services: replaces Stage 5 onwards in the traditional architect’s appointment.


Preconstruction phase

  • Establish a list of trade packages with a scope for each package and a long list of potential trade contractors  
  • Establish a budget – broken down by package 
  • Establish a programme
  • Issue packages to trade contractors for tender – includes drawings, spec, scope of works / pricing schedule
  • Analyse tenders; make recommendations for each trade package
  • Issue ‘purchase order’ contract to each trade contractor – bespoke contract drawn up with professional help – simple, plain English contract terms. Contract is a direct contract between the employer and the trade contractor. 


Construction phase

  • Oversee site establishment – security, welfare, H&S etc
  • Regular site meetings: budget, programme, H&S
  • Valuation / payment of works contractors
  • Order sundry materials
  • Pay all invoices (direct from client’s account for the project)



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