Top Tips

Managing a Successful Renovation Project

5 September 2019

Managing a renovation project can be incredibly daunting and it can be difficult to navigate your way through. I recently worked alongside Sarah Breeze, a Sussex architect, to help her with the decorative finishes for her home. Sarah has a local practice and specialises in fusing modern design with the historical fabric and character in a period building. Sarah had bought a charming house near where she grew up and had embarked on a major redesign of her home.

In this article Sarah and I share tips on how to manage your renovation in the smoothest possible way. Although it’s unrealistic to avoid any stress at all there are certainly ways to reduce it.


A successful renovation project should be on time, on budget and deliver on your vision. But it does take time, expertise and experience to deliver a successful project. Key elements that both Sarah and I think are important include the following.

1. Really understand the building – appoint a chartered surveyor to conduct a detailed survey before you purchase the property. You need to fully understand the existing building rather than uncovering issues as you go along. Also budget for specialist surveys. You may need specialist surveys for the planning process including heritage surveys, tree surveys, bat surveys, asbestos surveys to ensure the health and safety of your builders (which is required by law) and drainage surveys.

2. Appoint an architect who has your best interests at heart – if you sense they have an ego you may struggle to manage their creativity and end up submitting plans that don’t get approved

3. Always go through pre app before submitting the full planning application – it only costs £50 so is money well spent. When appointing your architect ask them what their track record of success is. Some architects work alongside planning consultants on more complicated applications. But if your architect has a strong relationship with the council then a planning consultant shouldn’t be necessary

4. Invest in detailed drawings – you will need detailed drawings for building regulations and for the structural engineer. These also allow for potential builders to quote. In addition, invest in lighting plans and detailed elevations. Detailed elevations help you visualise how a space will look but they are also incredibly useful tools for your builder. They take out any element of confusion and should there be disputes down the line you can always refer back to them

5. Plan ahead – making decisions early on can prevent delays later. At the beginning of a project sit down with your builder and work out a schedule of key dates. So for instance, when will they fit the bathrooms? When do they need decisions on paint and delivery of tiles and lighting? Flooring is an area where clients often get caught out, as without these in place they can’t continue with the rest of the work

6. Allow lots of time –from the date of the purchase of your home through to moving in takes longer than you might think. The design and planning stage takes at least 6 months. Of these 6 months, around 3 months is focused on the concept work (the overall vision for your home and drawings). It takes around 2 months for the application, not allowing for any appeals. Then another month for building regulation drawings. The 6 months don’t include planning for the interiors, which normally takes 3 months. So get your interior designer onboard early so they can work alongside your architect, rather than bringing them in towards the end when you are starting to panic! A good builder can be booked up 6 months ahead so try and line then up from the very beginning

7. Surround yourself with a strong team – when you receive quotes don’t go for the cheapest option. You are likely to regret it in the long term. Invest in the best possible suppliers and get personal recommendations. Check a Trade does not count!


We all know renovations can be stressful and can so easily go wrong. The most typical mistakes people make include these pitfalls:

1. Giving your builder a patchy brief – this is one of the most common errors and leads to miscommunication and disputes down the line. Give your builder as much information as possible, including detailed drawings and specifications. Specifications and schedules complement the drawings and include details such as electricals and finer finishes. Ask your architect and interior designer to help with this and do at the beginning of the project

2. Making assumptions – it’s easy to assume your builder’s quote is comprehensive. But never assume! It’s always worth questioning the detail of the quote and asking them to break down. Builders often quote for basic products and finishes and you may have something different in mind. So for instance they are likely to quote for white plastic faceplates for sockets and trade paint instead of designer paints. This is where your brief comes in. If you provide them with a really detailed specification in the early stages they can quote far more accurately and you avoid nasty surprises down the line!

3. Scrimping on your contingency budget – most people do not allow a sufficient contingency budget. Sarah recommends 20%. In period homes, no matter how detailed your survey there are always likely to be issues that come up. For instance in my own renovation project recently my builders discovered that there were no foundations underneath my staircase! This never would have been picked up in a survey so expect the unexpected!

4. Rushing decisions – my personal experience is that builders will often knock on your door and ask for decisions on items they need the next day! Cue huge amounts of stress and rushed decisions that you may regret. You can avoid this by building key decision dates into the schedule of work. Then you know exactly when you have to make decisions – week by week

5. Failing to have a contract with your builder – most residential projects are covered by a minor JCT. Do ask your builder for this as it protects your both. Your architect can help you with this and also monitoring the monthly valuations

6. Communication breakdowns with your builder – so many people fall out with their builders, normally about costs. As per my point above, providing them with a detailed brief can help minimise this. I come on to other tips for managing your builder later.


Overrunning costs cause huge amounts of stress and force you to make decisions you may regret down the line. Some tips to avoid costly overruns include the following:

1. In the early stages ask your builder for an outline quote – once you have your drawings for planning ask for an estimate to make sure you can afford it. This is just a budget cost but it will give you an idea of whether you can afford the build or not. So many people get through planning and then when the builders quotes start to come in they are surprised by the cost. They often plump for the lowest quote and come to regret it later

2. Be wary of provisional costs – builders will often provide provisional costs rather than fixed costs. In my experience they almost always go up, particularly in old houses. Don’t be afraid to challenge these costs. Get comparative quotes where you can – particularly for subcontractors such as plumbers and electricians. This will arm you with the facts you need to challenge the figures

3. Track costs as you go along – keep track of additional work in a spreadsheet and ask your builder to put costs against them. Verbally confirming you wish to go ahead without knowing what the costs are is very dangerous. Often the first time you see costs is when the invoice comes in. Which can come as a shock and lead to uncomfortable disputes which undermine trust

4. Include a penalty clause for late delivery – if your builder goes over time there should be a penalty clause in the contract. If you are renting or balancing two properties going over time can be very expensive. Of course this relies on keeping to the original scope of work. So some builders are wary of these, particularly on period properties, as they know that once they start the work unexpected issues are likely to come up

5. Don’t forget to budget for external landscaping – if you are changing the footprint of the building you need to incorporate landscaping costs (which can be surprisingly expensive). Even if you don’t change the footprint the mess made by contractors means there is normally some degree of landscaping

6. Prioritise where to spend and where to save – try and budget right at the beginning and consider where you wish to invest and where you might save. Areas to invest in include flooring, finishes, handles, lighting and statement pieces. Areas to save include kitchen carcasses, bathroom fittings and appliances (which you can buy in the sales and then store)

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A fundamental element of a smooth and successful project is working with a reliable and trusted builder. But it can so easily go wrong and often does! Instead consider a more positive approach to how you manage the relationship, which will build trust rather than resentment.

1. Brief them in detail – give them as much information as possible and make it easy for them to access it. Keep the latest drawings in a Dropbox file. It’s too easy for drawings to get lost in emails

2. Plan weekly meetings – diarise a weekly meeting and think about the agenda in advance. Ask what information they need from you and by when. Don’t just focus about that week. Always think to the next stage and regularly refer back to the project schedule. The key dates should keep you on track for decision making

3. Communication is key – builders can deliver amazing projects but they can’t read minds. Let the project manager know if anything is unsatisfactory early so they can deal with the issue. Otherwise resentment can start to build

4. Take on board their ideas – listen to their opinion and respect their views. Two way relationships are much stronger and the project manager will appreciate that you value his or her views

I hope you have found this article useful. Sarah describes her own experience of renovating her home in September’s issue of Sussex Living. If you would like to discuss your own project with Sarah she can be contacted at

If you would like to discuss how an interior designer can help you do contact me via the Contacts page.

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