Lessons learned in a small building project

Project management is not just for building skyscrapers, or highways. It also happens on a small scale. The principles are the same though… 

We are in the preparatory stages of a small building project. We are not yet covered in dust and battling with noise, but those things will be happening soon.

The project is to convert a single garage on our property into a studio flat which we can rent out – the thinking being that this might help with our somewhat beleaguered retirement planning (or at least the planning for the days when our income might contract, since retirement doesn’t seem to be a realistic option).

So far we’ve had the plan passed by our local council (which took about three months) and raised the finance (a mortgage, raised from scratch on our paid-up house, which took two-and-a-half months).

Currently we’re rearranging things in our garden to accommodate the possibility of finding parking for an extra car (and this part of the project was also part of the approval process at the council – Cape Town municipal by-laws are nit-picky as hell.)

Simultaneously, we’re trying to get quotes from various service people on the initial stages of the work – plumbing being the first port of call. As always, getting quotes is much harder than it should be. Five inquiries might get two people to your house, of whom only one will actually do a quote.

We vacillate between thinking that we’ll hire a contractor to just do all the work – and then, when that seems too expensive, we think we’ll do the project ourselves, calling on specialists when we need them.

But project management still needs to happen! 

Either way, though, this is still a project that needs managing and thinking about. Along the way, we’ve learned some things which may be of use to other people contemplating doing something similar.

ONE: expect things to take longer than you can imagine

We knew that getting the plans passed would take time: the ways of municipalities everywhere are inscrutable. What we did not expect was the length of time it took to raise a mortgage. To us it seemed pretty straightforward: we were asking for a small amount of money secured by a paid-up asset (the amount we wanted is about 17% of the value of our house) with a business plan: make flat, rent out, rental covers cost of mortgage. But the process was complex – the bank seemed unable to grasp any of the details of the project from the outset, and the “consultant” we were assigned had a special talent for evading our requests for clarity. But we got it done in the end. If we’d had a building contractor already lined up, though, this delay would have been a lot more stressful than it was. Rule of thumb – estimate how long you think something will take, and then mulitply that by three. 

TWO: expect there to be emotional reactions

When you are changing things in a house you have lived in for a long time, there can be unexpected reactions. The garage has long been a workshop for my husband, and the process of clearing it out and downscaling his workspace has happened in fits and starts. That’s because it symbolizes a shift in the work he does, a move from the physical repairing of TVs to finding a niche in the world of flatscreen and fibre. For me, changing things in the garden has meant accepting that cherished homespun landscaping has to be moved, or taken out, or adapted. All in all, it’s important to be aware of these possible obstacles to getting things done.

THREE: tailor your way of working to the people involved

I do project management as part of my work in my business, and that usually involves a spreadsheet with tasks and assignments and deadlines and colour-coded timelines. So I made one of those. And then wondered what I was thinking. The main person actually implementing the project is my husband, a man who doesn’t answer emails and never switches on a computer. So now we have a scrappy piece of cardboard, with the weeks drawn on it in permanent marker and various stickies indicating what needs to happen when. (The stickies are colour-coded – I had to draw a line somewhere). This is a lesson I will take with me into my professional work: a project plan only works if the people involved will actually use it.

And so we continue. A plumber has promised to give us a quote this Friday. Let’s hold thumbs!

READ: Project management for beginners

Main picture: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

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Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. 

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