Often you will see interior designers who offer a service in addition to their design package that they define as Project Management. For legal reasons it is very important for both the designer and the client to fully understand the sometimes complex relationships and responsibilities that this implies.
Project management is a professional skill with its own set of available qualifications that can be gained by studying at the appropriate establishments. Within the building trade the term implies a wide-ranging set of responsibilities including the management of timescales, costing, health and safety, compliance with building regulations and quality control of work achieved. All of this can imply that the project manager is sub-contracting all the other trades, paying their accounts and charging the client with the appropriate mark-up. This kind of project management is common amongst architectural firms and larger building contractors. It is not however usual for an interior designer to operate in this fashion.
As a client you can easily spot the work that is sub-contracted by the designer as the invoice that you are asked to pay will be in the name of the design firm. Works regularly subcontracted by designers include curtain making, carpet fitting, paint effects, upholstery and minor joinery, all of which are well within the scope of a qualified interior designer to manage efficiently. The importance of who raises the invoice becomes apparent when you consider the issue of final responsibility for the works. The invoice for the works represents your warranty for the results. If the upholstery comes unstitched after a few weeks you will expect the design company to repair or replace it without charge.
It is for this reason that the contract for anything other than the most minor building works must be between the client and the building contractor that undertakes the work. The contractor must invoice you directly and you must pay the contractor directly. This paperwork trail means that any subsequent problems caused by poor workmanship or faulty materials can be pinned on the contractor. The contractor will also have the appropriate insurance to cover all eventualities on-site, something that the designer's standard public liability and indemnity insurance is unlikely to do.
This distinction in responsibilities does not reduce the value you get from your designer by engaging them to help co-ordinate the project. Having an experienced designer as part of the management team of the project prevents many problems from occurring in the first place and removes the stress from solving the problems that will inevitably occur on even the best managed site. Remember that although the project co-ordinator's responsibilities are limited in law their service in this regard is often invaluable.
The co-ordinator will make regular site visits to ascertain that the progress, the quality and the work in general is in accordance with the specifications provided. The co-ordinator's familiarity with the specifications and experience of similar jobs is a great help here, especially in problem-solving when unexpected variations to specifications occur due to conditions revealed on-site. If they are not on-site at the time such snags occur you can expect reasonable availability on the telephone during normal business hours.
The co-ordinator will also have key holder capacity to assist in ease of access for tradesmen and deliveries of goods allowing your own work schedule to remain intact throughout the project. The main contractor's applications for interim and final payments will also be checked and verified for your approval and your project co-ordinator will be on hand to cast an expert eye over the completed works and will compile a snagging list for the contractor's completion prior to final sign-off.
Although interior design companies do all in their power to ensure that the work progresses in accordance with the specifications and to the agreed schedule, in accepting the role of project co-ordination they will not be legally liable for the contractor's method of operation, the sequence of carrying out the work, or the contractor's failure to complete the work in accordance with the terms of the contract between them and the client. Some design firms expose themselves to this liability through inappropriate billing practises and the lax interpretation of the term Project Management.
So as the paying customer what should you be doing?
Always clarify with the designer exactly which elements of the work will be supplied through the design company and which elements are supplied directly. Ascertain what charge the designer makes on the elements that are supplied directly. This is normally a percentage of the contractor's bill which is charged alongside the contractor's stage payments. As a minimum, your contract for the works will consist of the detailed specifications supplied by the designer together with the contractor's estimate made against those specifications. There will be an agreed start date and an estimate of the project duration and the whole deal will be cemented by the payment of a deposit to the contractor. This is usually sufficient - but more detailed contract forms exist and you should decide if one is suitable for you. Your designer will be able to advise you.
Finally, if your design firm sub-contracts major works and acts as Project Manager (in the real sense of the phrase) rather than Project Co-ordinator (as described above), then be sure to check that they hold appropriate insurance and have the wherewithal to correct any major problems that might occur during the building works.
Article by Melvyn Fickling
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