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Keep on top of profit margins and finances with the Small Projects Handbook

The Small Projects Handbook shows how to stay on top of project finances. Learn to manage projects efficiently with the new edition of this essential guide.

03 June 2021

The new edition of this essential handbook plugs into the Plan of Work, showing how to manage projects and your practice efficiently.

The second edition of the RIBA’s Small Projects Handbook aligns step by step guidance to running a small project with the revised 2020 Plan of Work. It brings all the associated regulatory and legal considerations up to date.

Author Nigel Ostime explains that the handbook can be seen in many ways as a practical companion to the revised Plan of Work in terms of what an architect should be considering and carrying out. The Plan of Work gives the book its structure: each stage is dealt with systematically to cover every aspect of the design management process, from inputs, activities, outputs, checkpoints, and areas to watch.

The handbook offers succinct advice on a whole range of project related practice management issues along the way, plugging in guidance on everything from client relationships and being clear on what services you are offering, to outsourcing, multi-skilling, marketing, and cash flow.

Profit considerations at each RIBA stage

“The assumption behind the handbook is that small projects are tough to do if you also want to make a profit,” Ostime states. “They are always demanding.”

The bottom line of making a profit is addressed throughout the book, with regard to each specific RIBA stage. Whether or not a project will be profit making is of course a key factor when deciding whether or not to take it on in the first place.

“It is important to assess your costs, principally the time/staff related ones, and ensure that you can make a sensible profit. Even if you are taking on a project for reasons other than financial ones - for publicity or competitions - it is good practice to determine how much time (and therefore cost) you plan to spend, and monitor it.”

However, as the handbook explains, even a decision as apparently simple as this still merits debate. Does the project fit into a more long term overall business plan and profile for the practice? Have you undertaken a resource assessment for the project in question? If so, and if your practice does not have the requisite resources in house, could you collaborate with a suitable fellow practice rather than declining the opportunity?

Small projects are often subject to, relatively speaking, larger overheads. This makes project efficiency all the more important.

Sound financial management

“Small practices are fundamentally different from large practices in many ways, not least because they carry relatively larger overheads, which makes it all the more important that they are run as efficiently as possible,” Ostime points out.

“The handbook tries to bring big practice attitudes to efficiency to small practices. If you get a good set of procedures in place, you get more time to spend being creative with the problems of design. The handbook is about how to run a lean practice and make a profit while producing excellent work.”

The handbook features essential tips on financial management and particularly emphasises discipline when it comes to the collection of fees. It recommends the following as essential to a practice’s financial management system:

  • a long term plan setting out ambitions and targets
  • an annual business plan budget setting out anticipated income, expenditure and profit. Once set, this should not be altered, but should be used as a benchmark to monitor against during the year ahead
  • shorter term (usually monthly but more frequently if circumstances demand) forecasts of income, expenditure and profit
  • a project based system for forecasting and monitoring resource needs and other project costs
  • monthly management accounts reporting performance against the budget and forecasts
  • a system of ledgers and timesheets to record invoices issued, cash collected, time spent, supplier invoices received, and other expenditure

A practice management primer

Ostime has edited the previous three editions of the handbook’s big brother, the RIBA Job Book, a standard reference text for running architectural projects and administering construction contracts, as well as the last two editions of the RIBA’s Handbook of Practice Management.

The Small Projects Handbook is something of a practice management primer in its own right. Indeed, Ostime suggests that small practitioners might use the Small Projects Handbook in parallel with the RIBA’s free CP Quality Management System as a good first base for establishing their management systems.

Besides its numerous references and links to further guidance, the handbook offers action checklists, pro forma standard letters and forms, and spreadsheets that can be freely downloaded from the RIBA and customised for specific projects. It can therefore be treated as a reference source and resource that goes way beyond a good practice checklist.

Thanks to Nigel Ostime, Partner, Hawkins\Brown.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Inclusive environments.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

Posted on 3 June 2021.

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