Sarah Schütte, Interview with a SolicitorMar 04, 2023
I am delighted to be able to interview you for “Her Own Space” . Sarah you are a Solicitor-Advocate and Managing Director of Schutte Consulting, handling project strategies, contracts, claims and disputes, and risk management within the construction and engineering sector.
One of the reasons we have always connected is that we both feel there are many practices and approaches that exist within the commercial sector that the residential home renovation projects could really benefit from. I know we could always talk for hours but it only seemed fair to get your wisdom down on paper for the members of the group to benefit from too.
1. So tell us a bit about you and what type of clients and projects do you work on?
Hi everyone! I’m a freelance lawyer with more than 20 years’ qualified experience and I run a small consultancy based in Clapham Junction SW11 specialising in built environment projects. We have UK and international clients. I trained and qualified in a City law firm and after a few years went in-house and worked for a decade on both the client side (for London’s public transport provider) and the delivery side (for an engineering company). I have worked independently since 2014, advising and training building project professionals. I am also an accredited CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management ®) of the Project Management Institute, a project facilitator, coach and trainer, and later this year, I’m aiming to pass exams to become a certified mediator.
I’m also a school governor and University careers mentor and I volunteer at the APM and PMI UK. I’m really passionate about projects which promote happiness, growth and quality of life.
2. What are the main challenges you feel women managing home renovations face in the UK today?
Managing my own home extension when my children were very young was eye-opening, even as a seasoned professional! In my experience, many women are natural project managers but sometimes we struggle to be heard and worry about being vocal, for example being assertive comes over as being aggressive. This is particularly difficult in a male-dominated and physical industry such as construction. There’s a lot of poor practice out there unfortunately, and there remains a stubborn problem to increase the number of women wanting to work in the industry. Therefore, women customers who are managing home renovations rarely see, or get to talk to, another woman. This is why groups such as Her Own Space are invaluable sounding boards and provide a safe environment to ask all sorts of questions.
3. Are there any tips or pre-planning advice you would give women about to undertake their home renovations.
I would encourage women to do as much research as possible into some of the really boring stuff such as foundations, wall insulation, UV ratings, waterproofing, acoustics, and the like. These are not as interesting as fabric swatches and paint, which bring projects to life, and a homely finish (sadly!), but they are much more important! Spending money in these areas is, both short-term and long-term, wisely spent because value is derived, and the value of your home increases too! Done well, these structural things will also bring you much comfort, day in day out, knowing that you’ve got them right.
4. What do you think are the main reasons projects go wrong and equally go well?
In my experience, projects tend to go well when difficult questions are tackled upfront, matters are clarified and there is open communication before things get going. Women are put off because the male builders they deal with seem to know it all and have done it 100 times before. Each project is, however, unique! First, a lack of a programme of work is a concern, especially when as now supply chains are fragile, and material and labour costs are sensitive. So a sensible path should be agreed in writing by the builder and the customer together in order to create a win-win situation, one which is sustainable for the duration of the build. Second, think carefully about the arrangement, as ultimately this is a legally-binding contract with enforceable rights and responsibilities. One might go out to the market and obtain three quotes, but if the quotes are not readily comparable, or there is small print, then it is a big challenge to interrogate those and find out what is included and what is not. It’s very common for the bottom line to look attractive in a sales brochure or an email following a home visit, but the extras can add significant amounts of money very quickly plus it’s almost impossible in the moment to change course. In my experience, this is the most common reason why domestic customers feel ‘cheated’, when builders talk about client change and delay and financial consequences.
5. What recent changes in the UK economy do you think homeowners should be aware of and what is the best way to stay on top of change?
The industry is facing an unprecedented combination of pent-up demand post COVID and spiralling materials and labour costs. Uncertainty about supply chains, Brexit, a smaller and retiring workforce and inflation mean that starting a renovation is very challenging. These things make the contract arrangement such an important tool for setting out the deal that’s been agreed and a process to deal with change. Having a program of work is essential to understanding what has been done, what is coming next and what is on the horizon, all of which impact on the project timetable and the budget. Together with quality, these are the three characteristics of projects which homeowners should remember.
Working in collaboration with the build team is essential, including maintaining communications, having daily briefings, and beginning and end of week meetings, and documenting changes as you go along. This is not easy to keep track off so a professional project manager can give real value to a busy customer. Dealing with lead-in times is a good example: your builder may have quoted a price and it will only be valid for a short period of time at present. You don’t want to feel you’re making decisions under pressure.
6. What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of project managing a home renovation for women?
Everyone is a project manager insofar as there are many projects in our lives every day. Managing a home renovation on top of working and/ or family commitments is very challenging. She cannot be on site all the time, and she should not supervise or direct the build team, but it’s really difficult to be hands-off when it’s your home that’s been worked on (and you are living there too)! I found this myself! The amount of time required in managing a home renovation is colossal, and it’s relentless: I can guarantee it will eat up time because it’s your home and your money and you want to get it right. So be ready to roll up your sleeves. On the positive side, use it as an opportunity to learn, and keep the end in sight!
7. Do you have any tips/advice that you feel would help women managing home renovations?
Remembering that you’re not on your own and groups such as Her Own Space exist to support women through the ups and downs of home renovation. Things will not go right, things will go wrong and so you will need stamina to keep in mind the objective that you want to achieve, and a legal or contract steer is a good idea to ‘check in’ on yourself in case of unintended adverse consequences. Preparation and planning well in advance of getting someone on site is essential: once someone is on site, they want to work to their own programme and any delay, perceived or actual, will be attributable to the customer in many cases. You don’t have the leverage at that point because this tends to happen at the same time as you feeling under pressure to make decisions. It presents an unenviable combination of circumstances. That said, managing a home renovation requires flexibility and responsiveness, but it should be in a controlled environment that you and the builder are both clear about. If you are not sure about anything, then seek to verify that yourself from the Facebook group and your own research. Women mustn’t worry that their builder will be offended or that this indicates a lack of trust; it’s common sense. But don’t sweat every tiny thing and do make a decision within the required time, and move on.
8. What projects do you enjoy working on the most?
I love to see projects come to life, whatever their size. Someone’s imagination and vision being realised and given life, in collaboration, is just the best. I’ve worked on some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the UK, particularly in the rail sector, and I’m passionate about helping to create a jigsaw of value using joined-up thinking that enables people to do their thing. In terms of domestic projects, it’s such a pleasure to see a client happy in their finished home, proud of the environment that they have created, and in some cases managed too! It’s always a privilege to be invited back for a glass of wine or to a house party. Seeing people happy in their homes after blood, sweat and tears is a joy.
9. What would be the main piece of advice you would give to women thinking of employing your services on their home renovation?
The main benefit is to have an experienced contract viewpoint early on, and one that is engaged purely to protect your interests. As a seasoned professional, I’ve used all the homeowner contracts and seen building projects with a full spectrum of risk outcomes. I can help you translate the arrangement into user-friendly English, so you understand the deal to which you are signing up, and ask the right questions to clarify muddy issues (and be the your mouthpiece asking the ‘silly’ questions – of which there are none by the way!). There will be some risks along the way, so I can hand-hold during delivery and give you balanced legal and contract support to keep you on the right track to the finish line. In the unfortunate case that dispute resolution assistance is needed, I can advise and act for you, or act as jointly-appointed facilitator or mediator.
10. What do you envisage are the future challenges for home renovations in the UK?
The main immediate challenge is to calm down the fluctuations of the market to restabilise it for homeowners wanting to carry out renovations. In addition, there is an accelerated drive for, and urgency around, sustainable building. Women in particular, I find, are interested in green issues, such as insulation, fossil fuels, and conservation of energy as well as efficient use of energy. The new Building Safety Act 2022 is going to have far-reaching consequences for the building control of multi-occupant buildings, but individual homeowners will have to invest in their own homes in order to improve them. Whilst the cost of living crisis continues, this will be very challenging for some, and everyone’s money is precious, so it’s important to spend money wisely where value will be derived for a long time. Finally, don’t rush, however tempting: set up your renovation project correctly, and you will minimise the trip hazards later on.
Please feel free to contact Sarah Schutte if you would like to discuss any upcoming projects.