industry insider | Feb 6, 2019 |
The new gatekeepers: How to work with owner’s reps
One evening last month, a group of interior designers gathered in the offices of a prominent Manhattan firm to talk shop. The conversation was frank and open, ranging from critiques of recent products to gossip about a popular figure ensnared in a client lawsuit. Toward the end of the meeting, one question triggered a shared murmur of weary recognition: Had anyone else been working with owner’s reps a lot more recently?

It’s a reaction many designers can relate to. Though most we spoke to for this article had positive experiences, the subject was still slightly charged, and for good reason: A rep is an interloper in the all-important client-designer relationship, and another variable to adjust for in the delicate calculations that make up a successful project. A good rapport with a rep can make things run smoothly and efficiently. A bad one can get a designer kicked off the job.

Reps are a sensitive issue. They’re also a slippery one. Even the term “owner’s rep” is a little vague, as the phrase can refer to anything from a team of lawyers and engineers supervising a massive construction project to a client’s personal assistant working off a notepad. (Unsurprisingly, the more unprofessional reps tend to drag down the perception of the profession.) In the simplest terms, an owner’s rep is an agent who supervises a project on behalf of the client.

Business of Home talked to designers about their experiences with owner’s reps, the story behind their spike in popularity, the pros and cons of their involvement with a project and how to cultivate positive working relationships with these increasingly common intermediaries.

Rise of the Rep
There is no professional organization for residential owner’s reps, and the industry is resistant to data collection. Still, everyone we spoke with agreed: Owner’s reps are an increasingly familiar sight in meetings and on job sites. “We’ve been working with owner’s reps for 10 or 15 years now,” New York–based interior designer Carl D’Aquino told BOH. “But it’s much more common now.” The reasons for the ascendance of the rep vary, depending on who you ask.

Some attribute the change to an increase in the mobility of the affluent, and the booming of an international clientele for American real estate, especially in New York. For clients who aren’t present to supervise progress, an owner’s rep serves as eyes and ears on the ground. “We have clients who are based in Australia,” says D’Aquino. “And we’re only able to meet with them twice a year, so the owner’s rep is attending construction meetings on their behalf.”

The new gatekeepers: How to work with owner’s repsA lot of people just dont have the bandwidth to deal
with everything that comes up on a project. I
m a filter.
—Armandi Muniz, owner
s representative

Even if clients are local, some have come to rely on a rep purely for time management reasons. “A lot of people just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with everything that comes up on a project,” says Armandi Muniz, a Los Angeles–based owner’s representative. Muniz is somewhat unique in the world of owner’s reps—he works for only one client at a time, overseeing both new construction projects and maintaining existing estates (many firms handle only one side of the equation). “I’m a filter. A lot of the reason clients are able to be successful is because they have people filtering things out so they can make important decisions.”

There’s also a growing awareness of the complexity of high-cost renovations. “Historically, clients would have relied on an architect and a contractor to supervise, but that's changing,” says Seamus Henchy, president of Seamus Henchy Associates, a project management firm. The son of a builder, Henchy grew up in the industry, working as an engineer and contractor before starting his company in the mid-1980s. His firm specializes in large-scale projects, often representing nonprofits on museum or religious spaces, with occasional diversions into high-end residential work. “More clients are realizing the benefits of having someone who isn’t biased, who has a remove from the design side that allows them to be objective.”

Whether it’s one of these factors or a confluence, many designers agree that owner’s reps aren’t merely a trend, but are here to stay.

The New Gatekeepers
Owner’s reps have power. Often, they’re first to the project, brought in before the architect, designer or contractor. When deadlines or budgets are exceeded, the client leans on the rep. The rep, in turn, leans on the design team. Depending on the arrangement, reps can sometimes can hire and fire team members directly. At the very least, they can steer a client one direction or another—a few sources related instances in which an owner’s rep helped lead a problematic architect or designer to the door.

The new gatekeepers: How to work with owner’s repsWeve gotten clients through an owners rep. And usually when an owners representative is involved,
the project is significant.
—Carl D

However, just as reps can facilitate an exit, they can also serve as a designer’s best reference. “We’ve gotten clients through an owner’s rep,” says D’Aquino. “And usually if an owner’s representative is on board, the project is significant.” The love can go both ways: Henchy reported that his firm had been brought onto projects by designers with whom they worked particularly well.

Reps, like clients, are part of a network, and word—good or bad—gets around. “It’s a small group of people who do this,” says Muniz. “You get to know everyone pretty well.”

When It Works
Asked whether she works with owner’s reps on all her projects, New York–based interior designed Bella Mancini gave an enthusiastic answer: “I wish!” Mancini has a client with multiple homes, and works closely with a rep on projects near and far. “When we were working on a project in Texas, it was very helpful; [the rep] kept the project together.”

Indeed, when the relationship is working, most designers report that the project runs faster and smoother. “They keeps things moving and they are very aware of the deadlines,” says D’Aquino. “And reps are often more immediately available to you for a quick give-and-take. They understand the trigger points and can help a client make a decision.”

Many sources we spoke with referred to a kind of “good cop/bad cop” dynamic in which a designer will rely on a rep to help clients make decisions. Because clients usually implicitly trust reps, especially on budget issues, designers can offload some of the stressful nudging that comes with client management. Designers can also lean on a rep to help manage the other players on a job site—after all, it’s the rep’s job to keep contractors and architects on schedule too.

On larger jobs, many see an owner’s representative as a necessity. “We’ve done projects for institutions and both had owner’s reps,” says Jerry Caldari, principal at architecture firm Bromley Caldari. “They added significant value for the owner because they were able to sit at the table, understand what was going on in a complex process, and communicate the issues clearly [to the client].”

When It Doesn’t Work
There are two primary concerns that most designers have about owner’s reps. The first is simple: budget. The owner’s rep’s first priority is to watch out for the client’s best interest, which often translates to watching out for the client’s money. Few would argue with that principle in theory. However, some reps develop a reputation for being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

“We’ve had good experiences with good reps,” says Caldari. “But we’ve also worked with those who are only trying to prove how much money they’re saving the client. It can end up saving money [short-term], but costing the client down the road.”

Another point of friction is more ephemeral, but no less important. Many designers come to the profession because they relish the direct relationship with a client. With a rep in the picture, conversations can turn into games of telephone, where the message gets warped in both directions. Some designers lament the potential loss of a close bond with clients.

The new gatekeepers: How to work with owner’s repsIf there’s somebody taking on that role between
the client and the designer, in my eyes it doesn’t quite work.
—Aamir Khandwala

“I feel it’s important for interior designers to work directly with clients, as it’s so personal,” says Aamir Khandwala, a New York–based interior designer. “It’s a relationship built on trust, honesty and communication. If there’s somebody taking on that role between the client and the designer, in my eyes it doesn’t quite work.”

Experienced owner’s representatives are familiar with this concern, and address it by trying to steer clear of aesthetic conversations. “Our goal is not to be a second designer,” said Henchy. “We believe strongly that everybody on the team has a critical role to play—we want to let everybody do what they do really well and let us manage the process.”

What to Know
For designers new to working with reps, the prospect may present a disorienting and stressful new set of variables. And while it’s true that reps often bring a scrutinizing eye to projects, our conversations with designers and reps indicate that it all comes down to chemistry. In that respect, working with a rep isn’t so different than working with a client.

“Early chemistry is so important,” says Henchy. “Ideally we’re first at the table with our clients, and help assemble the team. The worst is coming onto a team that doesn’t work and trying to make it work.” Muniz echoes the sentiment: “If the initial meeting isn’t there, the project is doomed.” Many designers would say similar things about a first meeting with a client. Though reps may push harder on budgets and timelines, their basic goal shouldn’t be that much different than the designer’s. “We’re always trying to give the client the project they desire, and make sure their vision doesn’t get second place,” says Henchy.

And for those feeling anxious that an owner’s rep will ruin a relationship with a client, remember that reps want things to work out. “The relationship goes both ways,” says Muniz. “Clients want to work with a specific designer, and it’s on me to make that relationship happen. I [just] have to make sure no one is wasting the client’s money.”

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