designer toolkit | Nov 1, 2023 |
Tired of contractor snafus? 6 ways to button up your project’s construction phase

Good design will only get you so far. The next step: coordinating with a fleet of subcontractors to bring your vision to life on-site. Want to get it right from the start? Here’s a step-by-step guide to nailing a project’s construction phase. 

Collaboration is essential to bring a design plan from SketchUp to reality. Once the conceptual phase is complete, teams of architects, contractors, electricians, tile installers, plumbers, painters, carpenters and more descend upon the site to get the job done. It’s a lot of punch lists to navigate—not to mention personalities. So how can you take care to ensure that a project’s construction phase goes smoothly?

Pick Your Partners

The first step is knowing what makes a good partnership in the first place and setting those expectations as soon as possible. Ashley Gilbreath, a designer with offices in Alabama and Florida, won’t even agree to take on a project until she’s happy with the client’s selection of architect and contractor. “The team is as important to me as who the client is,” says Gilbreath. “Ultimately, the contractor is who you’re going to be working with more closely than the client.”

If a client requests a particular general contractor, Gilbreath has certain conditions for working together. “If the contractor is a one-person show and doesn’t have an office manager and a project manager, they’re going to be the biggest thorn in our side,” she says. “A one-person operation typically cannot handle jobs of the magnitude that
we do. We need someone who can come to the table with a cohesive construction schedule, a list of reliable subs and a very detailed budget.”

Gilbreath learned that lesson the hard way, on projects where clients were determined to use a family member or friend as the contractor. Now the designer either politely declines those projects or raises her fee. “In situations like that, it’s clear that a contractor is going to need extra support and my team is going to pick up slack, so we have to charge more to cover our time,” she says.

Left: A cornflower blue kitchen by Ashley Gilbreath creates a cheerful yet sophisticated gathering place Emily Followill | Right: Ahmad AbouZanat used two tones of glazed tile to create a striking effect in this bathroom at the Kips Bay Decorators Show House Joe Kramm

She’s not alone in recognizing that lacking a team can be a red flag. When considering a new project that has a build team attached, New York– and Austin-based designer Ahmad AbouZanat likes to interview the contractor to assess whether they have the capacity to collaborate effectively. “It’s not that a contractor without employees can’t do the work, but this is a stressful job and it requires a lot of you,” he says. “I ask how many projects they take at once; how many people work for them; and if their subcontractors, like plumbers and electricians, have proper licensing and insurance.”

When bringing on his own build team, AbouZanat searches for contractors who have done projects of a similar scope and addresses budget immediately to save time. He’s also learned to be wary of contractors who can’t give specific answers. “I’ve run into situations where I’ve brought up an issue and the contractor said something like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it work’ but couldn’t tell me how,” says AbouZanat. “And then later there were surprise charges and extra fees that weren’t part of the budget.”

It’s important to be confident in your position on a job site—if a contractor or sub is pushing back on design choices, you have to learn to hold your own, to an extent. “Ultimately, you’re all on the same team working for the same client so you don’t want to push back too hard, but if someone on the build side is telling you, ‘We can’t
do that,’ you can ask questions,” says Los Angeles–based designer Kevin Isbell. “You can say, ‘You can’t do it because it’s physically impossible or because it’s difficult?’ Those are not the same thing. Like, if physics won’t allow what I want to do, I can accept that. But if it’s just a little bit more challenging, that’s not an acceptable answer. But again, we all have the same client and we’re going to figure out the best way to come to a solution.”

Build Bridges

If a client has selected their contractor, Christina Samatas of Glen Ellyn, Illinois–based firm Park & Oak requests a face-to-face meeting or Zoom call to establish a good working relationship. “It’s an opportunity to give them insight into who we are and how we approach the design process, and for them to do the same,” says Samatas. “It gives you a chance to show that you’re a team player. I’ve found that sometimes people have an impression that interior designers just come in and spend all the money. We like to buck that idea from the beginning and make it clear that we’re all on the same team.”

That collaborative spirit is part of what makes a project run well. Isbell does his best to make sure that everyone on the build team knows their own role—and appreciates everyone else’s. “There has to be respect on both sides,” he says. It’s also good to clear up misconceptions about who does what from the start: “Some architects think of designers as interior desecrators and they’ll stomp all over your vision; then you have designers who think that architects and contractors can just wave a magic wand and move a wall,” says Isbell. But building up that mutual respect requires designers to learn a bit about what architects and GCs do. “I’m not saying that a designer should be able to build the house themselves, but you do have to pick up enough to know what’s going on.”

To that end, AbouZanat tries to meet with GCs on-site whenever possible to learn more about the construction process. “In design, we’re often telling tradespeople what we want done, but we have no idea how it actually happens,” he says. “It’s not our job to know all the details, but the more you learn, the more specific you can be with the subs on the next job.” It can also give you insight into how GCs communicate with and manage their own teams.

Those relationships can also take shape before you’ve got a project to collaborate on. When she had just started her firm, Ridgewood, New Jersey–based designer Kerri Pilchik took to calling local contractors to introduce herself and learn about how they worked. “I didn’t necessarily have a job for them, but they were super nice about answering my questions and helping me to understand how we could work together,” she says.

Draw Lines in the Sand

With a talented team ready to make an impression, it’s easy to step on another pro’s toes. Houston designer Letecia Haywood has found that being organized can help delineate everyone’s responsibilities. Her firm’s process is fine-tuned so that the GC or builder’s team receives three files at the beginning of a project: the visual presentation that was shown to the client, an Excel spreadsheet with a detailed finish schedule and any necessary drawings for elements like cabinet elevations. “We try to organize that Excel sheet so that if a GC or their subs have to shop that list, to source the paint or any other material they might need, it’s broken down simply and makes it easy on them,” says Haywood.

Knowing your role as a designer can become more nuanced when there’s an architect on the team as well, creating additional potential for overlap in oversight. Gilbreath has learned to frame the matter clearly: “We consider any of the finishes to be in our court, not the architect’s,” she says, citing countertops, flooring and interior paint colors as prime examples. “Anything else that would fall out if you were to turn the house upside down and shake it is in the designer’s scope; everything else is construction.”

Left: Ochre and brass mingle in a sumptuous living room by Kevin Isbell Annie Schlechter | Right: This traditional airy entryway was completed by Park & Oak Renee DiSanto

It’s also pivotal to consult with the architect about elements like the electrical plan or ceiling heights, as those details can impact lighting elements, which can in turn impact the furniture plan. If you’re planning to have a floor lamp in one part of the room and then find out there aren’t any nearby outlets, that’s an issue.

Navigating differences in aesthetic preferences with a builder or architect and the design team can be trickier to overcome. Samatas says that she’s run into situations working with a builder who isn’t used to installing detailed millwork. “It can be a challenge when you’re shooting for a level of design that’s outside of someone’s typical scope,” she says. “But on the flip side, when you find architects and builders whose creativity aligns with your own —where you don’t feel like you’re stepping on their toes all the time—that’s when this job feels really fun and collaborative.”

Leave a Paper Trail

The more documentation that designers can provide their build team, the better chance that the vision will come to life accurately and on schedule. “The biggest complaint about designers that I hear from contractors is they don’t have the information they need when they need it,” says Isbell. “Getting them the paint and lighting schedules into their possession in a timely manner so that they can do their job and keep moving forward makes all the difference.”

Because she started her career at a design-build firm, Haywood got an inside look at what a difference proper documentation can make on a job site. “We try to be as concise as we can and give pictures of exactly what we want, like how the tile should be laid, wherever possible,” says Haywood.

There’s an added upside to handing off all of that paperwork from the start. If there’s an issue down the road, like the wrong paint color on a wall or tile laid incorrectly, having documentation can prevent a lot of accusatory conversations. “If you’re able to say, ‘That’s not what we sent you,’ and back that up easily, it gives you a lot of accountability with the client,” says Haywood. “If there’s an issue, we can go back to our documentation to see when we emailed the information and who was copied on the email, just to make sure that we sent the correct information—because we make mistakes too. We can verify that what we sent was correct before we go to the builder to say, ‘We sent this information on this date, and it’s not done correctly. We’d like it fixed.’” If you’re working with reputable people, Haywood says they’ll fix the issue nine times out of ten with no problems. Even so, having a record of your request helps things move along amicably.

In addition to documentation, the way you keep in contact with the build team throughout the project matters. While most contractors and subs tend to prefer texting for speed and convenience, Haywood has learned the importance of following up any texts with an email recap so that there’s an easily traceable (and forwardable) line of communication. Pilchik has a similar policy, gently redirecting texts from the build team back to email. “It’s always best to have a trail of what’s been discussed, and email threads are easier to confine to business hours,” says Pilchik, adding that finding a GC who’s a top-notch communicator can be a challenge. “If you find one who is, hold on to them!”

Get It Right On-Site

How often you actually meet with your build team could depend on a number of factors. During the height of the pandemic, Samatas’s firm completed out-of-state projects that the team never even stepped foot in. “That required a lot of FaceTime calls and being really clear about exactly what we needed to see when,” she says. On a more typical project, Samatas and her partner, Renee DiSanto, plan for three to four site visits throughout the construction phase, which is outlined in their initial design proposal; ultimately, they allow the client to dictate how many site visits they should be present for, and bill for travel expenses separately.

The number of site visits may depend on how you bill. In addition to a design fee, Isbell charges a construction management fee to oversee the project during this phase, then bills for his travel expenses as they are incurred. He tries to factor in weekly or biweekly meetings with the project’s team during a build out to catch any issues as they’re happening instead of after the fact. The cadence of his visits depends on the type of work being done, with ground-up construction projects requiring more visits than remodels or decorating projects. “I don’t need to be there when they’re framing the house, but once it actually looks like a house, I’m going in,” he says.

Haywood, who bills hourly, including for project management, says that her team is happy to do multiple walkthroughs with subs and GCs to help her designs come together correctly. “The more that we address in real time, the fewer problems there will be on the backside,” she says.

Play the Long Game

Clients always want to know how long a job will take—often, they’re coming to the table with a timeline they hope you can hit. But the supply chain issues of the past few years coupled with inflation and worker shortages have made the likelihood of finishing a project on time a game of chance. These days, Isbell tells the client to allow for up to a 90-day delay from the expected finish—both to recognize the industry’s reality and to mark the switch from an average delay to one that might hurt his business. “There are almost always delays, so we allow for some cushion, but you do need to put a stopgap in your contract that allows for contingencies,” he says. “If a project is a few months over, that’s one thing; but if a one-year project is becoming a two-year project, you need to have the means to renegotiate.”

Gilbreath, who charges a flat fee, has a line in her contract that allows her firm to bill monthly if a project goes over the anticipated finish date, particularly if delays are caused by a client’s preferred contractor. “We have never used that clause, but it is in there to hold everybody accountable,” she says. “If I told another potential client, ‘I’m sorry, you have to wait a year and a half to sign up with me until another project is finished,’ and then that project actually takes an extra year—we would not be making any additional money for that whole year. You would be stopping our cash flow and putting off other projects, all because you hired a contractor who couldn’t get the job done. It’s an unpleasant situation to think about, but in that case, the client would become liable for a monthly bill.”

Haywood uses her monthly invoices as an easy way to show clients to tell how much progress is being made on a project. “If we’ve slowed down, the client can see that I’m not billing them as much as I was previously, and I like to use that as an opportunity to check in and keep those lines of communication open,” she says. “I find that billing hourly makes a situation less confrontational when something does happen to be going on longer than expected.”

Lasting Effect

Developoing a skilled and effective team of contractors, architects and subcontractors to partner with is a crucial part of creating a firm that has staying power—a reputation for collaboration and clear communication will always benefit your business, no matter how big or small the firm is. It can also make your work more rewarding. “When you get a team of people who have their values in alignment, it makes the whole process so much more fun,” says Samatas. “It creates a working environment that’s positive, which in turn creates a better outcome for the client. That’s what we all want, in the end.”

This article originally appeared in Fall 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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