The Design Process: The Contractor’s Edition

I realized today that I have pages of information for my clients about the design process, moving them through each phase. While this information is important for contractors to understand as well, it is not necessarily written in a manner that is relevant, and I haven’t fully involved the contractor in the design process. Today, this is changing. If you are reading this, I have worked with you or have interest in working with you, and I want to make sure we are on the same page and have developed a wonderful way of working together. So, let’s talk process!

It is important that we work as a team. Most of you know that my business is five years young, and I was no project manager when I left the corporate world to do independent work. I was one of the peons, albeit head of the peons! To this point, I have worked very solo and feel like the contractor comes in at the end to put it all together. Let’s make this process one that makes your job easier in the end, and teaches me more and more about how to make your job easier!

The approach we have with clients is a lot to take in and linked below, but worth a good skim. The bullets are specific to how we can work together best:

1. Programming: This phase is used to gather information and ensure that we are understanding your needs and desires. 

  • This is the point where I meet with the client for the first time. They may not have decided on me yet, and may or may not already have a contractor selected.

  • If they have not selected their contractor and ask me for a referral, I provide three options based on their project type and personality. I have left it up to them to interview the contractors.

  • In an ideal world, I would like the chosen contractor to be involved in this initial walkthrough. This way, we can all walk through the space together, brainstorm a little and understand any challenge. Recently, a client invited the three suggested contractors to come in for 30 minutes each, one after the other, and I stayed for each. I felt this was a wonderful approach and would love to hear your feedback!

  • Many times client want ballpark numbers (not line-item estimates, just a realistic range to consider) at this meeting. I am going to be perfectly honest in that I am still learning how to give these ballparks. I have had hundreds of projects that I designed, but never saw the finished cost, so I feel that it is hard for me to give realistic numbers and I rely on you for this. I can rock a kitchen or bathroom budget range- others are a bit tougher for me.

2. Schematic Design: This is the idea creation phase. Much like a witer begins with the rough draft, this is our first rough draft of the project design.

  • Again, I love for the chosen contractor to be as involved as possible, so we don’t hit road bumps later on. If the contractor is locked in and we are confident about who will be doing the work, I would love to meet with the selected contractor in my office at this point to review the drawings together for any buildability issues and to let me know if ideas will be so complex that they blow the budget out of the water.

  • As a side note, the level of involvement (meeting at each phase) may be something you would want to include in your contract with the client- so that time is set aside to include these meetings and so that your time is billed for while you meet with me to ensure the project runs smoothly. I would never expect anyone to spend their time and energy for a project that hasn’t been locked in or that they are not billing for- of course, it’s your call!

3. Design Development: This phase is the clean up phase. We discuss needed changes, and complete the design. Back to my writing analogy, we have now edited and revised... but we aren't finished yet!

  • Like the Schematic Phase, I would love to meet before submitting the drawings to the client. The design has developed more by this point and we should again review buildability, answer any questions you may have about what in the world I was thinking, and keep the budget on track.

  • At this point, we should start looking at actual pricing and determine whether any problems are predicted that will push it out of the budget. Is there room for surprises? If not, what can I do from a design perspective to bring it down? Let’s finish this with a thrilled client who feels confident that we worked as a team to come in on time and on budget!

4. Construction Documents: During this phase, we add all the details, notes and references needed for construction. In a research paper, this would be where the title page, index, and glossary are created and all notes and writing checked for accuracy.

  • I would like to meet with both you and the owner at this point to review the final drawings, answer questions, review specifications, and make sure we are good to move forward.

  • During this meeting, let’s plan a good day and time to meet at the job site on a bi-weekly basis at a minimum. I cannot force clients to keep me on their projects during CA (the next phase), but I highly recommend it just so I can be there when something comes up and make those last-minute design decisions… but more on that in a minute.

5. Construction Administration: This final phase is also referred to as site observation. It is easy to misinterpret plans (have you ever tried to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture? Imagine those insructions being 10 times more complicated and open to interpretation!) Involving the designer for routine visits and discussion ensures that the design vision is kept intact.

  • I now waive liability for design if client's do not include this phase. There are just too many changes that can happen on site that I cannot be responsible for.

  • It is very important (and I include this on my drawings) that I receive shop drawings for review and that samples are submitted for review by me and the client before installation happens.

  • I take measurements for design purposes, but measurements should always be verified for ordering and for installation.

  • During this phase, I am available to answer questions, and come to the job site and review any issues that arise.

  • I also set aside time for a one-hour visit on a biweekly (minimum) basis. During these visits, I have the final CD set with me, and will measure, note any changes and redline the drawings to match exactly what is being built. I then update the drawings to reflect this. I may also take photographs for reference and leave blue-tape notes.

  • Note that the drawings we provide are as follows:

    • Floor plans (to include floor finish plans when needed, power plans, etc.)

    • Building and Wall Sections

    • Interior Elevations

    • Window, Door, Millwork, and Finish Schedules (with a link in the schedule to the manufacturer specs)- finish schedules will include the nitty gritty down to grout, switchplate covers, switch types, etc.

    • Detail drawings as-needed (I am hoping this process will help me to think this out further and provide better details for you!)

    • Reflected Ceiling Plans (with lighting- we typically do not dimension lighting for renovations because the joists need to make the final determination. We would like to be on-site to clarify locations)

A couple notes:

  • I do not pull permits. My hourly rate is honestly just too high for my clients to pay for me to drive up to what, Issaquah? Sammamish? to stand in line for hours. The downfall is that this means I miss out on this process. I would love to be as included as possible if you are the one pulling permits. Let me know what was missing on my drawings and how they could better meet your needs if you are pulling the permits. I want my final drawings to make your job easier!

  • I do not hire subs. I do have vendors and cabinet shops that I prefer, and may note this on the specifications if it is vital to the design. I have discovered that while many contractors have their cabinet shop they prefer to work with, these shops do not necessarily meet the design needs we have. We prefer local custom shops that are able to supply missing pieces and make corrections immediately.

  • I am not your boss, and I totally know that. Clients often think that the CA phase is where we tell you what to do. Not gonna happen. I will never, ever tell you how to do your job. I will never do that thing designers are known for where they draw something ridiculous and then when you say “how do I build that?” respond with “I don’t know, that’s your job”… not cool. I may honestly say “wow, I’m not sure! Let’s figure it out together.” or look at alternative solutions.

  • Many clients consult with me instead of hiring me for full services. These clients may have drawings from me- unless we have done full services, they will all be watermarked. You are still welcome to use these drawings and develop from them, but they are not complete designs and it is likely the client does not want you contacting me for answers (it’s likely that I don’t have them because we didn’t get that involved!). Feel free to encourage them to really develop the design, but those ones are kinda out of my hands unfortunately.

  • Interior Designers are Interior Architects. I am adding this because I have heard a lot from contractors lately about what architects do vs. what interior designers do. We are very much the same, just looking at it from a different starting point. The architect focuses more on the shell where we focus more on the interior. My knowledge on a tile’s slip rating coefficient required for a residential bathroom cannot typically be found in an architect just like how my husband’s knowledge of flashing and those wall details cannot typically be found in an interior designer. My husband often draws or assists with the building and wall sections and I do the rest.

What did I forget? Do you have any questions? Constructive criticism? Thanks!!