Big Firm/Little Firm?
Waldron Designs is a small firm. Not only are we small, we are young in the realm of design firms. For a while I felt a bit down about this, as though I was not providing my clients with the kind of service they could get from a larger firm. I was right… but I was not looking at the perks my clients get that they do not receive from a large firm. For some, a large firm is ideal where in other situations, small is best. Read on to hear the pros and cons of each in full disclosure and honesty:
Big firms have a lot of people, which means a lot of collaboration and specialty niches contributing their detailed input. Meetings are held to review your project, and multiple sets of eyes review your drawings to fine-tune them to perfection.
CONS: That big teamwork means that the end user is paying for all 5 team members simultaneously to hunker down and brainstorm on the project. Maybe they spend 2 hours reviewing and discussing on any given day and are billed out at $130/hour. That’s $1,300 for two hours of work. Ouch!
I came from a “big firm”. At our firm, we had the guy who was super talented at building models (the kind you can hold and look into) and hand drawing lovely sketches. We had a codes guy who made sure everything met current building code (they change all the time!!). We had a spec-writer who made sure that a booklet was provided to the contractors including detailed product requirements, down to the glue that holds the cabinets together. We had HVAC, Lighting, and Kitchen consultants that we worked with regularly.
CONS: The connections are great, but we don’t always need a specialized lighting designer (it’s definitely a perk and I have one I use myself!). Gorgeous hand renderings are lovely, but they take time to develop and are frameable works of art. They are billed as such!
A larger firm may offer design-build, so that you have a one-stop shop. The team comes out to your home and reviews potential issues ahead of time from all angles with the designer perspective, contractor perspective, and possibly even consultants. They may submit your drawings to the permit office ensuring that everything is done cohesively under one roof. Fabulous! Even the bidding and work with the contractors, while the owner hires the contractor, there is a lot of in-house work in a larger firm.
CONS: That permitting services is also so handy and helpful and they take so much off your plate, but it also comes at a cost. Many years ago, I worked in an architecture ofice and one of my main jobs was to take the drawings down to the permit office and stand there for HOURS waiting, answering a question here and there, and waiting more just to be told to bring them back to the office for such-and-such change/correction and return the next day. I have yet to meet a client who wants to pay $150/hour for me to drive up to the permitting office (that’s about 2 hours right away), and then spend several hours waiting…
Large firms may have interns that are either unpaid or billed at a lower rate to run the errands, keep the sample library clean, meet with product reps and inform the team, and do some “CAD Monkey” work. Low cost to you, but a great learning environment for the intern and development opportunity for the firm.
CONS: While they can sound like a money saver, interns add to overhead. Even unpaid interns mean valuable employee time is spent training. Materials must be provided and a work environment. I had interns for a time and I can vouch that it ate up at least 50% of my time. It was a wonderful learning experience, and I value them greatly, but it is not a cost saver.
Standards & experience
This absolutely depends on the firm, but most larger firms will have the required insurance, their staff are formally trained and tested, and they have standards for drafting, providing specifications, etc. Now, many small firms have this as well, but it’s much fewer and far between. Along the lines of specialties and consultants, with a variety of team members comes a variety of experience. A larger firm generally has a varied knowledge base and has done a project like yours in one way or another. A small firm may be learning as they go.
CONS: Again, this boils down to cost. An interior designer who has passed the NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) exams is going to bill out at a higher rate, as will the AIA architects who have taken and passed their exams. The drafting standards I can find no con with- that’s just a bonus all around!
When working with a smaller firm, you are almost guaranteed to have the same person managing your project from start to finish… because there is no one else! Your project will be known and loved intimately by the firm’s owner and they take great investment in your happiness simply because they can’t just count on the 500 other projects they have to get them through. It’s all you.
CONS: Collaboration is everything in artistic professions. We glean off each other’s insight and ideas. We may not always agree, but that collaboration is what gets us thinking outside the box.
First, don’t let me give the wrong impression. Design is not, nor should it ever be, cheap. Any time a designer is hired, they are aiming for a luxe experience. However, the lower overhead costs result in lower fees.
CONS: This may mean that the owner may have to do more of the legwork. Most smaller firms are design only- no permit pulling, no installation services beyond furnishings. The contractor will need to be hired independently, and the designer can take no liability for their quality of work. Not only that, if it is a contractor the designer has never worked with- the relationship may go sour and it is your project that pays the price.
The cost also may be significantly lower because the designer is not properly trained. Do they have a formal education in design? It is absolutely more than color picking and a ‘good eye’. Is the designer insured?*
The Designer May Have a Bigger Investment in You
All design firms care about their work and their clients (we hope). A smaller firm relies more heavily on the feedback from their clients. Firm owners will go home and cry over projects (Trust me, I can vouch for this personally) if we even get a hint that the owners are less than thrilled. Almost every one of us has imposter syndrome at some point. You, as our clients, are everything.
CONS: Sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it? We are eager to please, but those of us who have been in the industry long enough know that we can’t please everyone and most are able to identify red flags and filter out potential problems early on. That said, if we do sense unhappiness, we may hide or feel like ‘giving up’. The motivation spark can burn bright and fizzle out just as fast.
Smaller design firms have the capability to do your project your way. Want to work in phases? No problem! Need to work on a small space? Okay! Looking for some consulting as you manage your DIY project? We can do that! Of course, this depends on availability. Right now, Waldron Designs is experiencing thet typical business 5-year-growing-pains and this means that the sudden influx of work has put us in a place where we aren’t able to hire, but we are having to pass on smaller projects and consulting opportunities. The good news is that we have referrals to other designers locally that we can provide!
So, how do you know if a big firm is better for your project or a smaller firm? Look at your budget. A smaller firm will likely run about 15% of your overall project budget cost. A larger firm is going to be more in the 25-30% range based on my experience, and they are unlikely to take on smaller projects, such as single rooms renovations, color consultations, or simple advising. It comes down to how extensive a service is needed and the budget. When in doubt, interview both! Pay attention to what each provide and ask friends and family for referrals.
*Rachel Waldron has four years formal training in interior design and received a BA in interior design from an accredited college. She is currently testing for the NCIDQ, while not required in Washington State, it is a measure of proficiency. Rachel also holds an MBA. Sean Waldron is a registered architect and a current member of AIA with a Masters in Architecture.