Updated: Dec 17, 2018
Several months ago a prospective client reached out to our firm looking for information about working with us for their whole house remodeling project. The project involved moving walls to create a 4th bedroom and an additional bathroom, a whole new kitchen layout, and creating a more open space overall. Pretty much every room was to be touched, either with a new layout or just new materials and finishes.
Of course we were happy to meet with the client to see the space firsthand at an in-home consultation and start the process of discussing a concept, and ideas for improving their home. I discussed in detail how the process works and what our role would be in the project, and how we work with a support team to bring the project to fruition; covering every single phase through to furniture installation and styling. Because this is a working meeting for us, we do charge a consultation fee for that time. A few days later I heard back from the client, and they decided to cancel our meeting because, in her words "I found a contractor to help me with my remodeling project". My guess is that the client found a General Contractor (GC) who was willing to meet with them in their home at no charge to see the space in order to create an estimate.
Now this has been a post that I have been meaning to write for a long time. I have seen it happen not just to me, but other designers where a client will either choose to project manage their own remodel, or hire a GC thinking that's all they need. Consumers are generally not informed about the roles of a GC versus an architect vs an interior designer, and why some remodeling projects may need all three. It was time for me to take to the blog to explain these differences, and which one you should choose for your project
Let me first explain what the different roles are. But before I do, keep in mind that some firms are setup with all disciplines to provide a turn-key approach to their clients' needs. It is not very common to find a firm with architects, interior designers, general contractors and subcontractors on staff, but they do exist. What you will typically find is each professional running their own firm and only focused on their role in a remodeling project.
The general contractor's (GC) role
GC's are do-ers. Their job is to take the plans that you have for your home and execute the plans according to the exact specifications. They are responsible for managing the sub-contractors like electricians, plumbers, sheetrock installer etc, pull permits, calculate how much materials are needed and place orders for materials to get the job done. They are also responsible for creating the remodeling budget. GC's typically do not get involved in any of the design aspects of your remodeling project. They are usually not able to help you with layouts, materials selection. They simply work from your plans. Some GC's do have in house designers and architects, or have relationships with these professionals that they will bring in on their remodeling projects, but usually they do not take on the additional risks involved with the design of your project. GC's typically will meet with the client at no charge for the initial meeting. This is because they are only there to see the space, listen to the client's needs, take measurements and then provide an estimate. They typically do not brainstorm ideas, provide any real direction, discuss concepts etc. They expect that you already know what you want and will have plans ready for them.
The sub-contractor's (subs) role
I am including this because I know that some homeowners take on the task of managing their own project and act as the GC. That is a lot of work for a homeowner to take on. Typically subs are hired by the GC to carry out specific tasks for the project. For example the tile-setter's only job is to install tile work. As you can guess, there are tons of different subs that touch your project before it's finished. Someone has to take the lead in managing them, coordinating schedules, making sure they have the plans they need, the materials they need and keep them on task in order to move the project along in a timely manner. Subs usually are independent, but sometimes GC's will have in house subs. Independent subs will have some loyalty to a GC because they know to expect regular jobs from them, but perhaps will not have the same loyalty for a regular homeowner acting as a GC. A sub will also meet with the client at no charge, and will only focus on their particular specialty. They don't look at the big picture necessarily. Like the GC, they are there to listen to what you want and provide you with an estimate
The architect's role (Also a building designer)
The architect's role is very important if you are doing any remodeling that involves structural changes, reworking the space, or adding on to the space. Their job is to take your existing space and create a new design of the structure that will address your functional needs. They draw all the plans with your needs in mind, stamp the plans and these are the plans that the GC will build from. Architect's usually will include a furniture layout for each space showing traffic patterns, focal points etc but it is typically very general and not always with the client's lifestyle in mind. This is simply because they don't typically procure the furnishings and don't always get very detailed with placement of ceiling light fixtures, electrical outlets to address client's existing pieces and new pieces that they will bring in after the remodeling stage. Some architects also provide interior design services, or have relationships with interior designers and include the interior detailing phase, but typically they don't
Some architects or building designers will charge for that initial meeting and some won't. Architects typically will discuss structural and layout changes at the initial meeting, and maybe even some minor review of your existing plans, if any
The interior designer's role
The interior designer's role is to come up with the ideas and concepts based on the client's needs and wants. They help clients see way beyond what they could imagine for themselves. You don't even have to know what you want or how to get what you want before you call an interior designer in; we help you figure that out. Interior designers introduce clients to products and materials that will create a unique and custom look for their home. Interior designers are then able to draw detailed plans including millwork, tile layouts, and present them using technology like 3D renderings. They choose materials, finishes and color palettes. Interior designers are more of a one-stop shop, because we conceptualize the ideas, create plans and often manage the project through the construction stage, and even the interior decorating stage, where we order all the furnishings and install them for a complete finished look. Some interior designers choose not to manage the construction phase, except oversee the plans they created to ensure construction is being carried out according to the plans. Most will have a support team that consists of a GC, architect (to stamp drawings), and subs.
Most interior designers will charge for that initial meeting, since we are getting to work immediately with ideas and concepts
So who should you call first when you are considering a remodeling project?
Well, this will sound biased because I am an interior designer, but you should definitely call in an interior designer first. Here's why?
1- We will help you decide if the ideas and vision you have for your space are viable based on the space you have to work with
2- We help you decide if the improvements you want to make will bring you the ROI you expect
3- We help you with fresh new ideas, products, materials that you possibly would never have known about
4-We will help you to decide if the scope of work you would like to take on is in line with the budget that you have
4- We will inform you of all the highs and lows of a remodeling project
5- We keep your overall needs and lifestyle in mind down to the minute details of your life to make sure the space functions for you
6- We understand how to interpret your style in your home, and steer you away from the trends which is typically what will be mass-produced and readily available on the market
7- We will introduce you to our vast network of trades and resources to make your project the best it can be
8- We stay involved throughout the process and even oversee the construction phase
So if this is as straight-forward as I have explained it, why are consumers so confused, and why do they just resort to hiring a GC or managing the project themselves?
Well, it boils down to costs. Obviously the more professionals you bring in the more you are paying in service fees and the less that goes toward your actual project. This is why you will find that some homeowners will force professionals to do the work of other professionals to save money. I have heard from many subs and GC's that their clients ask them design questions on a regular basis, or expect them to choose the countertop or cabinetry or whatever, instead of calling in an interior designer. They will also ask the GC to give them their opinion on whether they should move a wall or not. Yikes! While some GC's are experienced enough to help with some of these questions, it is not their area of expertise, and they certainly don't want to take on the risk. They have so much to do as it is and usually don't have time to do someone else's job.
However, as the client you need to know what you have to spend on your project, and how best to use that money for the outcome you desire. For example, if you have $20,000 to remodel a bathroom, you may not have room to hire an architect, and you probably won't need to. You absolutely need a GC to get the work done, but I would suggest calling in an interior designer first. An interior designer will charge anywhere from 8-15% for their design fee typically or some charge an hourly fee, so that means at least $3000 in fees gone from your budget. Some interior designers have a minimum fee requirement regardless of the size of the project, usually around $3000-5000 or even more. But, you may not need the interior designer to fully manage the project for you. You may have them create the drawings and select materials and you and your GC can take it from there. In our firm we also include a couple of site visits to review our drawings and layouts with the GC and his subs. On a $20,000 bathroom project, our fee would be somewhere around $3500 - $4500 if we are only creating plans, selecting materials and making slab yard and site visits
Skimping on the important parts of the project can actually end up costing you in the end. Regardless of who you decide to hire, you absolutely need to have detailed plans on paper. Whomever you decide to bring in, needs to be able to explain these plans to you and how they solve whatever challenges you are having with the current space. Just saying something verbally is first of all not binding legally, it is always open to individual interpretation and people forget things. When it is properly documented and everyone signs off on it, that leaves little room for errors. And even when an error happens, it will clearly define who is liable. It is easier to back-track when the error occurred. I can't tell you how many horror stories I have heard about installations that go awry.
Also as a homeowner keep in mind that GC's are notorious for installing things the way they have always done it, and anything unique or outside of the norm can throw them off. When an interior designer is involved, our drawings will clearing state what we want, with detailed dimensions and elevations. We often will also meet with the GC on the day that item is being installed because we know that we are asking for something unusual
The idea of a remodel is already very overwhelming for a client, and there are a lot of decisions to be made quickly. Every decision impacts the next and delays can happen if the process is not carefully managed. We work with your GC to ensure that materials and products are being ordered on time. Again, we look at the big picture, down to the furnishings that we will be installing later. Most GC's don't handle that. They don't know that you inherited your grandma's china cabinet that you would like to add to the dining room and therefore the chandelier should not be centered in the room, but instead over the table. They don't know that you need a floor plug in the living room by your reading chair. They don't know that you love to cook and would like to be able to reach all your spices easily. All the little minute lifestyle details that are hot buttons for you, are accounted for by an interior designer, and typically your GC is not set up to handle that. That's not to say they don't care about the final outcome - they do, but it is not what they do.
Regardless of what your remodeling budget, you cannot go wrong with some good advice from an interior designer. Our firm is even able to meet with you for a 2 hour consultation to help you explore the possibilities, give you ideas, provide guidance and help you plan your project. That may be all you will need to handle your project with a GC of your choosing, but this will at least help you decide if this is a task that you are ready to undertake. We are not shy about educating clients on the pitfalls and some of the negative things that we have seen. Not to scare them, but to prepare them so they won't be shocked later. An educated decision is the best decision. While a $10,000 budget won't go very far with an interior designer managing things for you, that consultation may help you refocus and possibly decide to wait a bit longer if you don't have the time, or up for the challenge of a remodel. $447 (what we charge currently for a consultation), is really nothing in the grand scheme of things. It is an investment in expertise and making the right decision now.
Hopefully this article has opened your eyes to understanding the roles of the different professionals you may need for your next remodeling project. You may need all of them, and you certainly need an interior designer. If anything, my hope is that it will help you to ask the right questions of any professional that you bring into your home.