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International Interior Design Association

Busting the Great Construction Myth

By Michelle Bowles
Illustration By Yann Legendre

As an interior designer, you’ve likely heard of or experienced firsthand construction projects turned turf battles. On occasion, relationships between interior designers and general contractors can become plagued with costly change orders and destructive communication breakdowns. Those general contractors and construction professionals just don’t get it, right?

Not so, say those in the construction field. It’s a misunderstanding on both sides. In fact, many have worked to educate designers and enhance the overall experience for them. It’s more than possible for interior designers and general contractors to work together seamlessly, effectively and efficiently. It’s simply a matter of solid communication, viewing the project from a holistic perspective, and respecting one another’s differences and unique skill sets.

 

The Interior Design Perspective

Effective working relationships between interior designers and general contractors are vital to successful — and economical — projects. Yet, at times, interior designers say construction professionals fail to understand the designer’s role and point of view.

During the beginning stages of a recent project in which interior designer Jeryl Mitsch was involved, the project’s general contractor did something Mitsch had never before encountered. He gathered the entire team—everyone from the interior design team and the architect to the landscape architect and the electrical engineer—and asked a simple but direct question: What’s the worst thing that has happened to you when working with a general contractor?

“Everyone had a different story to tell, but all the different perspectives helped to make the project go so smoothly,” says Mitsch, owner and President of Indianapolis-based Mitsch Design, Inc. “It was a wonderful experience. The general contractor really pulled the entire team together.”

Mitsch told the general contractor that, often, she would specify materials for a project early in the process, only to find the general contractor would fail to order the materials in a timely fashion. When a material wasn’t available in the timeframe it was needed, Mitsch would have to re-specify. “The general contractor of this project made sure the materials I specified were ordered early, and he warehoused them,” she says. “That was a first. I wasn’t called in at the last minute to re-specify.”

In the end, it was the client who benefited from fewer change orders thanks to the well-connected team. In fact, for its next project, the client didn’t even bid out; the entire team was hired once again. “It was a win-win for everyone,” Mitsch says. Clearly, examples like this prove general contractors can work with interior designers seamlessly and effectively. So why are so many designer/contractor relationships strained?

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

A lack of communication is one of the biggest hindrances to positive designer/contractor relationships, says Jennifer Barnes, IIDA, LEED AP, Vice President of RTKL Associates in Baltimore. On rare occasions, she’s experienced contractors who substituted products or materials without approval from the interior designer. “It’s very frustrating when the contractor doesn’t provide proper documentation on the substitute product. By the time we knew about it, the product was already installed,” says Barnes, IIDA’s Facility Planning & Design Forum Advisor. “Not only is this a breach of contract, but it diminishes the rapport between the designer and the contractor. Had the contractor just been on top of it, there wouldn’t have been a problem. They got themselves in a jam and had to make a substitution.”

Shannon O’Kelley Berler, Principal at Studio 5 Design and Architecture in Coconut Grove, Fla., echoes the complaint that contractors find themselves in a bind when they fail to order materials on time. But she says that can be a result of the client not bringing the contractor onto the project early enough.

GENERAL CONTRACTOR BIDDING OPTIONS

Lump Sum Proposal (Closed Book)
The bidding contractor provides a bottom-line price inclusive of all documented scope. Line-item trade breakdowns are included for reference only and are subject to change at the contractor’s discretion as long as the bottom line doesn’t increase. Subcontractor proposals are collected by the general contractor and are not for review by the owner or designer. Subcontractor cost savings revert to the contractor, and cost overruns are the contractor’s burden. This option is best when drawings are in the bid document phase or the construction document phase.

Negotiated, General Conditions and Fee (Open Book)
The bidding contractor provides a proposal that includes only the cost for his or her services to complete the project, not the subcontractor costs. The “general conditions” portion consists of the contractor’s out-of-pocket expenses to properly man the project, including job site labor, project management, dumpsters and tools. The “fee” is typically represented by a percentage of the overall construction costs. The project team selects subcontractors (all quotes are shared and reviewed openly). Subcontractor cost reductions are a direct savings to the tenant. This option is best when drawings are still in the space-planning phase.

Guaranteed Maximum Price (Open Book)
The bidding contractor provides a proposal that includes subcontractor quotes based on design drawings. It includes allowances and necessary items to complete the project. The GMP is based on a combination of hard quotes and budgets, as documents aren’t entirely complete. The contractor guarantees that the total project cost will not exceed the proposed amount based on the scope available. Cost savings are typically shared between the owner and the contractor. This option is best when drawings are in the design development phase.

Source: Jon Runquist, Sonoma Construction

“General contractors either aren’t given enough time or they are not proactive in ordering materials earlier,” she says.

That was a major issue on a recent large-scale hotel renovation project for which O’Kelley Berler needed 20,000 square feet of stone ordered from the Middle East. “The general contractor dropped the ball and didn’t order in time. But by some miracle, I stepped in and found 20,000 square feet of stone at the last minute in the United States. But that’s not my job,” she says, adding that having to do so negatively affected her billing hours and fees. Involving the contractor early on during the design phase, she says, not only reduces the risk of having to re-specify materials, but also helps the designer come up with more accurate cost estimates.

Another issue arises, Mitsch says, when contractors do not fully review drawings. Some will call the interior designer for answers to questions that are clearly defined in the drawings. “The problem with that from an interior designer’s standpoint is we make our money hourly,” she says. “If we have to be on site [answering unnecessary questions], it gets expensive.”

“We [designers] do make mistakes. Point it out to us. We have to cover a lot of detail in a short amount of time.”

— Jeryl Mitsch, owner and President of Indianapolis-based Mitsch Design, Inc.

That said, when a contractor does find a discrepancy in the interior designer’s drawings, it’s best to point it out, Mitsch says. “If there is something questionable in the drawing—maybe an electrical outlet in two different places on two different drawings—contractors shouldn’t make an assumption,” she says. “We do make mistakes. Point it out to us. We have to cover a lot of detail in a short amount of time.” In those instances, Barnes says, it’s important for the contractor to be proactive in contributing to the solution, not just looking for errors. It’s also important to follow communication protocol while doing so. “Usually you want a written request for information submitted to the designer and a phone call or e-mail as a headsup, giving the designer adequate time to react,” she says. “Some contractors are good at communication, but maybe not at managing that information flow. It may be a tedious process, but it’s a mechanism to ensure designer intent is met and to safeguard everyone from incurring additional cost.”

Lastly, oftentimes interior designers are not brought onto the project early enough, says Joanna Wood, President of Club Design Group, Inc., in Port Charlotte, Fla. “Unfortunately, too often the interior designer isn’t brought on board until they’re ready to ‘pick colors,’” she says. “It is important that the client understands that each professional brings a different and important set of skills to the project. The interior designer approaches the project from a functional and aesthetic perspective: How will the client use the building now and in the future? Where and what kind of storage is needed?”

Joining the project late in the process, Mitsch says, leads to even more communication breakdowns. The client may communicate to the designer his or her intent for the project, but that may not align with the contractor or architect’s vision. For instance, a designer brought onto the project late might specify system furniture that must be hooked up to the electrical system, but the two may not be compatible, Mitsch says. “That requires going to the client to tell them what’s happened and that it’s going to cost more,” she says.

LET’S GET TOGETHER

The key to happy designer/contractor relationships, Wood says, is finding a process that works, and communicating that process to all players. “That includes a well-defined scope of the project, a clear understanding of each player’s responsibility for the project, an established order for reporting information and making decisions, a team approach to resolving issues throughout the project, and open and clear communications within the team and with the client,” she says.

Barnes says it is possible to create an effective designer/ contractor relationship through teamwork and respect for each other. “It’s a matter of respecting one another’s areas of expertise,” she says. “We [designers] know the design intent; contractors know means and methods. You want a contractor who brings that value.”

Working as a team, Mitsch adds, sometimes involves standing up for one another. If an unresolved problem comes up while the client is on site, the worst possible reaction would be for the contractor to place blame on the interior designer, or vice versa. “That breaks down trust in the team,” she says. “Instead, pull your team together, work it out and then go to the client with the solution. I tell my team that if the contractor has done a messy job of hanging wall coverings, wait until the client is gone before you talk with the contractor.”

In the end, solid teamwork and communication between the interior designer and the general contractor benefit the client’s bottom line by more cost-effective construction. “The client will end up with a better project and fewer change orders,” Barnes says. Plus, adds Wood, “there is less stress for everyone involved and higher levels of trust by all parties.” And as Mitsch has experienced first-hand, these effective working relationships don’t just lead to additional work in the future. “I’ve worked with clients and contractors who have finished the project and become friends. I have clients who come to my home for dinner parties,” she says. “It’s a way to develop larger networks.”

Looking Through the Construction Lens

General contractors and construction professionals clear up a few common misconceptions that interior designers may have regarding how they work and why they do what they do.

At the root of it, construction professionals recognize that a lack of communication is to blame for rocky designer/contractor relationships— just as interior designers do. Ironic, isn’t it?

Yet while both parties agree on the importance of solid and constant communication, oftentimes, that open dialog just doesn’t exist. “You have designers on one side, architects on one side and the general contractor on another side,” says Jon Runquist, President of Chicago-based Sonoma Construction, LLC. “We have to all throw our cards on the table. Everyone needs to have an open discussion about what their role on the project is.”

So what is it exactly that construction professionals want interior designers to know about how they operate and how to work with them most effectively?


No. 1 General contractors are more than just builders.
In reality, says Damion Pourciau, Construction Operations Director for the Dallas Division of MAPP Construction LLC, contractors have valuable experience in determining how particular design details may impact the schedule, for instance.

“Generally speaking, general contractors have a reputation for being just builders who are unable to provide design assistance,” he says. “Given the opportunity, general contractors have much to offer regarding details and field best practices. At MAPP, our pre-construction department routinely works with architects and designers to help prepare budgets and review details for the end-users.”


No. 2 Not all general contractors are created equal.
Just as individual interior designers have unique skill sets and expertise, every general contractor has a specific level of experience and background to best suit a particular project. Unfortunately, Runquist says, cost is often the deciding factor when choosing a general contractor. “You need to feel good about the guys you hire. In this economy, it’s hard to sell that,” he says. “If one contractor quotes $900,000 and another quotes $1 million, you may go with the $900,000 guy and hope it’s OK. But you get what you pay for at some point.”

Instead, interior designers should look for contractors who have worked on like projects. “When you get a lineup of contractors who have done similar projects, you are going to get similar numbers. When they haven’t done similar projects, you get big variations in numbers,” he says. Likewise, designers should choose contractors who fit with their personalities. “Hiring someone who is cheap but doesn’t do things the way you like is going to make for a long project,” Runquist says.


No. 3 Interior designers should become familiar with general contractors’ bidding structure.
Runquist says it’s important for interior designers to understand the three types of bid options and determine which is right for them. “It’s getting a bit muddied,” he says. “Interior designers are asking for a combination of all three put together. It’s hard to compete in that market.” Read “General Contractor Bidding Options” (above) to learn more about the three bid options.


No. 4 Interior designers aren’t the only ones who should be included in project discussions early on.
By not involving the construction professionals in the early planning stages, the team may experience costly mistakes on the project’s back end. For example, Pourciau says, a designer may specify lighting fixtures to be installed in certain places on the ceiling without knowing what’s above the ceiling that could have an impact. “So in the end, when you go to install the lights, you might realize there’s an A/C duct or some other obstruction that will prevent you from installing it in the desired location,” he says. “If you can get the team together and look at the big picture early on, you can understand everything that’s going on in the space.”


No. 5 Keep the communication lines open throughout the project.
In addition to the upfront team meetings, Pourciau recommends team meetings throughout the course of the project, ideally once a week. “It’s really hard to do, especially in a down economy where everyone is looking at the bottom line,” he says. “But in the end, it saves you money.”


No. 6 Reinforce the design intent as much and in as many ways as possible.
Some designers, Pourciau says, fail to fully communicate the design intent to construction professionals. It can be difficult to communicate the intent on paper and through drawings alone. Whenever possible, 3-D renderings are useful for construction professionals. “Providing information upfront rather than just assuming everyone knows what’s in the designer’s head is an ongoing issue,” he says.


No. 7 Contractors are not trying to be critical of designers.
When an interior designer specifies a product that doesn’t meet budget requirements, Runquist says, contractors may come back with an alternative that they believe retains the design intent but is within budget. Designers shouldn’t feel threatened by this, he says. “We’re not trying to redesign because we think something doesn’t look good. We’re just trying to stay within budget,” he says.

 

Ultimately, interior designers and construction professionals agree that what matters the most is that their working relationship leads to a satisfied client. “The worst possible thing is an unhappy client,” Pourciau says. “There are always challenges on a project. It’s just a matter of coming together to resolve them.”

Comments

  1. Designers and contractors should also be aware of the customer needs. I came across your post this afternoon while browsing interior design blogs and the topic of window treatment selection was very interesting to me. It is true that you must dress your windows appropriately to bring out their true beauty. Thank you for writing and as a special thanks to you and your readers, I would like to offer a 20% off coupon using this code upon checkout: BLG20. Posted by: Elise Lowerison on 06.18.10 at 06:09
  2. This was very helpful as I am a recent interior design graduate and very soon going to work for a general contractor. It's good to know what my future role with them may be, and what I should focus on while working there as far as communication and inclusion with the designers go. Posted by: Jaimie Nunn on 09.01.12 at 01:48
  3. I've just had my second experience like this in the last few months. The GC feels a need to throw me "under the bus". I almost feel as though some contractors need to appear to be the Super Hero in the client's eyes. Posted by: Patty S. on 02.27.15 at 01:04
  4. I like how the general contractor in this story pulled the entire team together to meet and asked them what the worst thing that had happened to them while working with a general contractor was. I think it was a great way for him to learn and make sure all his subcontractors were satisfied. Furthermore, I think it was a great way for him to get the ENTIRE project team together so they could meet and realize that they were all working toward one goal.

    http://www.goldwingconstruction.com Posted by: sean on 04.10.15 at 09:12

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Perspective Sponsored CEUs. Busting the Great Construction Myth.

Read this article, complete the following questions and receive .1 CEU.

Exercise:

  1. For the optimal project experience, which professional group should lead the initial discussions and project management?
  2. Name the three types of General Contractor bidding options.
  3. Who is responsible for a project schedule – the design firm or the contractor?
  4. How can interior designers benefit from a general contractor’s experience?
  5. What are some ways an interior designer can reinforce and communicate the design intent to construction professionals?

After reading this article you will be aware of:
• Easy steps an Interior Designer can take to successfully communicate and partner with the general contractor.
• How to use a general contractor’s experience and suggestions to your advantage.
• How solid teamwork and communication between the Interior Designer and general contractor saves time and money.

Return completed answers to:

IIDA Education Department
c/o PERSPECTIVE CEUs
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ceu@iida.org
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If you have any questions, contact us at 312.467.1950 or toll-free at 888.799.IIDA.