By Jay Holtzman. One day, Sarah Reilly got quite a surprise when she visited the jobsite of a model for which she was doing the design work. "We got there, and the builder had nixed the second story without telling us. It was a one-story house all of a sudden," says Reilly, a partner in The November Group, in Austin, Texas.

With experiences like that, it's not surprising that Reilly and other designers point to good communication as one of the key ingredients for getting the best work from a design firm.

They also mention trust, dealing with the contractor as an equal, a sense of commitment, and a focus on buyer satisfaction — the usual elements needed for any good working relationship. And, along with getting all the relevant information about the job, designers want honesty.

"We want them to be up front with us," says Reilly, "but sometimes they are reluctant to say what they dislike." That is, until the hard work is done. "A builder may hate blue, and we'll go in with a blue color scheme. Tell us that to begin with and it makes things a lot easier."

Sharing demographic research gives the design process a solid start too. "We can decorate and merchandise specifically according to that demographic," Reilly explains. This can be critical in selecting upgrades. "You don't want to put upgrades in a house that are going to scare the buyers such that they wonder if they can afford it or if they should even be looking," she adds.

In Control

For builders, getting the best from designers means being organized, both within their own operation and in coordinating with the design firm. Changing "little" things like the size and placement of windows or eliminating a built-in and failing to keep the designer in the loop, as Reilly reports, can have a disproportionate impact on design costs.

Builders that "have their own systems in place are definitely easier to deal with," says Ken Treaster, president of Interior Specialists, a full-service design center in Carlsbad, Calif. "The design center should become an extension of the builder's operation." That puts a premium on the liaison between organizations.

When working with his best builders, Treaster explains, "we're notified by fax as soon as a buyer contracts for a specific lot. I send a letter immediately that congratulates the buyer, introduces our company, and identifies their options consultant." From that point, the options consultant begins meeting with the buyer to walk him or her through the entire process.

To get the best design services, builders need to give designers room to do their job. "Do what you're good at," Treaster advises builders, and take advantage of a design firm's expertise. "We're the design center. That's what we do," he says.


Perhaps underpinning the necessary organization, communication, and concern for buyer satisfaction is a subtle something that can make or break the relationship.

"Sometimes it seems that something just clicks between us and the builder. They like our stuff and start to realize that to bid out every project takes a lot of time. They have certain ways they like to do things, and we know those things, where another firm won't," Reilly says.

Shared objectives are important. "The best builder you can deal with is the one who perceives you as a partner in the effort to meet the common goal of satisfying the home buyer," Treaster says.

For Steve Santa Cruz's company, as well as for the builder, it is a matter of "finding a firm with a culture that matches your own," says Santa Cruz, president of SC Design, in San Diego.

Design contractors are unique among the trades because they are generally "the only group outside of a builder's own organization that he allows to touch the buyer prior to the close of escrow," Santa Cruz explains. "There is tremendous concern in the home building community about how that buyer is going to be treated, especially when you have more services being sold out of the showroom," which makes compatible cultures essential, he adds.

Santa Cruz likens it to hiring someone to join your executive team. Among qualified candidates, "you're probably going to select the individual you feel can immerse himself in your culture and will represent that culture inside and outside the organization," he says. That's the way to approach a design firm, too.

The Builder from Hell
A Word about Research

Jay Holtzman is based in Jamestown, R.I.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, August 2002