Should You Use An Architect, A Designer, or Do It Yourself?
Architect, Designer, Or Do It Yourself?
(Hint: You Get What You Pay For)
By Gail Green
(Editor’s Note: Gail Green, principal of her eponymous interior design firm, has previously written an article for RenovatingNYC on incorporating art into home decor. Here she discusses the pitfalls of trying to do it yourself, rather than hiring a professional architect or designer to plan a remodel or renovation project.)
“If You Think Hiring A Professional Is Expensive, Try Hiring An Amateur”
Red Adair’s quote stands the test of time in its relevancy today. The recent recession created an interesting paradigm shift within the design industry. Previously each profession performed work relevant to their particular skills and training. Now, however, boundaries that once separated these individual trades have blurred, creating a hodgepodge of undefined roles and responsibilities. Contractors take on architectural projects, dictating the placement of walls and technical know-how. They are even called upon to do decorative work. Architects now portray themselves as interior designers and decorators, exclaiming expertise in sourcing furniture, fabrics, and accessories. And, decorators self-proclaim themselves experts at designing architectural spaces. What caused such a melee in the industry? One doesn’t have to look far for the answer.
The answers are clear. With a paucity of work around, professionals are scrambling to attract as large an audience as possible, with each profession widening their nets to capture potential clients. In addition, a profound lack of understanding each design professional role has led to a client’s hiring one type of trade to do the work of another. So, contractors are hired to do architectural work, architects to do building, and everyone is undertaking the design and decorative aspects of a project. Instead of teams of professionals, one person is being retained to do the work of all. In addition, because the client may not be educated as to the real value of a designer, many clients believe that they are simply purveyors of furniture, and not creators of sorts. And, because almost anyone can be a purchasing agent, oftentimes the client has undertaken to do the designer’s job themselves. The salient part of this equation: THE BOTTOM LINE. By doing it oneself, the client saves MONEY! Thus, lack of education as to a professional’s real value combined with the client’s desire to save money in this economy has precipitated a unique paradigm change. Not all clients look for the least expensive item or professional, but for those fortunate enough to renovate or decorate or build nowadays, price is a major consideration. Should a contractor tell a client that they can’t design their kitchen, they lose the job. Architects, passing along design expertise oftentimes as a a complimentary amenity, specify furniture and design plans. And, so on. The examples are numerous.
While previously relying on a professional’s expertise, client’s are now, for the most part, calling the shots. Design is motivated by the client’s desire to get the best possible price without realizing the inherent cost to them. Inherent because cost is not just comprised of the dollars spent, but something much more valuable: talent and expertise.
Lest we think lack of education and the economy as the only culprits here, enter reasons three and four. Magazines, way back in the 80’s, starting showing readers that they too could act like the ‘pros’. Delegating one side of the page to a professional’s design costing $150,00 the recto was pit against a $50,000 job, done by a layperson. They showed the reader that it was more economical to DO IT YOURSELF! With a feeble understanding of what truly contributes to a professional’s skills, the amateur thus flowers his rhetoric with phrases such as “I have good taste; I can do it myself. It is indeed mysterious as to why these magazines would advocate a D-I-Yer approach, basically cutting off the hand that feeds them. Amateurs CAN’T perform professional projects, no more than doctors can do taxes, or dentists build walls. To make matters worse, HGTV caught on to the do-it-yourself craze, illustrating how oftentimes ill equipped homeowners or self-proclaimed stars can accomplish their own renovations and decorating. A little bit of knowledge became a dangerous undertaking. And, lastly, the venerated design organizations, created to protect our domain, did little to arrest these points of view.
But, has the client, with all their monetary savings, benefitted from this exercise? What follows are some amusing, albeit sad, examples of what happens when the client decides, in searching for the bottom line, to do it themselves.
Here’s a personal favorite: In an effort to save an insignificant amount of money on professional fees, this client decided to cut out his architect’s fee for overseeing his oven’s delivery. Do you think he even knew what a “sidewalk” delivery meant? On his way home one evening, this client saw a rather large box with what looked like an oven peering through. With closer inspection, he saw the label read his name and address. Dismayed to find that it was indeed the oven he had ordered himself, ready and ripe to be taken by the sanitation department, he realized the COST to him in trying to save a couple of dollars. In the end, he had to pay for someone to bring it up to his apartment, spending much more money and aggravation than if he had left it to his architect.
From the designer Steve Workman is the following story. “I had a client who insisted on using his own flooring subcontractor on one custom job. This guy worked directly for the owner, so every time I called him about showing up on the job, he would call the owner and give him some excuse why he couldn’t be there. What should have been a two-week floor installation ended up taking six weeks.” So, while the client may have saved some money using his own trades people, he lost in time and quality control.
I had a client who decided to hire his own crew of painters. He clearly wanted to save money on the architectural fees by supervising the job himself. After giving him the appropriate paint color and finish, the client related to the painters to “paint everything BM white 01.” Clearly thinking that the client meant EVERYTHING, they did just that. When the owner came home, he found cabinets, hardware, floors, in fact – all surfaces, painted white. Did he save money here on supervising the project himself.
Richard Kalch, ASID, writes, “I have a long-term client who decided to go direct and shop the bathroom hardware I specified for a master bath remodel I designed instead of purchasing through me or the contractor in order to save a very few dollars. Guess what? The company she bought it from went under and now she has no hardware and cannot recoup her money.”
Madera Rogers-Henry cites her example. “Wow! What I encountered was the remains of a disaster. Upon arriving to a simple staging job, on closer inspection, I saw the painting contractors were painting the door framers, baseboards and the bannisters all with different colors! You could only imagine, paint underneath and on top with palm prints! Clients were attempting to save money by hiring jack legged contractors. These contractors often leave properties with substandard word that the clients seems to ignore. However, I was honored to worked as the project manager and stage, firing them. It was a nightmare. The sad fact about the client’s, even after spending thousands of dollars on saving money in an $800,000 home, they resorted back to what they knew.”
And, Mark O’Hearn exclaimed, “Gail, I had a client who purchased a gas pool heater over the internet for a wholesale price. The heater was delivered by a trucking company who delivery it off a truck and was left at the end of the driveway about 300 feet away from the swimming pool site. My client opened the box and it was damaged and dented from the delivery and it had to be picked up from the internet company, adding 3 to 4 weeks to the building of the pool. To add insult to injury to the story, he had some issues with the heater and had a challenging time get warranty service from any pool service company.”
One of my clients wanted to be responsible for painting her dining. She hired a good crew and proceeded to give them the color she chose from a small (very small chip). Need I say more? Not fully understanding the impact of how color changes once enlarged, she gasped upon seeing her room painted. It looked like a bordello! So, she paid us to redo the right job.
From Mark Demmerle: “I had a client who was micro involved with the design process. She was a ‘shopaholic’. I found myself trying to convince her to NOT overspend th project. She doubled he budget which was dangerous for the house….because a house can only take so much detail before it gets all tarted up.”
From Tammis Willis: My client’s decided to order their own engineered wood flooring via the internet against both the designer’s and builder’s advice. Said flooring arrived six months prior to installation and the clients did not bother to inspect the cartons prior to conditioned storage…surprise, surprise. When the cartons were opened and every, EVERY board was cupped…you guessed it…no warranty and so the floor was installed “as is.” Eventually the floor will have to be sanded and refinished and while the clients are very detailed oriented, they have managed to live with this stinker of a wood floor.
The savings in the end were negated…”
A sad tale from Janet Adler of Janet Adler, Realty NY: “I decided to redo my kitchen. I set a very low budget for what I thought was an easy design for a very small kitchen. There is a cabinet company who belongs to the same professional organization as me who offered me a very good price on the cabinets. I bought the backsplash from them and the hardware and the faucet. Several weeks later everything was delivered to my apartment and the weekend after that my daughter and I emptied the entire kitchen. The following Monday the contractor arrived and on Tuesday announced that the cabinets would not fit. They were off by 3”. It took until that Friday for the cabinetry company to admit that it was their fault and that they would replace the mis-sized cabinets for free (woo hoo). The new cabinets, which would not look as good as the original design because one cabinet would now be 9” instead of 12”, would be delivered the following Wednesday. With Christmas around the corner, it will be very difficult to get the contractor back, in addition to my having to pay him twice to do the same job over. Do you think that would have happened if I had not tried to save a few bucks. Cheap is dear!
Shanon Sterrett writes: “Gail, I work directly with consumers and design professionals and I can’t tell you how many times I have spent months working with a designer on the perfect floor design – wood, color style – and the homeowner tries to go around him or her only to end up with a substandard floor that they found online. Designers bring so much value to a project….
Part II of this article will examine exactly what that value is….