When working on a renovation or new construction project, the relationship between interior designer and contractor is a partnership that needs to be nurtured and handled with care. While the interior designer imagines the finished product and develops the blueprints to make it possible, the finished product is only as good as the contractor’s ability to transform that vision into a built reality.
How do interior designers work with contractors?
The best way to ensure a project stays on track is for interior designers and contractors to invest enough time in planning how they will work together and then sticking to that agreement throughout the course of the project.
Here are our top tips for interior designers on how to work effectively with contractors:
- Do your homework: In a perfect world, the interior designer would choose the contractor for their projects, but the reality is that while your network likely includes a few trusted contractors, you will typically not have control over which contractors your clients hire. Do as much research you can on the contractors you are paired with and visit as many of their past projects as possible to see the quality of their team’s work on crafts like cabinetry and wall covering installation, for example. On projects where you are able to choose the contractor, find a contractor who has a long, successful track record of renovating homes from the same era as the one you are working on; this is important because they will be better able to anticipate construction quirks and which building techniques are best to preserve the integrity of the original construction.
- Establish responsibility: At the beginning of a project, create a formal agreement with your contractor that establishes which party is responsible for which functions. Typically, the interior designer is responsible for designing the space and sourcing the materials and finishes, while the contractor is responsible for estimating the cost of the work, obtaining necessary building permits, doing the construction, managing the budget and timeline, and quality control. There is some gray area in-between, and interior designers want to have as much control over the built outcome as possible. In most states, interior designers are not legally allowed to assume liability for the construction of a project without having a contractor’s license. The interior designer's role should be to supervise, unless you are legally qualified beyond that. Be clear in your written agreement which party maintains responsibility for which actions and on what timeline. If the interior designer is procuring some materials and the contractor others, state that in your written agreement. It should go without saying that both parties must sign the agreement before work begins.
- Discuss subcontractors: A contractor typically has their own group of subcontractors they like to work with and may strongly advocate to use them. If your project includes any elements that require a highly specialized build or installation, it should be discussed at the start of the project, as you may want to insist upon using your own tried-and-true craftsperson for specific work.
- Provide precise drawings: Part of being a professional interior designer is your ability to produce technical drawings. These are the blueprints your contractor will follow to build the interior as you envision it, so include as much detail as possible. Complete the drawings on time and then be prepared to quickly make any necessary revisions based on client or contractor feedback. The more precise and correct details you include in your initial drawings, the more likely you will stay on schedule and maintain calm waters with your contractor.
- Set a weekly meeting and site visit: As a busy interior designer, you can’t spend all of your working hours on-site supervising a project. Set a weekly meeting with your contractor at the project site so you can conduct a walkthrough while discussing recent work done and the upcoming work for the next couple of weeks. As the interior designer, you should set the agenda for the meetings and supply them to the contractor at least 48 hours in advance. Invite the client to these meetings to give them the opportunity to see the progress.
- Document what happens in project meetings: Take minutes during these meetings, and send out the minutes within 72 hours after meeting. This helps everyone stay on the same page and to assign accountability to specific parties for tasks that need to be completed. In the memo, include a preview of the coming weeks to remind everyone of what they need to accomplish to stay on schedule.
- Be available to communicate: A contractor’s questions can’t wait. Industry standard is to respond, at a maximum, within 72 hours. Mary V. Knackstedt, author of “The Interior Design Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Profitability”, recommends setting early morning hours where you or an assigned person on your team is available to speak by phone. Contractors start their work as early as 7 a.m., so being reachable from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. allows for them to get the information they need to be productive that day.
- Collaborate: While the interior designer and contractor should each have their defined responsibilities in a project, it’s a great idea to see your contractor’s opinion and show your respect for their expertise. You want to build goodwill as much as possible over the course of the project. As the project heads into its final phase, collaborate with your contract on the punch list. While the punch list is technically the contractor’s responsibility, you both share the goal of finishing the project on time and to the highest standard.
A finished interior design project is only as good as its contractor. Having a good relationship with your contractor as an interior designer will help keep your project on schedule and on budget, resulting in a happy client. This symbiotic relationship is built on mutual respect for each other's talents as well boundaries for each other's defined roles. Follow these tips and you’ll look forward to successful interior designer-contractor relationships for the rest of your career.