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What does it take to be a good client?

I have lost count of the number of architects, engineers and designers that I have worked with over the last 20 years in my professional life but for the first time ever we have worked with an interior architect on a project for us.

I take my role in hotel development advisory seriously, I have a strong eye for detail and I am very conscious that we are often custodians of clients funds and how they are spent.  They lean on us for advice to make sure it is spent well, fairly and will deliver hotels or restaurants back to them which maximise their revenue stream.  The advantage of hotels is that very early in the timeline we build a guestroom and take time to get it right so that when the other 300+ of them are built the expectations are clear.  This leaves more time for the bespoke elements within the hotel.

Of course when you start to renovate or build your own home you become the client, you rely on others to spend you money wisely and there is such little repetition in the finishing that with every room you practically start from scratch.

I am not sure that I am the ideal client – I know the industry well, I have strong opinions that are based on reality and I can spot an error a mile off.  In saying that there is not much that can go wrong that I haven’t seen before so not much phases me (there is always an answer), I am great at finding solutions quickly, and I am really clear on our likes and dislikes.  The challenge, of course, is that we have been renovating our home and I am not the only client, there are five of us who we will spending a lot of time here and we all have to love it, as well as allowing the kids spaces to grow with them as well.

So how can we be good clients for our professional design teams? I think it boils down to clarity.  Start by giving them a clear brief that covers off the following:

  1. Scope of works – list out what work you do and don’t want addressed (add in why so they get a better understanding of your thinking).  If you have them, pass on a scrapbook or file of photos that you have seen that help describe the design direction you would like to see.  When we started this current project the scope of works was smaller.  We had added a caveat that as the layers of the house were peeled back (remembering our home is 100+ years old) and if something was discovered that would cause problems in the next five years we wanted the option to resolve it now.  Our contractor was very thorough and we did increase the scope but we have got a much more energy efficient home back so we were happy to do this.  The flip side was that we have about ten different door types in the house and six types of wooden flooring – we were quite clear that we didn’t want to change this as it told the story of the house and how it had grown and evolved, of course we then added our layer of this as well by picking a different style to the doors that we added to keep that story alive.
  2. Functionality – how do you want to live or work in the spaces.  Think about now, in five years time and ten years time especially if you have kids as their requirements of a space change rapidly.  A good example is my older girls bedrooms – they wanted to share a room and asked for birds on the ceiling.  We found a couple of great wallpapers that would have been perfect for this but I wondered how long it would take before they grew out of these so we painted the ceiling a subtle grey-blue, ordered fun bird decals online and they applied them to the ceiling.  The great thing for this is to change the design later I don’t need to call in tradespeople – we can remove the decals ourselves and repaint the ceiling if we want to.
  3. Budget & timeframe – if you have a maximum amount you can or want to spend share this as well.  If you need the works completed by a certain date include this eg we wanted to be back in the house for the summer holidays (and whilst the reality was it was not quite finished we could still use the house for summer). This information will help the designers decide on what products to show you – if they are out of your price range or can’t be delivered within your construction programme then you don’t want to fall in love with them. It will also help them set your expectations early ie if the scope is huge and the budget/timeframe small then you may need to choose priorities.  Better to do that early so you are not disappointed and so that the designer can focus their time on what really matters.  In the event that you are more clear on the scope and not on the budget ask the design team to prepare a budget estimate for you early on for you to agree to before getting too far through the design.

Now you don’t need to document all of the above in a 20 page brief like we do for hotels, this can be done in a conversation with your designers over a coffee – if you go for the latter make sure that your designer provides you back a written brief for you to amend/agree to so everyone starts at the same point.  In parallel to this it is important to understand the contractual obligations you and your designer will have to each other.  Have a clear idea of deliverables, timing and the resulting payments (make sure you have the funds to pay on time as well).  I also think it is very important to double check with the designer that after the brief is set that it is a project they are interested in working on – you will get a much better outcome if they are excited, engaged and committed to the timeframes.

During the design phase I believe the following is key:

  1. Clear and timely feedback – if you are asked to comment on mood boards, drawings etc then make sure you are honest.  If you don’t like something say so and also mention why (this makes it easier for the designer to come back to you with a different proposal); be quick in your responses (don’t lose the momentum and try to avoid creating rework for the designer due to late feedback).  Equally tell them if you love something as that will help the designer filter ideas more when they know they are getting you excited about the changes ahead.
  2. Be prepared to prioritise – projects that are successful get the right balance between quality, budget and timeframe.  I have never worked on a project when we have had to accept one of these has to give a little at some point.  In our case we could give the contractors more time to maintain quality and not incur costs for fast tracking work.
  3. Be available – things happen especially when renovating an old house.  Agree with the designer how you want to work with them – do you prefer they call you to talk through challenges; an email with photos perhaps; a schedule of visits ? we ended up with a combination of emails, visits and WhatsApp messaging ended up being invaluable.  I also preferred to get short emails as things happened rather than questions once a week.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list but they are solid foundations on which to build your professional relationship with your design team.  It will allow you to have honest conversations and will help everyone achieve their goals at the end.

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