Whether handled in-house or with an outside architect, a good design system should:

  • Support the sales system of the contractor first (as opposed to the designer/architect)
  • Produce a project that meets clients' needs and goals and is within their financial investment
  • Support production by clearly communicating how to build the project at hand
  • Be monitored weekly in meetings with designers and the production staff

Todd Jackson of Jackson Design & Remodeling, in San Diego, developed a design process that starts with sales. “If you just turn a client over to a designer, they'll fall in love with a beautiful design that's over budget and can't be built,” Jackson says. His company's salespeople are also estimators, and they attend every meeting to help set budget and goals. The initial meeting determines if there's a good fit with a potential client and if it makes sense to proceed. Then JDR charges a fixed design fee ranging from $800 to $5,000 depending on project size. (Other remodelers charge for design hourly or as a percentage of construction.)

Jackson uses design as a marketing tool to pull in construction business, but other design/build remodelers focus more on custom design.

In either model, knowledge of costs is key to a good system, says Joe Dellanno, a design/build consultant and the author of My Design/Build Coach Playbook. And whether a designer works in-house or from the outside, he or she must have what Dellanno calls an “egoectomy.” “Architects are not trained to ask questions,” he says. “But programming is critical to any successful project. You need to know the ‘whys' behind the ‘whats.'” When those are understood, Dellanno says, “communication in the design process must be recorded, measured, and transferred to all internal and external staff members to keep everyone on the same page.”

After the fee is paid and clients sign JDR's design agreement, they meet with a designer and a salesperson to measure the site and determine scope. The designer then lays out the existing conditions and meets with sales again. Sales reviews the design, offers basic input, and confirms overall pricing while looking for design issues that may throw the project out of budget. “Our ultimate goal,” Jackson says, “is that when we come back to the client with a design, we're 80% there [on design], within 10% of budget, and able to move forward.”

JDR saves material selections for later in the process to maintain client anticipation. Jackson says, “We get them involved in the project so they don't sit around and have buyer's remorse,” or worse, have too much information and take the project elsewhere.

Test It Out A process is just a collection of steps until there's a way to test that it's working and make changes when it isn't. In Dellanno's experience, monitoring progress and measuring results will lead to improvement if it's “part of the self-discovery process from the employees, subs, vendors, and suppliers. It has to come from the bottom up.”

Jackson tracks his design process with an Excel spreadsheet as well as at weekly meetings. He and his staff ask and answer questions such as “How long has a job been in design?” Jackson shoots for between 15 and 25 days from design agreement to the signing of the construction contract. He also uses Guild Quality (www.guild quality.com), a third-party client survey company, to track whether clients felt a project was successful.

To make sure the design system is repeatable, Jackson has written down each step of the process from the initial phone call through handoff to production. “Every new employee will read this and see the process for attaining goals.”