iStockphoto/Alex Slobodkin; iStockphoto/Len Neighbors

Before the recession, many design/build companies either started up or added to their design departments. But during the past two years, as the economy has slowed, company owners have began looking at ways to cut overhead. How have design departments been affected, and what’s in store for them as the economy improves?

Bob DuBree

Owner, Creative Contracting, North Wales, Pa.

We’ve had designers on staff for 15 of our 20 years in business. In the past two years I’ve had to cut overhead way back. We didn’t have anything in design and let two designers go. As we started to pick back up, we had no real backlog and couldn’t bring anyone on.

Then I called another remodeler I’d heard of who had laid off a designer ... and asked if he minded if I called her. He didn’t, and she is now doing design projects for three or four builders and remodelers. The competition among the remodelers isn’t a big deal.

We developed this as a kind of subcontractor relationship. The designer does drawings, upsells, and presentations, and she gets an hourly commission. We also have a CAD designer who gets an hourly rate up front, and we use two designers in Minnesota who we collaborate with online via GoToMeeting.

As for the future, we might just stick with this ... until I feel better about the economy.

Bjorn Freudenthal

Vice president of sales and marketing, College City Remodeling, Lakeville, Minn.

Our company, which was founded in 1969, has custom-home, remodeling, and replacement divisions. But since the recession, we’ve combined the remodeling and new-homes divisions. We also created a special-projects division to do smaller projects and energy upgrades for clients.

Going into 2009 we had a design staff of three — a new-home designer; a remodeling lead designer who took care of the selections process as well as design; and a remodeling designer who created designs on a CAD program.

We had to lay off the custom-home designer, and the lead designer went on maternity leave in November 2008. When she was ready to come back five months later, we hired her as a subcontractor. But she should be back to us full time in January 2010. She has been designing the few custom homes we’ve done recently.

Right now in the new-home sector, we see people wanting to build — and build larger homes. We have requests for planning to build $400,000-plus homes. That’s a good sign. The remodeling design team is taking care of new homes, and we’re stepping up our game and focusing on the client experience.

Judy Mozen

President, Handcrafted Homes, Atlanta

Our design department is me as the main designer and one other person, a superintendent, who does CAD.

Having the CAD person trained as a superintendent is a real plus for what we do. When he finishes drawing what I’ve given him, he thoroughly knows the project. It’s particularly important that he understands everything when we’re working on large, complicated projects.

During the recession, I have had less work overall. I was doing less design and more on-site work. We moved several employees to sub-trade positions where they are on-call as needed. This has worked well for us and for them.

We’ve recently had calls for more business, some from prospects using outside architects. A repeat client couple has been waiting three months for me to complete their design. We won a design award for their last project, and they’re willing to wait. A new client in today’s market might not wait. And even as the economy improves, I don’t foresee hiring more designers.