Debra Moore, owner of Custom Design/Build, Ann Arbor, Mich., says, “People think design is an expensive, fru-fru thing. What we try to tell them is that it's just a fancy word for planning.” Moore spends time “demystifying the process” for clients with a three-hour home and lifestyle analysis — “11/2 hours listening and asking questions and 11/2 hours educating,” she says.

Moore gives clients the tools they need to talk about design issues — visual aids such as a CD of completed projects; sample presentation binders — phase I with photos, drawings, and simple text, and phase II with a complete set of specs and a detailed line-item budget. Observation is key. “You walk in the entrance and you see a table loaded with stuff and clients say, ‘Oh, we have to get rid of that table because everything collects there.' No. That's how they use that space; why don't we create architecture to fit?”

Moore asks her clients a lot of questions: Are they tidy? Does clutter bother them? Do they eat outside? How many times a year do they have 20 people over for dinner? Do they want to retreat from their children or do they want to be near them?

She says, “I focus on what doesn't work in the house.” To that end, she has clients complete the sentence: “I'd really like to see [blank] in my house.” They talk about the balance between activity and rest in a space and the importance of having both, and whether rooms will be public or private spaces and if they will be used for formal or informal gatherings. Moore finds out in which room of the house clients spend the most time and how many square feet it is. “Often we find that the rooms that are most important to clients have the least square footage.”

All the planning pays off, keeping change orders at around 3% and schedules on time, which make clients and subs happy.