With so many variables removed, the homeowners can concentrate all their energy on making sure the design fits their vision In 1995, when a local designer first approached my company about working together using a design/build approach, I was skeptical. I couldn't imagine that anyone would commit to a remodeling project before plans and specifications were completed. And what kind of customer would give up the chance to shop prices?

Eventually, I talked with enough design/build practitioners to realize that it is a method of doing business, rather than just a service to provide clients. Now that I've been practicing design/build successfully for a number of years, it's hard to imagine doing business any other way. But making the transition wasn't easy.

New sales approach

The biggest challenge was finding an effective way to sell this new project delivery method to our current and future clients. Selling design/build requires a change in the attitudes and behaviors most remodelers associate with the sales process.

Under the traditional model, we weren't selling; we were providing free bids and specifications. Sometimes we even had to purchase copies of the plans, and often we made corrections or offered options at no charge in the hopes of winning the job. It wasn't really our sales process; it was our client's "buying process." I think of it now as order taking, not selling.

With help from a sales training program, we eventually learned to take control of the sales process. A big first step was to insist that clients commit to a budget before the design phase begins. This requires some discussion about project size, general scope of work, types of finishes, and so on, but we are typically able to provide a range of costs in our initial meeting. If this preliminary price is too high, and the homeowners are unwilling or unable to scale the project down, we withdraw.

The same goes for a commitment to having us build the project. We ask for a retainer--typically between 5% and 10% of the preliminary cost estimate -- which funds the cost of developing the design. We then work together with the homeowners to prepare plans and specs, but they don't take possession of any contract documents until they sign a construction agreement.

"Self-discovered" benefits

Clients who have been through a traditional remodeling bid process, or who know someone who has, are quick to recognize the value of the design/build approach. But even first-time remodeling customers can see the benefits. The key in both cases is to help homeowners "discover" the benefits of design/build rather than simply tell them about it.

Through training and practice, we learned how to ask questions that encourage homeowners to draw their own conclusions about how the process should work. Eventually, they conclude on their own that the speed and comfort built-in to our design/build process more than offsets any perceived cost savings of the traditional three-bid system. The homeowners are assured that the project is buildable because both the designer and the contractor are committed to the budget. Plus, the inevitable adjustments to plans and specs take much less time to complete because there is no cycle of designing, bidding, scaling back the design, and re-bidding. With so many variables removed, the homeowners can concentrate all their energy on making sure the design fits their vision. --Shawn McCadden, CR, owner of Custom Contracting in Arlington, Mass., is co-founder of the Residential Design/Build Institute LLP. He can be reached at shawnm@designbuildinstitute.com.