There are custom windows, and there are windows worthy of the client's restored Queen Anne, with custom-milled frames, hand-blown panes, and weight-and-pulley operating systems. There are wrought-iron gates, and there's the gate that the client saw in Italy and wants reproduced in his home, detailed down to the tiniest ornamentation.
And then there are the questions. Namely, how do you find, mobilize, schedule, and compensate the specialized craftspeople who do such meticulous work?
When his Rolodex doesn't have the right decorative painter or copper gutter specialist, Dan Dalrymple often turns to one of the interior designers he knows through Foxcraft Design Group, Arlington, Va., where he is production manager. The local arts community is a good referral source for Allen Townley, who specializes in historic remodels in Kansas City, Mo. His brother, a sculptor who has made custom range hoods, put him in touch with specialized artisans.
Increasingly, clients bring their own. “These types of clients go to the same parties and sit on the same boards of directors,” says Chandler Fox, Foxcraft's president. They'll admire someone else's faux-painted mural or custom-woven carpet and get a first-hand introduction.
Fox respects clients' wishes to contract directly with craftspeople, if there's a strong existing relationship. “But it's critical to clearly define how you'll be compensated” for your time coordinating and managing these people, he says. Foxcraft typically charges a management fee in such cases, structured on an hourly or a percentage basis, depending on the project and the client. Townley charges an hourly management fee.
Expanding Horizons Don't rule out your usual subcontractors for specialty work, but prepare to persuade them that they're up to the challenge, worth the expense, and not to blame if plans change. “We've found that these guys will get more artistic if they feel they're really pleasing a client,” Dalrymple says. And if the client wants to rip out that ornate installation, Dalrymple diplomatically explains that “it has nothing to do with the quality of work. It just isn't what they thought they were asking for. So let's go back and figure out what the client wants.”
Because of such changes, scheduling can be problematic. “Often the clients don't know the extent of what they want until the project is underway,” Fox says. “They see the artistry that the craftsman is capable of, and their horizons start expanding.”
In one case, what began as a two-story foyer painted to evoke a Tuscan landscape evolved into six figures worth of faux painting throughout the home, along with many other enhancements. “You can't keep clients from changing their mind,” Dalrymple says, “but you can control their expectations about time frames. Ultimately, you're responsible if the project is held up, even if it's held up by 20 people you don't control.”
He averts misunderstandings by telling the client that the request will extend their project by several weeks or months, and are they prepared for that? “What becomes absolutely critical is that somebody — me — has to be involved in all these conversations,” to identify construction challenges, coordinate schedules, ensure quality and safety, and protect the client.