Just as remodelers have become more sophisticated over the years, so have clients, especially those who are interested in major renovations and additions. At home and at work, these are people who are accustomed to — and proficient in — the latest and greatest when it comes to computer technology. Chances are they expect their remodeler to be just as tech-savvy.

“When a client comes in and sees a professional conference room with a huge screen that's hooked into our computer so we can show 3-D drawings, that says a lot,” says Jeb Breithaupt of Jeb Breithaupt Design/Build in Shreveport, La., a third-generation builder and remodeler. “That sets us apart from the mom-and-pop, pickup-truck-with-a-dog-in-the-back companies.”

Like many top remodelers, Breithaupt uses Chief Architect, one of the leading home-design software products for the professional market. It's been on the market since 1992. AutoCAD, which introduced the notion of drafting on a PC back in 1982, is also standard issue with most high-end firms. And for companies that have significant kitchen and bath business, 20-20 Design is a standard.

But, as many remodelers point out, technology is only as good as the people who use it. Software programs alone don't attract — or keep — clients. More often than not, these are just high-tech instruments that help cement a relationship.

THE RIGHT TOOL AT THE RIGHT TIME “If I have the choice between having a really cool Smart Board or a really smart person as a consumer, I'll take the really smart person,” says Seymour Turner, vice president of Airoom, a large remodeling company with locations in Naperville and Lincolnville, Ill. “A Smart Board is a gee-whiz thing, but the substantive parts of the relationship are more important, especially the confidence a client has with those on my staff.”

Chief Architect's new X1 software program has all the bells and whistles that  designers ó and upscale customers ó have come to expect.
Chief Architect Chief Architect's new X1 software program has all the bells and whistles that designers ó and upscale customers ó have come to expect.

Airoom has its own proprietary estimating system that interfaces with a CAD system (Chief Architect, AutoCAD, or 20-20). “There's not a design that comes out of here that isn't generated through a CAD program,” Turner says. “But we still have our renderings done by hand on top of those generated by the CAD systems. With most CAD systems it's difficult to get the colors just right, or they look kind of cartoony.”

At Airoom, the first substantive appointment takes place in the client's home. “We have two showroom facilities where we're happy to meet people and answer any questions they might have as they look around, but we really need to meet the house, which is just as important as meeting the homeowner,” Turner says.

It usually takes two or three appointments to get the project clearly enough defined for the client to pull the trigger. “Most of the work we sell is within three to six weeks of meeting the client, but if we saw a client on a Monday evening and they told us they were leaving for six weeks on Wednesday, our system is such that we could come back with a complete presentation the next evening.” That means floor plans and elevations, sections, and perspectives, both inside and out, plus detailed specifications with material cut-sheets and funding options.

Electronic tools can certainly help to smoothly usher clients through the process, but they must be presented at just the right time. Used too soon in the process, all of those gee-whiz features — being able to move walls, change materials, and zoom in from different angles — can give clients a false sense of ease. Savvy remodelers have learned to carefully use technology to show clients a number of possibilities, especially before any contracts are signed.

Sometimes, in fact, it's better to combine high-tech moves with more old-fashioned practices. At the beginning of the design process, one large remodeler in Maryland, for example, produces CAD drawings of a client's existing space but sketches proposed changes on butter paper overlays rather than clicking on instant solutions.