Room Between the Lines
Creating a space within the confines of a developer’s design restrictions.
While working intimately with clients to help them realize their vision brings about an intense sense of accomplishment and reward, there is also nothing quite like the thrill of having no client at all. Instead of a designer-client relationship that focuses on unique wants and needs, the design instead becomes based on what the market dictates. Real estate developers are often able to put aside their own personal aesthetic and analyze the market to guarantee a successful sale. As designers, we have the rare opportunity to work closely alongside the marketing and sales team early on to assist in assessing who the potential buyer or renter might be to create an aspirational space that will appeal to their distinctive sensibilities.
The first challenge is to understand the individual process of the developer, as it ranges dramatically depending on the market in which you are practicing. In the commercial market, past experience, team capacity and even the designer’s “clout” may all play a role in the selection process. In the residential market, there are two major market differences: creating spec homes; and pseudo-custom homes where a client is involved. With respect to both, part of the challenge is determining the scope of work and what level of flexibility exists in regard to the actual specifications and revisions to the floor plans.
For the ultra-luxury new condo project The Concord in Calgary, our team was brought in by the client to assist with interior selections of the penthouse that were guided by the developer, Concord Pacific, as well as provide design recommendations for additional enhancements throughout the suite. Often, the developer will have two to three finish and material options for clients to select from with names like the “light” or “dark” palette, or “warm” or “cool” palette, that while timeless, can leave little room for character. With limited customization, we look for alternate ways to express the client’s personality and individual design aesthetic once the unit is turned over. In this case, we included simple additions like wallpaper in the elevator lobby, powder room, dining room ceiling and master bedroom to create warmth and texture to the otherwise visibly contemporary space. Swapping out the basic lighting package, we installed beautiful fixtures that acted like jewelry throughout the home. More complex installations that required several different trades included extensive wall panelling throughout the corridors, built-in cabinetry with brass details and custom metal doors that had an Art Nouveau-inspired, time-honoured charm that again, helped to soften the bones of the space. Certainly, these custom elements elevate an already beautiful development by providing insight into the homeowner’s aesthetic sensibility.
Experienced builders in the residential market have a fairly specific process, pricing model and vendors that support their expansive portfolio, whereas small builders may have a looser process in place. In many cases, a client comes to our studio having already secured a piece of land where their builder has started construction. At the pressure of the builder — who has often left the interior specifications up to the client — this outreach can be quite late in the process, forcing clients to make important and expensive decisions on their home in a manner that doesn’t allow for thoughtful consideration. On some occasions, the builder has their own specifications and with others the designer has free reign to select from the vendors that best suit the client’s vision. While most designers would naturally prefer the latter, it is imperative to understand the developer’s process and requirements prior to commencing work. Speaking from experience, we have jumped the gun only to find out that everything had to be specified only from the builders’ suppliers. Goodbye billable hours, hello better project onboarding.
Another challenge faced in this type of arrangement is often the selections can be incredibly limited, especially if a design centre is your only option. A client’s vision may be very specific, like wanting a Moroccan tile backsplash, and the only option available in the price point allocated by the builder is a choice between two nearly identical white subway tiles. If by some miracle the developer does allow for specifications outside of their vendors, in that case both the designer and client must understand that there may be financial and even timeline repercussions associated with specifications outside the builder’s existing supply chain. If there isn’t open communication between the developer, it ultimately can reflect negatively on the interior designer, who is then criticized for budget overages.
While it is far more exciting for the client, and often the designer, to jump at the interior specifications, I speak from numerous personal experiences when I say: slow your roll. Asking about specifics regarding budgets, allowances, and schedules can affect how you can manage the merger of your internal process with those of the developer. Asking the critical questions will allow for a seamless process and hopefully repeat business for years to come.
As founder and creative director of her eponymous boutique studio, Amanda Hamilton is responsible for a diverse portfolio of projects in both residential and commercial markets across Western Canada. www.amandahamiltondesign.com