Niche and Neat

While it can be a challenge to find added profits in a tough economy, sometimes all it takes is finding the right niche.

Indeed, many kitchen and bath designers have found that they can increase their profitability merely by finding a strong specialty area, developing an expertise in that area and marketing it appropriately.

That might be green design, unique powder rooms, high-end, one-of-a-kind kitchens or designs that promote wellness.

While the right niche can vary based on locale and the designer’s strengths and clientele, the one commonality, they agree, is having a unique point of differentiation that takes them from merely “product provider” to renowned expert and purveyor of dreams.

Seeing Green

Chris Donaghy believes it takes green to make green. Donaghy, managing owner of Kitchen Brokers LLC in Lorton, VA, believes in the power of green design, both ideologically and for its profit potential. Donaghy explains: “Instead of doing the ‘price versus value’ discussion, we determine the issues of passion for the client.”

He continues: “The trick to selling profitable ‘green’ kitchens is having a variable line up of products to meet every customer’s taste and price point.”

Donaghy believes that successfully selling green kitchens is much like selling any project, in that customers are interested in “selection, value and knowledgeable service.” However, since there are fewer design professionals who are truly schooled in the intricacies of green design, this can become a strong way for designers to differentiate themselves – especially if they can effectively market this expertise.

He suggests that kitchen and bath designers consider promoting lyptus, which imbues a project “with distinction, and gives the client a feeling of being super ‘green,’ unique and value conscious.”

Of course lyptus isn’t the only product that can help differentiate a project. For instance, he notes: “LED lighting has also become our standard and allows us to stand out over our competition, which still views LED as ‘too expensive.’

“Being green is multi-faceted,” he suggests. “We want to save the earth…and we want clean air in our homes. And we want to be efficient. We now focus our attention on seeking out manufacturers, builders and creators within 500 miles” [who can help us do this].

Healthy Profits

For Cynthia Leibrock, ASID, Hon. IIDA, of in Livermore, CO, healthy living is the inspiration for her firm. She not only creates spaces that inspire clients to live healthier lives, she also helps others in the industry do the same.

Leibrock believes health is wealth, and perhaps that’s why she is able to stay profitable even during tough times. After all, who can put a price tag on good health?

Focusing primarily on design education, she addresses both existing health and mobility issues and promoting healthier lifestyles.

She explains: “We eliminate disability through design, we don’t accommodate it. You’re only disabled when you can’t do what you want to do, [so] we show people how to do what they want to do so they are no longer disabled by their environment.”

She and her husband believe so strongly in this idea, they took almost their entire life savings and turned a home in Colorado into “Green Mountain Ranch,” a retreat and demonstration home designed to help inhabitants develop wellness-based lifestyles.

She invites kitchen and bath designers – at her own expense – to a week-long ‘Training for Trainers,” where they spend time earning continuing education units (CEUs) through 20 hours of training.

So, how does she profit from such an altruistic endeavor?

“If you’re a designer and have a great understanding of how to help people maintain their health, that is a very marketable product. That’s how you make a profit in this business – marketing.”

One of the centerpieces of her retreat is the kitchen, filled with appliances from sponsors Gaggenau and Kohler. It includes a magnetic induction cooktop, a steamer from Gaggenau and double ovens with an upper oven with steam capabilities to steam in nutrients rather than boiling them away. Other products include Silestone counters and floors and Hafele self-closing drawers.

Lighting also plays an important role in the design, as the home features over 100 lighting sources in the kitchen and dining room alone.

“I added the lighting to create enhanced visual acuity. I can elevate this lighting because, as people get older, they [typically] need five times the quantity of light.”

She continues: “Basically, I look at it as preventing the problems rather than accommodating them.”

One of the baths in the home features more design ingenuity from Leibrock: an invisible grab bar.

“The invisible tiles feature knobs on them, and they have magnets on the back that connect to the grab bar reinforcement. You can walk over and set the grab bar without the use of any tools, no bolts, nothing.”

Leibrock also spends much time creating demonstration homes, such as two “Recession Remodel” projects for AARP – one in Charlotte and the other in Seattle.

“My work is almost exclusively demonstration projects. I am designing projects intended to educate people,” she says.

She adds: “Ultimately, people are now flaunting their health, so anything you can put into someone’s house that improves their health almost becomes a status symbol.”

She concludes: “[The real beauty is] that you can do this type of design at almost every price point!”

Room to Spare

Sometimes designing for greater well being means looking at very specific needs, says Cynthia Shull, bathroom and kitchen designer and adaptable design specialist for Kitchen Mart in Sacramento, CA.

She explains: “Taking on the world of Universal Design, ADA or adaptable design for kitchens or bathrooms can be profitable, with the understanding that there is a vast amount of knowledge and new design thinking required.”

Shull has developed a rather unique specialty designing for obese clients and others with specific physical limitations.

She explains: “Anything other than a standard design requires a comprehension of physical limitations and available products in the market that will correct or ease that limitation.”

She notes that, for her designs, the typical concept of “upselling” does not come into play because the beautiful design is the upsell.

Of course certain products lend themselves to these types of specialized spaces, such as hands-free faucets for people with upper limb restrictions or wider toilets for obese clients, or drying systems for anyone who may be unable to dry themselves.

She adds: “Grab bars in a bathroom are standard for most every designer who delves into specialty designs, but for a customer who is only 4'9" tall or 4' around, there may be other challenges.”

Shull suggests installing toe kicks to help clients reach items on the bathroom (or kitchen) countertop, or a faucet that is located closer to the edge of the countertop for a person who is obese. Other common solutions she employs are walk-in showers with a bench seat and grab-bar, hand-held shower wand to assist obese clients, or roll-in shower floors to assist clients with walkers or wheelchairs.

Fresh Visions

Sometimes a small thing can make for big profits. For instance, while few projects are smaller in square footage than a powder room, this is one area where big creativity can lead to even bigger profits, according to Lori Carroll, ASID, IIDA of Lori Carroll & Associates in Tucson, AZ.

“Because they’re small, powder rooms give you the chance to be a little more daring with all of the great resources out there,” she explains.

“Having a space that characterizes their individual style is invaluable to most homeowners. So if a client can visualize and experience the exclusivity of a semi-precious, natural agate slab or the voluminous presence of a Black Grande Vessel, for example, then concerns about budget and value seem to magically fade away!” Carroll adds.

Of course it can be tricky making a profit from such a small space. That’s because, “No matter how incredible your design, adding an additional 40 percent markup to high-end materials may become cost prohibitive for even the most affluent clientele,” Carroll states.

She adds: “I’ve learned that most of my profitability in powder rooms comes from the actual design fee, not products or labor.” So, she looks for unique options that are reasonably priced, such as affordable lighting options that look like customized fixtures.

An important key to being profitable is marketing, she explains. “My advice for designers would be to get your designs out there. Potential clients need to see what you have to offer, either through design competitions or advertising.

Professional photos are well worth the expense. Even though times have been tight, homeowners really want to invest in unique bathrooms that will add a ‘wow’ factor to their homes.”

Custom Fit

Of course, exclusivity isn’t just the purview of the powder room – it can be equally profitable in the kitchen, according to Xavier Dupuy, third-generation president of Brisbane, CA-based La Cornue. He notes that at the very high end, where clients will spend to have something truly special, it’s critical to be able to create personalized spaces limited only by the client’s imagination. That means being able to offer custom colors and a vast array of design options so clients can get exactly what they want.

“The ultra high-end consumer is looking for a product that is custom, something one-of-a-kind that is made by artisans,” he states. Working in the luxury design sphere allows design professionals to focus on service, he explains, because these clients are less concerned with price than with finding a talented professional who truly understands all of the nuances of a product and how it performs.

While the ultra high-end market has experienced some drop off due to the recession, Dupuy also notes that this shift has created a call among the ultra high-end consumer for pieces that “offer a lifetime of quality.”

Although super-sized trophy kitchens may be on the wane, he says, “For the ultra high-end customer, luxury is not defined by large space, as much as having the best in class.” Design professionals who choose to target this high-end niche, he concludes, enjoy the added benefit of being identified with upscale products and top quality service and, as a result, have fewer issues with price objections or being forced to reign in creativity in order to meet budgetary issues.