All for One

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When it comes to partnering with allied professionals – such as builders, architects and interior designers – many kitchen and bath designers believe the best approach can be summed up by the maxim: “All for one, and one for all.”

However, the crucial part of that equation is that the “one” should always be the client – and that means being able to set aside egos, communicating frequently and overcoming some differing design outlooks. It also means recognizing and respecting each other’s unique skill sets, and how they can be best utilized to make the collaboration a success.

Kelly Stewart, CMKBD and director of sales development for Stamford, CT-based Kitchens by Deane explains: “The first thing to keep in mind is that [these types of professional partnerships] can be very lucrative. Building a good relationship and getting that repeat referral business can make the difference between [having] a mediocre sales year and an exceptional sales year.”

However, there are plenty of dynamics to keep in mind when entering such a partnership, says Alan Asarnow, CMKBD, CR for Ridgewood, NJ-based Ulrich, Inc. “It is critical that both [parties] have a similar mindset as how to they deal with clients. The idea is to work for the benefit of the client. I think that any business arrangement between the two practitioners should be [set in] writing [with terms] agreed upon prior to the start.”

Stewart agrees that design collaborations can be a positive experience for kitchen designers – as long as everyone involved pulls together. “It has to be mutually beneficial,” he points out. “You need to understand all the things that they can do for you, and they need to understand all the things that you are bringing to the table, as well.”

He continues: “When you show up at an interior designer’s or architect’s office with a plan that is really well done and blends well with the concept [they envisioned], then they see the value of what you are doing, and the value for the client.”

However, it’s not just about promoting your own talents, he warns, it’s also about understanding the skills and work processes of the other professionals. For instance, he suggests that “People who are new to the industry [or to collaboratinh] need to [seek out mentors who have had successful collaborations with architects, so that they understand when an architect is in an early concept phase, when they are making construction documents or when they are going to planning boards and asking for variances.”

Likewise, there are distinct differences between how interior designers and kitchen designers think and work. David Karlson, CKD and owner of Evanston, IL-based Karlson Kitchens sees things this way: “[The main difference is] that engineering the spec is an important element in kitchen design, whereas doing the interior design is more emotional. In other words, in interior design, there is more than one right answer. By comparison, to me, [as a kitchen designer], there is only one right answer – nine feet of cabinets [won’t fit] on an eight-foot wall.”

Karen Veltri, v.p./business development for Morris Plains, NJ-based CKC Kitchen & Bath Design Center, agrees: “The interior designer is really going to look at the entire room and consider the walls, the window treatments and the accessories. We focus more [specifically] on the cabinetry, the countertops, the backsplash and the flooring.”

So, how do design partners work together successfully when they often have inherent, philosophical design differences?

Ken D’Andrea, owner of Sonoma County, CA-based Equipoise Design, offers his opinion: “The idea would be for a kitchen designer or the homeowner to put together a team that [resembles] Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You need the architect to design the overall space, but also a kitchen and bath designer, and an interior space planner to come in and make that design work and function.”

The big question, of course, is who does what? “Unfortunately – due to overlapping spheres – people are sometimes reluctant or not knowledgeable enough [to decide] who the best person is to address that particular challenge,” he comments.

In fact, lack of communication can be the biggest pitfall to any project, Stewart believes

. “The [worst thing a kitchen designer can do] is shut out [the allied professional] and not keep them informed. You have to work well with the successful bidder, the general contractor, the subcontractors, and the rest of the trades.

Asarnow adds: “Working with other professionals broadens your scope of work and broadens your possibilities – I like that aspect of it.

“I find that it gives me much more creative license, and as a result, I am able to better provide for my client.”

Skills, Set, Match

So, what are the skills that each of these design professionals brings to the table, and how does it benefit the client? According to Karlson, the differences are cut-and-dry.

“I find that the more technical it is, the better suited we [as kitchen designers] are to help the client, such as specifying the products. Interior designers can be pretty good at the style of design, but when it comes to making it fit – especially measuring the wall and engineering – we find that a lot of the interior designers don’t understand it enough.”

He continues: “Architects are better at engineering than interior designers. Meanwhile, some custom home builders are good at architectural things and are pretty decent at the decorating aspect of it, but unless the home has been sold, they typically design for the masses.”

Stewart adds: “As a general rule, architects have an extremely good eye for design. They understand when a plan works well and when things [are balanced] properly and when there is a good rhythm to the elements of the design.

“They also understand the structural elements to the house, the exterior elements and the limitations that we have for moving windows and doors.”

Asarnow agrees: “A lot of kitchen companies will change a window or move a door, but if I want to move a window – and the architect has designed the addition – I am not just going to move it. I’ll discuss it with him and tell him what I want to do because it will affect the outside of the house.”

Karlson adds a slightly different perspective: “We are kitchen designers and we do that for a living. Architects, for example, are great house designers and I would never say that I could design a house. Their kitchen design is probably fine, but it is not their expertise.”

To that end, D’Andrea offers this: “The challenge is to find people who are willing to work together as a team and become comfortable in overlapping spheres of knowledge and influence.”

“There is an innate sense of style and color that we all share,” says Veltri. “However, we find that our technical knowledge with regard to how cabinetry is built and the options available with each line, for instance, are ways we can guide our interior design client,” she adds.

She adds that the kitchen designer typically specifies product, saying “the client budget dictates for us which lines they are steered into.”

According to Asarnow, it depends more on the situation. “If I am working in a library, I will likely specify built-ins and structurals, while the interior designer is going to work with me on finish and species and style,” he says. “If I’m building an addition, the architect is going to work on the structural and exterior aesthetics, and I’m going to have influence by telling the architect that I need ‘X’ amount of space.”

He continues: “Something I could never understand is when an architect estimates that a 15-foot addition seems right for a particular kitchen. But why does that seem right? I would prefer to design the kitchen first and then go to the architect and tell him or her how much space I need.”

While Asarnow does concede that there are times when skill sets overlap, he quickly adds: “The best way these relationships work is when they are complementary. This is the only way that the client gets the benefit of dealing with a broader professional base.”

Lead the Way

Understandably, one of the biggest challenges with collaborative projects is deciding who should lead the project.

But Asarnow thinks the answer to this is simple: “I believe the hierarchy is based on the relationship with the client,” he explains. “For example, if the interior designer brings the client to me, then it is her client and I am helping. If I bring the client to him or her, then it is my client and they are helping,” he explains.

“Generally, the designers, builders and architects that we work with defer to our designers within the kitchen realm,” says Veltri. “Their input will typically [pertain to] color and style. It makes it a very nice working relationship.”

According to Karlson, his experiences have very much been trial-and-error.

“At one point, we tried to lay out different programs for [the allied professionals we were working wtih], similar to a menu, as to what they wanted us to do. But, it didn’t prove successful because we needed to be more flexible – we didn’t realize that every professional has different needs.”

D’Andrea has found a formula that works for him. “I have a build team that I work with and I’ve learned that I can [create] drawings and plans and get the permits from my own drawings.”

He adds: “I am coming from a design-build mentality, so the most important [people] for me are the contractors and my vendors. Basically, when I talk to people about the finish on the screws of the towel bars, I need someone who will respond to that [type of detail].”

Karlson concludes: “[The bottom line is that] as long as the client is happy when it’s over and my relationship with these professionals was professional, I know that I’ll get more business.”

Leggo my Ego

For many kitchen designers, having confidence in one’s ability – or what some might call a healthy ego – is what helps them to achieve success. But, D’Andrea warns, too much ego could jeopardize the success of the project – especially in a collaborative project.

“Most people have so much of an attachment to their part of the process that, in effect, the homeowner starts to pay the price of not having a unified team around him or her,” he explains.

“The most important thing is to put my ego aside and remember that the highest good is going to be served if I can let everyone feel that they are important,” says D’Andrea.

According to Karlson, kitchen and bath designers need to trust in their abilities enough to check their egos when the situation calls for it.

“When you are dealing with professional people, you have to know enough to take a step back,” he says.

To that end, D’Andrea offers this analogy: “At different times, each player is the one who’s carrying the ball across the goal line. Sometimes you’ll have to pass it off, and the crowd will cheer for that guy.”

Indeed, if all the design professionals involved are working toward a common goal, then there is an exponential increase in design credibility, he adds. “It also translates into an easier environment to promote ideas, to promote the best project and to make sure that the client’s needs are being met with the resources needed to effortlessly produce a high-quality project,” he says.

Stewart concludes: “[When design professionals can set aside their egos], the clients get a better product; and you get a partner that is more apt to send a client your way next time because they know that you are not somebody who is going to be a loose cannon banging around on their ship”

Privacy Please

So, what is the best way for kitchen and bath designers to communicate their position?

For Asarnow, both parties will be better served if concerns and ideas are hashed out privately.He explains: “Communication is the beginning, the middle and the end. You can’t have enough and you certainly can’t have too much. Therefore, it is good to have at least one meeting together with the other practitioner and the client.”

Asarnow adds that it’s okay to have an issue with something, but the key is not to make the other practitioner look bad.

“You can’t be bigger than them – especially in front of the client,” adds Karlson. “You have to answer their questions and let them drive. When you are in meetings, you don’t want to argue in front of clients and compete with the person that the client has hired.”

He adds: “We try interview the professional at the beginning and find out what they want us to do and what their involvement will be because they all bring different knowledge and expertise.”

Karlson adds that this approach can differ slightly on the job site – assuming the client is not present.

“It allows you to be more straightforward. With a client there, I will be more diplomatic and less forceful. But, if something needs to be done a certain way, you have to say it because that’s what you are being hired to do,” he explains.

To avoid miscommunications, Stewart suggests that kitchen designers offer the professional courtesy of meeting with the architect prior to presenting a plan. “This way, we are all pulling in the same direction,” he says. He adds: “When they show up, they want to be the most knowledgeable person at that meeting, so you need to let them know what is going right, what is going wrong, and what is being done to solve [any problems].”

He continues: “One of the other important things is that more kitchen and bath designers are working in Auto CAD and able to have an architect e-mail their plans over. Then your staff can pull off the architectural layers of the drawing that you don’t need, superimpose the kitchen layers onto the same plan, e-mail it back to them and really build a seamless design.

Karlson concludes: “[Ideally] everybody should manage themselves in a professional [manner], and allied professionals have to recognize that we are professionals as well.”

Pay for Play

One of the other key aspects to creating successful partnerships is determining a fair pay structure.

While some note that allied professionals earn a commission based on the contract price, commissions are, overall, somewhat unusual.

“The architects and interior designers I work with get paid a certain fee by the client, and that is [in the case of architects] a percentage on top of the work that I do. There is no financial negotiation with the architect and [Kitchens by Deane],” says Stewart.

He adds: “The same thing holds true for the majority of interior designers. On rare occasions, there will be a finder’s fee or a commission paid to an interior designer for bringing a client to us, but that is not [typical] for architects or interior designers.”

“The pay structure is all over the place,” adds Karlson. “Sometimes it’s nothing, and sometimes they tell me that the deal is paid for in advance. When that is the case, I’ll give my best price and sell it straight to the client.”

While he admits that commissions are sometimes requested, there are also times when “I sell it to them, they mark it up and sell it to the client, and I don’t know what price they are charging.”

He continues: “It is this issue that we’ve struggled with in the past, because everybody has different expectations. Some people want a little, some want a lot and others want too much.”

“This is where the flexibility comes in,” he adds. “The idea is to try and meet our needs and solve the client’s problems – while making it good for the professional person. Then, of course, we want to make sure that we can do the work and be profitable.”

In the end, Asarnow offers this perspective: “There is no perfect relationship – you have to deal with the bumps just like anything else.

He concludes: “[Partnering with allied professionals] is certainly worth it if you do it – and I don’t just mean in terms of money. You should always remember that money is what you get when you do your job well. If you are doing right by your client, you are going to make the money. So, forget about the money and focus on doing right by the client.”