Erasing Preconceptions

If this country’s political landscape illustrates anything, it is that in our desire to categorize people and ideas we might miss the opportunities that are right under our noses. With this in mind, we must try to understand our neighbors, countrymen and colleagues without the trappings of the labels that go with them. Specifically related to the design/build world, it is imperative that we work as a team.

Builders must understand that a homeowner’s preconceived notion of them is not necessarily a good one. Chances are they have heard stories about bad contractors that lie, cheat and steal, such as the fictitious firm named Dewey, Cheatham and Howe.

Additionally, there is the perception that contractors are not responsive to homeowners. They don’t return phone calls, they leave their jobsites in a mess, or they leave a job in limbo for months at a time. While some of these stories might be based in fact, they are not the normal operational procedures for most general contractors.

So how do contractors overcome such negative stereotypes? First, don’t fall into the traps that lie in front of most builders. Designate someone on staff to return phone calls or notify clients if you are running late for a meeting. Being proactive and keeping customers informed is much easier than being reactive and apologizing or doing damage control.

Also, if you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional. This means having you and your staff look and act appropriately. No one expects your crew to act like boy scouts on the jobsite, but courtesy is a simple means of achieving tremendous success. For example, keep the music down to reasonable levels, clean up after yourself and don’t use profanity on the site. And a smile while saying good morning to the customer goes a long way toward establishing rapport.

Those of us who are designers also are guilty of perpetuating our own stereotypes. Are designers the overly dramatic, temperamental people that are so often depicted on television home improvement shows? Or are they the intellectual snobs that look down their noses at those bourgeois builders and homeowners? To overcome these labels, we designers need to hone our listening skills so that we truly understand the project and lifestyle objectives through the homeowner’s eyes, and the builder’s financial goals.

Additionally, we as home designers need to shelve our egos when it comes to working on the design/build team. Although our training and experience may tell us we are the most qualified to make design decisions, we need to use that knowledge in the context of the goals of the design/build team. For example, if I have past experience with a site condition that requires specific treatment, I am likely to make recommendations based on past success.

However, my solution may not be the only one, and I must listen to the builder and homeowner and work toward a mutually agreeable solution. Furthermore, even if that solution proves impractical or bothersome upon execution, it is important to resist the impulse of saying “I told you so.”

The stereotypes we as builders and designers have of homeowners are as varied as the homeowners themselves; they’re penny wise and pound foolish; they don’t trust the builder; they are unrealistic about their budget; and they are deluded by what they see on home improvement television shows.

Even though we may have the best intentions of being open minded in our meetings, our subconscious selves may sabotage our interactions with the homeowner.

Again, the most valuable skill we possess is our ability to listen. Try to document what is being said by the homeowner by repeating back to them their concerns and ideas. This provides validation for the homeowner and accountability for everyone on the team.

In general, we need to work hard at changing the misperceptions that are floating around the design/build world.

Joseph Dellanno is the founder of my Design/Build Project, a Web communication application for design and build teams, and president of my Design/Build Coach, providing design/build business training exclusively for residential designers and building professionals. He is also president of Design Solutions Inc., a national design firm providing professional design/build companies award-winning design services. Dellanno can be reached at (781) 648-5548 or