Replacing obstacles with options

When your client is remodeling, one of the biggest challenges can be working within the original footprint and architecture of the home and being able to provide your customers’ desired wish list. Relative to that challenge, I recently came across a kitchen remodel article on Houzz that walked through some of the unseen design obstacles that came to light during the teardown. It got me thinking…what if, instead of seeing those unpredictable things as pain points (problems to be fixed, you present them as opportunities with several options to move forward with/solutions), you present the unexpected surprise in the form of options? For some, this might seem obvious, but in all my years in this business, I find that changes are often presented to clients in a way that almost deconstructs everything that’s been built to that point–and I’m not just talking about the structure of the remodel! It’s the emotional repercussions of that dreaded word: DISAPPOINTMENT!

Designing from what’s already in a space instead of designing over it definitely comes with some particular challenges— so let’s walk through a few ideas on how to consider approaching it to remove the negativity from the experience.

Go with the flow

Let’s say, in the tear-down, you find a brick wall that had been covered up, or realize there are some old beams above the ceiling? Or maybe it’s not that sexy, and it’s a crummy old chimney that runs floor to ceiling? In my experience there sometimes weren’t as many beautiful historic elements, instead, there were more “UGH” factors, like mechanical chases hiding in soffits. Now, of course, the first step is to determine if the surprise is in any way harmful or structurally integrated. That may take a bit of time, but maybe even before you get into the technical dialogue with your contractor, the precursor is that dreaded conversation where the unexpected surprise is presented to the client. Along with that is the common sense question: How much is this going to cost?  (I’m pretty sure this happens in every episode of HGTV’s many remodel shows!) And if you watch those shows, there are varying ways to handle the conversation, but in order to make the experience a positive one, it’s a good idea to take some time ahead of that conversation to outline some options rather than assume their desired outcome. (#binaryselection) After all, it is their home and it’s hard to know which avenue they will prefer if you present only one.

CupPresent 3 solutions for the unexpected surprise!

Likely the three options you craft will also be reflected in the price, and when you present in this manner, you’re adding value through trust, integrity, honesty, and thrift. That, in turn, creates a greater level of security between you and your client. So even if the most expensive option is their preference, they will feel more trust towards you knowing that you extended alternatives and don’t appear to be pulling a fast one with their hard-earned money!

Breaking it down

I think many designers enjoy the challenge of a remodel, and earlier, I mentioned how that couple featured on Houzz let the home’s inner beauty shine by embracing what they found beneath the layers of time and changes that preceded them. Again, in some cases exposing a historic part of the home’s architectural underlayer can become a beautiful part of the design. But what about the scenarios that aren’t so beautiful? As I mentioned, finding a mechanical chase or a plumbing pipe in a soffit can be pretty common. In today’s designs, people want to remove those dated soffits to extend the height of their room. But if the client’s budget is set, what other options do you have? Here are a few scenarios that you could put together for presenting during that conversation:

  1. The full monty
    As the name implies, this is the version that gives your client what they were hoping for in the first place. Presented alongside 2 & 3, you will be able to show them the why related to cost and aesthetic.
  2. Half-and-half
    This would be a version that blends 1 & 3. In my soffit example, if you can minimize the obstacle to a section of one or two cabinets, the cabinet fronts could extend to match the rest of the design changes. The function would be less than version 1, but the cost would be less as well.
  3. Refresh, not replace
    This option is not one I would typically recommend presenting, but if you are unable to come up with more than two options, it’s a reality that the clients may need to select if their budget has no wiggle room. Using my soffit example, you would leave the soffit structure intact, and focus on embellishments that can be added elsewhere at the same cost you originally presented for extending the cabinets up. But also remember to seek out design elements for the soffit that can update the look at a minimal cost. For a Traditional or Transitional design, try a molding ledge and flat panel matching the cabinetry, capped by a room crown molding to bring it all together. And for that Farmhouse design, it might be a good place for shiplap or Stikwood if weathered or rustic is the right fit!
    stikwood image

Before all that…

I’ve mentioned in past articles that setting proper expectations is an important part of the service you offer and as we talk about presenting options to overcome unpleasant obstacles in a remodel, it would be a mistake to not also do a quick recap of what comes before all of that. checklistYou have your design, filled with your client’s wish list and all of the beautiful changes and you’re excited to show them their amazing new kitchen or bath. But did you remember to prepare them for the unexpected during the initial design proposal? And exactly what does that entail?

The stage when your client is moving towards signing a contract is a good time for presenting an outline of possible scenarios that could reveal themselves during the tear-out phase. I would stay away from getting into full detailed disclosure based on past experiences because you don’t want to frighten them away. Rather, keep it high-level and list out a couple of possibilities that you’ve encountered and use phrases like: In previous projects I’ve experienced…or…In a home similar to yours we uncovered...and connect it back to their wonderful home. And most importantly, tell them that you intend to communicate with them immediately during any unforeseen circumstances and that you will work together for the right solution. Back to my comment earlier on those HGTV episodes, I absolutely cringe when the unexpected expense ends up shocking the client and they are left feeling disappointed. Essentially you as the designer take the hit for something that isn’t your fault, but that’s why it’s so important to put so much effort into the front end of the process, so the clients expectations are properly met.

You can’t prevent what you cannot see, but you can properly prepare your client for the possibility! 

Q&A LOGOHow do you handle unforeseen challenges in your design projects? What approaches have been helpful in setting customer expectations? What experiences have caused you to change the way you do business in order to prevent them from happening in the future?


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