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Working with designers

Navigating a project with a third party

Nobody likes being the third wheel. When you have a pair, there is one voice that speaks and one that listens. Introduce a third, and it gets complicated.

When a single purpose is to be achieved, it’s imperative that there be only one dominant voice. Therefore, a builder or maker must determine who is the Alpha and know their purpose or function. I call these the first two rules of a successful collaboration.

Those two rules are the basis for any successful collaboration. I could stop right here since that’s all you really need to know about making a collaboration work. They do say less is more, and the simpler we make this concept the easier it will be to implement. However, if you are like me, sometimes it’s good to have a little extra fluff to shed light on a topic to drive the runner home.

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Collaboration is my middle name. There is not a single project my company completes that does not involve the collaboration of a fellow professional. When I started out, the name of the game was doing everything yourself. That seemed to be the best way to maintain control and truly call the work your own. And I stumbled for years until realizing the benefits of teaming with others.

If you’re familiar with manufacturing, you’ll understand the importance of quality at each step of the process. And one of the best ways you can achieve that goal is to collaborate with shops that are better suited and/or equipped to perform those steps along the way.

Working with designers is no different. Even if you have an in-house design team, you will need to learn how to best collaborate with that department. Whether in-house or outsourced, you need to establish the two rules before the process begins.

Playing by the rules

I like to think of myself as an easy going, yet hard working team player. I’m aware of the fact that what I do requires a team, and I’m incapable of handling everything myself. Even Tom Brady, no matter how good he is, cannot win a football game by himself. So, to effectively collaborate with a designer, you’re going to have to check your ego at the door.

And although you may be the best at what you do, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be the point-person. The Alpha position is often predetermined by who brought the job to the table. Design typically precedes building, which means the designer is often the assumed leader. If the designer stays involved (project manages) during the entire building process, they often retain the Alpha role. However, the baton of the Alpha role is often passed off to the builder once the project gets underway. Even when that happens, there is usually some sort of joint custody of the project to help ensure it is built as envisioned.

To be successful in these third-party relationships, yes, you must play by the rules. If you can’t, then don’t bother collaborating. It’s really that simple. Ego and incompetence are the two surefire killers of a collaboration, which is why you must stick to the rules.

Successful collaborations will leave you hungry for more. They can be challenging, rewarding and highly profitable. But sometimes you can lose even when you play by the rules. There are no absolutes, except for the fact that nothing is guaranteed, no matter how well you plan.

All of this leads to the third rule: Expect the unexpected.

A tricky one

I’ve worked with many designers over the years. Even on the projects that were a total fail, I have always been able to take something good out of the experience.

I recently collaborated on a project with a design firm that I’ve worked with for many years. But this time, the client was a principal of the design firm. I expected that the owner and designer would be one voice and I, as the builder, would be the third wheel.

I thought the collaboration would work because the homeowner, nine times out of ten, will pass the baton to the builder when the chaos of construction is in full swing. This designer was very aware that we could bring their designs to life from our know-how as builders. But I soon discovered how quickly things can go wrong when you don’t enforce the rules!

The first thing that spiraled out of control was the emotion of the client. This is common in any project. The stress of change, disruption and cost can be overwhelming. We deal with it all the time, so it felt no different than the discomfort of a daily exercise routine. But it was strange coming from a design professional.

The fun didn’t stop there. Immediately after the pre-construction meeting, the designer/client took control of the construction process, which made me question why we were even there. Without the help of a referee, I quickly decided to call an audible and change the playbook. Now I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but I’ve been down this road before. You must understand something very clearly about running a small business and that is, if you allow others to dictate how you manage your affairs, you will experience nothing but grief and frustration. It’s like giving your house keys to a bunch of teenagers looking for a place to throw a rager; don’t expect it to look the same when you return.

The designer also changed the rules of the partnership midstream by choosing to use a different subcontractor rather than mine, which violated the terms of our contract. This was not necessarily a deal breaker but making this decision unilaterally and one week before the job started was unacceptable. Seeing the expected profits slipping through my fingers, I quickly decided to let the designer/client manage the project’s fit and finish aspects. I didn’t want to fight her very step of the way. Instead, I would concentrate on the rough-in work only, providing a blank canvass for her subs. This way we could exit the job before it heated up. Sometimes you just must cut dead weight by taking less money and responsibility.

She was initially thrilled with the prospect of this idea, thinking she had just pulled a golden ring coup. However, after she saw the result of destroying the collaboration, she finally asked for our help. It was truly a circus show as we had to rectify installed tiles that were broken and poorly cut, a crooked slab countertop with off-center faucet holes, leaky shower doors, incorrectly built cabinets, and a bad paint job. Imagine how poor the communication must have been between her and those contractors, not to mention the assumed lack of response when she attempted to get them to return for the punch list.

Collaborating with designers, yeah, it’s great. Just remember those two important rules and you’ll be fine. Better yet, put the third rule at the top of the list instead, because it’s the only one that is completely absolute.

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.

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