Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Client Contractor Relationships - creating a great rapport with your builder

One of the most painful sights in our business is watching a beautiful renovation or construction project degenerate into an acrimonious dispute between the client and their builder or contractor. Sadly, it happens all too often; as the interior designers we often find ourselves caught in the middle.

Whilst it's uncomfortable to be in this position, it does mean that we are often the one party who can see all sides of the picture. With this in mind, we thought we'd suggest some steps clients and builders can both take to minimise the chances of going down this road. After all, stress and anxiety aside, wouldn't you rather spend the last £10,000 in your budget on an exquisite sculpture, a pair of antique lamps or hand embroidered cushions than a series of last minute changes or even worse, increasingly acrimonious solicitors letters?

Restraint of pen and tongue could leave room in the purse for this
powerful sculpture in copper repoussé by Robert Kuo
We'll start by looking at things from the perspective of the contractor. According to Simon Lewis, Managing Director of building contractor RW Armstrong, "the primary reason that a relationship breaks down between a contractor and a client is a lack of meaningful communication".

Now is the time, before you've embarked upon the project and while everyone is still on friendly terms, to set out the ground rules, to ask the tough questions, to have the potentially difficult conversations. If you can set out both parties' expectations in writing and stick to them, so much the better.

By far the biggest bugbear of the contractors we've spoken to is a lackadaisical attitude amongst clients towards timing. In the words of Simon Lewis, "there is a lack of understanding of the importance of making firm decisions in good time. The contractor quite often needs information weeks, sometimes as much as six months, in advance of the materials ever being needed on site."

For example, you may think you don't need to settle on a precise stone, wood or carpet flooring until the three week lead time the supplier needs for delivery and installation, but the thickness of the material you choose will have a direct impact on the thickness of the concrete screed beneath, or possibly even the cabinetry.

Worse, by far, than the client who won't make timely decisions is the one who constantly changes their mind. Not only does it cause mayhem with the contractor and subcontractors, as well as unnecessary expense, it is deeply depressing for craftsmen who have to rip out work they have laboured over and start again. As for your chance of remaining on schedule, forget it.

Remember, it's not just you who is being affected by the resulting delays. Subcontractors and craftsmen have been scheduled in, and they may well have turned down other jobs only to find themselves kicking their heels as a result of the client's vacillation.  The client may then be surprised and hurt when they turn up on site and detect a slightly frosty atmosphere.

A clear vision, well planned and
provided for equals vibrant,
on-time on-budget results

On the subject of cost, there will almost certainly be a spread between the tenders clients receive from different contractors. Clients should resist the temptation to go for the cheapest or take the safe option and plunk for the one in the middle, and probe a little further. There are many variables that could explain the spread. A firm might have higher overheads, but this could include specialists with long experience who will predict problems and come up with solutions, and consequently the quality of the work will be higher, last longer and have a knock on effect on the morale on site. A firm may be more established, or have good relationships with planners and inspectors that will make the project progress through the various stages more smoothly.

When comparing quotes, some of the most important detective work for the client involves going over each line item in the Scope of Work document. Nowhere is the devil in the detail more than here. It's no good saying Builder X's quote is £50,000 less than Builder Y's and dismissing Y out of hand. Where has Builder X managed to shave that £50k? What corners has he cut to come in so low? Does the specification for bathroom tiles, for instance, or cornicing and cabinetry, seem suspiciously reasonable? If so, he may have found you a great bargain, but equally his expectations about the quality of the fit in your home may be significantly out of line with yours. Ask questions. Probe further before you make a decision, not after. Don't allow yourself to fall into the trap of hearing what you want to hear and tuning out the rest.

So often, clients have come to us excited about creating their dream bathroom, primed up to tour the marble yards, showing us pages ripped out of World of Interiors or a House & Garden feature on some new state of the art Swedish taps. Only when they tell us how much they or their builder have/has allowed for these items do we see their faces drop when we tell them this will extend to the type of sanitary ware more usually associated with the lavatories of a fast food restaurant. Or the taps are perfectly in budget until you allow for the ID (interior dimensions) difference in the fittings and the standard UK pipes.  As ever, it's about communicating your desires and expectations clearly and timely.

Meticulous planning results in a no compromise finish

Clients can all too easily get overwhelmed when a contractor starts throwing information at them and demanding decisions on all manner of items that according to one contractor, "they haven't even begun to think about". What kind of electric switches do you want?  What lighting for the bathroom? Will you be having a hand held shower, a rainforest head, or a spa shower? A good interior designer with their years of experience and vast resources will guide clients through the process.  Sadly it is often at this late stage we are approached by clients pulling their hair out. Really, we'd have preferred to have had the conversations six months earlier whilst the client was just beginning to choose their team and in that luscious creative cocoon phase where anything really is possible; but better late than not at all. Decisions made in a rush are generally ones the client will come to regret, where they are more likely to want to change their minds, and where ultimately they will go over budget.  Why not spend the money getting what one really desires in the first place instead of on variance orders?

Next time, we'll be looking at the relationship from the perspective of the client and asking what contractors and project managers can do to see a project from the client's perspective...