Should You Hire An Interior Designer, Architect Or Builder For Your Renovation Project?

Strap in people because its a long one.

So, several months ago a potential client reached out looking for information about working with us as they were planning a major renovation to their house. The project involved moving walls and reconfiguring the floor plan an additional bedroom and bedroom. As well as a whole new kitchen. Pretty much every room was to be overhauled.

Of course, I was more than happy to meet with the client to see the space in the flesh and start the process. I discussed in detail how our process works and how we work with a team of tradies and other professionals to bring the project to fruition. From concept to construction to furniture installation.

Woollahra House by interior designers Arque

Now, because this is a working meeting, we do charge a consultation fee for our time together. We booked a meeting, but after a few days passed I heard back from the client. They decided to cancel our meeting because in her words. “I found a builder to help me with my renovation project”. My guess is that the client found a builder who was willing to meet with them in their home at no charge to see the space in order to quote on the project.

Now, this isn’t a blog a bash on builders, they have their own set of skills, as do interior designers and architects. But, this has been a post that I have been wanting to write for a while. Why? Because knowledge is power.

Kitchen Renovation. One x One Interiors.
Silverdown House by One x One Interiors

I have seen this happen not just to me, but other designers where a client will either choose to project manage their own remodel, or hire a builder thinking that’s all they need. Consumers are generally not informed about the roles of builders vs architects vs interior designers, and why some projects may need all three. So, let’s go to school…

Firstly let me first explain what the different roles are.

The Builder’s Role

Builders are do-ers. Their job is to take the plans that you have for your home and execute the plans according to the exact specifications. They are responsible for managing the subbies like electricians, plumbers, etc. They are also responsible for the final project quote. Builders typically do not get involved in any of the design aspects of your project. They are usually not able to help you with layouts, materials selection. They simply work from your plans. Some builders do have in house designers and architects, or have relationships with these professionals that they will bring in on their projects. But, usually they do not take on the additional risks involved with the design of your project. Builders typically will meet with the client at no charge for the initial meeting. This is because they are only there to see the space, listen to the client’s needs, take measurements and then provide a quote. They typically do not brainstorm ideas, provide any real direction, discuss concepts etc. They expect that you already know what you want and will have plans ready for them.

Beach House by interior designer Justine Hugh-Jones

The Subbie’s Role

I am including this because I know that some homeowners take on the task of managing their own project. That is a lot of work for a homeowner to take on. Typically subbies are hired by the builder to carry out specific tasks for the project. So, as you can imagine, there are tons of different subbies that touch your project before it’s finished. Someone has to take the lead in managing them, coordinating schedules, making sure they have the plans they need, the materials they need. Basically, keeping them on task in order to move the project along in a timely manner. A sub will also meet with the client at no charge, and will only focus on their particular specialty. They don’t look at the big picture necessarily. Like the builder, they are there to listen to what you want and provide you with a quote.

The Architect’s (or building designers) Role

The architect’s role is very important if you are doing any renovation that involves extending onto your existing space. Their job is to take your existing space and create a new design of the structure that will address your functional needs. They draw all the plans with your needs in mind. Architect’s usually will include a furniture layout for each space showing traffic patterns, focal points etc but it is typically very general and not always with the client’s lifestyle in mind. This is simply because some may not assist you with purchasing furniture and while they may provide a basic electrical plan, this may not be detailed enough to address your existing pieces and/or new pieces that you will bring in after the renovation stage. Some architects will also provide interior design services, or have relationships with interior designers.

Some architects or building designers will charge for that initial meeting and some won’t. Architects typically will discuss structural and layout changes at the initial meeting, and maybe even some minor review of your existing plans, if any.

Feature Image and above by Inglis Architects

The Interior Designer’s Role

The interior designer’s role is to come up with the ideas and concepts based on the client’s needs and wants. They help clients see way beyond what they could imagine for themselves. You don’t even have to know what you want or how to get what you want before you call an interior designer in. We help you figure that out. Interior designers introduce clients to products and materials that will create a unique and custom look for their home. We are then able to draw detailed plans including millwork, tile layouts, and present them using technology like floor plans, elevations and 3D renderings.

Interior designers are more of a one-stop-shop. We conceptualise the ideas, create plans and often oversee the project through the construction stage. Right through to the decorating stage, where we order all the furnishings and install them for a complete finished look. Some interior designers choose not to manage the construction phase, but most will have a support team of builders, architects, and subs.

Most interior designers will (and should) charge for that initial meeting, since we are getting to work immediately with ideas and concepts

Potts Point House by interior designers Amber Road Design

So, Who Should You Call First?

Well, I’m biased because I am an interior designer, but you should definitely call in an interior designer first. Here’s why?

  • We will help you decide if the ideas and vision you have for your space are viable based on the space you have to work with.
  • We will help you with floor plans, elevations, construction documentation and 3D renderings to help you visual your space before we hit the go button.
  • We help you decide if the improvements you want to make will bring you the return on investment you want or expect.
  • We help you with fresh new ideas, products, materials that you possibly would never have known about.
  • We will help you to decide if your scope of work is in line with your budget.
  • We will inform you of all the highs and lows of a renovation project.
  • We keep your overall needs and lifestyle in mind. Right down to the minute details of your life to make sure the space functions for you.
  • We understand how to interpret your style in your home and steer you away from trends which will quickly date.
  • We will introduce you to our vast network of trades and resources to make your project the best it can be.
  • We stay involved throughout the process and even oversee the construction phase.
Swedish Home by Liljencrantz Design

So, if this is as straight-forward as I have explained it, why are consumers so confused? and why do they just resort to hiring a builder or managing the project themselves?

Well, it boils down to costs. Obviously the more professionals you bring in the more you are paying in fees and the less that goes toward your actual project. This is why you will find that some homeowners will make professionals do the work of others to save money. I have heard from many subs and builder that their clients ask them design questions on a regular basis, or expect them to choose the countertop or cabinetry or whatever, instead of calling in an interior designer. They will also ask the builder to give them their opinion on whether they should move a wall or not. While some builders are experienced enough to help with some of these questions, it is not their area of expertise, and they certainly don’t want to take on the risk. They have so much to do as it is and usually don’t have time to do someone else’s job.

Elwood House by Matyas Architects and interior stylist Nina Provan

However, as the client, you need to know what you have to spend on your project, and how best to use that money. For example, if you have $25,000 to renovate a bathroom. You absolutely need a builder to get the work done, but I would suggest calling in an interior designer first. An interior designer will charge anywhere from 8-15% for their design fee or some charge an hourly fee, so that means at least $3,000 in fees gone from your budget. Some interior designers have a minimum fee requirement regardless of the size of the project, usually around $10,000 for decorating and $50,000 for renovations, sometimes more. But, you may not need the interior designer to fully manage the project for you. You may have them create the drawings and select materials and you and your builder can take it from there. However, in our design studio, we strongly recommend including a couple of site visits to review drawings with the builder.

Skimping on the important parts of the project can actually end up costing you in the end. Regardless of who you decide to hire, you absolutely need to have detailed plans on paper. Just saying something verbally is first of all not binding legally. It is always open to individual interpretation and people forget things. When it is properly documented and everyone signs off on it, that leaves little room for error. And even when errors occur, it will clearly define who is liable. It is easier to back-track when the error occurred. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I have heard about installations that go rouge.

When an interior designer is involved, our drawings will clearly state what we want, with detailed dimensions and elevations. We often will meet with the builder on the day that item is being installed because we know that we are asking for something unusual.

Melbourne House by interior designer Simone Haag

The idea of a renovation is already very overwhelming, and there are a lot of decisions to be made quickly. Every decision impacts the next and delays can happen if the process is not carefully managed. We work with your builder to ensure that materials and products are being ordered on time. Again, we look at the big picture, down to the furnishings that we will be installing later. Most builders don’t handle that.

They don’t know that you inherited your grandma’s china cabinet that you would like to add to the dining room. So, therefore the chandelier should not be centred in the room, but instead over the table. They don’t know that you need a floor plug in the living room by your reading chair. They don’t know that you love to cook and would like to be able to reach all your spices easily. All the little minute lifestyle details that are hot buttons for you, are accounted for by an interior designer, and typically your builder is not set up to handle that. That’s not to say they don’t care about the final outcome. They do, but it is not what they do.

Regardless of what your renovation budget, you cannot go wrong with some good advice from an interior designer. We offer consultations to help you explore the possibilities, give you ideas, provide guidance and help you plan your project. We are not shy about educating clients on the pitfalls and some of the negative things that we have seen. Not to scare them, but to prepare them so they won’t be shocked later. An educated decision is the best decision. While a $10,000 budget won’t go very far with an interior designer managing things for you, that consultation may help you refocus and possibly decide to wait a bit longer if you don’t have the time, or are up for the challenge of a renovation.

Hopefully, this article has opened your eyes to understanding the roles of the different professionals you may need for your next project. You may need all of them, and you certainly need an interior designer. If anything, my hope is that it will help you to ask the right questions of any professional that you bring into your home.