On this episode of The Edge of Innovation, we are talking with interior designer, Amanda Greaves of Amanda Greaves and Company, about the competitive world of interior design.
The Competitive World of Interior Design
Paul: So now, how competitive is the interior design world? I know I tried to get an interior designer to call me back, and that seemed almost impossible. So, why is that? Are you that busy, or they, you know, as a collective?
Amanda: It depends. It depends on the field that you’re actually designing in. So for myself right now, I’m working on a hotel, which is located in Groton, Mass. And this is where there’s a lot of investors that come in, and the scope and the breadth of this hotel has taken on a life of its own. And so I have had people call me, and it’s what? It’s August. I’ve had people call me recently, and they ask, “Hey, we’re starting a new home. When do you think you can meet with us? We’re hoping to break at such-and-so.” And I’m not taking on new clients for another four months, because I understand that I just do not have the ability to give anybody that kind of attention if I add more projects.
Paul: So as a businesswoman, though, how do you deal with the angst of giving up that work?
Amanda: I feel that over the last seven years, starting my own business, running my own business, I’ve created a network of builders, architects, previous clients, friends, associates—
Paul: Relationships, really.
Amanda: A lot of relationships where, fortunately for me, advertising isn’t something that I think about because, in the very beginning, all I ever did was network and I did a couple of magazine ads. But for me, it’s the value of the relationship that you develop with your clients. And then it becomes word of mouth and the value of the relationships that you develop with the contractors, the builders, and the architects. They enjoy working with us. We enjoy working with them, and we do the best we can to pass the word, the work, back and forth.
Paul: Right. But how do you personally deal with the fact that you have to not do an exciting job or a lucrative job, and you have to say no?
Amanda: Personally? That’s a very good question. A lot of it will be…
Paul: Because it’s painful, as a business owner.
Amanda: Sometimes, to say no to the possibility of X-and-so more revenue or profit or what have you, I look at the sanity of myself and my staff and, and I try to assess and say, “Hey, do you think that this is something that we can take on?” And we have a project board in our office that has all of our projects listed up there — what’s active, what’s active priority, what’s on hold, what’s pending — and if we look at that, and I can’t see the actual board itself, it’s a very quick and easy answer, because I know, through experience, how the schedules work. I’ll know, through the lifetime of the existing projects that we have, who’s going to be an easy breezy client moving forward or what some of the deadlines are and the importance is for my attention to another client aside from somebody that’s new.
If I tell a client that I’m not able start with them right away, I typically don’t ever say no. I will just say, I’m not able to start this until this time frame or that time frame. And I’d say nine times out of 10, they say, “Thank you very much,” and they go and find somebody else. And it’s because they want something right away.
The Changing Economy Effects the Design Business
It’s a blessing and a curse right now in the industry. Everybody — designers, architects, builders alike — we’re busy. It’s very, very different than it was when I started my business seven years ago.
Paul: Why? Why do you think that?
Amanda: It’s just the economy is changing. I think people are more confident in what they have in their back pocket. And I think that the real estate market’s a little crazy right now, as far as the residential side. But I also think that people are comfortable with where they are, and they are willing to spend some money on the things that they really want. Investments are up for some, so it’s just the design business is driven by and drives along with building and architecture and the real estate market and the general economy itself.
Designing a Boutique Inn in Groton
Paul: So now, you mentioned this project in Groton. It’s a hotel?
Amanda: It is.
Paul: How many rooms, approximately? Is it tiny or…?
Amanda: When, when we started the project, we were talking about a boutique inn, and it’s now a 60-room boutique inn. I’m not just quite sure how we can define the boutique-ness aside from—
Paul: So are you there quite often?
Amanda: I go every Tuesday.
Paul: So every Tuesday. What happens? Just to give somebody a flavor of what you’re deciding or shepherding or what you’re doing.
Amanda: I’ll give you just a little bit of history of the project. The Groton Inn was the longest continuously running hotel in America.
Amanda: Yeah. There’s stipulation as to when it was actually built and when it started, but it’s sometime between the late 1640s and, like, 1710 or something. So there’s like a 50 year, geez, we don’t know when it started — continuously running. Presidents have stayed there, important people — until 2011 when it burnt down. And at that point the town of Groton, as I am very quickly learning, is deep, deep, deep into their history, their heritage, their farming, the Indians, all of it. And there’s been a lot of really phenomenal people that have lived there, that stayed there — artists, writers, politicians, etc.
So the value and the desire to bring this hotel “back to life” has been huge for the community. And so there’s a big group of investors, and it started as a 40-room inn a few years ago. The scope ended up changing. It got put on hold, and now we’re at 60 rooms with a full-functioning banquet facility and small restaurant inside the inn, and then a 2500-square foot restaurant in a different building behind the inn that’s going to be running simultaneously but with a different design.
My responsibilities when I go to site on Tuesdays at this point is, What’s the door schedule? Do we have the right door sizes? What are all the door numbers? Are they swinging in the right direction?
“Hey, Amanda, have we made sure that the vanity sinks line up with the wall sconces that are above it? And can you walk through with us and go room to room to make sure that there’s not a beam above that’s going to prevent us from running a toilet line?” or something like that.
Paul: So you’re walking into these rooms and doing some close engineering.
Amanda: I can’t say that I do any engineering.
Paul: No, but I mean you’re going to say… I guess you’re going to point out things to engineers that need to be changed.
Amanda: Possibly. At this point, the point that we’re at right now, that would be too late. The engineers have been involved long before I got on board, and it’s interesting coming from an engineering perspective, they start with nothing, and then they move forward. For me, I try to start at the very end and work backwards. So I’m, in my mind, seeing the finished product and knowing that everything has to line up properly, or it’s going to feel weird.
Paul: That’s a good way to put it.
Amanda: Yeah. And for me to come in and say, “I really want a wall scone here.”
And they say, “No, you can’t do that because there’s a post in the way.” Well, then, I either need to figure out how the post can be adjusted before it gets installed or adjust my design on the outside or on the finish.
Technology Designers Use
Paul: Now do you use any technology for this? Do you use 3D rendering?
Amanda: We do. We use two different programs — Revit and AutoCAD. And the Revit program is phenomenal for 3-dimensional renderings.
Paul: Yeah. I heard that.
Amanda: Our ability to create an image that shows the client what the room or rooms or building is going to look like when it’s done, before they even break ground is so super valuable. It’s gotten me projects because I’ve been able to put some time in pre-project-wise and say, “Alright, if I’m jockeying for position,” to go back to your question, Is it competitive? In larger jobs like this one, yes it is. So we actually developed a couple of rooms in this Revit program and presented it and said, “This is what we think your inn is going to look like.”
Paul: I see. That’s hard to argue with.
Amanda: It is. You know, I just have to make sure that I’ve asked my clients the right questions. Are we going to traditional, or are we going contemporary? What kind of style are we looking at? So it’s the drafting programs are amazing. Then we use some basic ones like InDesign and PowerPoint and such. So there’s a lot of different programs that we use to get our point across.
Paul: So now, when you do that, though, does that help you say, “Oh my gosh, that beam is going to be a problem”?
How Designers Use Blueprints
Paul: So do you take the architectural drawings and enhance those, or are you just starting from scratch as well?
Paul: Both. Oh, cool.
Amanda: So lots of times, for example, at this inn, we were given the architectural plans and we were coming at it from the finish end of fabrics. Where the bed’s going to go, the headboards, window treatments, what’s the vanity—
Paul: How long ago was that?
Amanda: I got hired to do this project in November, and that was six months too late for me to get started. So I’ve been working on it since November.
Paul: So you should have been hired in…
Amanda: I should have been hired a year and a bit ago and it’s only been about eight or nine months. I say “should have” in the essence of—
Amanda: Yes. Optimally time frame wise, it would have been better.
Paul: Right. But at some point after that, the hiring decision has been made, you’re starting to think about what the room is going to be painted and what fabrics are going to be in it. So it seems like you said, you’re thinking of the end. They’re thinking of the blank sheet of paper, and you’re sort of racing towards each other, and hopefully you’re going to meet.
Amanda: Yeah. And when we crash, it’s very interesting. Fortunately for me, the architect I’m working with, we’ve done probably a half a dozen projects together, and he’s great. And so our communication is second to none, which is very, very important, no matter how you look at this. It’s very critical. So they’ll come to us with, “This is how the rooms are laying out. Here’s the structural design.”
And I’ll come back and say, “The furniture doesn’t fit this way. Maybe we can move these types of things around before we start building it.” So once we get into it, there are times where we will all walk through and say, “It looked good on paper, but it does not feel good at all in the space.”
Paul: So what do you do at that point?
Amanda: We assess how much value there is to changing it. And lots of times, the value that we speak of is, are we thinking of the end user as far as whether it’s a home owner or a guest of a hotel. How much more money are we actually going to be able to generate if we move it three inches to the left? How much is it going to cost us to move it three inches to the left? And so we have to have those discussions.
Paul: So do you have an example of that with a homeowner that you had to make some substantial changes because they came to terms with it and said, “I want to make that change.”
Amanda: Most homeowners have some sort of situation like that because the way that I do a lot of my design is design build. We get the basics. We get the design going. We understand the style and the type of cabinets. We get through a lot of the plumbing fixtures. Light fixtures can happen a little bit later.
Reading a Blueprint with Clients
Amanda: But a lot of my residential clients — and even some of my commercial ones, not as many — they need to physically be in the space in order to understand what’s going on. Looking at a piece of paper, that’s one of my checklist questions. Without trying to be condescending or belittle anybody, I try to be as politically correct as possible, ask if they know how to read floor plans, because I have come up with a few clients that do not.
Paul: Well, what does that mean? I mean, I think I know. But how do you judge that?
Amanda: I ask them. If I bring a floor plan of a room or of a building or whatnot, and we’re looking at it, and I read the face of my client, and they are not paying any attention, or I ask them a question and I point, and their eyes kind of get a little funny, I will blatantly ask them, “How do you understand? How do you interpret what’s going on? Do you see it in your mind? Can you actually understand what we’re looking at on this paper? Do you need me to turn it around so you’re sitting in the same direction that the house will be built in?”
And, there’s only been a couple of people that have said, “Yes, I know exactly what’s going on,” and they’ve had no idea. But it’s important. And unless we have clients that say, “Nah, just do whatever you want. We’ll be back in six months, check on progress…”
Paul: That sounds dangerous though.
Amanda: It’s very dangerous, but I don’t really have many clients that are like that.
Paul: Okay. Alright.
Amanda: It’s very interesting. I just have to be honest. I have to be open, and I have to be genuine with my questioning and not insult or upset anybody.
Keeping Clients Informed
Paul: So how do you keep people informed of the project? Do you call them? Do you email them? Do all of the above?
Amanda: We call them. We email them. We meet on site. We meet in my office. We go to showrooms. I’ve had people go to various different plumbing showroom, climb into tubs, and sit on toilet seats, because these are the important questions of the day.
Paul: Yeah. Okay.
Amanda: And there’s different lighting showrooms. When it comes to things like crown molding and baseboard, I can go online and find images online, show them — “Hey, this is what we’re thinking we’re going to do.” Some people do not care at all. They just know that they want something that looks good. And some people get really involved. I had one client that loved decorative hardware. Loved it. And you can spend a lot of money on the right types of decorative hardware. And then there’s some people that really just don’t care. So everybody is different.
Paul: Yeah. Absolutely.