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Lessons Learned 03: When Sh*t Hits the Fan

First published February 24, 2018

I have been meaning to jot down my thoughts about one of the most important parts of being a good designer: problem solving. I had three good examples come up recently so I figured this is as good a time as any. I'm not talking about theoretically problem solving spatial issues when in design development. But actually dealing with real world (potentially costly) problems during construction. Its the difference between someone you want to work with, who is going to be successful and recommended to the next project, and someone who you will write off.  

Usually things go according to plan. I lay out the process for my clients, we tackle the required steps one by one, I anticipate potential problems, and do my best to coordinate vendors so mistakes don't happen. Sounds simple enough. But once in a while, sh*t happens. Usually its items are delivered in the wrong color or damaged or never show up and all that takes are some time consuming calls to the company's sales rep. Annoying, not how I want to spend my time, but no biggie. When dealing with construction and remodels, bigger problems arise. I will tell my examples and then tell you how I solved the issues. 

Example 1: We planned a pretty neat kitchen layout. During demo it was revealed that there was a structural steel column exactly where I wanted to place the refrigerator. I knew I could problem solve this through good space planning. Joosh a wall there, move an appliance here. It needed to be done quickly because the walls had to be framed shortly thereafter. I reworked the layout that night, reworked the cabinetry the next day. The spirit of the kitchen remained in tact. The clients approved the change and we didn't miss a beat. That's why architectural revision clouds exist. These kind of discoveries happen all the time during demo. Expect them and be ready to jump in with a solution. Ultimately the solution created dead space we needed anyway for a vent, so it all worked out for the best. Phew.

Builder noted structural column location

Changes made to the kitchen and wall layout are clouded

Changes made to the plan are carried over to the elevations

Example 2: There is a series of sliding panels in a living room that cover a wall mounted TV and act as additional wall space for an hanging art. Its unlike anything I have ever seen or done before so there is a bit of a learning curve for the builder and myself. I wanted to keep the panels flat and clean looking. The panels were installed with a 2" gap between them based on the art consultant's requirements, but the client thought the gap was messy looking. We decided to add 1.75" deep frames on the panels to close the gaps. When they were re-installed they were quite ugly. The "Aha" moment - flip the panels 180" so that the backs are now the flat fronts, and the gaps are still closed but no one can see the trim anymore.

Example 3: Back splash tile was chosen and the order was placed because of a long lead time. At the time we ordered the tile, the cabinets were going to be white oak and the counter top was going to be Calcatta marble. Adjustments were made and we ended up with walnut cabinetry and panda marble counters. I had recommended the white color for the tile to keep things minimal. The clients wanted color and based on the glaze samples they chose the flannel color. Months later when the tile was installed it looked WRONG with the walnut and panda slabs.

The tone wasn't cool greys as the sample suggested, it was warm tans and yuck. It was a tough call but we decided to rip out the very expensive tile we had waited months for. Instead of waiting for new tile in a different color, we installed a modern stone slab back splash to match the counter top instead. It hurts to waste the otherwise beautiful tile, but in the grand scheme of the project budget it's a drop in the bucket.  And the stone back splash now looks beyond right with the kitchen.

Secretly I actually do like the problems that present themselves. I get super stressed in the moment but as soon as its resolved I realize I was pushed to think agile, the solution was what was best for this exact house, and now I have an even deeper expertise base. I will know how to anticipate something similar in the future to save myself and my clients loads of grief. These issues make me a better designer so I kind of welcome them.

That being said there a few things I always do to cover to CYA.

1) Be extremely picky about what clients you take on. You can tell if someone is going to be cool when things don't go as expected or flip out over the smallest hiccup.  Ask questions during the initial meeting to gauge their anxiety level. Remodels get stressful so you want to take on a client who gets the big picture. Has either gone through remodels before or understands that it will be wild ride and what they are about to take on. Its the designer's job to spell it out for them.

2) Have a liability clause in the contract that states what I cannot be blamed for. Make sure the client signs it and doesn't ask you to change the wording.

3) Keep a record of all emails and texts where you recommended one thing and they chose to do it their own way, or they agreed to your recommendation. If a client points a finger and says the mistake was your fault, its always handy to have a screen grab ready to go to show otherwise. Cool clients will say "my mistake, let's move on".

4) If its your mistake, own it immediately and eat the costs to fix it. They trusted you and paid you to get it right. So make it right as fast as humanly possible. If its your assistant's mistake, its still your fault and you have to own it. Pay for replacement material out of pocket. Put in the hours without charging to correct the mistake. Do it quickly and without complaining.

5) Keep a contingency. For the projected costs set aside 5-15% to cover mistakes and add ons. If you are very comfortable with the design details, 5% will do. If the details are sketchy, closer to 15% so you aren't left in a lurch. Show the contingency on the budget total so your clients are not surprised and have the funds to finish the project correctly.


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