Hiring the right people in every single aspect of your life can make a massive difference not only for the job they are hired for but your emotions and stress. Hiring the wrong person/team can add so much more stress than not having anyone at all. It’s an art, really, knowing who is right for YOU (I’m talking nannies, employees, accountants, every. single. person. can either make your life easier or more stressful). Historically I’ve been pretty good at it, TBH and this isn’t any different, but I did go about it in a different way. I feel like I finally did a smart “business” move. Learning from past experiences, not repeating patterns/mistakes – look at me!!! As we were closing on our property in Portland (official intro post comes tomorrow!!!) we made the decision to renovate the home in Oregon while living here, in Lake Arrowhead as opposed to renting a house in Portland during Covid. Schools aren’t open, we can’t really enjoy Portland or even be with friends/family right now so we’ll continue to hide out here while the reno is happening. So if we are here, in CA – a 16-hour drive away – who is going to manage this renovation? Who will help assist with the photography and content creation, help make on the fly design decisions when they arise? I’ve been to the property twice, and sure have spent probably 20 hours there total, but who is going to really be there to oversee the design? I put it out there in this blog post and from your suggestions (THANK YOU) I started reaching out to compile the team.
As you know, I no longer have an in-house design team (Fun fact: Velinda, Julie, and Grace (and Bowser as freelance) are all working together – hire them! They are so talented and more of their projects are coming soon:)) so doing two major projects out of state on my own is not an option (remember I’m helping with my brother’s new build in Portland too). I thought about hiring a few design assistants in Portland but, realizing I like a smaller team of employees, I had a new idea… what if I didn’t hire a team of assistants that work for me? What if I instead hired a professional with their own team????? Instantly at that thought my stress level DROPPED. I pitched the idea to Brian and he could see on my face that this is the only way he’s going to get his wife to stay sane for the next two years (and he seems to really enjoy my sanity). More on that below…
What Type Of Team Do We Actually Need – Who Are The Players?
- A pro-space planner – either an architect, interior architect or a designer who excels in laying out a challenging house. Obviously, they need to be proficient in floorplans, be able to do all the accurate drawings and work closely with an engineer. It’s crucial that this person considers the way the light moves through the house, the views, the flow and knows how a family really functions – not just putting rooms next to each other. I’ll show you tomorrow, but the first floor has to be very much reworked and I was stumped. Floorplans are not necessarily my expertise (although I am getting more and more confident with every renovation which is very empowering).
- A general contractor/builder – We want someone specifically who has done a lot of historic homes (turns out there are a lot in PDX as there are so many historic homes). The right GC would have a lot of experience, be FIR certified (a PDX pass to help licensed contractors get homes renovated faster by dedicating 1 inspector throughout the whole process). We wanted someone super familiar with the codes, permits and could get things through the city the most efficiently. We wanted high quality, a huge attention to detail, knowledge of the artisans, subs, vendors in PDX, and experience enough to tell us where we are spending too much unnecessarily, etc. We want a real pro.
- Project Manager – Some GCs have project managers, some don’t. I knew that we would need one, for sure. This person could check on the property, keep orders going, make sure things arrive in time, think about budget/deadlines, etc. Bri and I don’t excel in organization so we need just someone being SUPER on top of it.
- Blog/content /social media assistant – Not being there means that I need someone up there to help take photos of the process, videos, timelapses – all the things and help communicate to my team what is going on, so we make sure all the social lines up with the blog post.
- Design help – yes, I’m a designer and I had a pretty clear vision for this project but I like having someone else to bounce ideas off of and really feel ‘into’ the project with me. This is where I started fantasizing – what if I could have more of a creative partner? Someone who had MORE experience than I do, especially in the renovation/architectural finishes world. Someone who was as creatively invested in the project, someone I could share both the glory and the blame with? Ha. What if that someone could take my ideas and make them better because of that experience??? To help me avoid mistakes, to help keep things streamlined, keep me from unnecessarily changing my mind (not an easy job), to help give me confidence in huge design decisions so I stopped going back and forth? What a DREAM. While I truly love all the ‘I Design, You Decide’ and ‘Ask the Audience’ posts, what if I did have someone to help me pull the trigger or tame my ideas when I go off course?? Better yet, someone who would take the reins of the project and almost treat me like a client? What if they presented the electrical plan and window schedule, to ME, and I approved it instead of me coming up with it and hoping I did it right. What a fantasy. So yes, we went for the fantasy to see if it could be our reality.
We took your suggestions, did some further reach-out from friends/family, and started compiling our favorites.
Here’s What We Were Looking For In The Right Team:
- Good chemistry – That’s really #1 especially for people like Brian and I who really value relationships and personally liking who we are around. This isn’t a lawyer or a surgeon. We are going to be working with whoever this is for at least a year (if not WAY more, you’ll see), very closely and very publicly, so I can’t dread a meeting, or be annoyed at poor communication. It has to be fun (remember I’m a 7, enneagram). This project will be stressful as every renovation is, but I don’t want this relationship to add to the stress – it should actually decrease it. Our conversation needs to be easy, not fraught or strained and we really like “friendly directness”, not placating us because we are the client, nor being annoyed at the fact that I care so much about details. We just need to be on the same page as much as possible in how we communicate. In short, we need to have good chemistry.
- Experience – While I think there is so much creativity in young people straight out of school, this is a HUGE project and likely our forever home, and it’s A BEAST. I know from my own experiences that the only way to really know what you are doing in the field of renovation is YEARS of doing it over and over. It’s directly proportional – the more experience, the less mistakes (or as who we hired has said a few times – we’ll make our mistakes early, on paper not later when it costs so much more to fix). We knew that hiring someone with a lot of experience would cost more – AS IT SHOUlD – and we are happy to pay to have that confidence.
- Creativity and a shared vision – Designing and building a more standard house is easy for most professionals but taking it to the next level, doing something that no one has seen before but in a timeless way is HARD. I need to know that who we are hiring can take it to the next level at the same time understand our design intent and help me STICK to it. Ideally, they would see the art direction deck and just ‘get it’ so that I wouldn’t have to consistently say ‘no, that’s not what we are going for, remember????’ It’s a lot to ask, but if you are hiring someone on the architecture/design side this is EXTREMELY important to make sure you really get what you want long term.
- Shared values/intent – We want a team that would respect the history of the home/s and while we want to make it more efficient and functional for our family, having a passion for older homes was pretty important. We also want a team to help us be as sustainable as possible – to help advise what we can reuse where, who to donate to that will give to the right resources, where we can source the best reclaimed everything, and most importantly how to design it so we never have to replace anything (truly the most sustainable thing you can do). Obviously, we want to conserve water, energy, etc too, so having experience doing that would be extremely valuable. *Here’s a fun anecdote, while we were doing an electrical walkthrough up here, at the mountain house, Velinda asked if a particular fixture was up to the CA code for energy efficiency and the electrician quickly and gruffly responded, ‘we don’t let the government tell us what to do up here’ and we looked at each other and were like ‘uh, dude, we just want to conserve energy, we aren’t trying to take away your guns’. We made sure it was, of course, but we were also told that the inspectors up here don’t check it because they don’t like government regulations – SO THAT’S COOL. Anyway, we just want a team that is going to be mindful of the planet, long term (not a problem finding in PDX, by the way – people up there CARE).
- Professional and organized – Managing a renovation like this is A LOT and having systems and protocols, as boring as they are, is extremely important – especially for budgeting and timing purposes. Brian and I are TERRIBLE at contracts, paperwork, organization, and this hasn’t bode well for us in the past – we’ve avoided hard conversations and paid more knowing that it’s partly our fault for not being on top of it. So having a team that is so on top of it that there aren’t any questions on where the time and money goes will make us feel, well, safe.
- Excited about the press, social media, and portfolio opportunity – While this wasn’t going to be a deal breaker, I did want to find a team who saw and valued the benefits of this project media-wise – who was excited (not annoyed) at the fact that it’s going to be all over social media and the internet (not to mention Pinterest) forever. I knew that if they were into this opportunity that they would be even more emotionally (and personally/professionally) invested in it, knowing that their work, their process, their creativity would be so widely seen. Not everyone is up for that kind of pressure and exposure, so it was important to find people who not only were up for it but were EXCITED by it. I didn’t want to have to shyly ask for photo updates for insta-stories, but instead someone who would enthusiastically text me updates knowing that documenting this all will be a huge part of my business and theirs the next two years.
- Honesty and transparency – You can get a sense in interviews, but knowing whether a team would be forthcoming with mistakes, bring up uncomfortable conversations early (i.e. money) and just be human about the whole thing is important (to us at least). Yes, this is “business” with “contracts” in place, but it’s not just transactional – it’s a bunch of creative people dedicating their time, energy, and their lives to OUR home. Brian and I are the least litigious people on the planet, we don’t nitpick with money instead valuing reason and fairness, therefore we need to work with people who we trust, and who speak the same language (FYI this has never – knowingly – bit us in the ass – I know what you are thinking). When a big mistake arises and something has to be fixed or replaced, we want to know that the people we are in business with will be like us – just open to figuring out the best and most fair solution, rather than litigating blame. You know what they say ‘don’t marry someone you wouldn’t want to be divorced from’, i.e. know that even when shit hits the fan and stressful times arise, we’ll all work through it and solve problems in a grownup and fair way with a lot of reason, transparency, and open conversations. It’s highly important to me that everyone feels like the solution is fair for all parties or else the relationship and thus project become toxic and that kind of resentment is insidious, corrupting every part of the project. I’ve been on the other side of that where I felt forced to agree to something that didn’t feel fair to me and it just became super negative and infected the whole project and my life for months. I think being on the other side, as a designer with clients I know first hand how important this is and I’ve VOWED to be a “GOOD” client (I’m writing a whole post about how to be a “good client” by the way).
WHAT DOES A TEAM EVEN LOOK LIKE?
Option #1 – Compile A Team Of Expert Professionals
This is the most typical way to go about it. We/you could find and hire a general contractor, an architect, a project manager, and an interior designer – all separate companies and people. With this, you get experts with different perspectives, experiences, histories, and processes. You get to choose the right fit for each part of the job. You’ll find that when they all have different companies they are juggling, many clients, subs, and other commitments so finding meetings and walk-through times might be harder. They all need to communicate VERY frequently early on in order for everyone to have a shared vision and make sure that boxes are checked at the right time, that there is a shared time schedule with clear deadlines, etc. This is the typical way it’s been done for years for most small to medium renovation projects. The best way to go about this is to find an expert that you really love first (could be GC, architect, or interior designer) and let them recommend to you the other players. A benefit of this is that you might get recommended an architect, designer, or GC that specializes in YOUR type of house, often saying ‘I have an architect that is perfect for this project’.
Option #2 – Partner Companies
This is kinda an in-between situation. We found a lot of companies that are say a GC but they work almost exclusively with a designer or a designer that works almost exclusively with an architect. They have separate companies but their workflow is very symbiotic and they have a great working relationship. Often on their site, it will say ‘check out our sister company’. Like Jessica Helgerson, for instance, her husband is an architect that she obviously usually works with but it’s a separate company. With this, you get two experts that have a great working and creative relationship and their experience can help hire the other players that they think are best for the project. And frankly, if you go with their partner company (especially lots of husband and wife teams we found) you’ll get prioritized over clients that might not hire both companies.
Option #3 – Hire A Full Service ‘Design/Build’ Team
If you are doing a major gut renovation or building new and you say, have a job/kids, you might want to consider this option. Design/Build companies have multiple experts and contractors on staff. It’s often a team that consists of (almost) everyone that goes into building/renovating a house – General contractors, architects (or interior architects), carpenters, project managers, site leads, and of course designers and design assistants. This is more full service and very streamlined. Obviously, the communication is efficient and everyone knows what’s going on at every stage because they are all in the same company, on the same team. There is only one set of paperwork, contracts, and likely one project manager from beginning to end that handles all communication. They likely have very good relationships with subs, vendors, and carpenters. If you are thinking that these are “bigger” companies and you wanted to hire more small business, most of these that we found were still small, even ‘mom and pop’ feeling, they just like having the ability to have everyone who is working on the project in-house, both for shared creativity as well as efficiency. Knowing everyone you work with so well creates this sense of family, and thus everyone feels invested in your project. Your project should go faster (but yes, this might be more expensive because more staff means higher overhead, which we fully expect/understand). But also maybe not, hiring out separately can also be expensive depending on different rates and quotes.
HOW DO YOU FIND WHO IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
We still didn’t know which of those options we wanted – we wanted to interview to see who we ‘fell in love with’ first. But we did some preliminary research to not waste everyone’s time. Here was my process:
- Look at the website/portfolio and social media, but know what you should be looking for – Don’t worry about the photography, styling, or even the furniture/decor (unless you are hiring an interior designer obviously). Know that most of those aesthetic decisions were based on what the client wanted. Sure if there are some huge red flags, don’t disregard them, but if you don’t like the sofa but you love what they did to the ceiling, then focus on that. And know that getting good photography for contractors and architects is hard because it’s intrusive to the family, very expensive, requires styling, and often what the family might put in the house after might not reflect well on their work so they just skip shooting it completely. For our renovation, we looked at the quality and creativity of the house, not the decor. We stared at the windows/doors, moldings – the architectural details, creative design ideas in the kitchens and baths, and how well the permanent finishes (tile, flooring, ceiling, fixed lighting) worked with the architectural style and era of the home. I also looked at versatility and variety, which to me shows creativity and passion.
- Try to find reviews and references – Yelp and Houzz typically have reviews and Sweeten for general contractors is GREAT (not available everywhere but in more cities every month). Since most that we were interviewing came from the blog (aka word of mouth) we already felt like there were some hearty endorsements. Often they’ll have client testimonials on their site, which of course are curated, but you can still glean something from them.
- Interview – Video or in-person is obviously best. Have a list of questions that are important to you and your project. Here are some of the questions that we asked – 1. Tell us about your company and the kind of projects you love to do? 2. What kind of clients do you love to work with? Are there any of your projects that stand out as far as favorites? How do you typically bill or charge for a project? (this is more of a test to see confidence and transparency, there isn’t a right or wrong answer, it’s more of how they answer than what they say, if they offer up their systems, org flow, etc – that’s all a good sign that they have their stuff together). 4. What is your experience in _________? Whatever is specific to your project – for us it was historic homes, sustainability, local artisans, and PDX codes. VERY IMPORTANT – for people/companies who are very successful and in-demand know that they are interviewing YOU, too. They likely have the pick of the litter with jobs/projects, and how much they like the client and are excited about the potential project helps informs their decision to take the job. Remember you are dealing with creative people who of course care about business, but at a certain point in careers (once a certain level of success has been reached) most of them/us value the need to be creatively and emotionally fulfilled and really enjoy the work (not so much at the beginning when you are just desperate for new client and portfolio work). So don’t try to play hardball or think that you are in the driver’s seat – in this market they are going to need to like you 🙂
Who Did We Hire????
Our first interview was with a design/build team called Arciform. They came highly recommended from many sources especially in the historic home world (even our inspector told us about them months ago). We hopped on a Zoom with Anne (owner/lead designer) and Adam – the lead GC.
Now before the interviews, I had put together a 15-page presentation – full of before photos, inspiration, and scope of work. I did this to A. show how serious and involved we are and B. get everyone excited for the potential creativity (and challenges) of the job. The second we started talking it was clear we liked each other a lot, so they checked that chemistry box immediately. Lots of laughter and just a casual vibe. But that wasn’t just it. They have 24 years of experience in PDX restoring historic homes. Anne and her husband Richard have compiled a team of experienced contractors, carpenters, project managers, and designers. Richard owns their sister company, Versatile, which makes custom windows, doors, and cabinets/built-ins. They are a solid group of PROS. Their reputation was outstanding so I knew that booking good subs would be easy for them (subs like working for good GCs and will prioritize them, and often what slows down a project is the subs schedule). When Adam (lead GC) said that he’s worked for Anne and Richard for over 10 years (and their rapport clearly showed they really respected each other) I couldn’t help but smile – that says to me that these are good people that respect their team a lot – and he’s not the only one, so far everyone we’ve met has seemed to genuinely love working there and the way that Anne and Richard give them credit for their talents on our Zoom calls makes me feel really good.
But what about their quality? Their portfolio was full of good projects with creative ideas. I combed through each house and they all looked so tasteful and period-appropriate, with really good craftsmanship and some cool/weird ideas (like repurposing a bank of antique refrigeration as the garage storage, restoring an antique murphy bed, or creating a trap door to an amazing basement wine cellar).
During our call as I was talking about the art direction and wanting help to make sure I don’t ‘miss opportunities’ when Anne was like ‘I’ve got to show you my house’ and she took the laptop around while on Zoom and gave us a tour of the house they just built. The entire house was built from the trees that were originally on the property and it looked INCREDIBLE. We are going to style and shoot it to show you, but Brian and were both like ‘whoa’ and not because it was flashy, just really special and thoughtful architecture with a lot of unexpected salvaged moments, beautiful windows and doors (she even has a glass door within a huge arched window. I wanted her creative brain on my house).
Additionally, and what likely sealed the deal, they had an unbridled enthusiasm for our project – a trait that I apparently REALLY respond to. They WANTED to do this job so badly and they were not embarrassed to say it. Adam even made us a music video of their projects (with a lot of video clips of them working, an amazing timelapse of them lifting a whole historic home to redo the foundation and setting it back down). It was so personal and yet showed off their team and what they can do. We were honestly so touched and impressed. And while some of their team members follow the blog (hi Marty!) They just kept saying ‘this is the exact project we love to do’. It actually really taught me that showing enthusiasm for jobs you want is a GOOD thing. Generally, that’s part of my personality anyway (which might be part of the success of my company) but it just reminded me – when you want a job, don’t be afraid to just say it.
O here is the timelapse of them moving that house. It’s incredible. Just wait for the ad to play:)
I had to resist reaching for the first impression rose the entire interview. We still had 5 interviews to go (they were our first). After the call, Brian and I looked at each other and we were like ‘oh yeah, it’s them…hey are amazing’. It was a ‘cancel the rest of the season, we are ready to propose today’ sort of thing.
And a few weeks into working with them we quite literally couldn’t be happier. Obviously much more to come on this all, but there is this massive relief, this huge confidence I have knowing that there is this team of creative pros up there who are in it with me, that are so invested in making our home the best it can be for our family (and full of so much more knowledge about the area, the era the home). We feel VERY taken care of, and that is an absolute gift these days.
It’s time. Tomorrow is the day. Come back to see the property that myself and Arciform are going to restore and transform for our family… IT’S FINALLY HAPPENING.