Are You Design/Build or Are You a Poser?

by Kyle Clapham
Shawn Headshot Accountant

There is a lot of confusion in our industry. A good amount of confusion happens because remodelers often create their own definitions for important differentiators instead of adhering to strict industry standards.

To recertify as a Certified Lead Carpenter with NARI, for example, you are asked if you have been acting as a lead carpenter over the past year. I know for a fact that many CLCs get recertified even though their businesses don’t have a lead-carpenter system in place.

The same is happening with design/build. Too many remodelers claim to be but are not. They are not only fooling homeowners, the majority are also fooling themselves. As a result, most of them are missing out on many of the benefits their customers and their businesses could actually be enjoying.

It’s Not a Service, It’s a Way of Doing Business

Real design/builders see design/build as a way of doing business, not simply a service offered to consumers. The way they do marketing, sales, design, estimating, project development, scheduling and handoffs are strategic and different than general remodelers because it’s design/build, not bid/build.

This all needs to be thought-out before offering design/build because prospects must agree to how it will work at your business before allowing them to become customers. For example, real design/builders do not sell plans or create them for free. They only do plans with the assumption and requirement that their business will be planning and building the project.

With real design/build, the consumer gets no plans or specifications until a construction contract is executed. This important business decision is put in place and upheld in your design agreement so that the consumer cannot bid the project out to other remodelers. If you sell your plans for use by others, sorry, but you are not a design/builder. It doesn’t make you bad or wrong, you are just something else.

Develop a ‘Design/Build Mentality’

To be a true design/builder and offer the true value to consumers, you need to develop and own a design/build mentality in all your business does.

You must know why your prospects want to remodel—the true reasons or purposes. Next, you must know and agree upon a realistic budget needed to accomplish their true purpose and, at the same time, ensure your profit requirements. Then, and perhaps most importantly, you must know how they plan to make their decisions.

Developing a design/build mentality affords you and your business the ability to truly solve your clients’ needs within the agreed budget, and you can do so in a way that helps them actually make sound and confident decisions. Without that mentality in place and agreed to by the client, you risk becoming a bidder and becoming subject to how the client wants to do business.

With this mentality in place, your business helps consumers purchase remodeling, rather than trying to sell them on your remodeling solutions. The same mentality helps make sure you know why you want to do something before you do it, what you are willing or have to invest to get it, and how you will make your decisions before you even explore your options. Again, it’s a way of doing business, not just a service for clients.

Design to a Budget and Budget as You Design

One big mistake I made early in my transition to design/build was not establishing and then sticking to a firm budget for the project as I worked with clients during the design and specification phase, or what I now refer to as project development. Think of this as being “the keeper of the budget.”

As you develop the project, you either need to stay within the agreed budget or get the client to agree to a new budget before proceeding. To do this, you must design to their budget and budget as you design, so all decisions about the design and design details remain within the agreed-to parameters.

I also learned that agreeing on a change in the budget meant nothing unless and until I got the client’s signature recognizing and accepting the new budget for the project. To make this a way of doing business, our design/build retainer agreement eventually included a built in change-order section ready for documenting the change and collecting the client’s signature accepting the new budget.

This was in addition to letting them know and having them agree within our design-retainer agreement that if they didn’t go to construction contract, we kept everything, including the retainer fee that was required to be paid in full at acceptance.

Design/Build Your Business 

I hope this helps you see the great opportunity and value true design/build can have for you, your business and your customers. There was very little information available about design/build for remodelers when I started my transition. I had to learn a lot through trial and error, which ate up a lot of time and money.

Rather than unknowingly pretend you are a design/builder, I suggest you seek and get the right help and information to quickly adopt and take advantage of this great way of doing business. But remember: Adapt your business as needed to adopt design/build; don’t risk adapting design/build to fit with your current business. If you do, you will definitely be a poser! QR

Note: On Nov. 6, Shawn McCadden will be presenting “Transitioning: Remodeler to Design Build Remodeler” at the Educational Conference and Expo sponsored by the HBA of Greater Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland NARI Chapter.

McCadden is a speaker, business trainer, columnist and award-winning remodeler with more than 35 years of experience. He can be reached at

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