The Art Of Collaboration

Collaboration can lead to exciting new business and design opportunities – but to be successful, it requires strong communication, mutual respect, shared vision and willingness to work as a team.

By Daina Manning

At its best, collaboration between architects, kitchen designers and contractors can be a process where the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts – where synergies can produce results that would have been impossible with individual effort.

At its worst – well, why do you think so many companies like the control of design/build? Sayings like “too many cooks spoil the soup” can only hint at the discord, conflict and disappointing results of a badly executed collaboration.

So, how do you ensure that your own collaboration ends up as a win-win situation for everyone? This was the topic of a Designers and Dealers Breakfast meeting held at the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and sponsored by Häfele America Co. Design professionals at the breakfast presented case studies of successful partnerships that resulted in the creation of both city homes and country estates – and shared insights derived from these experiences to a packed crowd.
Participants included moderator Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, of Ellen Cheever & Associates, Karen Williams and Robert Schwartz of St. Charles of New York, Alethea Cheng of STUDIOS Architecture, Alan Asarnow, CMKBD, CR, of Ulrich, Inc., William J. Martin, R.A. AIA, P.P. of WJM Architect, Kelly L. Stewart, CMKBD, of Kitchens by Deane, and Pietro Giorgi, Sr., CMKBD, of Giorgi Kitchens & Designs.

Cheever also presented some comments from participants in an earlier presentation in New York City at Häfele America ’s showroom, including Gordan Rafajac, TECNY Landmark Corp., Ken Lange of Kenneth Lange, AIA Architect, and Debra Lysy, of Lysy Interior Design.

Pros and Cons
According to Cheever, the very best reason to collaborate is simple: “We understand we can expand our business with collaboration,” she said. But, she warned, these relationships are not easy to develop and maintain.”

A successful collaboration, she noted, is an organic link between architect, interior designer, kitchen designer and contractor – a seamless vision between people that involves a shared chemistry, respect for each other’s ability and willingness to look beyond one’s own ideas with the goal of creating something better.

To successfully collaborate, Cheever stated that one of the first requirements is that “everyone needs to realize that diplomacy is the key.”

Cheever emphasized that collaborating is not for everyone. Those who want complete control won’t be happy with a group opinion. And, many prefer the primary relationship in a project to be the one they have with their client. But those who can get to a point where they share a project vision with a partner can achieve a “synergy that produces pioneering results,” she stated.

Williams emphasized that a fully certified kitchen designer can bring much to a project beyond that of the architect’s alternative, a custom cabinetry millwork house. “We bring more expertise,” she said. “They just do cabinets.”

She added that she welcomes clients who come in for their appointment with an architect – because this is a pre-qualified client with a direction. And, a successful project will mean repeat business for the kitchen designer, because the architect will come back with other clients, and provide referrals.

Giorgi echoed that this is also the case with a kitchen designer and interior designer working together. If an interior designer brings in a client, and the result is a happy one, that client and designer team will often have the opportunity to return for other projects, such as a second home, home office or guest house.

So, how do all these professionals work effectively side by side, even when creative visions clash? Who makes what decisions and when? Schwartz cited “specifying influence” as the key to establishing the decision-making hierarchy, explaining that if the architect or designer has brought the client to him, he defers to his or her decisions.

Participants noted that all parties have to accept specific responsibilities for the project. For instance, the designer must present clear, detailed plans. The contractor needs to build to spec exactly. There needs to be a clearly defined, set schedule.

When entering into a collaborative project, the panelists also recommended setting up separate financial arrangements with the end user.

Team Approach
How do you give a team answer if the client is asking specific questions about the project?

Williams advised kitchen designers to avoid taking the role of the architect. For instance, he says, don’t tell a client to “never use” a particular material even if you don’t like the material. The architect may have his or her own reasons for specifying it. Instead, enlighten the client about the pros and cons of various applicable materials in a more general way.

Overall, the panelists recommended kitchen designers resist answering questions to which they don’t really know the answer, or offering an opinion about a part of the project for which they’re not responsible. Instead, defer to the architect’s authority – just as the architect should refer technical questions about kitchen matters to the kitchen designer.

Problems most often arise when team members don’t communicate clearly with each other, or when job responsibilities are not clearly defined. A team approach functions best when members place their clients’ desires above their own, and keep egos in check, avoiding a “turf war” situation.

When disputes do occur, Asarnow noted, it’s also important to not involve the client. In fact, professionals should never take these kinds of problems to the client, he suggests, they should only bring solutions. He recommends that the allied professionals meet first without the client present, to outline and understand the parameters of the job, the budget and the architect’s and designer’s preferences. This is also a good time for everyone to lay out the ground rules for working together, including how disagreements among allied professionals will be resolved.

Of course a key part of having a successful collaboration is being a good partner. Martin noted that when he’s seeking a collaborator, he looks for good communication skills from the kitchen designer, as well as professional, clear graphic skills in drawings. An understanding of the nuts and bolts of how a complex project is assembled, and the ability to prioritize diverse elements, are also a must.

Williams recounted that, especially in her high-tension, high-priced market of Manhattan, diffusing the atmosphere is often part of a kitchen designer’s job. “I try to change my approach, try to get the client interested in [other aspects of the project],” she said. But, she emphasized that once the project is set, designers should “stand by their design.” Changing things for the client starts a slippery slope that can end up with a mishmash instead of a coherent vision.

The kitchen designer also needs to keep the whole house in mind when offering changes in the kitchen space, so that all parts of the home function as a coherent entity. Conversely, Stewart cautioned against entering into a collaborative project with an architect who doesn’t want to participate in the kitchen design at all, as this often ends up with a situation where the architect is critical of the kitchen design at the end, with problems and bad feelings all around.

When making suggestions, keep the budget in mind, too, she advised. Don’t suggest ideas that won’t fit into those parameters. And, if a client brings up a much more expensive option, explain that this will raise the budget by, say, 20% right off the bat. It’s better to be honest and open about this up front, rather than having to deal with objections after the fact.

Cheng recounted her experience of working with Cheever on panel sponsor Häfele’s new showroom. The project was a departure for her firm, which generally works in a more controlled design/build way, she explained. Cheng also referenced her experience with another recent project, the redesign of Ralph Lauren’s offices.

She elaborated that there are generally two approaches with architects. In the first a client will go to a “star architect” for his or her vision. In cases like this, collaboration is not a significant part of that process, and the architect will not veer off that vision, or the style preference. In the same way you wouldn’t go to a strict Modernist and ask for a rustic country look, it makes no sense for a client to pay for a specific professional’s creative vision or style, only to get that style changed or diluted by someone else’s vision.

Then, there is the “production architect” who is there to service the client, e.g., “What color paint do you want?” Cheng explained. These kinds of projects are far more likely to lend themselves to collaboration.

She noted that her company’s approach falls somewhere in between the two extremes – the firm brings its own take to
a project, but does not look to impose its own style without input from the client.

Cheever and Cheng explained how they worked things out in the Häfele showroom – initially, Cheng admitted, she had some concerns because she preferred to work in a contemporary aesthetic, but the showroom needed some traditional vignettes, and Cheng was concerned those wouldn’t fit in with the overall look. She approached Cheever with an attitude of, “I’m concerned about this, so let’s talk a lot first.” This helped them to pull together a joint vision and iron out potential problems before they really got down to the nitty gritty of putting it all together.

Cheng, too, emphasized the need of everyone to be mindful of the budget. “Don’t show a client something they can’t afford,” she advised – particularly the case with a residential client who often doesn’t have a good idea of how much things cost. Again, the focus has to be on the clients’ needs, not just on the vision of the design team.

When it comes to working successfully with architects, Cheng has several suggestions for kitchen designers. First, she said, a good kitchen designer will have strong technical expertise about kitchen design, and will let the architect know that, and capitalize on those skills. A good collaborative kitchen designer will also be an active partner, and won’t be afraid to bring up ideas – but won’t try to do the architect’s job, either.

As for the architect’s side of the coin – she advised them to take the kitchen designer’s expertise seriously, to keep an open mind, and to work hard to sell everyone on the project on your vision, not just the client. When everyone on the creative team understands and shares in the vision, the project is more likely to come out as a cohesive and successful whole.

Cheever added that all collaborators should agree on credits and photo opportunities ahead of time, as well as who will be responsible for what costs. She suggested an informal letter of agreement at the beginning of a project. Cheever elaborated that kitchen designers should become competent at taking digital photos, but should also make arrangements to hire a professional photographer when the project is completed.

“Listen,” she advised, and always inform the proper person of any changes in writing, then follow up. “Do what it takes to make the project work on the allotted budget,” she emphasized.

Winning Strategy
The panelists agreed that it’s important to decide who the project leader is. That person will orchestrate the project, and become the one to whom team members defer when conflict arises. But all concerned must strive to develop a rapport within the team, and focus on making the client feel comfortable with the considerable financial investment being made in the project.

Ground rules regarding such issues as who pays whom, how the team will communicate, and where and when to meet should be established early on, along with a realistic time table. The action plan should accommodate everyone’s schedule to prevent misunderstandings – and everyone must be informed of the progress – or lack thereof – and any problems that arise throughout the process. Finally, all team members need to be on their best behavior, and put their best efforts into the mix.

The panelists admitted that sometimes, as with a show house project, compromises must be made due to time constraints. Williams recalled a recent project, the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club showcase, which operated on an extremely tight schedule and involved several trades at once working together in tight quarters. She quipped, “Suddenly, the tile open shelf can look just fine!” KBDN