When you rehab the interiors of dozens of buildings and properties, you have to learn how to successfully manage budgets and people. Ann Chapin Studio is an interior design and architecture firm based in NYC and the Hudson Valley that manages projects from design and construction management to furnishing and styling. We speak with the studio's founder, Ann Chapin Skinner, to get her insights into running an effective bid process, managing complex projects, and tips for the smartest interior investments.
What types of contractors do you typically work with?
Typically, we work with high-end boutique to mid-size general contractors. Each project scope and budget will have different requirements, so I recommend asking for examples of the highly-skilled work—such as their millwork, paint, and tile—to understand the contractor's level of their skill. Poor management of these items can end up costing you more to re-do or countless headaches trying to negotiate with the contractor to repair.
Why is it important to get multiple bids?
Requesting 2-3 bids is important—we typically require three. It's more work up-front, but this process can save you a considerable amount of money as it gives you negotiation power, provides an opportunity to identify possible ways to value engineer the scope of work with the contractor, and lets you get acquainted with each contractor to understand their communication and management style.
Often, the higher bidder not only has a larger and highly-skilled team, they have strong management which can not only keep the project on schedule but alleviate any costs associated with delays. If you don't have a built-in construction management role, then it will be important to hire a contractor with excellent management ability or as an alternative, the owner needs to absorb some of the management duties. Construction management can be incredibly tedious and time consuming, so having a knowledgeable party manage this process is worth considering.
What’s the best way to get a quality bid? How much information should you share up front?
The more information you can pass along at the beginning of the bid process, the more time and money you’ll save and the happier everyone will be. Ideally, a designer or architect prepares accurate to scale and annotated drawings, but for minor upgrades and repairs you can work directly with a contractor on a well-bulleted list.
Here are some things we always include in our bid requests:
Once those bids come back, how should you evaluate them? Are they always apples-to-apples?
The main goal when first reviewing bids is to get them as apples-to-apples as possible. Getting estimates that are easy to review and compare—such as using the Construction Specifications Institute’s 16 divisions—makes your review process easier.
No matter the job size and scope, set up a bid review meeting with each contractor to make sure they have included all items. Items can be missed, especially in larger or complicated projects. On occasion, this means doing a repeat site walkthrough with any subcontractors. If there are any custom elements (such as cabinetry, trim, built-ins, etc.) then you must make sure the design intent is clearly understood.
Make sure each bidder clarifies their expected payment schedule and overall timeline, which should include "punchlist" time. The punchlist is a list of items that must be completed before a construction project is declared complete and subcontractors can receive final payment. It occurs at the end of every project—paint touch-ups, caulking, final fixture installation are all common punchlist items. While the estimated time varies by job, the punchlist period for a typical medium-size residential project is usually about 2 weeks. A large commercial office space might need a month due to the volume of items, extensive trades involved, and total square feet.
How do you handle getting repeated estimates from contractors for different projects, even if they don't get the job? What’s proper etiquette there?
Contractors understand that this is a part of the process, so at the end of the day there are no hard feelings if you keep a good stream of communication and promptly let everyone know when the project has been awarded or there are any changes.
If the bidding process drags out longer than expected, then it is important to inform all bidders that the potential start date may be delayed. Sometimes the requirements change or there are delays with the building or local city approvals. Contractors are usually bidding out various jobs simultaneously and therefore need to ensure their schedule is open for each potential project. Providing frequent updates is proper etiquette.
How often should you expect to talk with contractors or meet them meet in-person?
At minimum you should expect to do 1-2 walkthroughs and answer questions with a contractor before making a decision.
Once a project is awarded and under way, I typically meet on-site once a week. You may want to consider establishing a reoccurring weekly meetings at the commencement of a project. Towards the end of a project a bi-weekly onsite meeting may be more appropriate.
If there is any demolition required, it is important that the owner or architecture team meet onsite during demolition. On occasion, the demolition uncovers unforeseen elements that require immediate review. These often spur necessary changes in design, schedules, or require notification to the building management or local building department. (Side note: one way to avoid demolition surprises is to conduct “probes” at the beginning of a renovation project, unless a building supervisor or management can provide existing condition feedback. Probe walls, ceilings, and floors where work is occurring to determine the interior make-up and locate any potential obstacles such structural beams, columns, or risers for gas, electrical water, waste, etc.)
I also recommend documenting in writing all decisions made during each site visit and sending to all parties involved. This documentation serves as record and thus helps to avoid any miscommunication.
How involved would you advise people to expect to be when it comes to a bigger project? What are some of the more effective ways of managing that much work part-time?
Establishing the schedule and communication style expectations at the beginning is necessary to keep a project running smoothly. Get those reoccurring site meetings scheduled and record all decisions in writing. Progress photos each week are also recommended. These can be helpful tools when emailing or coordinating issues on the phone or via email.
If your contractor is managing material and fixture orders, then you should periodically request status updates. Material and fixture delays can impact the construction schedule. On the flip side, if the owner is managing some of the orders, then it is the owner’s responsibility to keep the contractor updated on expected delivery dates. As an owner, never assume that the contractor will receive deliveries on your behalf due to liability or otherwise. If they do, they may need to charge extra depending on building conditions impacting the receiving process (limited freight elevator access, oversized objects, significant un-boxing, etc.).
Where should you never cut corners? Where is it ok to find a shortcut?
All construction work should be completed by a licensed trade. For significant renovation work, never ever cut corners on getting an accurate existing condition survey of your space. Before we start any renovation, we always get an accurate (to scale) existing plan. Typically, this includes existing floor plan dimensions, electrical, ceiling details, window and door dimensions, and mechanical locations.
For smaller jobs your contractor might be able to handle the measurements themselves and you can talk it out via email or in-person (all depends on the scope). An error here causes an avalanche of problems that you will not know are an issue until construction starts. For instance, your construction pricing could become irrelevant, and your material and fixture purchases would need to be corrected.
When it comes to shortcuts, review any scope removal with your contractor to get a more complete understanding of the impact. For instance, if you are thinking about not painting all rooms in a space, be mindful that any freshly painted room adjacent to an outdated paint job will be jarring. Ultimately, the cost to add one or two more rooms to the painting scope of work might be lower than having your contractor tackle on a later date since overhead and day rates may apply. Being decisive—whether on design, material, or fixture selections—saves time and money by avoiding revisions.
To me, an appropriate shortcut is any design element that could be modified for cost reasons without sacrificing on quality or the original design intent. For instance, you could pick a basic subway tile but choose to use a dark grout or stack vertically which creates a fun, modern look without spending extra on the tile type. It’s all in the details!
Common things you see go wrong? Why?
The root of most construction issues is improper management of the project timeline and the small design details. These small details are often not discussed until the project is underway, and some owners assume their contractor will be able to change design elements after the construction start which can spur a change order.
To mitigate project timeline misunderstandings, discuss this up front and ask your construction team for a detailed schedule that breaks down the type of work by month or by week (if necessary).
What are some of the smartest investments you’ve seen buildings make to raise the value of the space?
Many residential buildings are integrating on-site workspaces, bike storage, and bigger and better storage options. I have also seen a strong focus on quality lighting (natural and artificial) in both residential and commercial spaces. As workers are returning to the office, businesses and organizations are rethinking the interior design of their office space to provide a safe, protected environment.
As a result of the pandemic there has been an increase in selecting materials that can be easily be cleaned and sanitized. Instead of open floor plans, I am seeing businesses opt for flexible, semi-private zoning. As a quick enhancement, aesthetically pleasing social distancing signage and hand sanitizing stations are good investments for both residential and commercial shared spaces.
What about for individual unit owners?
To me the two biggest changes you can implement in any space is quality lighting and paint. Paint color is an entirely separate topic, but in general a fresh coat of neutral paint is a great place to start if you’re unsure of colors. My go-to favorite white paint is Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore as it works with warm and cool tones. For lighting, swapping in higher-end outlets and switches, such as Lutron, Buster and Punch, Forbes + Lomax, and Bocci, can elevate any space.
Kitchen and bath upgrades are always worth it. For minor cosmetic kitchen upgrades, updating your countertop and backsplash are typically feasible to do without replacing your cabinetry. On a limited budget, simply updating your kitchen cabinet hardware can make a big impact. With full kitchen renovations, consider high-end appliances, durable countertops, an oversized sink, and ample backsplash height. Mixing in a bit of open kitchen shelving adds a nice touch and something my studio has been implementing a lot as of late.
For bathrooms, outside of new tile and fixtures, the addition of new lighting, medicine cabinet, and vanity can make a significant improvement. For a gut bathroom renovation, I recommend considering a heated floor system, if location appropriate. For my rental clients, new lighting, a quality bathmat, and art can do wonders.
If you’re looking to resell in the near future, then I recommend staying away from anything too trendy or specific.
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