5 Habits That Help Interior Design Teams Deliver

Commercial interior designers must meet builder and developer needs — and those of buyers who are the target audiences for their projects

by Mary Cook

Builders and developers hire commercial interior designers to envision how the homeowners or tenants they hope to attract want to live, work and play. But making projects that range from model home interiors to entire multifamily or mixed-use developments stylish, welcoming and livable is the easy part.

How so? Commercial interior designers must not only be focused on how projects look and feel, but must also optimize them for unconditional functionality and peak financial gain. Ultimately, how spaces perform determines how successful each project is — or not. And performance is quantifiable today — initially by rentals and sales, a traditional metric, and also by analytics after a project delivers. That’s when high user approval, as substantiated by high usage rates in community spaces and amenities, and repeat lease renewals or quick resales, comes into play.

Meeting these dual benchmarks — full occupancy rates and high user approval — takes the skill, acumen, creativity, and good, old-fashioned elbow grease of a well-honed interior design team. Delivering gorgeous, functional and effective spaces is a tough goal, given the needs of real estate development today, with its diverse target markets, tight budgets, high material costs, and unforgiving analytics.

At Mary Cook Associates, where we focus on designing amenities, hospitality spaces, and model home interiors that drive conversion and usage, we’ve had to learn how to hit those benchmarks and deliver attractive and successful spaces from the get-go. We’ve developed a strategic process that is unique to our firm. It focuses on five habits that we’ve identified and nurture to make sure the projects we design are not only attractive, but also effective, on time, on budget, and deliver exceptional results.

These habits are as follows:

1. Have A Failsafe Execution Plan

The best partnerships leave nothing to chance, from knowing the scope of the work, to delivery schedules, to final walk-throughs and sign-offs. We believe it’s critical to be as comprehensive as possible, which led us to develop a proprietary system that segments projects into sequential phases, from proposal preparation to working with all partners on a development team from the start to finish of a project. Every phase — from plan review, programming, and discovery, down to installation and delivery — is detailed and includes approvals that create an internal system of checks and balances. The process creates economies of scale, lets us keep every target in sight, and drives our quality control to ensure that we successfully fulfill developers’ needs.

2. Identify All Your Target Audiences

Target markets are broad and nuanced, so it’s critical to understand their intricacies and how those differences relate to every aspect of the design of a project. If several cohorts are potential residents, it’s critical to not only design spaces that are as versatile and mutable as possible, but meet the nuanced needs of each cohort. For instance, the universal design Boomers increasingly require must be aesthetically “invisible” to Millennials, from bathroom grab bars and low-threshold showers to wider passageways between activity areas. Each generation now wants attractive communal areas, well outfitted gyms, spa-quality extras, and programming — but has different aesthetics and ideas of what fits the bill in each of those categories. Design must account for those differences and make it possible to please all residents. Achieving this takes research and strategic planning at the inception of a project to avoid costly mistakes.

3. Fine-Tune Procurement

Think of the thousands of items used to build and furnish the models, community spaces, and amenities in single-family homes, apartment or condominium buildings, offices, restaurants, and hotels. Those goods come from an array of vendors, arrive according to different schedules, and must be inspected when they leave a warehouse and before and after installation. Some developers use an outside procurement company to streamline the process. We’ve found that does the opposite and complicates, since each supplier has rules regarding minimums, changes, markups, and more. Instead, we assume the challenge with our own procurement system based on strong vendor relationships and deep field knowledge. This has eliminated middlemen costs in many instances, and improved attention to detail, accuracy, and continuity.

4. Perfect The Art of Installation

To have installation run like clockwork on simultaneous projects in far-flung cities requires Herculean organization. That’s why many commercial interior design firms contract out the work to local firms. However, for the kind of results that make a project run smoothly, finish on time, and truly shine, it’s critical to use installers who are experienced and exacting. For that reason, we have three highly trained installation teams that we deploy to every project we work on nationally who are up-to-date on current standards, specifications, and best practices, and consistently deliver exceptional results.

5. Improve Return on Environment (R.O.E.)

The best results empower people to feel, be, or do their best — where they live, work, relax or play. Developers and builders construct quality architecture and design, then step away so commercial interior designers can bring in the right materials, furnishings, lighting, and palettes. Occupants feel good in these spaces, are more productive and relaxed, and linger longer. This is good Return On Environment, or R.O.E., and it applies to every type of property. Projects with high R.O.E. have high occupancy or usage rates, and projects that don’t deliver these results need to rethink their design strategy, identify the issues that are impinging success — which can range from complex structural issues to simple decorative mistakes — and make corrections before it impacts a project’s profitability.

Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates (MCA), a full-service commercial interior design firm that focuses on the homebuilding and hospitality industries. She may be reached at www.marycook.com

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