Design Committees Building Consensus, Beautifying Buildings

When you lived alone, designing your space was easy. You went to the paint store, selected your favorite colors, came home and did the deed. But then you got married, and decorating got a little trickier. Every design decision had to get approved by another person—and sometimes opinions differed. Then perhaps you had children who sometimes acted like a mini-design committee unto themselves, and decided that pink and purple should be the colors of the playroom instead of your dreamy grey. This is where the real drama started, and unless you had great communication and a few rules, nothing would get done and no one would be happy with the final product.

The same thing happens—though on a larger scale—within a condo community. When the boiler in a building needs to be replaced, it’s a fairly straightforward operation. Ditto a façade repair project or a plumbing issue. There’s a cut-and-dry problem, and the solution is usually just as clear. There aren’t any aesthetic decisions to be made, and it’s the manager and the building engineer/ superintendent, and maybe a contractor, calling the shots.

But when design and decorating decisions are being made in a co-op or condo building by a committee of people—each with different tastes and preferences, and widely varying levels of design expertise—it's a very different matter. Feelings come up (and get hurt), personal aesthetics get challenged, and tension can run high. Still, there are ways that the process of designing by committee can work—and ways that boards, managers and the design committee members can improve the quality of their interactions and help the whole process go more smoothly.

The Same...But Different

Ann Marie Del Monico, owner of AM Interiors, a firm based in Chicago, and vice president of the board of her Streeterville building, was selected as one of two people to serve on the design committee in her condo when her building was planning on doing a massive hallway renovation project last year.

A design committee is similar to other committees within a condo board in that it’s a small sub-group formed to tackle a specific project. The committee could be as small as two people or it could be larger if more people want to join – it really depends on the building (of course if a building is truly tiny, with just four or five units, it wouldn’t make sense to have everyone serve on the design committee – or else there would be no point in creating the committee in the first place).

Del Monico and another interior designer who lived in the building seemed like the perfect pair to be on the committee, so the building gave them a budget and paired them up with a design firm, who would be working with them.

“The board decided it would be too much work for the design committee to make all the choices, and it also would be a question of ethics, so the design committee chose a design firm to work with, with the committee overseeing the firm’s work. We would work with them in terms of colors and choices of finishes,” Del Monico says.

The project involved choosing hallway wallpaper for about 50 floors, says Del Monico, and while the outside design firm would have the first choice in the selections, the design committee would oversee everything so it would go in the direction that they wanted. It all seemed like it was going to be perfectly executed without a hitch – but that's not how it unfolded.

“It was a big mess,” Del Monico says. “It didn’t work well because when we went for a vote, it was political with our board.” Instead of listening to the design committee recommendations, Del Monico says, the board chose to go in a completely different direction, disregarding everything that the hired design firm chose – and everything that the design committee said. “To this moment, nothing has been done,” she says, explaining that she felt the board's decisions became personal rather than objective.

Working Together

In order to avoid situations like these from cropping up (and they happen often, say the design pros interviewed for this article)—both design committees and professional firms should offer their boards two or three options when it comes to the final plan so that the board always feels like they’re still in control, says Sherry Winchester Schultz, pro sales manager with Floor & Décor, a flooring and tile store with locations throughout Illinois, and president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry of Greater Chicagoland.

“Most committees I have worked with worked together to give residents two or three options, and allowed residents to vote for the design they liked best,” Schultz says. “This method seems most democratic but sometimes you don’t have the luxury of the time it takes to do so.”

It’s important to have a committee chair, someone who will have a final say should there be split decisions, she says. That’s how the committee, designer and board can work together on the vote without stepping on each others' toes and holding the project back.”

She says that good designers obviously want their clients to be happy – to do otherwise risks losing referrals and future business – so they will do their best to work with clients to find a resolution to dissatisfaction, as long as the client is reasonable with them.

“Be as clear and concise as possible before the work is done to avoid dissatisfaction at the end of the project,” Schultz says.

The biggest issue that the designers and design committees come across is the mere fact that they’re trying to please a large group of people, and they’re dealing with opinions.The biggest issue that the designers and design committees come across is the mere fact that they’re trying to please a large group of people – and they’re dealing with opinions.

“They all have different needs and wants,” says Sandra Dicus, interior designer with Home Services Direct, a full service remodeling company based in Rolling Meadows. “I think a design committee is a good idea because it separates the details a little more. The board may not be so concerned with the details, so the committee will help everyone get on the same page.”

The Chosen Ones

Like all other committees formed by a condo board, the board should first ask everyone in the building if anyone is interested in serving on the design committee. Then they can take a vote to figure out which of the residents the building actually wants on the committee.

Schultz recommends that those on the committee be decisive, creative, diplomatic and financially responsible doers. Having a building engineer/ maintenance person would be ideal too, as they can speak to technical aspects for wear patterns and sub floors, etc., she says.

Once the board selects the design committee, it’s time to choose a professional interior design firm.

For this, they can do a bidding process or they can take recommendations from other condo boards who have worked with designers, they can research candidates via Angie’s List or through professional organizations to see if they are a good fit for the building’s needs, Schultz says.

“It’s not just about the bottom line,” she says. “You want a designer who listens to your needs and wants, and delivers. It’s about making sure that your expectations and their expectations are in-line.”

Just like any other interior design project, the design committee may have firm ideas about the way they want their lobby or hallways to look – and they can bring photos or Pinterest pictures to show to the firm. Or, they may have no idea of what they want, and they may need the design firm to come up with ideas and styles to start the conversation, Schultz says.

Still, the design firm needs to be aware of the limits of the building – which the design committee needs to educate the firm about before the project begins, Dicus says. “We are limited within rules and restrictions,” she says. “If it’s structural, the design committee could have more of a say on whether we could do something, but if it’s cosmetic, I could recommend colors and a new layout and a new floorplan and materials, and they’re receptive to that,” she says.

Sometimes, Dicus says, the design committee has to check with the board to get approval for some step of a project – and usually, they take the information that’s been discussed with the firm back to the board to give them regular updates. “That’s to make sure everything that’s been proposed is on the same page,” Dicus says. At the end of the day, however, if there’s a decision to be made, the design committee typically gets final say over the design firm, Schultz says.

“You should come to that determination at the time you hire the designer, otherwise you will have a very disgruntled committee and a very disgruntled designer,” she says. “Since ultimately the design committee represents the client – the client generally has the final say.”

Design Gone Wrong

After all, the clients will be the people living with those designs – literally. But the designer will be the person with their name attached to the project, so if the designer truly disagrees with the direction of the interior design, then he may have to remove himself from the project.

The worst thing that can happen is that everything falls apart from everyone fighting or failing to truly cooperate, like what happened in Del Monico’s case. To this day, the building has nothing but conduit on the ceiling. “It’s this animal that grew out of control,” she says. While Del Monico got along really well with the other person in her design committee – and the project had been budgeted properly, she says that it all came down to egos and politics.

In order for other buildings to avoid this happening to them, Del Monico recommends that boards listen to what designers have to say before barging along and making their own seemingly irrational decisions.

In her case, her board put in an annunciator system on the ceiling even though it wasn’t the design firm nor the design committee’s recommendation. “We recommended that they have the firm put it in the best place possible aesthetically, but they wanted to just hurry up and get it up, and they wanted to hire someone to do something about it later,” Del Monico says.

It didn’t make any sense aesthetically, she says, comparing it to renovating a kitchen but starting with putting in a sink in the middle of the room before figuring out the details. “You’ll be spending more money in the end by fixing something that’s broken. That’s the problem that we encountered – they were looking at it all too practically.”    

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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