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Ask Madelaine...Why should I hire an architect or interior designer?

Dear Madelaine,

I’m planning on renovating my home and have already hired a contractor. Why should I also hire an architect or interior designer on top of that? Can’t the contractor design the space and do all the necessary paperwork? Isn’t a designer just an extra expense?


I’m so excited to kick off the new blog with this question because it’s one of my favorites! Could you renovate your home with only a contractor? Depending on where you live, the local building codes, and building rules if you live in a co-op or condo…maybe? Is it a good idea? For several reasons, probably not.

Hire the professional(s) that are the best fit for the job

There are dozens of famous quotes going back millennia about it being better to do one thing well than ten things poorly. Did you know that it was Socrates who coined the phrase “jack of all trades, and master of none”? (look, you already learned something new!)

As professionals, we all have a zone of genius. A great contractor can build just about anything. Give them a design and no matter how challenging, they can find a way to execute it. However, it is outside the scope of their training and area of expertise to come up with that design.

Zone of Genius Diagram

An architect or interior designer on the other hand IS trained to come up with one-of-a-kind, clever, and beautiful design solutions. To bring that “wow factor” everyone talks about. So the question becomes what do you want? If it’s the standard design you’ve seen around your neighborhood, on Instagram, or on a design show, maybe you can get away with just using a contractor. If it’s a design customized to your unique lifestyle and personality, you’re going to need a designer.

Legally, you may need a designer

Have you ever sat down to read your state building code? Or the American with Disabilities Act? Or your local zoning ordinance? Let me tell you - they make great beach reads (I might be beaching wrong…) Not only are they long, complicated, and full of legal jargon, but they are also full of requirements and associated exceptions. And these requirements/exceptions can make a big difference for you and your projects.

They can determine what you are/aren’t allowed to build, how you may need to replace elements to conform with new energy & environmental requirements, what needs to be submitted to local authorities for approval, and what kinds of permits you need to legally execute the work.

Did you know that in New York City (our home turf), there are three primary types of renovations jobs: Alt1, Alt2, and Minor Alterations. All Alt1 and Alt2 filings require an architect to submit drawings in order for a contractor to be able to pull a permit. Minor alterations however can go either way. There are quite a few requirements that must be met to be considered a minor alteration, but if you meet them, then drawings do not need to be submitted for general construction permits, which can be a big financial and schedule savings.

NYC DOB Sample Work Permit

However, if it turns out that the scope DID require permits and you didn’t properly file the project, you could be faced with heavy financial penalties AND have to redo the work to comply with regulations. Unless you are only replacing elements in-kind, in exactly the same locations, and you are personally checking appliances and plumbing fixtures against the current energy code, this falls squarely in the “better safe than sorry” category. Definitely hire an architect.

Would you like to avoid costly mistakes?

We’ve all been there - you’re shopping for your home (or maybe you’re doing something else entirely?) and there it is. That beautiful something that’s just so…you. It’s perfect, like it was meant to be. So you bring your new treasure home, get it right where you want it, and…blah. Or oof. Or even ugh. What were you thinking? You really thought it would work; how could you have been so wrong?

Creating a cohesive and compelling space is HARD. TV shows and social media make it look easy, but it’s not. Especially if you want a space that is effortlessly chic, completely functional, can withstand all the crazy that’s bound to happen, and totally you.

I’ll let you in on a little secret - even professionals can make questionable choices (we just don’t let you see them!) We pull materials that on their own are individually beautiful, but together may not be a perfect match. The trick is that we have the ability to test drive our ideas before a single item is ordered. We have a range of tools at our disposal (at AD:ROIT we’re partial to Revit and Enscape) to validate designs. Architects and interior designers can model your space in 3D to make sure we get the layouts just right, and render 3D views with actual materials to show you exactly how your space will feel with different selections.

Take for example, this kitchen rendering. Our clients came to us to execute the drawings for their kitchen (see legal requirements above) but they had already picked out all of their materials. Thankfully when we asked if they would like to see a rendering of their choices before committing, they said yes. And then oof.

Cozy Kitchen Rendering - Client Selected Finishes

However, being design professionals, we saw the issues as soon as the rendering was completed and created a set of additional options for the client’s review in that same meeting.

Cozy Kitchen Rendering - Alternate Finishes

We even tried out a few more materials in the meeting itself because once the rendering is set up, it’s easy to change materials until you find the ones that are just right. In the end the client wound up selecting one of the original design alternatives, which you can see in the image below.

Cozy Kitchen Rendering - Alternate Finishes

The clients are thrilled with their new kitchen, which is the most important metric by far, but the actual built space is also pretty close to the rendering, showing just how important of a tool these drawings can be.

Cozy Kitchen Installation

And lest you think this is only valuable for contractor installed fixed materials, it can be incredibly informative for interior design, or “soft furnishings”. In this studio, the client knew he wanted floor to ceiling curtains, but couldn’t abstractly decide which color would be best. So we did some quick renderings (in the style of a comic book because he was a collector) to test different options.

Mid-Century Modern Studio Renderings - Curtain Options
Mid-Century Modern Studio Renderings - Curtain Options

When he saw the renderings there was an immediate and clear winner, which in turn, informed the selection of other smaller items, like pillows, bedding, and artwork. Score another point for the designers.

Mid-Century Modern Studio - Final Installation

Would you like to have two jobs?

If you knew before starting a project how much work was involved in coordinating with the contractor, I promise that you would absolutely choose to outsource this! (But really, the clients for that kitchen did their own construction management with a terrific contractor and told me in no uncertain terms that I was responsible for this in their next apartment.)

If you are starting a project now, remember all the advice and, let’s be real, complaining, from friends and family about renovations pre-2020 and multiply that by 100 for supply chain issues, shipping delays, fluctuating prices, etc....and then add to that doing a job for which you have no training and don’t yet speak the language (do you know the difference between cementitious and epoxy grouts and their various subtypes? Do you want to?) And then add to THAT, the chance that your contractor may try and take advantage of your naivete by not crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s.

The designer acts as your expert advocate, making sure the correct items are specified for your project from the beginning and that the contractor installs those items. If you rely exclusively on a contractor to design and build your space, how do you know you are getting the highest quality work for your money? For example, saying you will get brand new solid wood cabinets, but installing something different without your knowledge.

I AM NOT SAYING ALL CONTRACTORS DO THIS. I am saying they are experts in the field and most likely you are not. They are also in business in an increasingly difficult economy and every bit they can save is a bit saved. Even if you only buy a few hours of a professional's time to review what you are going to do and what the contractor is responsible for, it's insurance for your project and peace of mind.

If you don’t have tradespeople, we can recommend someone great

What do you do if you don’t already have a contractor on board? Chances are, your designer can recommend a great one. This is our world, so we know the players. Whether it’s an electrician to change some light fixtures, a millworker to finally build those radiator covers, or a general contractor to completely overhaul your entire apartment, we can point you in the right direction.

And finally, access to those sexy trade-only showrooms and products

Circling back a bit to our first point, do you want the same furniture, fabrics, and finishes that everyone else has, or are your tastes a little more bespoke than off-the-rack? At AD:ROIT we are big believers that ready to ship can be great, but sometimes custom is the way to go. We think the richest spaces are a mix of high street and high end, and you can only access that high end working with a designer.

There are even more reasons to hire a designer that we’ll cover in another post, but this list is a good place to start. And if you are still wondering if you really need a designer for your project, you can always schedule a complimentary discovery call with us to see how we can best help you!

Till next time…


PS - Do you have design questions? Send us an email at and we will answer it as quickly and completely as possible in an upcoming blog post!


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