What's the Difference: Architect vs. Builder vs. Interior Designer? | Interview
Turnstyle Design recently had the chance to sit down with its principal designer Lieve Saether and her good friend, Chris Sanders of Sanders Architecture, to discuss one of “the biggest questions of all”: What’s the difference between an architect, builder, and an interior designer? To ensure we got all three perspectives, we also included commentary from our friend and builder Brad Fleet of Signature Homes, to get his take on the topic.
Read on to get the viewpoints from this creative trifecta on how they differ and how they bring their specialty AND come together, to make beautiful homes.
Turnstyle Design (TD): Let’s start right off the bat, what is the difference between an architect and a builder and an interior designer? I’m sure you get this question all the time.
Lieve Saether (LS): Isn’t that one the biggest questions of all! Chris…
Chris Sanders (CS): From an architect’s perspective, broadly, we all three share knowledge and interest in building science and building systems; the way that buildings or residences or whatever they are, come together. We each certainly understand the process, but we all bring unique strengths to the table, and there is a lot of overlap.
What we bring to the table in architecture is really starting at the macro level and looking at site givens, alongside the owner’s goals for the project. Where our skills are different than an interior designer’s and builder’s, and where they are totally unique, is toward the front end of the process. In shaping spaces, we take all of those givens, which in the beginning don’t really relate, and we start to bring clarity into a project. At some point our knowledge base starts to overlap and that’s where the magic happens.
LS: I almost see it metaphorically as an hourglass shape that’s on a loop, because from my perspective the architect really does come at it from the larger overview; the initial bird’s eye view. You, Chris, really are there to devise the spatial constraints, namely what will the box become - what are the walls, what is the containment of their lifestyle going to look like structurally. Throughout your process, as the house is getting built, you’re getting narrower and narrower into that hourglass shape until you finally come to a point where you get so into the details, that it necessary for that to then be handed over to someone like me. At that point, I’m there to shape a space into the minutia of how the daily life will be experienced; which is why it makes so much sense for a designer to play a strong role in the eventual finish out of a house – but more on that later when we get into the actual construction side of things. I see that we very much aiming to compliment what the architected structure brings, to then take it to that level where it can be experienced on a day to day level, very satisfactorily.
Brad Fleet (BF): An architect interprets the client's desires to create and draw an aesthetically pleasing home design that fits their needs. The interior designer works with those architectural drawings as a starting point and interprets the client's desires adding a further level of design detail through the use of finish selections as well as providing innovative design enhancements. And the builder's role is to bring everyone's design ideas together, using people and materials to create a home within the client's budget.
LS: Yes, and in an ideal situation, a project is developed most holistically when all three specialists are involved – when a project volleys like a tennis game between the architect at the start, the builder in the construction stage, and that simultaneous collaboration from the designer on the backend, it’s then fully bookended and completely flushed out.
TD: Is there a set time or period in a project when an architect comes in, then the builder, then the designer or is it a collaboration from the start?
LS: It depends at what phase in the project, or how a homeowner is coming to you in the first instance. If it is an older home and they’re initially aiming for remodel, they might not think they need an architect so they might start with their builder / contractor, or they might first come to a designer. That’s really what was at the crux of this idea for an article – I often get asked by clients where to start, simply because they do not always know the specific differences between what we each do.
CS: If there’s one similarity between all projects, it’s that there’s a beginning and an end, and that we have to get our work done in between. Overlaying our process onto projects helps to clarify with an owner, show progress to the owner, and helps them understand what they’re getting for their money and helps them set goals and make decisions. We like to bring a contractor on board, whenever possible, by the beginning of design development. We develop documents that are schematic in nature and are broad and don’t go into a lot of detail but they typically have the major pieces of the project placed, and we’ve probably gotten into broad ideas of materiality and understanding the site and the way the building works. At that point we like to bring a contractor on board, because that’s the first time they can get a snapshot of how the project is truly lining up with budget.
LS: It becomes a much easier collaboration the earlier that design partnership starts.
CS: All of us get to know that person, the owner builds trust with the builder and the architect and the interior designer. If we all know each other and know how to work with each other before the building breaks ground, it’s an advantage.
LS: It also allows us to push each other into areas we normally don’t go. The nature of that collaboration, like any collaboration, is that you get pushed outside of your zone which is good and ultimately better for the client. One of my favorite things about any contribution to a project is pushing the boundaries of what the client thinks they want, and taking it further into something they really find incredible.
TD: In terms of an architect, should one hire an architect for a home renovation/fixer-upper project?
CS: It depends on the scope of the project really. An architect is required in some situations, by the city. So I think determining the scale of the home renovation might be a discussion you have with an architect before you hire them. If you are in the process of thinking about a renovation or addition, it’s not a bad idea to reach out to a few architects or interior designers and get feedback from them, about what it’s going to take to get this done. If you’re thinking you’re going to spatially reconfigure your house and you have the means to hire the architect, I think you’ll benefit from that. I think an architect will help you understand and push your boundaries.
LS: We’re trying to push outside, or rather help a homeowner experience, the ultimate that a particular structure can give, not to mention the experience they can get from the space. You get different perspectives through those meetings with architects and designers, and as a homeowner you start to think differently about the home than you originally might had. I will say, that the consultation upfront is a very wise investment to at least get the ideas going and understand the full potential of a project.
CS: The expectations of hiring an architect or an interior designer should be, that you have ideas that you’re going to bring to the table and you have goals that you want to achieve, but allowing them [the architect and the interior designer] to take this information and think about how to develop it and bring their framing and their experience to bare, and offer you solutions that hopefully are things that you’ve never thought of. We are taking an idea and making it better - or thinking of it from a completely different angle.
LS: Such a big part of any project is the education piece to the client – showing them what’s possible, showing them how to turn things upside down and inside out – just really being efficient and playful with how to solve those ideas on a practical and experiential level.
TD: Is it necessary/more beneficial to choose a three-some that has frequently worked together, or can you pick and choose different interior designers, architects, etc. when you know they have never worked together? Is it okay to throw these people in a pot and hope your project turns out great?
LS: I think so! I think that the first thing you need to make sure is that everybody is willing to be collaborative. One of the great things about working with a team that you haven’t had the luxury or comfort of knowing yet, is that you really end up pushing each other outside of the norm because you haven’t yet figured out that comfort dynamic, and the very fact that you’re not comfortable means that you’re going to find some interesting points to drive each other. Now of course you’re going to find some moments of irritation, but again, if everyone can handle it as constructive criticism, you tend to come out with the most beautiful creations in the end – that’s my experience.
CS: I agree, the architect and interior designer or builder don’t necessarily have to have worked together before, but there needs to be a compatibility. There are some architects and interior designers whose style just don’t mesh and then builders as well, not all buildings are the same or not all expectations are the same for the way the details come together. So it needs to be the right team. When you have some compatibility and you’re all aiming for the same goal then that’s great. On the other side, there are also benefits to bringing teams together that have worked a lot together. When we know that they have the craftsmanship and the quality work that meets our expectations for a project, then we like to go back to those people when we can.
LS: You’ve eliminated a whole thing of worry right there. I mean, it’s always wonderful to work with teams that you have an understood language with; that you have worked with for a long time because it’s almost a shorthand. For example, some of our contractors that we’ve worked with for over a decade – I don’t even need to say anything, they immediately know what the standard is, and what my expectation is going to be on a particular thing. I think it runs both ways.
TD: For your individual area of specialization, what is your favorite aspect of your side of working on projects?
BF: I really enjoy coming up with innovative ways to take the concepts from the design the team and turning them into something functional and aesthetically pleasing in the form of a building structure.
LS: For me, it goes back to understanding and being able to provide that ultimate experience on a day to day basis. We are doing that with tangible things – what we put in a space, the materials we use, the finishes that you feel, how a handle feels in your hand for example, or where you find natural light, etc. Unlocking that part on each job in a unique way is great because, philosophically, I very much believe that your home should be your absolute happiest place. It should really be the best version of yourself. Teasing that out, through the actual materials and the physical changes in the house is where I find my happy place.
CS: It’s that moment in the beginning where we take all these things and bring them together and it starts to become a reality. It’s the satisfaction of creating and the creative process. This industry we are in, is fascinating because it grounded in function and necessity and code requirements. It’s this constant tension between solving these basic fundamental problems, but also creating something beautiful and possibly unexpected.
TD: All three roles are rooted in the same foundation in what the end results will be, but do you admire any specific aspect of the other collaborators’ roles?
BF: It is always impressive to watch a great interior designer use colors, patterns and textures to give life to set of plans drawn in black and white, it's really a type of artistry.
LS: I, the other hand, always romanticize the idea of the architect because in a rose colored version of this process, the architect has literally a blank slate - a blank page to create whatever.
CS: I have found that I admire interior designers because they come at it from the opposite direction. There’s this point where we overlap. It’s at this point where we may have a strong idea of what we want to do with the lighting, materials, finishes and colors and all of these things. I’ve gained so much respect for this depth of knowledge of materials and lighting and spatial relationships of these components to a project that are later in the construction process, later in the design process – that really affect the space.
LS: I think that’s right, and again if it is part of a collaboration, it reinforces what the original intent was, and maybe even pushes it farther than the original intent could go – it all has so much elasticity at that point.
TD: What would you say is the singular thing that you bring to the table in tandem with an architect, builder or an interior designer?
LS: I think it really depends on what their scope of creativity or ability is. But on the design side, because we get so much into the minutiae, it’s really about the personality creation in a home. It’s pushing beyond what you think a house should be, fully understanding what the client has as an expectation of their wished-for lifestyle value, and finally tangibly making it an interactive experience on that daily basis.
BF: I'm probably more design oriented than most builders, and really enjoy the opportunity to work with talented interior designers and architects as part of the design team to create indoor and outdoor living spaces.
CS: Architects come in all shapes in sizes. There are architects who are truly designers - some architects - that’s all they do, and then they contract with another architect who actually puts together the documentation and executes the project. There are a lot of architects who don’t consider themselves designers. Collaboration with an interior designer and a good builder always results in a better architectural and design product at the end. I think this an important discussion, because one weakness in each of those pieces of the puzzle can really effect the product.
LS: Right it’s like a three legged stool, we all come at this discipline with slightly different offerings, intentions, and skillsets. When the three work together and bring their abilities to the table you get the most fantastic results - there’s just no way around that.
TD: Just to throw a fun question out there, do you have a dream project, like have you been mulling over a building you’ve wanted to create forever or a space that you’ve wanted to design, just anything. What is your dream project?
LS: Right now, there is a particular house that I love and it’s a very modern, contemporary, and see-through structure I would love to tackle. Can you imagine – a mostly see-through home?! So for me that would be the most fun, blank (and literally bare) slate, sort of where there is a large conundrum and anything is possible.
CS: I think that the ideal project for me, whatever it is, whether it’s residential, or institutional, or if it’s a museum or a library. Whatever it is, I’d want to have a good project, a good client, a good collaboration with our design team, and then we actually make money off of it.
BF: It would be fun to create an estate home using historical architecture from some other part of the world, here in Austin.
Thank you each for chatting with us. We look very much forward to sharing this conversations with the many people out there who are endeavoring projects and who are at the same time curious about which route they can best go. Until our next project together!