How to select your renovation dream team

The other day a prospective client asked me: “How can I make sure that I select the right designer for my renovation project?” I gave him my answer, which I will share with you as well, but it made me think that often there is a lot of confusion regarding which professional to hire during a renovation project.

My answer was that the first thing to think about is finding someone you get on really well with. After all, the person you hire to help you with your home will be working closely with you for quite some time. She or he will need to understand your lifestyle, habits, needs, and dreams, so you want to find someone whose company you enjoy. It’s always so much more fun to work with someone you like!

Although you may usually get on with a certain kind of person, you definitely want to feel that you can trust who you have hired, that he/she is truly listening to you, and that they always tell you what they believe is best for you, even when it might challenge your own ideas. You want to feel that you can speak freely – without being afraid of saying something stupid – and that you are gently guided through the process.

I believe this is the pre-requisite of a good collaboration and a successful project.

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The second part is, of course, to check previous work and credentials. This will be an indication of the kind of projects they have worked on as well as their style.

Are the styles of the previous projects all very similar? If you like it, perfect. If you don’t, you can check how much of a margin of change there is to adapt it to what you like.

If you can see different styles, it is usually an indication of the fact that the designer is adapting his/her work to each client to reflect their own style.

The third part would be to ask for referrals or to check if they have any online. Many professionals in the industry have a Houzz profile now – a sort of LinkedIn for the housing sector which contains a review section.

Reading what other people have said often gives an indication of the working style of the designer as well as learning about any problems they have solved. Often, the reviews are similar to before and after pictures: the clients felt lost at first and didn’t know where to start or who to ask. Now that it’s over they can talk about the journey, from that initial moment to the completion of the project. Understanding what the journey was like can tell you a lot about what you are likely to experience.

You can also ask to talk to other colleagues or collaborators: a structural engineer, an architect that has partnered on a project, even a builder. I believe that how you do anything is how you do everything; if this person treats everyone with the same respect, kindness, and professionalism, it will give you an indication of how he/she will be with you.

I called this person a “designer” because as you know, there are several different professionals that may be involved in a renovation.

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In Belgium, if your renovation is impacting the structural side of the building (i.e. removing a load-bearing wall and replacing it with a beam), increasing the volume (i.e. adding an extension or modifying the roof), or changing the front façade, you require a Planning Application and therefore an accredited architect. You can find a list of accredited architects by browsing the list on the Ordre des Architects.

An architect (in Belgium) has either a diploma of Architecture or of Ingénieur Civil-Architecte (slightly more technical), and has to train for two years in an Architecture office after five years at university to become accredited.

For stability issues, the architect will consult a structural engineer (an Ingénieur Civil-Architect  specialised in stability) who will create a stability study and execution details of the intervention.

For your interior, you need to ask the architect to what extent he/she will go to in defining the different finishes and supplies as well as the technical installation. You also need to ask them how much they will involve you in the choice. Will they define the layout of the furniture and choose the light fittings, planning the electrical installation accordingly, or will they only design a standard installation? Will they design a bathroom, choosing with you the type of tiles and fittings, or only do a standard design?

Sometimes an interior designer is needed to fill in where the architect stops, and it’s better to know this upfront.

An interior designer (architecte d’intérieur in Belgium) is a professional whose focus is on the creating a harmonious interior by combining furniture, colours, fabrics, finishes, and lighting etc.

This profession is not accredited in Belgium, and usually a diploma is obtained after a three-year bachelor program.  However, there are other shorter options that award a similar diploma so it’s good to check the work and experience of the designer to see his/her competencies.

My case is a different story: with an Italian five-year diploma in Building Engineering with a specialty in Renovation (and a few more diplomas), I am accredited in Italy for Planning Applications through the Order of Engineers. Since coming to Belgium, I have discovered that because this country only has the Order of Architects, I am not considered accredited.

Therefore, I decided to partner up with some colleagues if a Planning Application is needed, and otherwise to use my technical and architectural expertise for interior renovation. This allows me to do the work that an architect would usually do on the interiors (redesigning spaces, changing layouts) while at the same time taking care of all the details (lighting, colours, finishes, etc.) and bringing in the building crews. I act as a one-stop shop for this kind of projects, which is greatly appreciated by my clients.

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If your project doesn’t require a Planning Application you are free to work with either an architect, an interior designer, or both, depending on the kind of support you’re looking for.

The choice of contractor is the final part. Usually the designers will have some recommendations for craftsmen, and providing the team of workers might be part of their mission. If you want to choose on your own, the same applies here: ask for referrals, ask to see previous works, and check what they are like to work with (there are a few big egos out there) as well as checking their accreditations. The “Banque Carrefour des Entreprises” has a depository of all VAT businesses with a list of the activities they are legally able to perform. Last but not least, ask for a copy of their RC Insurance to make sure they have one.

You might think that you don’t really need a designer to do the work, and that just a contractor will do. This is definitely true for some simple jobs, but when a renovation project involves more than just one aspect the complexity increases and you really need a plan so that the contractors know what to do.

In the end, you may end up not knowing where you’re going or how much it’s going to cost. As the saying goes: Failing to plan is planning to fail, so make sure you know exactly what and who you’re dealing with before you begin for a stress-free, harmonious renovation.