I’ve used the analogy of an orchestra and its conductor before: when you project manage your renovation, you are the conductor, and all the people and teams you hire are your orchestra. Each of them has spent years or decades becoming proficient in their area of expertise, and, if properly directed, can join with the expertise of the other orchestra members to produce an end result that is flawlessly executed, stirring in its artistry, and greater than the sum of its parts. But before you can have your Leonard Bernstein moment, bowing to a standing ovation, there will be many months, if not longer, of work to achieve that cathartic validation of all your efforts.
It’s crucial to understand the scope of each person’s responsibility. If you want to paint your house, there may be more to the job than just painting. Are there problems to fix first, like patching holes or skim coating to create a new, smooth surface? If you have cracks in the wall currently, you will need to ask if cracks are part of the patchwork. Do you need the walls primed, or prepared for wallpaper or a decorative painter? Will the cost be higher if the existing walls are red and you want to paint them white? Understanding the existing conditions is a key part of planning work with each of your tradespeople.
As the project proceeds, there will be things you need to push back on. For example, the contractor changes a detail but doesn’t clear it with you first, or they don’t think something you’ve asked for is a good idea, and they resist doing it. You may need to hold your ground in these cases. BUT, there will also be times when you need to listen to the experts, and in what seem like the exact same scenarios: the contractor may be telling you something isn’t a good idea, and they’re right.
Sound confusing? It is. It can be hard to know when to stand your ground and when to reconsider some aspect of the design. There are conventions in each trade that you will need to work with, codes that need to be followed, or simply people who have done this many times and have good advice for you. It’s a bit like going to a doctor. They have a lot of schooling, and can provide you with good information about your health concerns. It can be easy to doubt yourself in the face of all that experience, and sometimes they tell you things you just don’t want to hear (but need to listen to nonetheless). On the other hand, you know your own body, and so you have to trust your instincts and determine how to advocate for yourself.
And like any job interview, this is very important. They should feel they understand you and can interpret your vision. When interviewing this person, find out about their communication style, and assess whether it works with your own. For instance, do you want someone who will do a lot of hand holding, and who updates you daily? Or do you prefer someone to leave you out of the day-to-day details and only come to you when necessary? Above all, do you feel that they are hearing you?
When a mismatch of communication happens, both parties often feel frustrated which only adds to what’s already a stressful process. I want to offer this advice: Not only should you be asking questions, but pay attention to whether they ask you questions. If they don’t, I would advise caution, especially if this is your first time.
The person you hire may be excellent at their job, but they may have been doing it so long that they forget what it’s like to be in your shoes. They may struggle to appreciate what it is that you don’t know, and can be as prone to assumption as you are. As I’ve said before, we’ve all had conversations where both parties walked away feeling confident in the outcome, only to find out later that we both had surprisingly different takeaways.
Even after 17 years, I’m still learning to ask the right questions. Something I often say is, “are there any questions I should be asking you that I’m not?” Everyone has the ability to do a great job if they are motivated and have clear guidance. If you’re expecting something that isn’t stated up front, you might not get it. Leonard Bernstein would never leave anything to chance!