Anastasia Casey 00:00:08 Hi, and welcome back to The Interior Collective, a podcast for the business of beautiful living. I'm your host, Anastasia Casey. Every interior designer's process is so distinctly unique. While designing new construction projects can be a bit more straightforward, renovation projects require a unique level of experience and planning to both bid and execute effectively. Today, Victoria Sass, principal designer and founder of award-winning Minneapolis based studio Prospect Refuge walks us through her noteworthy renovation process, specializing in historic and architecturally significant properties. Prospect Refuge projects evoke quiet luxury in a joyful, unassuming way. Hello Victoria and welcome to the show. I am so excited to have you here on Season Three of The Interior Collective.
Victoria Sass 00:00:58 Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's such a treat. I'm really excited to chat.
AC 00:01:03 Well, as you know today we're really diving deep into renovations and how you can set your business up for success planning for those renovations. How do you bid for those? What do you anticipate? What are the things that always come up inevitably in a project? But let's go ahead and start with a little background. Can you walk us through opening your studio back in 2015 and really how it's evolved since?
VS 00:01:28 Yeah, 2015 I was, actually interior design is all I've ever done. So I didn't come into this from another career or anything. I feel like I'm kind of a unicorn in that I think there's a lot of diverse paths, which is cool that we have that in our industry. So this is all I've ever done. But I did commercial work for about 10 years and then in 2015 I, not directly related, but I had my second child and sort of had some time to kind of look at your life and decided that while I loved design, it was not, I was not designing with intention. I was just sort of taking projects that they were coming along and had been doing a lot of like tenant improvement, historic preservation, but on the commercial side. And so I really spent some time thinking about creativity and what I wanted to do and how I could stay in this career for 40 more years, uh, and what I needed back from it in order to do that.
VS 00:02:27 And so I started kind of over still doing design, but started Prospect Refuge studio proper and with a focus on, but we, in the beginning, I did both residential and commercial work. And then over time we've just fully migrated into only residential work. And it was just me. When I say we, this is now a, we was not a we back in the day. Uh, it was just me for years and slowly have been adding to my team. We're at eight at the moment and growing, actively growing. So call us if you're looking to move to the Midwest or work in the Midwest, we are growing. So yeah, now we do uh, high-end luxury, high concept, narrative, residential design, all sizes of projects, you know, we'll do, we'll take a kitchen, an addition, a remodel, all all the way up to, you know, 10,000 square foot new builds and onward, you know, hit me with your best shot <laugh>. I love, we love weird stuff. We still do a little bit of commercial here and there, but you have to be a brave soul to just sort of reach out and ask. We don't advertise or talk about that a whole lot, so.
AC 00:03:31 So you have eight now and looking to grow, expand beyond that. Can you break down sort of the studio structure? How many of those are designers? How many are project managers? Do you have project managers? What does that look like?
VS 00:03:43 Yes, all that. Okay. How is our team structured? There's me and my colleague Kate who's kind of our, I would call her a C O O director of operations titles. Little in small teams, you know, they're a little fluid and she sort of tackles most of the business side of the of design. She's not a trained designer, but she comes from the design world. She's a creative, so she tackles the business side. I'm kind of leading the design side and then just general goals and things like that. And then we have, thinking of non-billable people first we have a, we have an expediter project manager. I know there's a couple different titles for that role. That's the person who,
AC 00:04:22 Interesting. You just said non-billable people. Your project manager expeditor is not someone you bill hourly for?
VS 00:04:31 No, not at, not at the moment. I've heard that it's done many different ways, but right now we're not billing that person. Their cost is built into our product markup.
AC 00:04:43 Got it. Okay. Awesome. Carry on. Sorry, I thought that was interesting. <laugh>. Yeah,
VS 00:04:46 No, yeah, that's a great question. So we have one project manager, expeditor. We're in a, you know, we're always in a state of fluidity. We've got, I'm trying to think, we've got two lead quote unquote lead designers. I try not to use those terms internally. Everyone's a designer. But for the sake of this podcast and kind of people understanding the structure, they're the people that are leading the projects. And then we, at the moment we have three designers, you might call them junior designers that support those leads. Ideally we'll have three leads and three juniors. 'cause that's kind of how our team is normally structured, where you have a lead in a junior, they're, you know, joined at the hip and they kind of run their own set of projects completely. But not to jump into business stuff I guess too much. But while I'm thinking of it, we're kind of at this tipping point right now where I feel like as we grow, we add this 13, we need another expeditor, which probably needs, means we need a support person to kind of run the studio a little bit cleaner. So we're at a really fun, interesting, you know, I feel like one of those growth tipping points, which I've talked to a lot of designers and I feel like people often say around that 10 to 12 mark is a big one. And then around the 25 ish mark is another big one. So that's right where we are on that precipice right now.
AC 00:06:13 Awesome. Well I will get all the info for anyone listening who wants to apply to work at Prospect Refuge. Yeah. To include in the show notes because Minneapolis is such a cool city and the work you're doing there is so awesome. So if you're interested, there are a lot of designers hiring right now. It's a good time to be in the market. So thank you for breaking that down. Now as we look at your scope of work and the projects you're taking on, what percentage of your projects are renovations versus new build on average?
VS 00:06:42 I'd say we lean, at the moment, we lean more heavily on renovating our, one of our kind of, I would say taglines, maybe elevator pitches is sort of old homes, young families. That's really uh, a, a place where we have a lot of passion. And there's a lot of old homes in the city of Minneapolis with a lot of interesting architecture. Young families are moving into them. It's a very growing, interesting, thriving city. And people wanna find that sweet spot between living in an old home and having a modern day life. So we do a lot of old homes, maybe, I'm trying to think, maybe like 30 to 70% at the moment, 30% on the new build side, 70% on the renovation. But you know, ask me next year, it might be a totally, might be swinging the other way. So totally.
AC 00:07:33 I am always looking at properties in Minneapolis because there are such good historic homes in the Midwest and I'm always like, oh gosh, why can't that be in Austin? As you look at those projects, I'm sure you love every project equally, but like here in the secret secretive conversation, do you have a preference between renovations or new builds?
VS 00:07:53 Boy, that is a really hard question 'cause I, at first I would say I do love a renovation because I feel like we add a lot of value to them because it's not people I, I think the most challenging part of old homes are often my favorite part. Like the thing that people come to us and they're like, I don't know what to do with this complicated architectural feature. And those are the parts I usually get the most excited about is sort of the idiosyncrasies and the weirdness of, of old homes. But lately, I've gotten really excited about taking all that we've learned from old homes and trying to put it into building new homes. Because I do think people, we have a lot of, we have quite a few homeowners that come to us right after building a new home and they're like, we, we kind of missed the soul part of our house <laugh>.
VS 00:08:39 And I'm like, darn, I wish you would've called us while you were building. 'cause we could've built that in from day one. So I really love doing that too. And taking all that we've learned from old homes and being like, how can we put pack that into a new home? It started with old homes. I, I definitely think that PRS started our love and our real connection with residential design started with older homes and now has grown into new homes, but it's still through that old home lens, even as we build new homes.
AC 00:09:07 I love the way you put that. So, okay, for the majority of our conversation today, I definitely wanna focus on renovations. I feel like a lot of our guests are primarily working on new builds and I think that saving old homes is so important. So I'd love to understand, what does your client onboarding process look like when someone's coming to you for a renovation? How do you even begin that process
VS 00:09:33 From uh, are you, are you talking about more from like our side of the table or from a client's side approaching us or
AC 00:09:39 Kind of both? So when they first reach out to you, they're like, we have this, you know, 1920s home, we're ready to get started. What comes next? How are you gathering the information you need?
VS 00:09:51 Yeah, so ideally that person is filling out a form on our website is our preference as opposed to like DMing me on Instagram. But that happens, you know, we'll, we'll guide them, but we're usually trying to shuttle them towards the website if we can, or at least an email where we can kind of document it, encapsulate that information. And then my colleague Kate, who is our operations person, she will usually reach out with kind of a quick 15 minute call. Everything we do, we're trying to add value to wherever we are in the process. It's just really not about trying to sell anything to anyone ever, but really just taking that person as they are in their time and place with their budget, with their timeline, whatever it is, and helping them find the best next step. So we really go into it with that mindset.
VS 00:10:42 And so looking at, we spend a lot of time internally figuring out who our ideal client is, who we can, I shouldn't even say who our ideal client is, but like who we can really help the most and what, who's gonna be happy working with us at the end of the day. And I think we've sort of figured out who those people are and so we're really interviewing them and kind of figuring out, you know, what are they looking for out of their project. One of my favorite questions to ask is like, fast, cheap and good. Pick two, it's buer. I think that tells you a lot about people's values and where their head is at and what their expectations are. I think usually we're looking for someone who has either a property or person or a family, whatever that structure is that has an interesting story or a complicated story.
VS 00:11:29 It doesn't have to be easy, it doesn't have to be quick or even, we don't even have to understand it right now. But I think the more, almost the more challenging and more, you know, I don't know, complex it is, the more we're interested in like there's a puzzle to be solved here and we can really help with that. So, you know, and then also talking about timeline and talking about budget and making sure that they can afford a designer that's not going to be a disproportionate drain on their budget. And we'll, you know, explain that to them if that is that like, you know, if your budget is so constricted, hiring a designer is gonna take 50% of your budget, you could go twice as far without one. We offer services on like, uh, what are they called, like consultation apps as well. So sometimes we'll guide people there. So it's a little bit of like a choose your own adventure, come in the door, have a phone conversation with us, and then we try to like point you in the right direction from there. Whether it's another designer, another service, another level in our scope of services or yeah, let's move to the next level and talk about a design project together.
AC 00:12:40 I really admire the way that you put your ideal client and it's really like, who can we best serve? Not necessarily seeking out the exact one person that you want to serve, but it's like who can we really serve? And what I've heard over and over again already in this first 15 minutes of chatting with you is it's always about the value you bring to your client. It's always about being a service-based business. And I think that that's such, um, a unique and untold story to so many interior design businesses and I think that it just comes across in your work so clearly. So I'd love to expand on that a little bit more. When Kate is having that initial phone convo that I'm assuming is just a complimentary 15 minute quick chat to kind of get a vibe check of where everybody's at and then be able to start guiding them in that correct bucket or lane that they should go into. Let's say that they are now ready to move forward and it feels like a good fit for full service design. At what point are you then going physically to their space or moving to a call with you? Like what is the next step from there?
VS 00:13:44 Yeah, we are heavy on the relationship building side. I have tried it all. This is what's right for us, by no means is it right for everyone. We have charged for consultations, we have done all kinds of things. I think it's good to try all those things and find the right fit for you. But at this point in time we don't take any money for quite a while into the process. We will meet for a consultation, we will take them out to lunch, we will have them to the studio. These are mandatory, mandatory steps in the process. I usually ask our team, unless there's extremely extenuating circumstances, we like to meet them at least a minimum of three times in person if we can before we sign a contract. And that's just how we work. We feel like, I really wanna make sure it's a great marriage.
VS 00:14:36 I wanna make sure we're laying a good foundation. I wanna make sure that no one feels beholden to anyone else. It's a two way street. Sometimes in the past we had felt like, you know, we rushed into that contract and maybe, you know, people open up at different rates and sometimes people aren't ready to really share their true goals and expectations day one. And so having this longer courtship process has really helped us make sure that they are gonna be happy working with us in the end that they're not, you know, saying certain buzzwords or certain things that they hear on a podcast or in the world and that they really understand what they are asking for and that we maybe even see more of what they really want than they may even realize at that point. The more time we spend with them, we might be able to understand, okay, they're saying this, but I hear this, if that makes sense.
VS 00:15:33 So that's our onboarding process is usually phone call, ideally a property tour or some kind of an in-person meeting or walkthrough of plans, meeting the team, whatever that looks like. More of like onboarding, understanding the project and then a casual follow-up meeting of some sort. Ideally like a lunch, get to know them, get to know their family, their community, their culture, whatever it is that makes them who they are and why they're here and what they want and what their history has been. And then we'll have a contract meeting at the studio and we'll walk through all of that in great detail.
AC 00:16:10 That's amazing. And I think that that, I mean, I'm just like, wow, how do we implement that in my own business <laugh> with our own, you know, branding and website clients. I'm like, maybe we should have longer courtships. When you are at that initial walkthrough and then the follow up lunch, I'm curious as to how many specific ideas or suggestions you are providing to that potential client at that initial meeting before that contract is signed. For instance, if you're like, this wall needs to come down and you know, we're gonna move the range over here, how much of that are you kind of sharing at this point? 'cause I know some designers in those listening are like, well, I hate to give away so much during my consultation that they're like, cool, we can do it from here now, especially when you have that budget conversation of like you said, you have this amount that's really gonna be 50% of that just goes to us. That's not gonna get you very far. How much are you disclosing at the very beginning?
VS 00:17:02 I don't hold anything back. Again, this is just me and how, what's best for me. And it also, I think it depends a little bit on the scale of the project that you're working on. I think if you're doing living room furniture packages, you might not want, this approach is probably not right for you because that's, you know, a couple weeks of work. It's a quicker process doing three meetings just to have only three more meetings feels like, you know, that's probably not a good fit for a designer. But for us, we're usually, you know, having three meetings because we're gonna be working together for three years makes it a drop in the bucket. It's well worth the investment on our part to make sure everyone's happy where they are. I will share all my ideas. I think it's great. The more they know about where I see this project going, the more they have the opportunity to, you know, steer in a different direction.
VS 00:17:55 If they're not liking it, the worst thing would be for them to get, you know, I don't wanna say get in bed with us, ew, but <laugh> get together with us, uh, partner with us on their project and then not like what we're doing. So I feel like I share all my ideas upright. I mean, we're gonna be working on this project nearly every day for years. There's no way they could
take our ideas in. I mean, and if they do great, you know, if, if they feel like, honestly, if you feel like all you need is one consultation, you should, you know, just hire us on, uh, you know, for an hour consultation on the phone. And I, I share all my ideas there too. I feel like our creativity is not in short supply and there will always be another idea and yeah, I don't hold that too tightly at all.
AC 00:18:44 Yeah, and the idea or the original ideation actually is still such a small percentage really of what your service is. So if they want to take the one idea of moving that bookshelf over four feet, <laugh> Yeah,
VS 00:18:58 It's usually a drop in the bucket then, I mean what we're gonna do for them in the weeks, months, years to come. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> is gonna be expansive, immersive, holistic. We're gonna build a world for them. And so yeah, if they wanna take that one taste free sample, you know, it's not the whole meal, right? So that's fine. I'm happy giving away free samples and the better for us to learn from each other whether it is or isn't a good fit.
AC 00:19:26 That's a great tip, thank you so much. So as we're talking about a renovation, let's say the contract is signed, it's an exciting project, we're ready to move forward. What should a designer be looking for when walking into a renovation? And what I mean by this is once you start opening up walls, things are different than what you planned. And that can be intimidating to designers who have maybe only been doing new builds or have only been furnishing. What are the red flags or the things that you can get ahead of at the very beginning?
VS 00:19:58 Hmm. I'm trying to think of like, renovations are worlds of surprise. They're just, you can never predict <laugh> what's gonna, what's gonna be inside a wall, behind a wall, next to a wall. So I feel like everyone is, you're kind of coming at it for the first time, which I find exciting. But yeah, there's not like a framework for everyone. I will say something I've learned is that if there's something odd that catches your eye, if the homeowner's walking you through and they're like, I don't know why they did it that way, there's a reason they did it that way. There's always a reason. So that's maybe some red flags I'm usually looking for. If there's a weird angle to a wall or a thickness to a wall or something that the homeowner's going, yeah, I don't know why this is here. There's probably some reason why it's there.
VS 00:20:47 Very few things have been done in the past, like people are always trying to conserve their energy, so there's probably a shortcut or a necessity. And then, you know, during the course of our project, inevitably something will come up and we'll have to find a workaround and the future generations will go, I wonder why they did it that way. And it's like, well that was the only option at the time. So you know, that could be something to look for and you won't know the answer day one, but you might be able to at least pay special attention to it and say, let's not disregard what's happening here. There's something strange happening here. So we're probably gonna wanna like really pay attention to what's inside or behind this wall or something.
AC 00:21:29 So at what point in the project, again, speaking of renovations, are you bringing in an architect or on renovation projects, are you typically handling all that design work? And those don't always qualify for an architect?
VS 00:21:44 I mean, ideally I'm partnering with an architect on as many projects as I can. There's only so many hours in a day and we have a small team and we really like to stay specialized on the interior design side of things. But I would say my firm line in the sand is any roof line, any exterior additions, moving of structural, well moving of structural walls. I would say exterior, exterior impact is definitely a place, a rock hard line in the sand of like, we will not pass, go without an architect. It's just been too long since I've done that kind of work and we're not as up to date on those codes and slopes and all of the things. So,
AC 00:22:28 So is that a conversation you're having during that courtship phase and as you do the walkthrough and you know that the plan is gonna be, hey, we're gonna add a sunroom or something and at that point you're like, we gotta get an architect on board right now?
VS 00:22:41 Yeah, and then usually while we're doing that we might continue down the design road so it doesn't have to be like halt while we wait for this other person to get on. We can start the conceptual phase, we can continue, um, during the very early design phase and then kind of onboard the architect as they come in. But yeah, yeah, usually right away if they know that they're gonna want an addition or we know that it's gonna require some kind of exterior structure, change of structure.
AC 00:23:07 So the question we get the most frequently people writing in here to the show or they ask at design camp or any all over the place, is the concept of bidding and like your own bid for your own time estimate and how you're going to propose your cost to your client. But then also all of the bids for everything going into the project with the contractors and everything. Because so many of our clients, so many of our designers are like, great, this person has $250,000. But then what we're telling them like, you, you can only do so much in that amount. And so at what point are you bringing in those trades for bids so that they know I'm gonna propose X number of hours for this project. And then we're also allotting still $200,000 for the actual construction and furnishing.
VS 00:23:58 It's a dance, it's not easy for sure. I wish I could say we have a, you know, locked in <laugh> process. We really usually try to start by understanding our own needs as a studio. What are our own to complete this project and what's expected of us? What are we going to need? And so we'll start by determining what that is and sharing that with the client and letting them know, okay, this is what we need. And that, you know, we usually start, Kate's pretty adept at doing this sort of almost in real time when she's having that first phone call. But beyond that, if it sneaks up on us that the scope has grown but the budget hasn't or something like that, we may have a conversation later that, you know what, and that's again why that's slow courtship. We might say, you know what, I actually feel like you will go farther without a designer, you and an architect or you and a different kind of an arrangement of people as a team.
VS 00:24:53 So understanding our own needs in that arrangement or that project or that uh, relationship is really important. So we'll kind of determine, we feel like this project is gonna be X number of months of design time at X number of hours per week, X dollars, you know, billable rate. And that you can kind of extrapolate that outwards and you can sort of get a ballpark number and then you can look at the whole budget as the client is asking for, you know, asking to invest and sort of say, does that align? I mean sometimes you go back to people and you say, this is what I need. And they go, you know, sounds fair, this is what I want. I just didn't know totally. You know, sometimes people just say numbers at you because they're like, oh, I got 250,000, is that enough? And then you go, you're gonna need five.
VS 00:25:38 And they go, okay, I want this done. I just, you asked me for a number and I didn't know. Right? So I say, you know, figure out what you need to do the project, right? Do the project well and just know it might not be in their budget or it might be in their budget, but if you just go in and I usually say facts not feelings, just go in and say, these are the facts. There's no feelings attached. If it's not right for you, no harm, no foul if it's not right for us. No harm, no foul.
AC 00:26:04 So how are you guiding them and saying, great, we know what our
number's gonna be, we know what we're gonna need from this budget, but without having designed the plans, without actually coming up with the concepts, how are you able to educate them and say, okay, well to do the kitchen living room, primary bath and the powder room, you know, you're probably looking at X, Y, Z number and construction. Have you brought bids in before you get to the contract phase or are you like, ballpark this is what it usually costs based off of the information we have from our past clients?
VS 00:26:39 Yeah, I'd say if you're just starting out, you may want to look at sort of like a feasibility phase or something where you can get compensated while you're getting those answers. I think we've done hundreds of projects collectively probably as a team, probably way more than that, probably a thousand. So we have enough information to know if someone's expectations are out of alignment with their financial goals or whatever so we can kind of guide people. You know, a kitchen reno with us is usually in this range before we start getting bids and just make sure the general direction is there. There's almost always room to align expectations if people have a firm budget. Okay, what do you want 'em to take out of the scope if they have a firm scope? Okay, how much are you willing to add to your budget? You know, you can figure out, you can work with people one way or the other to get to that sweet spot that everybody feels good.
VS 00:27:35 So for us, we just sort of suss out, does the budget feel sufficient, generally speaking to what they're looking to do. And then we figure out our needs and then we sort of say, okay, that leaves you with this as a remainder to complete the rest of the project. Does that feel like we're gonna have enough to get across the finish line? And then if so, we'll start to get bids and we'll probably go a little farther down the design road. To be honest, I find that builders don't tend to want to give you any kind of number until you have a pretty comprehensive understanding of what the project is gonna entail. Rightfully so. I mean, it's hard to say how long is a piece of string if you come to them, they wanna do an addition, well an addition of what, an addition of six rooms or two rooms or is it a addition of a fully underground pool and spa or is it like a bedroom with one outlet in the corner? You know, like it's hard to know. So, so yeah. So that's kind of our process is to figure out our needs, say does this still seem like a feasible project? And then start to pursue the design process a little bit farther, get a better understanding of where we're going. And then go to builders.
AC 00:28:45 This October we are headed back to the Santa Monica proper hotel for Design Camp 2023. Join designers from around the world as we go in depth in small group breakout sessions and large keynotes covering topics like systems and processes, design presentations, maximizing profitability, marketing that converts, updated software solutions and so much more. Meet celebrity designers, Bria Hamel, CHLE and CO and Caitlin Flemmiing while we dine al fresco under the stars. Design Camp is loaded with surprises in a lifetime of friendships. Don't miss our final event of the year. Visit www.design camp.co to secure your spot. So speaking of bids, how have you learned to hopefully most accurately estimate your pricing for a project? It sounds like you bill hourly, correct? Versus flat rate. Yes. Yes. You bill hourly. And so your whole team is tracking their hours. You have done a thousand projects at this point, so you have a lot of prior proprietary knowledge to get that kind of estimate going. What are some of the tips that you found that could possibly help someone expedite that process of learning how long it's gonna take them to do a project?
VS 00:30:00 Oh, keep fastidious documentation. It's not sexy, it's not fun, it's not, you know, the glamorous part of our career. But I would say that that has been a big strength at PRS is we're very much, we have two sort of complementary goals all the time. And one is creativity and one is communication. And part of communication being a two-way street is both not only just telling people things, but also listening and documenting and reviewing, going back over things and um, referencing what happened, you know, in these three or four other very similarly sized projects. What sort of time did we end up spending at the end of day or even personality types, you know, they seem like a lot like they have a decision making process like this other client that we worked with. And that client needed twice as many meetings as this other client. So it's not all I know. I was just like, facts, not feelings. It's not all facts, it's a lot of feelings too. And you have to kind of look at both sides. So I would say the best way to expedite is just document everything you can, all your hours billable, non-billable, project related on project related. The more time, the more you understand how you're spending your time, the more you'll understand what you need for future projects. And yeah.
AC 00:31:21 Do y'all use a certain app to track your time?
VS 00:31:25 Oh, we use a horrible app right now. I won't even tell you what it is, but we're <laugh> actively needing to make a switch. We're just dragging our feet because–
AC 00:31:32 We've been checking out an app called Harvest and I'll
VS 00:31:35 Oh yeah. Mm-hmm.
AC 00:31:37 I will. Is that the one that you hate?
VS 00:31:38 No, we don't use Harvest <laugh>. No we don't, but we haven't looked it out.
AC 00:31:43 Okay, well I'll link that in the show notes in case anybody wants to try it. And by the time this episode airs, I'll leave like actual commentary of how we liked it. I do like that it tracks which window you're in on your computer. 'cause I do feel like that helps even just that initial step. Mm-hmm. So
VS 00:31:56 I should, let me interject, I should say the app itself, we use it because it keeps it, I can pull incredible reports, uh, on how we spend our time. We can categorize and subcategorize and micro categorize and I can pull reports looking at a project, um, through this kind of, uh, lens. And I can totally rearrange and look at like how much time did that person spend on that task in that specific project. So I can break it down and really understand how projects are working that it's fantastic at, but they have not, the, the developers have not been keeping up with the software. So there's getting, it's getting glitchier in terms of pulling those reports. So I should, I should say that like everyone, clients out there, there, everyone, you're in good hands <laugh>. It's just, I love it because it is so thorough. They're just not maintaining the software, so it's time to make a move.
AC 00:32:47 Got it. Yeah. So another question, especially because you said you have this kind of like elevator pitch of old homes, young families. How do you prepare your clients for the renovation process? Because as you're trying to get the most bang for your client's buck, I mean, obviously in an ideal world, someone would be living in another house, they are just paying for this new house to get renovated and everything's perfect. That's not always the case. Not everybody has another home to be renting or live in. How are you preparing them for what this is gonna be like? Especially when we're talking about young families.
VS 00:33:21 You know, it's like telling, preparing someone for what it's like to be a parent. Like you can't, there's no, there's no way until they go through it themselves will they really understand. And I do, you know, I'll share with people like, these are the common pitfalls, these are the traps. This is when you're gonna get hung up. This is when you're gonna feel scared. This is when you're gonna need an extra push. And until they're in that moment, there's, they're gonna go, you know, it's just gonna go right through them. I've been through a lot of renovations myself, so I personally know the emotional traps that everyone will fall in. So I just try to be there for them all the way through. And when I see one coming, I try to get to them before it really manifests and just, you know, tell them I'm here for you.
VS 00:34:07 I see you, I know this part is really, really hard and hang in there, you're in good hands. We've done this a thousand times, I know where we're going. Trust me, look at all these beautiful projects. I've seen them through it all. And just be really emotionally sensitive that, you know, just because we've been through it a thousand times doesn't mean it's not really really hard for them in that moment. So be sensitive, and I think that's the best way. I think if you go in expecting your client to have some sort of superhuman ability to like ride this thing through unscathed, that's a lot. And you're gonna be disappointed and they're gonna feel frustrated because you're gonna have unrealistic expectations of them. So let it go. We're all human and just love, love them up as much as you can. I think
AC 00:34:54 I, before we move on, I really wanna get into your creative process as well. But going back to those initial proposals and estimates for your hours, do you give a range or is it a pretty set number? What happens when, you know the basement ended up flooding and now the, the, you know, there's more of your hours involved. How are you preparing a client for the fact that your portion of the budget is going to have to increase? And do you kind of build that in at the beginning or is it a conversation that happens as it comes?
VS 00:35:25 It's a conversation. Both. We try to pad a little bit in the beginning because we are hourly, you know, we try to set expectations that, you know, if you make decisions quick, this could be less. But <laugh> typically we're pretty good at estimating, so don't count on it. Oftentimes if you tell a person it's gonna be less, they'll expect it to be less. So use that delicately. But yeah, I mean if scope changes, I mean that's why we used to do flat fee. That's why we do hourly now, is because these are lifetime clients. Hopefully we've vetted them, we love each other, <laugh>, we wanna work together for the rest of our collective lives. And just being on an hourly basis, ongoing, you know, inevitably we're working on their second home and all of a sudden, Hey, why don't you come over to my primary home?
VS 00:36:12 I have a few things I wanna get done there. So there's, our work is constantly bleeding into other areas of their lives and growing. It's more of a relationship than it is a finite project. So hourly has really worked for us in that regard. I think you have to get really, really comfortable talking about money in this industry and look at it as a service, as a generosity that everything, when you're talking about money, it's not about greed, it's not about, you know, you're not trying to sell anything. You're just there and you say, this is what I hear, you know, you're asking for, this is what that costs and you just need to really be, again, facts, not feelings. This is what you need. And if they're like, I don't wanna spend that much, okay, where can we, where can we strip away to get to where, you know, at the investment level you are looking to spend at this time, maybe we wanna do a phased approach or maybe we wanna divide this project up into, we just wanna do two rooms instead of four.
VS 00:37:10 Whatever you're comfortable doing. But also know your own boundaries. If you are like, I don't do two room projects, I only do four room projects. Know that going into the conversation so that if it does go down that road, you have to know when you are, when it's no longer a good fit for you. So it takes time. There's no shortcut to that. You will do in learning that you will do some projects. You're like, Nope, not doing that again. That was too big, too small, too whatever. You kind of just, you'll do 'em and then you'll know I'm not gonna do that next time. Sorry, did that answer your question? <laugh>?
AC 00:37:39 It totally answered the question. I'm like immediately thinking, I'm like, we have to have Victoria back for like a non-sales sales lesson. So <laugh>
VS 00:37:47 How to sell without selling.
AC 00:37:48 Yes, 100%. I dunno. Okay, so I, like I said, I wanted to get into your creative process very much, particularly in a renovation. How much do you let the existing architecture inform your design?
VS 00:38:01 Quite a bit. Quite a bit. I mean, we have to understand what the homeowner is looking for, what they need out of it. We usually fall in love with certain things and we try to advocate for keeping them or using them or modifying them. But, you know, I always say, I'm trying to tell three stories at the same time. I want to tell the home story. The home is coming with a history. It has a past, it's almost a living creature if you ask me. It is a living creature in a way, but I don't wanna get too woo woo right now. But I, I do, I think it's a member of your family and it has a personality and it has stories and it has needs and it will make demands of you and you can choose how you wanna interact with it. And then there's the homeowners and their family or their story, their history, what they bring to the table and what they want. And then there's also the life together in the future. And you know, we're kind of projecting decades down the road or whatever their goals are. Um, so it's these three stories simultaneously. Also maybe like a little of our like latest passions sneak in there from time to time. But we have to tell all of those stories at the same time. It's hard <laugh>, but it's fun. It's hard but fun.
AC 00:39:14 When initially conceptualizing a renovation project, do you start with materiality or layout?
VS 00:39:20 Neither. We are heavily concept based at our studio. So we don't talk at all about plans or what we're gonna actually do to your house at all. First thing we do is we talk about, this is always the trickiest, I need to get a better elevator pitch on this. We build a concept so we're telling a story. So all these, all this time we spend together, I'm trying to get to the root of their why. Why this house? Why now? Why this place? Why, why any of this? Why are you here? What do you really want? You want something, you want a house? Sure. But like, you want something else. You want a closer family, more private space, more entertaining space. You wanna live a bigger life, a smaller life. There's something you're seeking. And, and it might not even be about the house, you know, the house.
VS 00:40:11 I kind of like to joke that like, yeah, I sell furniture, but it's a vehicle for a story. Like, it's not really about the furniture, it's not about the stuff at all. It's about what we're trying to say, what kind of environment we're trying to build. And yeah, I have to put some stuff in your house to make that happen, but that's secondary. So we start with this story first off, and there's usually like a totem. There's like an object or an item or a person or a time or a decade or something. It could be anything. And that sort of like symbolizes everything that they're looking for. <laugh>, as I say this out loud, it sounds really hard to imagine. I can, I can uh, hear it as I'm saying it, but it's so useful and it's so productive. And time after time we have clients.
VS 00:41:02 I just had it on a call the other day and it made me giggle. It made me so happy. A, a homeowner was trying to decide between two dining chairs. She was just stuck. She couldn't, I hope she listens to this, it'll be fun. And she just was like, I don't know which one to pick. And I was like, well let's go back to the concept. It's Saturday morning and you're reading the New York Times and you're at the dining table alone. It's just before all the kids wake up and you sort of have this peaceful moment before your hectic life. Like which one of these two chairs feels more like that moment? She's like, oh, that one done. Indecision be gone. You know, if you can tell a story really, really, really well, first you have to understand that story really well, which is a lot of work. But if you can bring them in and make them understand that you see them and you see their goals, the rest is easy.
AC 00:41:52 When you're presenting this narrative and this initial concept, is this a written presentation? Is this like a storied narrative that you're presenting to them? Or is it a conversation? I'm sure it's both if it is written, but like what is that initial description of this narrative you're telling look like?
VS 00:42:13 Yeah, it's photos and it's a narrative along with photos and they can take a lot of different forms. It sort of depends on what the concept is. Is the concept a person or is it a material or is it a, I don't know, uh, a book or something. You know, it can depend on how much imagery is associated with that emotion or that thing that we're putting out there. Also who they are and what they need to understand it and connect with it. Are they a more image responsive person? Are they a more, uh, narrative responsive person? And it's a little bit about us communicating in person my, you know, enthusiasm for it and like my knowledge and understanding. I mean there's a human connection between us as well as we're working through this project of just like, I see you, I see what you're really looking for.
VS 00:43:07 I know you think it's a couch, but it's not a couch. It's a whole way of life. <laugh> and yeah, we're gonna go buy a couch, but it's gonna fuel this way of life that you're trying to like change your life in a certain way. And I really think it happens. I think I see it happen. I see it happen every day when we work with clients and they feel lost and then we go back and we look at that concept and immediately they feel like they know where they are again and they know where they're going and they're reminded of what they're doing. So we start with that and then we get into, then it's probably space plans and then materiality in terms of presenting to the client. Mm-hmm.
AC 00:43:45 <affirmative>. But I think also that materiality element of it, probably very subconsciously is involved in that initial narrative too, as you were talking about the way something feels. That's definitely elements of materials around them. Like that dining room chair on Sunday morning before the kids get up. That is so cool. I just wanna sit in on one of your presentations. <laugh>.
VS 00:44:08 It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun And I, I feel for homeowners 'cause they come in and maybe they've heard me talk about it and they're sort of like, what am I gonna get? You know, it's like a surprise bag of like, what is my story gonna be? And usually it's really connective 'cause we're really seeing them. We're not looking at this. We're not the kind of firm that's like, I mean of course I have a voice like of course, I'm sure. Sure. If you look at our portfolio, you can see me in all of it somewhere. Or our designer, my design team, all of it has some of us in it because we're there, we care, we care a lot. Like they're, each one of these is our surrogate children that we've put out into the world and they, you know, but a homeowner should really see themselves in this concept.
VS 00:44:53 So we're really working hard to put our egos aside, put our, you know, what we want aside and say what do they need? Yeah. And then the fun part is, you know, as you show them space plans, if it's concept supported, if it, if it feels like that's derivative of the concept, they get it right away. They're like, yeah, of course. That everybody at the table immediately knows the right answer. There's no, we cut down on the design time so much by doing this concept, which is how I justify spending so much time on it in the beginning, <laugh>, it's like, yes, we're gonna spend time on it and it is an investment. You have to be a client who's open to that to work with us. If you don't see value in that, then it's probably you're gonna be unhappy.
AC 00:45:38 How long, how many weeks, days, weeks, months do you typically anticipate the concept building take?
VS 00:45:47 I would say the more time we have, the better it is. So I'll put that out there for clients. If you give me six weeks, you'll get a better concept than three weeks. But sometimes we just don't have six weeks and we have to condense it into three. But yeah, somewhere, I don't know, I'm saying three and six. So subliminally it must be somewhere between three and six weeks, I would say. Got it. I would say any shorter than that feels like there's no marinating time and there's no time to sort of let the world bring this story together for you. Do you really listen to Rick Rubin? I feel like, yeah, it's very like he gets it. That's what it's all about. You need that time and that space. Not too much though. You still need a deadline. So yeah, maybe somewhere between three and six weeks.
AC 00:46:32 Okay. Yeah, a month give or take. Feels great. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So okay, we've gotten past concept presentation and now we're looking at design selections, space planning, et cetera. Can you walk us through what your design presentation process looks like? As in how much is digital, especially with renovations, how much is 3D rendering? Do you, are you offering 3D renderings and are your presentations always in person? I think I know the answer and that one's gonna be yes, but I'd love to know the other ones. <laugh>
VS 00:47:03 Actually not. We do a ton of work remotely. We do projects all over the place and the pandemic and all of these things came together to sort of make, I mean, we can do a remote presentation, easy peasy. We, I love to like ship things to clients mm-hmm. <affirmative> and sort of like get things in front of them. It's also a great opportunity to just like surprise and delight people with like great wrapping and you know, everything's an experience. Everything's a moment. Everything has an opportunity to make a connection. There's only so many hours in a day, so you can't always make everything you know exactly as you wish it could be. But all these little touch points can be really fun. So we do, we do a lot remotely. I mean, we love an in-person one whenever we can get them, but sometimes it's just expedient too, to like, just hop even if they're in our own hometown to just hop on Zoom, right? Knock out a meeting in 45 minutes or an hour. What was the other question?
AC 00:47:57 Um, how much of your presentation is digital versus like physical samples and printed objects? And also how much 3D rendering are you providing to a client through the process?
VS 00:48:09 I mean, we do 3D rendering. I really am not a fan. I feel like if I were to advise a client, I would say don't waste your money. Find a designer you trust. Go that route way better than, you know, having someone render something to death. It sucks all the magic out of it. It's not, I don't care how good looking it is, it doesn't look real. It's not, it doesn't have a soul. It's not gonna feel like your space feels, so it can be really warped. And I, yeah, I don't know. It's not, it's not for me. I'm much more invested in that, in that, getting that story right than getting a rendering. Right. I feel like if you have the story then you know where you're going, then everybody knows that you're going in down the right road and do you really care if I'm taking a right turn or a left turn as long as I'm getting you to the, you know, this magical place that we're all trying to get to. So yeah, I'm, we can do renderings if, if somebody felt strongly about it, we have done them, it's fine.
AC 00:49:15 But you're still providing elevations and
VS 00:49:18 Yeah, I mean we do drawings, whatever a person needs all at the moment. All my designers are classically trained. We work in Revit so we can model in Revit, sketch up elevations, tile drawings, you know, details, all kinds of stuff that I feel like is just part and parcel of what we do. But I like to delegate. I mean, I like to not delegate. I like to, um, collaborate with architects. I feel like that's always nice to see how do they draw something, how do we modify it? You know, there's like an additive quality materiality wise. I mean, you just have to see some things in person. So there's a lot of physical sampling going on and we usually try to order multiples if it's something we really love so that we can ship or send things home with clients so they can live with it and see it in different ways, bond with it, get excited about it or fall out of love with it. You know, I'd much rather have someone go home with a sample, come back next week and say, I, I actually thought this was horrible when I brought it home. Then buy it, get the chair and go, ugh, I, I wish I would've taken a second look at that. But we do a lot digitally too. I mean, I think everything we have, we send to the clients after the meetings digitally and package it all up nicely so they can look at it on their own time, share it with their friends and family.
AC 00:50:39 So I'm curious, at what point in your process, if any, does your process differ from renovation to new build?
VS 00:50:48 Great question. I would say new build, well, that's not always true. Sometimes we get brought in later on a new build just because people are starting with an architect. It's not my choice, but that's where we are. Ideally we're, you know, people know that they need a full team and they assemble it early. I really try to make them not differ. I mean there's, there's a lot. I feel like I would prefer to have a longer design time with a new build because you need time for spontaneity to happen. If you want a new home, to have the soul of an old home. If you don't disregard that, you know, you, if you're like, I want a machine of a house, great. Then go, you know, you can get really specific, but I think the thing about old homes is their idiosyncrasy, their personality.
VS 00:51:36 There are things that show up that surprise and delight you that you don't expect. And it's hard to build that into a new house because you decided all of it. So you're, when it shows up, I think sometimes people are like, oh yeah, that's exactly what it looked like in the drawing or the rendering and they're missing that like bonding moment. You know, like I think the most interesting relationships come from like learning something new about someone. You ever have that friend who like you knew for like 10 years and all of a sudden you learn that they like paint and you're like, oh my God, I had no idea. You make these amazing paintings and you're all of a sudden in great. Like, it just opens up your relationship even farther. Or I, I remember when I found out my husband was like a BMX biker as a young person and like he could do all these tricks on a, like a trick bike. And I was like, that's so cool. Like we've known each other for all this time and like here you can have this like weird skill that I had no idea that you had. That's so funny
AC 00:52:34 You bring that up. Victoria. Just this morning I was watching a story from my friend Deanna, who had been married to her or has known her husband for like 35 years and he had a friend's little girl over, they were watching a, a game or something and she asked him if she dared him to do a cartwheel and he didn't just do a cartwheel, he did like a round off
handspring and Deanna was like, honey, I didn't know you could do that. And she was like, I just think it's so fun that after 30 something years, like he can still surprise and delight me. And it's just funny how serendipitous that I saw that this morning. And you're telling the same narrative.
VS 00:53:14 Was he like a cheerleader? Was that like
AC 00:53:17 That he didn't talk about Well he, he was a professional athlete, so he's like an athletic guy. Oh. But I mean he played basketball. I wouldn't say that's necessarily like, you know, round off handspring type situation. Yeah. <laugh>.
VS 00:53:28 Oh my gosh. Yeah. Like that kind of stuff. I think, I think of homes like people, the most interesting people. Sometimes they're uncomfortable, sometimes they push you out of your comfort zone. They force you to grow with them. They challenge you. They say, I think I think we can do more. I think we can do better. Let's go an extra mile together. Or surprise, I bet you didn't know I could do this. Or you know, and I think that that is getting that little bit of magic outta your house. You have to open yourself up to like spontaneity. So I will say with, to go back to your question, sorry, that took a turn. But it's all connected. You know, to build a new home that has the soul of an old home. Having a longer design time allows not only us designers but homeowners to build in those moments for opportunities for the home to like engage with them and them to truly engage with their home and get brave about it too. I think sometimes if there's a really condensed design phase, you can just be so pragmatic. You're just focused on, oh we don't, we need cabinets and we need this many drawers and this many doors. And it's a checklist. And if you have a little more breathing room in there, you can dream about the magical moments and it's a good investment if, especially if you're building your forever home. Hmm.
AC 00:54:50 To those listening, I am wondering if anyone is curious if you could give even just one example of something that you added to a new build home that was that magical element that was not one of the 47 doors needed to complete the project. And what are those moments of spontaneity that you've been able to carve out even in just one specific project? Example?
VS 00:55:15 Oh, we just pitched, I don't know if it's gonna make it into the project or not, but we just presented like a wine window. One of our designers went to, I dunno if it was Italy, somewhere in Europe. They went on vacation and they're like, they had these restaurants, they have a little wine window on the street side where you can like put beverages, you know, you order in the Midwest we have like ice cream, windows, <laugh>, we don't have wine windows, we have dairy windows, but where you could like go up and you knock on a little window and you say, I'd like a glass of wine. And they like hand it to you out of this little window. And so we were like working that into a home. It's totally superfluous. There's no reason why you would ever need to hand someone a glass of wine out of a little door in the wall.
VS 00:55:54 But these are the things I think when you walk someone around your home, you should have a few things that you have to explain to them that there's no way they will understand what is this little door doing in the wall unless you tell it to them. 'Cause that's the kind of thing that like builds magic and mystery in a home. And like maybe when you leave a home, when you move on from this universe, whatever, however you go away from this property, you should leave some mysteries behind you. You should leave some people going, I wonder what they were doing with this little door in the wall. Like, I want, I want that in my life. I want mysteries, I want magic, I want surprise. I don't know. And I also think I've lived in a lot of old homes and sometimes you get a house with like a weird little door in the wall and you don't know what you're gonna do with it until all of a sudden you start doing something with it.
VS 00:56:41 And then it's like a part of your life. It's a part of your kid's childhood, it's a part of your generational story. And you'd be surprised at how big these little things can become when you let them, when you lean into it, when you say, okay, what are we gonna do about this little window? You know, in the wall we're gonna, maybe you don't know about the wine story and maybe you're like, we're gonna pass notes to each other through it. Or I'm gonna leave messages for, oh, somebody else did that where they like had a little spot. You could like leave messages for your kids, like a little secret spot and nobody else will know that except for this family. And anyway, there's probably a million other things. That's just what comes to my mind.
AC 00:57:17 I love that. It's just so romantic. As we wrap up, I always like to complete a show with knowing a little secret of what you have in store. Are there any collaborations, books, movies, miniature door lines that you have in the works that you can share with us?
VS 00:57:37 Oh my gosh. I mean, at the moment we are just designing. Isn't that wild? Like it's amazing.
VS 00:57:45 <laugh>, we did just roll out our collaboration with Hennepin and made the lighting collection Onia, which is on Tolog is the study of existence and like how do we, this is all part and parcel. How do we connect with objects? How do we, how do I design something that has, uh, a human quality to it that you would force you and I could go into that another time, but uh, force you to make a connection with it so you're not just like, plug it in, set it and forget it, it's a lamp. You know, like how do you have something that you have to interact with that challenges you, that you maybe struggle with a little bit? I find like the things I bond most with are the things that I have to work on. I have an old boat, I love old houses and I feel like these are the things that like caregiving. Caregiving is a really big part of our emotional connection to things. So we do have that lighting collection out. I'm always writing, but right now I'm just trying to like get back to what I do, which is design, which is great.
AC 00:58:41 That's the best goal and is always the goal to get back to what you love doing most. Victoria, this was sensational. You are a firecracker that lights up my sky. Thank you so much for being here on the show. I hope we get to chat very soon. This was an immense pleasure.
AC 00:59:03 Victoria. What a pleasure. It has been to chat about not only your incredible renovation process, but also your clear and obvious passion for design. Thank you so much for sharing such technical elements of your business as it's an immense gift to our very grateful community of listeners. You can follow Victoria on Instagram @ProspectRefuge and view their very beautiful website prospectrefuge.com. It's been a source of inspiration to our team at both Kwin and IDCO for years. If you missed any of the links mentioned in today's episode, you'll find the full transcript and sources included in the show notes. You can find more details in all of our episodes outlined theinterior.co slash podcast. A quick review on Apple Podcast is a huge compliment to us and helps us keep this labor of love commercial free and entirely free to you. Until next time, I'm Anastasia Casey and this is The Interior Collective, a podcast for the business of beautiful living.