Meeting of the Minds

Marshall Erb Design, Northworks Architects, and H. Gary Frank Architects compare notes on having a synergistic relationship between your architect and interior designer.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

Meadow Lane Exterior View 1
Marshall Erb Design and Northworks Architects are currently collaborating on a 12,000-plus-square-foot, new-build home in Winnetka, Illinois. (Rendering by Northworks Architects)

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Henry Ford’s wise words still ring true in today’s fast-paced, tech-driven business world. While the ways in which we communicate have evolved and modernized, the tenets of good teamwork — facing challenges as a team, coming up with solutions as a team, communicating well as a team, growing and learning as a team, and ultimately succeeding as a team — haven’t changed in the last 100 years.

Much like any corporate environment, the core team for residential design-and-build projects is structured for results and efficiency. At the top, there are three main players: the architect, the interior designer, and the general contractor (a.k.a. the builder). “I’ve always said this table needs three legs,” says Marshall Erb, the owner and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “You need an architect, a builder, and a designer on board from the very beginning — the architect to plan and design the structure for form, function, and stability; the builder to outline the costs and feasibility of said designs; and an interior designer to focus on the functionality and beauty of the interior, and how the feedback from the client relates to the design. Having all three of us at the table at the onset will save the client time and money by preventing costly, time-consuming corrections mid-project.”

Currently, Marshall Erb Design is collaborating with Northworks Architects on a family home in Winnetka, Illinois. “This is our third project with this client, so we were the first point of contact,” says Erb. “From there, we referred Northworks [a full service architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago, Jackson, WY, San Francisco and Philadelphia] into the fold. It’s our first time working together, but we’ve had amazing synergy from the get-go. Their team came up with a stunning, modern design for the 12,000-plus-square-foot, new build home that sits on an idyllic, tree-lined street on Chicago’s North Shore. They appreciate that we have a five-year-long relationship with this client and have welcomed us to inform the design where it makes sense — i.e. what’s important to the client, what’s not important to them, how many bedrooms and bathrooms they need for their family, their preferred kitchen arrangement and lighting plan, etc. — because we’ve already done that back work with the client before, therefore saving the architect from excess communications.”

Allin Exterior
For this new construction home on three acres in Lake Forest, Illinois, H. Gary Frank Architects employed glass and strategic siting to maximize views of the property.

Bill Bickford, a founding partner and senior architect at Northworks, is quick to second that motion — and reinforce the importance of synchronized team communications. “We create and manage a responsibility matrix for each of our projects, which outlines the responsibilities of all parties involved, from civil, structural, and mechanical engineering, all the way through selection and purchasing of plumbing fixtures,” says Bickford. “It’s very important to have that communication and a clear outline of who’s doing what, especially since some clients do ask, for good reason, where and how professional services overlap between the architect and interior designer.”

For the custom home that Erb and Bickford are working on in Winnetka, things are off to a smooth start. “Our most recent client meeting was a pre-construction budget review with the contractor, Power Construction,” adds Bickford. “Marshall and his team provided a very detailed and well-developed interior finish and fixture package, which allowed Power to establish a complete and current price long before we break ground. Having this level of information upfront — so many selections and costs buttoned up — really makes the process run as smoothly as possible by minimizing the unexpected project cost increases down the road.”

Allin HallwayMillwork
For the interiors, Marshall Erb Design collaborated with Frank to enhance the detailing and conceptualize the use of the rooms and transitional spaces.

Gary Frank, the principal and lead architect at H. Gary Frank Architects in Winnetka, Illinois, is a firm believer that the more info he can get from the interior designer, the low voltage designer, and the landscape architect, for example, the more accurate the architectural drawings become and the more efficient the construction process becomes. “The worst projects that you hear about, the ones that go over budget because they required massive changes or things were missed, those are projects where everything wasn’t specified in the architectural plan, i.e. a generic electrical plan vs. a plan that specifies and shows the location of every light fixture, and shows where every switch and outlet will live,” says Frank. “Yes, it takes longer and costs more upfront for a thorough set of architectural drawings, but it’s nothing compared to the costs and delays that can come later if revisions and fixes are needed mid-project.”

To streamline communications even further, world-class designers like Erb and architects like Bickford and Frank are leaning into the latest tech, too, like Procore [a leading construction management software] and simple sharing platforms like Google Docs. “Primarily, the interior designer and the architect are the co-librarians of the project,” says Erb. “As the interior designer, we’re keeping track of all of the materials and the lighting fixtures. We’re tracking all of that at the exact same time as the architects are, and we strive to work together so that our information can directly be inserted into the architect’s plans within the schedules. With shared docs and spreadsheets, anyone on the job can see the status of every material or fixture in live time from their phone.”

ProcoreCollab Main
To streamline communications, designers and architects are leaning into the latest tech like Procore, a leading construction management software, so that material specs and scheduling updates can be shared in real time.

Speaking of seamless communications, 3D models and virtual reality are changing the game, too. “3D CAD [three-dimensional computer-aided design] is a technology that architects use today to create virtual prototypes of their three-dimensional projects,” informs Frank. “With 3D CAD, we can dynamically create and modify every detail of a project, integrating elevations, lighting, the mechanical and structural elements, and more, so that the interior designer, contractor, subcontractors, and the client can see the entire project in 3D. We also use VR, so that the client can ‘walk’ through the spaces to see for themselves where every cabinet will live. Having a picture — or in this case a 3D visual — is worth 1,000 words, and we can make updates instantaneously.”

It perhaps goes without saying, but for high-end custom residential projects, most architects prefer to work with an interior designer who understands building systems — the requirements of HVAC, lighting and plumbing — and how a building comes together. “Essentially, understanding where the interior finish surface starts, what is adjustable in the design process, and what is fixed,” says Bickford. “I do find that a true interior designer like Marshall understands the realities of building systems, which in turn keeps a design process moving forward.” As a licensed interior designer with 25 years of professional experience, Erb indeed knows those ins and outs. “There are people who just decorate,” adds Erb. “Decorators work within the room. They put up paint or wallpaper and bring in furniture. We don’t just do that. We are integral to the build environment.”

For both the interior designer and the architect, the ultimate goal should always be client satisfaction. “We always want the architects we work with to know that we aren’t pushing an agenda,” says Erb. “We’re all working toward the same thing: a beautiful end product. Having worked closely with myriad architectural firms across the country, I can tell you that the secret to a smooth project is knowing that we all benefit from each other’s expertise. If I respect what the architect is bringing to the table — the interior millwork, the layout, the exterior design, the structural science, all of those wonderful things — and he or she can trust us to do the same from the windows in, that’s the straightest line to creating a beautiful project that everyone can be proud to have in their portfolios and, most importantly, that will bring the client joy.”