Remote Design

From 3-D floor plans to virtual styling tours, technology has made working with an out-of-state designer easier than ever. Here’s how the possibilities are shaping up.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

For this 6,000-square-foot vacation property on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston County, South Carolina, Marshall Erb design collaborated with award-winning architect Beau Clowney to capture as much natural light as possible—and frame the views of the Atlantic coastline.

The future is now. There are rockets being built for space tourists and you can change your face into a cat with a single tap. You can see 1970s ABBA in concert and then ride a roller coaster in your living room. But if we’re ranking this year’s life-changing tech, then the remote office gets the gold star. Born of a pandemic and the iGeneration work ethic, WF-wherever is the new norm—and the productivity pluses are stacking up. And it’s rapidly changing the landscape of interior design.

Ten years ago, time-intensive walk-throughs and sit-downs with homeowners were de rigueur. But today’s tech is expanding your favorite interior designers’ bandwidth. “From video communications and virtual styling tours to app-based design services, today’s cutting-edge tech allows us to get the job done remotely and exceed expectations,” says Marshall Erb, owner and lead designer of Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “Honestly, the only hurdle facing remote design is client confidence—but that’s changing, too.” According to Erb, the one good thing to come out of the pandemic is that we’ve all gotten very good at Zoom meetings and presentations. And clients are now more comfortable using apps like Instagram and Pinterest, all-access design tools that can communicate ideas quickly and convincingly.

Arched openings, hardwood flooring and built-in bunks are a few of the delightful interior details that give this Sullivan’s Island home its easy-going yet elegant, beach house vibe.

But there are other industry advancements that homeowners perhaps aren’t as familiar with. One such game-changing tool is LIDAR. “LIDAR is an acronym of ‘laser imaging, detection and ranging,’” informs Erb. “It’s a special combination of 3-D scanning and laser scanning. With a cell phone, anyone on my team can scan an entire house in half a day’s time. What used to take weeks—measuring every square foot and pinpointing the locations of every vent and light switch—can now be done in a few hours, and turned into a high-resolution, 3-D floor plan that can be sent anywhere. Plus, LIDAR mapping is significantly more accurate because it’s not subject to human error. We’re now using it on large-scale properties for full documentation of what’s there. Plumbing, HVAC lines… It’s all traceable.”

According to Erb, the tech that has come out in the last two-to-three years has really moved the needle, and the benefits are undeniable on both sides. “For designers, time is money,” says Erb, who has completed remote projects in Panama, Hawaii, Florida and Park City, just to name a few. “Whatever we don’t have to spend on commuting or flying can be put into the home or deducted from the bottom line. I’ve seen it be enough of a difference where the savings have determined whether or not we can work with a client’s budget in the first place.” Homeowners, on the other hand, get to work with designers whom they love and trust, regardless of where that designer’s firm is based—designers who are physically based in their hometown but who can now efficiently work on their out-of-state projects.

says Erb. “So much of our business is referrals. When we have a relationship with a client, and that client is expanding their property portfolio, they rehire us because we are versed in their overall style and aesthetic preferences—and because that trust is already in place.” What’s interesting, notes Erb, is that his clients are now widening their scope when it comes to their vacation property destinations. “It’s not just lake houses or Arizona anymore,” says Erb. “We’re seeing more and more ski homes and beach homes beyond Florida. Our clients are expanding their horizons and looking more international.” Currently, Marshall Erb Design is working on a vacation property in Jamaica for a repeat client. “It’s a compound with multiple outbuildings that are interconnected with gardens and pools,” shares Erb. “It’s a full remodel with interior architecture and design. We are using as many local resources as possible, including a local upholsterer, but because there isn’t a huge cache of luxury resources in Jamaica, some elements are being shipped out of Florida. Freight consolidator is just another plume in our cap.”

A recently completed, remote design project in Park City, Utah, by Marshall Erb Design

The No. 1 key to a successful remote project, says Erb, is putting in place a team of equally tech-savvy subcontractors. “It’s imperative that we work with people who are as technologically advanced as we are,” says Erb. “Unfortunately, this will rule out some vendors, but that is the reality of working from a distance—and a critical prerequisite of the team’s architecture.” The second factor is establishing solid lines of communication between the designer, the architect, the contractor, the project manager, and, of course, the client. “At Marshall Erb Design, we vet our subcontractors thoroughly and establish a strong communications cadence,” adds Erb. “And because of our industry tenure and dense portfolio, we have a roster of reliable resources around the globe for delegation and execution. Remote design is about working smart, and working 10 steps ahead to avoid headaches, delays or errors.”

Of course, all projects are different—and subject to finessed scenarios. “Some remote projects may call for a local design team on the ground,” says Erb, who recently collaborated with a Maui-based firm for interior architecture while his team focused on the soft fixtures and furniture plan. “Some designers will demand at least one initial site visit, and in some instances that might be necessary for scope and inspiration,” adds Erb. “But anything’s possible. We did a full remodel with interior design for a project on Hilton Head without ever having visited the house at all. If we have a full set of drawings, we can do anything. From logistics to installation, we provide white-glove service all the way.”