We at Bobby Berk Interiors + Design have been doing some design work for home builders lately, and we thought it would be a good idea to share some of the things we’ve learned about designing model homes. There is surprisingly little information on the subject. In some ways, the process is a lot like designing a space for a private residential client, and there’s a large degree of crossover where the basics are concerned. In other ways, model homes create some unique design challenges and your approach should be a little different. In merchandising a model home, you have to consider the fact that you are presenting a product that is intended to appeal to a particular buyer profile and demographic. If you do your job right, the space should have an appeal that will not alienate buyers, but invite a large base of tastes to see the potential of a particular floor plan, which will in turn translate into sales for the building company.
The first thing that we recommend when you begin your programming and fact gathering is to research the builder. What kind of homes do they already sell? What is the price point in the development where they’re building and how does this compare to other home product in the area? Is this a luxury product or mid-level? What is the buyer profile in that neighborhood? Are there a lot of younger families? Is it an age-qualified development? What other homes are available nearby, and if there are models for these developments, it might behoove you to go and tour those developments to see what the other designers have done in that market. Take stock of what they are doing well and make notes about what you think needs improvement. These are all good things to keep in mind when you begin the design process.
Another important thing to consider, is that home builders will try to upsell options to their buyers, which come at a higher cost than the standard finishes and fixtures. You will want to showcase the types of upgrades that are available to buyers and really wow them with some of the more luxe finish options. Because a model home is really an opportunity to inject some features that are intended to wow buyers and sell them a lifestyle, you may even consider putting some special features in the home that are not necessarily options. We did some ceiling treatments in our last model, for example, that were prohibitive on a production scale, but that our builder client wanted to show in the model anyways. You will have to have a discussion with your builder to decide how best to strike the balance between showcasing options that buyers will be able to purchase for their own homes, and design features that are not necessarily appropriate for production. When it comes to flooring, cabinets, fixtures and other materials, obtain a list of the vendors that the builder offers their buyers. A lot of times, the builder will have good working relationships with these vendors and use these relationships to try to get as much product donated for the model homes as possible. This saves the builder on costs, as the vendors are usually happy to offer product under the umbrella of marketing costs, since showing these products in the model will generate sales of their products. You will likely be using many of these products, so be sure to get in touch with these vendors through the builder to obtain sample product. You will want to put together a small but thorough material library for the project, and this can help get your creative wheels spinning when you see what type of choices are available to you. Sometimes a vendor may be limited in selection, which we have run into. If they don’t have decorative tile that packs an impactful enough punch, for instance, you may want to explore some other designer choices. Don’t let your designs suffer, because of a lack of choices.
Nowadays, people expect to be able to customize their homes. Builders are starting to take note of the value in making their home product as customizable as possible. This especially appeals to millennials, which are a large and emerging demographic that designers and builders need to consider. Customization has really become important to most buyers in general, though. Although the days of cookie-cutter homes with a sea of beige carpet and granite are thankfully coming to an end, a model home is not exactly the place for wild design experimentation either. Remember that when you’re selling the idea of a lifestyle through your designs, you want to get buyers emotionally connected to the space. The best way to do this, without alienating too many personal aesthetics with an overly-niche design, is to stick with neutral fabrics and colors on beds and sofas. Bring in print with pillows, throws, rugs and curtains. This also makes it easier to change a look up with greater ease in the future. A controlled color palette is often a good idea, as it makes the transitions from room to room more seamless. Typically, greys, blues, earth tones, creams, whites and blacks are a good jumping off place to build around, and then you can bring in accent colors to give character to different rooms. Buyers will expect to see a pulled together and “decorated” space, but that doesn’t mean kitsch or corny design schemes.
One of the things that we love about working with builders is that unlike a typical client/designer relationship, there is usually much less back and forth over specific selections. There is a larger degree of trust on behalf of a corporate builder client, and this makes the process of the selection of furnishings and finishes more expedient and an all around easier task. There is also a shared interest in getting the project finished in a timely manner, and you will have a team of professionals that are very knowledgeable at your disposable. It’s definitely a welcome change of pace to be working so directly with the construction team and have that type of open communication, especially when you’re working through any special challenges or need assistance in executing a design idea. Typically you will have an assigned superintendent that will be your point of contact during the construction process. There are also a number of other people that get involved, from marketing staff, to purchasing people, landscapers, etc. Builders don’t always put together a “cheat sheet” with everyone’s role on the project, so if they don’t have something like that for you when you start on with them, ask someone to list the people you’ll be working with. This way, you’ll know who to go to with questions or issues that are sure to arise. It will make your life much easier if you establish all your contacts from the beginning, as you will no doubt be copied on hundreds if not thousands of emails over the course of the project.
Also consider how many models they are producing for a community. Are you doing all of the models? Are there other designers doing different models on the project? Establish a story for each floor plan. Consider the context of the architectural style and location of the home. Is it a Spanish or Mediterranean home? (Please God, not another Faux-Tuscan house!) Are you designing for the desert? The mountains? The beach? Or a simple suburban backdrop? Maybe the builders want to showcase a particular architectural style? Are the models different architecturally? Maybe the builder would like to do one floor plan that is more contemporary, maybe one that is more transitional and one that is more traditional. Find out what they’re looking for and make sure that each model has its own distinct character and that there is variety between the collective floor plans. One things that a lot of designers have done in the past is to pick one color and that becomes the strict accent for the entire home. This one’s the blue home. That one’s the orange one. This family has a daughter with a pink room that likes ballet, and a son with a blue room that likes cars. As much as you want to sell an aspirational lifestyle to buyers, I would try to steer clear of doing something too expected like this. When kids get emotionally involved after falling in love with what would potentially be “their room,” it can indeed drive parents to fall in love with a home as well, but kids these days have a wide range of interests and the trite and expected “pink and blue trap” might not be the best approach. Try a design that is a little more gender neutral, and that is more age-neutral. A more sophisticated child’s room is one that a teen could also see themselves in and something that kids could potentially grow into.
Not only do you have to make the kids happy, assuming you design some kids rooms, but you also have to make adults get excited about their potential spaces: the master suite and closet. We had to push for custom closet in the past, as some models will have the most basic closet solutions that come standard. We’re talking a basic painted MDF shelf and wooden dowel rod– not the most impressive thing to see in a model, and certainly difficult to accessorize and make attractive. Try to get your builder to see the value in addressing every space, including the closet! Be sure to accessorize with pretty clothing, including a few dresses, shoes, men’s dress shirts, nice shopping bags, and attractive baskets that help a closet look well organized. To the aesthetic of the master suite, we would encourage something that isn’t overtly feminine. Women might have a lot of say when it comes to matters of the home, and they may lean very feminine, but men will certainly have a say as well, so finding the right aesthetic is a fine line.
It’s really hard to find good affordable bedding. We would encourage designers to consider having custom bedding made. It makes it so much easier to pull together a scheme when you can customize your bedding to your design. You don’t even have to typically use sheets underneath your comforters, unless a really layered style is what you’re after. You can typically get away with pulling the comforter all the way up, eliminating the need for sheets. If you do use a sheet, grab something cheap at Ikea or another budget friendly retailer. Use a lot of pillows, and create a plush and inviting bed. Remember that mattresses should be as affordably sourced as possible. The budget should extend to things that people can actually see. We’ve even seen beds that are constructed out of a box or that don’t have a headboard or frame, but we like to use real furniture whenever possible. Someone may try to sit on the bed, and you don’t want it to be fake or hard. Another consideration is that models are sometimes sold furnished after a community sells out, so it might be wise to make sure that everything you design is functional for actual use.
You will probably be designing on a fairly conservative budget, and you’ll need to choose where to spend your money. When it comes to accessories, sometimes larger accessories can be more impactful and appear less cluttered than a slew of little accessories. It’s also potentially cheaper to decorate with a couple large pieces than a lot of smaller ones. We have also found that smaller accessories have a way of “walking off,” so this will ensure that things stay where they’re intended. Be prepared to glue down silverware to placemats, washcloths to baskets etc. If you’re going to do smaller framed prints, sometimes you can even take high-res image files to a printer and have them printed, rather than paying top dollar for prints through a dealer. It depends on the piece, obviously, but this could be a good way to save on costs. Another potential cost-saving tip is to consider how you dress your windows. You can sometimes get away with doing a single curtain panel on either side of a large glass slider or bank of windows rather than doing multiple panels, since the curtains will be open anyways. You just need enough curtain to frame the window. When it comes to finding books, try the dollar store. You can remove the sleeves to make the books look less busy and more non-descript. It’s much easier to fill a shelf with dollar books than drop hundreds of dollars on them. Keep things like this in mind!
All in all, be sure to inject each room with color, pattern, texture and shine in order to make things feel well-layered and visually interesting.
As designers, you already have a lexicon of knowledge. Designing for a model doesn’t necessarily require reinvention of the wheel, but there are distinct things to consider. Hopefully we’ve given you a little food for thought! These types of design projects are truly a pleasure to work on. The construction timeline is typically accelerated, so you’ll be able to turn out an entire home much faster than you might for a private client. Models are great portfolio builders and you can generate additional business from buyers that tour your models. Once you get a good working relationship with a builder, they become the gift that keeps on giving, and you’ll often be brought on for more and more projects. There are some designers who make handsome livings just on designing model homes. If you’re interested in doing some model homes, put together a marketing package and pitch yourself to builders in your area. Good luck and happy designing!
For more info on Bobby Berk, visit his Design Campus Professor page!