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January 2006
Bringing Couture to Architecture
By Heather Head

Lifestyle is everything: that’s Lindsay Daniel’s creed, and it’s one she lives by. And when she talks about lifestyle, she means understanding the way people really live, and creating environments that make it easy and enjoyable to maintain that lifestyle.

That’s why her employees work flexible hours, it’s why for years she worked out of her home, and it’s why she asks her customers questions like what they serve their guests for dinner. And, it’s the philosophy that underlies a growing trend that Daniel has dubbed “Couture Architecture.”

“This is what couture designers do,” she explains: “They fit the style to you. In fashion, that means they choose the fabrics, the styles, the accessories, the colors – everything to match your personality, your tastes, your body, your coloration, and to coordinate with the other aspects of the ensemble. Everything about it is fitted to the person. And that’s what we do, too.

In architecture, that means understanding the lifestyle of the clients, from where they put the Christmas tree to the kind of entertaining they do, as well as their hobbies and interests. It means designing buildings that fit into the context of the community, the landscape, and the style of existing buildings (in the case of additions). It means helping customers pick out everything from flooring and lighting materials to crown moldings, exterior siding, paint colors, and bathroom fixtures. It means making sure that those selections match the customer’s personality, match the style of the house, and match the rest of the selections.

It’s a depth of service available only through a very select few firms, and rarely available at all to the residential customer. And that may be why, in her own words, Daniel is something of a “grande dame” in the Charlotte architecture world.

 

Breaking Down Walls

Daniel’s grande dame status has something to do with her longevity as well. She’s been in the business in this area for close to 35 years, since before women were commonly accepted in the architecture field. In fact, although her mother and stepfather were both well established in the Charlotte art scene, she was encouraged not to pursue her drafting talents, because it was considered unladylike. Myers Park High School, at the time she attended, did not accept girls into its drafting classes.

But that didn’t stop Daniel. She worked in painting and printmaking, then as a secretary, and then back to a drafting board and to interior design. By 1985 she had added a degree in architecture to her credentials, and in 1991 – after teaching architecture at UNC Charlotte for five years – she opened Lindsay Daniel Architecture out of her home.

Despite her early experiences, Daniel claims her gender has never impacted her business negatively. “Men have always been wonderful mentors for me,” she remarks.

 

Surveying Obstacles

A much bigger challenge has always been the cyclical nature of the architecture business. Because people tend to build and expand their homes only when they have expendable income, the architecture industry is tied tightly to economic fluctuations.

As a result, banks are reluctant to lend money for business expansion. “Even though I’ve been in this business for 16 years exercising good business principles and practices, bank financing can still be a challenge,” she shrugs.

Daniel overcame that obstacle with help from the Business Expansion Funding Corporation, a non-profit organization chartered to act as a conduit for the Small Business Administration’s 504 Loan Program. The 504 Program provides long-term, fixed-rate financing to small businesses at favorable rates for fixed-asset financing as a means to foster economic development and create and preserve jobs in urban and rural areas.

It was that money that helped Daniel meet another challenge that had presented itself last year: how to continue providing couture service to an ever-expanding client base in an increasingly complex market without sacrificing her own family’s lifestyle.

Until last year, Daniel had been running her company out of 850 square feet of her own home. The arrangement had worked well for her when her children were small, and had continued to work as they grew and began school, but as she hired more people to help and took on more complex jobs, the space began to feel cramped, even as it crowded into her living space. Soon, she found herself at a crossroads: “With the jobs that were coming in, I needed either more people, or to let people go and take on only smaller jobs. I couldn’t continue to stay status quo.”

With her oldest child graduated from college and her second nearing the same milestone, Daniel decided to take the plunge. “It’s so much fun to work on complex jobs, where you can get into depth. But if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to have a big team behind you, a really skilled, highly trained team.”

And that’s where Daniel says she meets her biggest business challenge: employee retention. “You train someone and then they’re gone – they are hired away by another firm or start their own firm, or whatever. That’s big.”

Recently, she lost an employee she had been training for two years. That’s a pretty tough blow, and Daniel admits she doesn’t have any quick and easy answers for it.

 

Elevating Residential Architecture

Fortunately, Daniel doesn’t seem to have any trouble recruiting a terrific team, as she glowingly admits, describing in detail how each of her five employees contributes expertise and skills that her couture architecture requires.

And whatever her human resource challenges, Daniel doesn’t lack for clients, who clamor for her high level of customer care. One thing Daniel has done to ensure that high level of care has been to focus exclusively on the residential market.

In most architectural firms, she explains, residential jobs get pushed to the back by big commercial projects. “Architects love residential projects, because they can get more in depth, but then the big kahuna job comes in from a big developer, and it’s more demanding, and that little residential project just keeps getting pushed to the backburner. It gets treated like the red-headed step child.”

At Lindsay Daniel Architecture, residential is the only business, and it gets all their attention. And that, combined with Daniel’s commitment to fitting architecture to lifestyle, means that “it’s always about what the client wants.” And often, that means helping the client find out what he wants.

“For the client, the sheer complexity of options and exposure is overwhelming,” says Daniel. “You can stand in the grocery store aisle and pick up three or four magazines having to do with architecture, interior design, and so on. That’s good and bad. The bad part is that people get completely overwhelmed.”

And most of the time when people hire an architect, they get only a three- to eight-page set of building plans that cover only the structural and exterior aspects of the building. This leaves the owners still to handle all the logistical details, as well as the interior architecture,      by themselves.

And that interior architecture can constitute 50 percent of the total project cost, and four to five times more detail than the   standard building plans contain. “Interior     architecture constitutes picking out every single thing you touch in a building – what the wall is made of, what the floor is made of, the countertop, the kind of fabrics used, the type of lighting, the location of the lighting, the bulbs used in the lighting, finishing materials, furnishings, moldings, the colors and finish of the paint, sinks, decorative hardware, appliances – the list is almost endless.”

That’s why when one of Daniel’s couture clients begins a construction project, they are equipped with a construction document set 30 to 35 pages long and an interior architecture notebook of finish material specifications that they have helped design in partnership with Lindsay Daniel’s team. The book contains details on every single color, every single surface, every single appliance and piece of hardware to be contained in the finished home. It includes instructions on where to order materials, and how to have them installed. And to make sure everything comes off smoothly, a Lindsay Daniel specialist makes regular site visits and helps smooth out the construction issues for client and contractor.

“I’m fortunate that I get to work in beautiful old architecture and a wonderful variety of styles, as well as a lot of additions and new construction,” she says, adding that it’s the opportunity to work in many different styles, from Georgian to Tudor and encompassing modern styles, that keeps the work interesting for her.

But the full couture treatment isn’t the only thing Lindsay Daniel offers. The company also opens its doors for customers seeking a lower level of attention, which is why Daniel has designed three “tiers” of service. The third tier is the couture treatment. On the first tier are basic, three- to eight-page building plans. A second tier includes more detailed building plans and a higher touch, but not the detailed attention of the couture architecture.

In addition, Daniel offers by-the-hour consultation for people who simply want to toss ideas around with an architect. In fact, all her services can be billed by the hour, to provide clients with flexibility.

 

Drafting for Tomorrow

Flexibility has been a hallmark of Daniel’s entire career – from turning a secretarial position into a leg up into the design world, to working out of her home part-time so she could be close to her young children, and now moving her business to a new level of service to meet increasingly complex demands.

And she is keeping her options for the future flexible as well. Currently, she has her eyes open for the right partnership or merger. She says she wants to keep the company small in order to continue to provide the high-touch service she offers, but by the same token, she strongly desires a partner to take some of the load off  her shoulders. Specifically, she would love to hand off some of the production management aspects of the business.

By offloading some of those responsibilities to a partner, Daniel feels she’d be able to focus on offering more products and more options to her clients. After all, it’s all about what the client wants, and offering them the flexibility to get it.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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