Advice on Home Remodeling from an Architect (or Two!)

Esther Cheung and George Showman founded their eponymous firm, Cheung Showman Architects in 2014. The couple met teaching at Columbia University, where both had attended the School of Architecture, and between them, they have tackled a vast range of both commercial and residential projects, in New York City and elsewhere.

Image of architects Esther Cheung and George Showman with New York Skyline in background.
We sat down with registered architects Esther Cheung and George Showman to learn more about the role of an architect, client relationships, and the cost of good design. 

We sat down with Esther and George to learn more about the role of an architect, the relationship to the client, and the cost of good design. Here are our top takeaways from the conversation.

Wait, so what is an architect?

“The architect basically has two roles,” says George, “one of them is code compliance.” As he describes it, this is a responsibility to the state and people of New York (where Esther and George are registered architects) to act in good character, and thoroughly understand the rules and regulations for safe construction and development.

“We need to think through if we are affecting neighbors or public utilities as part of a project, we need to raise that flag and deal with it.” Depending on the location of the project, even considerations for urban planning can come into play.

The first step is always figuring out the true needs of the client. Esther and George describe it as helping the client figure out what problem they need to solve, and then they can go about figuring out how to solve that problem with design.

“Then it’s 'how do we get it built'? How do we document what they want, in a way that contractors can actually build it.” What George is describing are the technical drawings an architect needs to provide and file, in order to take a project from conceptual to executable.

“Then finally, being present during construction - that’s a big part of our job, making sure the contractor is fulfilling their part of the deal.” Architects’ drawings become part of the contract between the client and the contractor, and George and Esther spend much of their time on-site to ensure that projects are executed as envisioned.

Who can practice as an architect?

(It’s more complicated than you think!)

A registered architect is not only licensed but also registered in a specific territory, and therefore legally allowed to practice as an architect and approve plans (with an actual stamp!). Esther describes licensing as similar to a lawyer taking the bar, “You have to take the ARE™ exam in order to practice as a licensed architect.”

According to The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, The ARE™ exams are used to assess the knowledge and skills regarding the practice of architecture, including aspects related to health, safety, and welfare.

Not all architects are licensed, however. Some don’t take or pass the exam but do work for an architectural practice. And registered architects can take on work outside of their state or territory, but they will not be eligible to submit or file final plans/permits without registering also in this new location. It adds another level of complication that rules and requirements can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

On top of that, “There are also architects that function as architects of record,” says George. These architects are both licensed and registered, and for one reason or another are not interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of design. Instead, the architect of record will review existing plans sourced elsewhere, provide technical feedback, and file plans with the state.

Doctors office waiting room with concrete flooring and dark walnut finishes designed by Cheung Showman Architects.
This design by Cheung Showman Architects uses line, light, and transparency to guide patients from reception to exam room in a Queens Doctor's office. Photo: Shaked Uzrad, Courtesy of CSA
“The two palettes are very different, but there’s a similar process for the two projects.”

All Projects Are Same But Different

“At the beginning of our process, we do a lot of mood boarding,” says Esther. She’ll often start with hundreds of images and then curate this down to just a few key images that represent the concept she is going after. “We define that early on, so that all of the decisions we’ll make later in the process, like what tile we choose, what lighting we choose, what materials – it’s all sort of referenced back to the concept.”  

For George, mood boarding doesn’t always work. His concepts tend to come from the sketchpad. He starts in the abstract before getting more concrete. Drawing, ideating, but again clearly defining the concept before making any individual decisions. “Putting that concept at the beginning is key to a coherent project,” Esther explains.  

“Our design process rolls from there,” says George. “In one case we’re choosing a really flamboyant range of materials. In the other, we’re choosing grey leather, grey tile, dark walnut, and matching everything within that palette.”

“The two palettes are very different, but there’s a similar process for the two projects.” This means that Cheung Showman Architects can take on a wide range of work, bringing the same process to the table, but creating wildly different spaces and designs.

Image of restaurant lounge area and stairs with colorful wallpaper and rich textures
A SoHo restaurant, Her Name Was Carmen, where Esther and George overcame a string of technical challenges and city ordinances to create one of their most flamboyant concepts to date. Photo by Adam Elstein Photography, Courtesy of CSA.

Wait, you have to pay for Design?

This brings us to our next topic - the value (and cost) of good design.

“Whenever possible, we try to create space at the beginning of a project for ourselves - a few weeks of time to ideate really freely. And to follow different ways of generating concepts,” explains George.

When remodeling their own apartment, they enjoyed the most flexibility they have ever had on a project in terms of time and space to build their design. In this case, they even built physical paper models of the space to get a sense of flow and the use of space.

“One of our goals with that is to actually to surprise ourselves to some extent,” says George. “To find solutions or design ideas we haven’t tried before, or that we wouldn’t have come up with as a quick answer for a client.”

“I think a lot of homeowners that aren’t trained in design, think of design as just ‘choosing a bunch of things’ – this microwave, this color, this light fixture.” But this, Esther explains, is somewhat of a disjointed approach. “A trained design professional knows how to connect everything together.”

Or you might say: create a space that is balanced, integrated, and complete.

Being able to achieve that cohesive concept in space, is a skill that designers and architects spend years studying and training for, and continue to hone throughout their practice.

“The design process, frankly, is pretty expensive in general,” says George. “It can take one to two hundred hours to cook up a good design.” And this is something that they find themselves having to prepare many homeowners for. “It doesn’t have to be challenging. Just cut straight to the point and explain that this is what it is going to take if you want good design.”

“I think there are a lot of people that don’t quite understand the value of design,” says Esther. It was part of her motivation to move to New York, which both describe as a very design-forward environment.

“One of the things we like about Beam is that it can bring some design to those that otherwise wouldn’t have had any,” George suggests. “We think that’s awesome. They can take it to the next level and connect with a designer on Beam, but either way, it creates a space for people to do better design themselves.”

Section drawing of New York City restaurant her Name Was Carmen
In this design, creating multiple spaces for different types of interaction: eating, dancing, and conversation, was key. “Then it’s 'how do we get it built'? How do we document what they want, in a way that contractors can actually build it,” says George. Image courtesy of CSA.

What does a great client relationship look like?

“Our most ideal clients very clearly tell us what their vision is,” Esther says, describing this as a very high-level story of how they want to live. “‘These are the kind of moments I want to have with my family in this house.’ Or ‘I want it to kind of feel like a mountain.’”

The best relationships start here. Where the homeowner is able to give this overall vision of what they are trying to achieve, and what functionality they are trying to get out of their space, and then trust the designer or architect to bring their expertise to the table.

“It’s hard for us to bring overall value to the design when we’re asked to work on a very small piece of the project.”

But that doesn’t mean the client can’t contribute. Esther and George also say they learn a ton from the clients and partners they work with. “That relationship with the client can be really rich,” says George. In some cases, he says, “they have shown us possibilities that we might otherwise have missed.”

“And I think there is kind of a feedback loop as well,” which he says is part of what keeps him going. They are constantly trying to improve and learn from each client relationship and project.

When I ask Esther and George what advice they have for other design professionals looking to coax that vision from their clients, George jokes, “It’s hard.”

“It’s almost like therapy!” Esther laughs. “You’re the therapist and your client is telling you about all their dreams.” But in all seriousness, “It is very personal, especially if it is their own home.”

“The urge is always to dive into the specifics pretty quickly,” says George. “Whenever we can, we try to hold off. Ask questions about the overall use of the space, the life of the space - before getting into where the stove goes.”

Modern farmhouse kitchen remodel with grey cabinetry wood table and white metal barstools
A condo in Fort Greene where Esther and George worked with the client to introduce rich textures and lend a historical feel to this modern home. Photo courtesy of CSA.

Their final advice to a homeowner embarking on a remodel?

"Try to recognize design as part of the service that you need."

It’s not just a shopping trip and a conversation with a contractor; a design process will be a key part of any successful renovation, remodel, or new build. “Try to recognize design as part of the service that you need.”

“Even if it’s just a few hours of an interior designer's time.” George recommends that the homeowner set aside at least some portion of their time and investment in the project for design, promising: “That will always pay off. You may not be able to run it down a punchlist, but you’ll feel it in your space for the next ten years.”

"Be ready for change within the project."

The second thing? Be ready for change within the project. “Construction budgets and schedules are very hard to meet, because of the nature of the team, and the nature of the process. And it’s not because contractors are crooks, or clients are flakes - the process itself just takes time,” cautions George.

Some decisions can’t be made on the spot. Things will take time. Plan ahead and prepare for delays, and exercise patience with your team and the process.

And maybe don’t live in your space during construction if you can avoid it. ;)

Looking to remodel your space? Choose every floorboard and fixture, or let our design and build partners guide you to success. Get started with Beam today.