Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cost of Custom

I'm fortunate enough to work for a design firm that has its own cabinet shop. Even though our catalogue uses “standard” cabinet sizes (3" increments in our case), I can order custom sizes and configurations if I need.  It's particularly useful (almost essential) when dealing with zero-clearance ovens and other integrated appliances.

It’s a nice perk to have as a designer because it means I'm not limited to what another manufacturer has decided are the pieces I need to work with. The pot rack pictured here for example, couldn't be built by any in-stock programme.   I feel it gives me a competitive advantage.

However having access to customization doesn’t mean I use it all the time. By making a cabinet custom, I’ve taken it outside of the normal assembly procedures in the shop. I could have a standard 18” bank of drawers assembled in a couple hours, from scratch. The shop makes one for just about every kitchen I order, so it’s routine. All the parts are cut, and anyone in the shop will know how to put it together.

But take a custom drawer bank 22.75” wide, 19” deep bank of drawers with tray divider inserts. That cabinet will take the foreman an hour to simply figure out the sizes of the parts need. Because it’s not “normal” the risk of error is higher, so it will take extra time in the shop just to be sure it’s correct. And because the shop has taken extra time with it, they will charge me extra and I, in turn, will charge you extra.

Extra cost is fine if there is an understanding of its worth. I’m often asked by clients if we can build some furniture pieces to go along with some of the work we’re doing. By the time we figure out the material and labour, a simple bookshelf (say maple, 24”w x 72”h x 12”d) can cost in excess of $1000.  The television cabinet shown here (made of Brazilian Cherry) came in at just under $4,000.  That may or may not seem like a lot of money to you, but when the client has been comparing prices with a big-box retail outlet, well we just can’t compete with that sort of cost-efficiency. When I’m building a bookshelf for you, it’s the only one I’m likely to build that week. It’s going to cost more than you think.

Custom design is a luxury that one needs to respect. When working with a designer make sure you understand what’s involved with custom designed pieces and if they are essential to your dream kitchen. As I always say, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”


Brenda Lynn said...

Great post, I am thinking about printing it out and handing it to my customers, with your permission, of course. I, too, have the luxury of dealing with two cabinet companies who do custom. It is really nice to be able to do those custom pieces, when needed. It personalizes the project, but like you said, just because you can, doesn't mean that you should.

I am really looking forward to meeting you and everyone else in June!

Brenda Lynn

Arne Salvesen said...

Reprint with my humblest gratitude Brenda.

Historic Shed said...

As custom shed builders, I am in absolute agreement. We won't come in cheaper, although we will get you exactly what you want, and build it better. I knew a call today wouldn't pan out when the customer told me how much she liked the gazebo she saw at Sam's Club.

Arne Salvesen said...

Great point on the Sam's Club customer. We have a couple big box retailers near us so we get that sort of reaction a fair bit. However our reputation has begun to precede us a bit. And just to be clear, I'm not putting the big box stores down. There is a place in the market for them to be sure. But to apply the same pricing standards to a custom item as you would to an RTA item from the Swedish Store just isn't realistic.

anishka, allied member ASID said...

A great post for all potential interior design clients to read. My only thought, as a designer who often designs custom items, is whether you considered the actual cost of the designer's value-add in presenting your price? I find this can propel the cost of custom even more but it is necessary for the client to understand that the designer must be compensated for conceptualization and time in addition to the labour costs. What do you think?


Arne Salvesen said...


Great point. Let's be frank; as designers our time needs to be compensated. The price of a custom piece certainly needs to factor that in.

Something I've been doing for a while now is to catalogue my custom pieces. Very often a client will ask for something I've already designed. The catalogued item has also been made at least once by the shop, so there's an overall cost savings. It can also save a tonne of time, which of course is irreplaceable.

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