Guide: Differences between Interior Designers, Contractors, and Design-and-Builds

Interior designer, renovation contractor, interior renovator―learn about the many differences beneath these names and be clear on the kind of renovation/design setup you are engaging.

Updated on June 21, 2017 9:06 am

Xiangyun Lim (Alexa)


Renovating your house can be stressful―even before construction starts. It’s crucial to find the right people to work with whom you can trust and afford, but how do you choose? The search to engage reliable interior designers is further muddled by the lack of clear distinctions between designers and contractors, along with a new breed of design-and-build setups that tout for services they may not be fully equipped to provide.

Being able to discern renovation/design setups will prevent a nasty working relationship and rude shocks during the process. They may describe themselves as everything from “interior renovator” and “renovation contractors” to “design consultancy”, but these phrases can only be guidelines to the kind of services offered. Do remember that renovation is not just about the end product―the process is just as important to preserving your sanity and preventing rude shocks after you hand over your cash.

After trawling renovation forums and blogs, and talking to many interior designers and homeowners, we have uncovered these differences that can help you differentiate and determine what kind of services you are engaging and should expect.

Differences between Interior Designers, Contractors, and Design-and Builds

Interior Designer Contractor Design-and-Build
What do they do? One way to look at interior designers: They are “design consultants”.

They will be with you from designing, to sourcing for contractors and materials, and through construction. They will do project management, and sometimes even aid in decoration.

Charges based on their consultancy services
There are two kinds: the Main Contractor and Subcontractors.

The main contractor works with various subcontractors according to the services needed: electrical wiring; piping; false ceiling; carpentry. May not include project management.

Charges based on construction services; more executioners than advisors
This is the in-between where things get murkier and less distinctive. Some may be main contractors or project managers, who "add" design and client management to their repertoire of services.

However, as designing is outsourced, you may realise that you are dealing with different people who “project manage” and do “sales”, instead of an individual interior designer.

Charges based on construction services.
Company Profile Upfront about certifications and awards. Portfolios may include commercial and even architectural projects. Company description and ethos are often design-focused. May or may not have a website, especially if it’s a subcontractor (if they’re good, they probably don’t need it anyway). Carry different descriptions including “interior renovators” and “interior designers”. May have accreditations to show―but remember that accreditations are not formal credentials.
Timeline Expect a lot of meetings and interviews before actual designing even starts―this may take up to two months. This is for the team to get to know you and what you want better before embarking on design. Generally, this option will require a longer timeline. If you are engaging subcontractors on your own, you will be the one planning different timelines and process. For example, carpentry can only start after the basics of wiring and piping are done. As many design-and-build setups see from a construction perspective, the timeline is also usually based on the construction process. Consultations and site visits help them to understand the level of renovations required.
Design Designs according to your family’s lifestyles and needs, and produces 3D drawings and floor plans. May have a certain “style” or “flair”. Builds according to the provided design. Homeowners have to be clear on what they want and provide specifications. “Free consultations” and site-visits may result in design plans and 3D drawings. Design-wise, design-and-builds may offer more template designs.
Budget As sourcing for contractors and materials starts only after a confirmed design, the final budget can only be calculated thereafter. The homeowner will be the one making the final choice of contractors based on the designer's sourced quotations. This is often the cheapest option as you are paying directly for execution. However, rectification costs due to design hiccups―which may be higher risk without professional design and experience―can add up to be much pricier than expected. It is common to start with renovation “packages”, but it is also common to have this initial cost growing with new services and requested changes.
Project Management Included in their services Requires self project management Included in their services
Building and Construction Will work with the chosen contractor and subcontractors to ensure each detail fits into the design Do not expect them to proactively give practical advice or correct design-related mistakes; they may just go ahead even if it’s not a good fit. Will have their own subcontractors and material sources. Beware of recommendations that are not based on quality, but for other reasons, such as stock-clearing or a commission-based relationship with the supplier.
Service A mark of good service would be proactive updates from the engaged designer, as well as willingness to rectify problems that occur after renovations and move-in. Don’t be surprised to meet contractors who are upfront and offer no lip service. They may not be as patient to entertain whimsical queries, but are straightforward in their approach. A mark of good service would be proactive updates from the engaged project manager, as well as willingness to rectify problems that occur after renovations and move-in.
What to look out for Even if the firm has good reviews, do remember that firms employ many designers―not all whom you may find suitable. Try to seek the name of the designers recommended for more assurance, and always meet them to find one you are comfortable with. If you’re taking on the task of engaging individual subcontractors yourself, do remember that there are times when you may need different services done together―for example, kitchen cabinets that have water pipes running through them. Even though project management is done by design-and-builds, there is the risk of slipshod work that come as rude shocks if homeowners are not constantly on site to supervise. The resulting rectifications then become additional costs, or trouble only discovered after moving in.
Conclusion More suitable for those who place priority on design and service, and may not have the time to project manage. More suitable for those who not just have experience and time, but also relatively simple construction and designs to execute More suitable for those tighter on time and budget, and/or are looking at a more basic design style

So, how do you choose?

  • Do be clear on your priorities. Is it time, budget, design, or quality? This will help focus your search.
  • Always, always do your research. Start early. Ask those with experiences, both good and bad. Trawl forums and reviews.
  • Keep in mind that everyone’s needs are different―even those with raving reviews might not be able to meet your expectations, or be who you feel most comfortable with.
  • If you have shortlisted a few, meet up with all of them personally. Ask detailed questions and clear all doubts before you commit to one.

Other useful links:

Laws on contractual renovation
Differences between Main Contractors and Subcontractors
TODAY Article on Renovation Contractors
BCA Guidelines and Contractors Directory
About Home Permits and Other Guidelines

We will be coming up with guides to working with your interior designer―if you have any stories or tips to share, email us at; we’d love to hear them!

Cover photo by CH Thyng


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