Why Detroit developers can’t afford to forget ab...

Why Detroit developers can’t afford to forget about design

A new guide from Design Core Detroit gives developers the tools to leverage the city's designer talent -- for beautiful buildings that serve community needs.

detroit development design showcased by green roof at lumen downtown

Photo of Lumen green roof by Anton Grassl/DTE Beacon Park Foundation, via Design Core Detroit publication “Design Guide: Real Estate Development”

Developments face countless obstacles on their way to completion. Acquiring the right property, raising enough money, engaging with a skeptical community, creating quality site plans, getting approvals from the city, working around inclement weather during construction, finding tenants — the list goes on.

Design Core Detroit thinks hiring a good designer can fix, or at least help solve, all of these potential challenges. To prove it, the nonprofit which promotes and supports Detroit’s design community has published a new book, written by staff at DCD with input from dozens of stakeholders. Called simply “Design Guide: Real Estate Development,” it demonstrates to developers the value of design at each stage of the process and gives them the tools to best utilize the city’s designer talent.

To learn more about the guide, we spoke with Olga Stella, executive director of Design Core Detroit. She explained the book’s purpose, how to find the right designer and why you can’t afford not to hire one. The book can be downloaded as a free PDF on Design Core Detroit’s website. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Detour: How did this guide come about and who do you hope will read it?

Olga Stella: Two years ago, we released a guide for neighborhood business owners about working with designers. Afterwards we began to recognize that businesses are often the tenant and that there’s people all over Detroit who own a piece of property and want to do something to it, but don’t know how to get started. There’s lots of community development institutions helping with the nuts and bolts of real estate, but no one is talking about how to create greater value for their community through design. 

That was the intention of this project — to create a resource that would help people, especially those doing projects for the first time, understand exactly how designers could help them at every stage of the project, beyond just architecture. There’s all kinds of designers: graphic designers, interior designers and so on.

We want more people to feel comfortable with design, know that it’s for them and give them more fluency in design language. One of the things we’ve come to realize is there’s so much jargon in the design world and it creates invisible barriers. Hopefully we’ve made the book as practical, relatable and jargon-free as we could so anyone could go through it step-by-step and see this as a resource for their project. 

The guide also emphasizes the ways design can facilitate community engagement. Could you expand on that?

It’s about how a project brings value to a community and not just the bottom line. It’s about seeking community perspectives and understanding needs. How do you ask community members what they want, not just present your plan and ask for a rubber stamp? There’s lots of techniques that designers have for facilitating that two-way discussion and helping to bring clarity. 

Change can be really distressing, especially if you don’t know what a project means beyond the pretty pictures, which is often what developers lead with. Designers can help translate what a project really means to a community. 

Unfortunately, that’s not often the way things happen in Detroit right now. Part of what we’re trying to do is highlight the good examples and show that if you engage the community early and in a genuine way, you can develop a better product that will hopefully take less time and get more community support.

What are some common design “mistakes” novice developers make?

The book is littered with tips and tricks, but in Chapter 3 (“How Design Supports Development”) we go through each stage of the development process. What happens if you run into a roadblock with financing and need to figure out how to cut costs? You can work with a designer in a way to find cost savings without sacrificing the spirit of the project. A great example of that is the Foundation Hotel, which was $7 million over budget. McIntoch Poris worked with the developer to cut spending, including working with a local salvage company to repurpose materials, without damaging the design. That’s what designers can do. 

The financing and funding ecosystem is constantly shifting and designers can help troubleshoot. They’re different from a contractor who might recommend something that saves money, but it won’t necessarily be a recommendation that supports the intention of the overall project — it’s a difference in mindset.

Or again with community engagement. People really struggle with the front end of a project because they fall in love with a piece of real estate and have a vision, but there’s usually two issues: Does that vision fit in with the neighborhood and is it financially feasible? If you bring in a designer before buying a building, before committing your life savings to a project, they can help you determine whether or not that piece of property is the right fit and understand some of the challenges you might encounter.

The design guide gets down to brass tacks, with flowcharts, checklists and worksheets to guide developers through the design process. Via Design Core Detroit

What would you tell a developer who says that design is great, but I just can’t afford to spend money on it?

I’d say that you can’t afford not to. You will end up spending more in the end through the mistakes and challenges you encounter. You’ll end up paying for it when you pick the wrong property. You’ll end up paying for it when you’re delayed in development approvals because you don’t have community support or need to go through zoning changes — steps that could add not just weeks to the process, but months or years. You’ll pay for it when going through construction, if hit a snag and don’t know how to solve it. You’ll end up paying for an architect to solve it. Then you’ll pay for it at the end if you haven’t staged or marketed the property properly — you won’t have tenants or be able to sell it. 

And good design doesn’t have to break the bank. Yes, there’s high-end firms downtown that do big projects and win national awards, but Detroit has a lot of independent designers who work on small projects that can meet just about any budget. There is no one-size-fits-all — the right designer is out there for your project. 

How should someone go about finding the right designer?

Well, we have a whole chapter in the book about that! We give people interview questions to help them find out if it’s the right fit. It’s about being honest and transparent about your mutual working styles because they’ll be your partner in problem solving. 

Also, Design Core offers a service to anyone looking for a designer. We have a membership network of 115 design firms in the city and region at all scales from small, two-person freelancers to larger, more established companies. You fill out an intake form, we post the opportunity to our network and also organize a virtual design salon, based on your needs, with a small group of designers to meet you and learn more about the project. 

We understand that it can be intimidating; design sounds so high-end and unattainable. But in Detroit, it can be — and is — attainable. 

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.