Project Spotlight: The Element of Surprise

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mackmiller design+build capitalizes on surprises to make a successful remodel.

December 08, 2010

Most remodelers know that an important way to ensure customer satisfaction is to manage expectations. Mark and Mary Mackmiller, of mackmiller design+build, Eden Prairie, Minn., go a step further. They manage what’s not expected, capitalizing on surprises.

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Ironically, they were on the receiving end of one of the first surprises involving the Hahn remodeling project. About six years ago Tim and Laurie Hahn stopped by to see the kitchen Mark Mackmiller had just remodeled for neighbors across the street. The Hahns liked Mackmiller’s design ideas, noted their neighbors’ positive remodeling experience, and recommended the design-build company to friends who needed a remodeler. When those friends hired Mackmiller for a kitchen remodel, Mark slipped a $100 gift certificate under the Hahns’ door as a thank you for the referral. “Laurie called and was elated” by the unexpected gift, he recalls.
Years went by. Then in summer 2009, the Hahns surprised Mackmiller with a phone call inviting him to take on an extensive remodel of their house. “We’d seen what he’d done, loved his ideas, and trusted him from the start,” says Laurie. “We stuck with him” and never considered other contractors.
Newly empty nesters, they wanted to turn the first floor of their 1985 house into a warm, welcoming space as enjoyable for daily living as for entertaining. Mackmiller revamped the kitchen and sunroom, replaced the dining room with a powder room-laundry-mudroom complex, bumped out the entry and reinvented the foyer. (Plans for a first-floor master suite and detached garage proved cost prohibitive and were dropped early in the design phase.)  Mackmiller added only 33 square feet but dramatically transformed the house with an infusion of creative ideas and judicious changes — some of them provided as cost-free extras — that solidified the homeowners’ good opinion of the design/build company.

High-impact ideas
Because guests always congregate in the kitchen, “the first thing I suggested,” says Mark, “was to take out the island.” He replaced it with a multipurpose peninsula that clears the kitchen workspace for the Hahns while allowing their guests to sit comfortably at the counter and chat. “We can have a big group in here now and they don’t bump into you,” says Laurie. The old bar was against a wall so that Tim Hahn’s back was to his guests while he mixed drinks. Now the bar is in the peninsula and Tim faces his guests as he uses it. Mackmiller specified a cupboard in the bar that keeps Laurie’s computer handy, yet hidden when not in use; she didn’t ask for it, but it’s one of her favorite features of the room.
Rounded and bistro-table height on the end, the peninsula works well as a dining spot for the Hahns. Mark designed a soffit that echoes the shape of the peninsula, defining the kitchen and wowing both the Hahns and their guests.
Mackmiller eliminated the dining room — “We never used it anymore,” says Laurie — but space between the kitchen and family room accommodates a large dining table for entertaining. Mark made better use of the dining room “real estate,” relocating the powder room here from the back of the house, building a generous-size laundry room and, next to it, a mudroom and closet packed with storage. The closet contains a rack Mark designed to keep shoes organized. “It’s so awesome,” says Laurie. “These little things Mark thought of” made a big impression. “I attribute it to how well he listens” to client needs and wants, Laurie says.
“Tim was emphatic about opening up the kitchen and sunroom as much as possible,” recalls Mark. Mackmiller removed the sunroom’s French doors and interior wall, turning the room into a seamless extension of the entertainment area. Awning windows and a wall of sliding glass exterior doors augment existing windows to flood the room with sunlight. Mark placed the flat screen television above the windows, where it can be watched glare-free from the sunroom or kitchen and does not obstruct views to the outdoors.
Getting to the front door and into the house was “a huge problem,” says Mark. Guests had to walk up a steep driveway. Mackmiller referred the Hahns to Southview Design, respected landscape contractors who created a stairway from the street. At the door Mackmiller added a covered porch that provides weather protection and forms a gracious entry.
Before the remodel, guests entered a small foyer and stood only three feet from the interior stairway. Mackmiller bumped out the recessed entry to align with the rest of the façade, yielding two extra feet in the foyer. “We thought of moving it out further, but that would have required a variance — which would have been denied because the change was not critical to the function of the house,” he says. The extra two feet of foyer area makes room for a larger coat closet with double doors; reversing the swing of the front door clears more usable space for guests and hosts. Mackmiller faced the bump-out with bricks he found that match the house.

Success secrets
Mackmiller works hard to deliver what clients want — and more. Icing on the cake are the things he provides free of charge. “We’re always trying to think of something extra” that will make the project even better, says Mark. Since Mackmiller doesn’t advertise and relies mostly on referrals, he typically spends 1/2 to 1 percent of the project price on these gifts. “We invest our advertising budget with our clients,” he says. “We went a little overboard on this one,” with $3,200 in extras. But it was worth it for the positive impression they made. One freebie: Installing the old kitchen cabinets as a storage wall in the garage. Another: Glazing the trim in the house to soften the paint color, lend a classic look, and make a more distinctive profile. And Mary contributed extra interior design time to assure a beautiful finished product.
As interior designer and company co-owner, Mary Mackmiller adds value to Mackmiller projects literally from start to finish. During sales and planning meetings she joins Mark at the table with clients. The advantages are both direct and subliminal. A direct advantage is that “she paints an interior design picture,” says Mark, which enhances his structural and space plan solutions. It was Mary, for instance, who helped the Hahns achieve a California wine country ambiance in their kitchen with character grade black walnut cabinets in a dark, distressed finish. It was Mary who told the Hahns about the bronze tone appliances that reinforce that ambiance. “I never would have known about them,” says Laurie.
“I try to throw in some unexpected things too,” says Mary. One surprise was the persimmon color she specified for the Hahns’ sunroom walls. Tim had doubts about the shade, she admits, but it helped make the room his favorite in the house. “He loves that color.”
Mary’s presence at meetings has the subliminal advantage of creating a balanced, relaxed atmosphere. Mark says homeowners often react defensively when receiving a pitch from a salesperson. But when he and Mary sit with couples to discuss their remodeling needs, the meeting feels more like one friendly couple trying to assist the other. In design and progress meetings, “Mary is there for you,” says Laurie. “You can use her as much or as little as you want” for design assistance. “I used her a ton.”
During construction, Mary advocates for the clients, stopping by to make sure all is well.
Laurie recalls an evening when she and Mary returned to a dark house after visiting product showrooms. Some electrical work was going on at the time and there was no functioning light switch in easy reach of the door. Mary alerted Mark, and the problem immediately was corrected.
At the end of every project, Mary and Mark surprise clients by personally cleaning the site. “We make notes on details that need to be fixed,” says Mark, “such as nail holes to fill and surfaces to smooth. Instead of trying to get out of the house as fast as possible we take the time to fix these things. When we leave, we want the homeowners to be very happy.” The Hahns certainly are.

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