It might be part of what they do and it’s even a component of the brand, but don’t call Pauline Van Blokland’s company an interior design firm.
For 26 years, Van Blokland’s Western Interior Design Group has been tackling much more than the look and feel of businesses. It has also been tearing down walls and re-imagining spaces as a construction management company.
“Our biggest handicap is the label ‘interior designer.’ People misconstrue that and think we pick colours,” said Van Blokland, the company’s founding partner.
“I think professionally as an industry we struggle with that.”
Western, which designs and oversees interior construction projects across a spectrum of businesses, is thriving.
The company recently relocated to office space in Victoria from Saanich and is experiencing strong growth with as many as 30 projects on the books, including the recently completed renovation of 115 rooms at the Hotel Grand Pacific.
According to Van Blokland, the success is down to the construction management component.
Early in her career, Van Blokland was hired to redesign hotels in the North, and her client suggested she do the hiring of trades and tendering of contracts.
That work illustrated to her the effectiveness of seeing a project through from concept to completion. “The crucial point for me is we like having control from beginning to end. We can control the design and we don’t have to hand it off to someone else and hope that it works out [for the client],” she said.
Ann Squires Ferguson, partner and chief executive of Western, said their approach means the vision the client has for its space never gets watered down through the process.
“We work closely with the client, we get to know them inside and out, what they want. We get totally immersed in their lives and understand what matters to them and their business model,” she said, noting as construction managers they don’t then just hand all that knowledge off and hope the contractors can interpret the plans.
“That’s what makes us unique. We are interior designers that are project managers that stay engaged with the client all the way through.”
Squires Ferguson said the firm’s advantage is in its approach — where a lot of value is placed on the information-gathering and listening phases of client engagement.
“Job sites run smoother because of that understanding of a client’s expectations,” she said.
“When things go sideways on a site, it’s usually because an expectation was not met.”
Squires Ferguson, who believes the most beautiful thing in the world is a gutted heritage building, said that’s why the firm has been in demand, and all of its work has come from referral or repeat clients.
All six full-time staff and contract employees at the firm are female. Van Blokland said that brings some advantages — one being that they are sometimes taken lightly by competing construction companies — but it wasn’t by design.
“It’s just worked out that way,” she said, noting with a laugh that the right male designer hasn’t walked through the doors.
The shelves of the office reflect the company, with reams of samples and ideas surrounding the small space, while hard hats line top shelves and work boots are in the trunk of everyone’s car.
The approach seems to be paying off as the company is humming, said Van Blokland, even during a building boom that has driven up construction costs and rendered skilled trades scarce.
“We have amazing trades and we are able to get them to work for us when others are struggling to find them,” she said.
“Interior design is not a luxury service,” added Squires Ferguson. “We work with businesses that need to be able to present themselves a certain way to their clients.
“If we don’t do our job appropriately in terms of design and construction, then those business models aren’t functional.”