Habitar Design is a residential one-stop shop for interior design and construction. The firm helps clients do everything from selecting paint colors and choosing furniture, to remodeling rooms or renovating entire homes. Most of Habitar's clients live in Chicago proper, but some are located throughout the suburbs. The firm prides itself on providing top end work, including design projects for other construction companies and construction services for other designers.
The Habitar team believes “there is no compromise on achieving the client’s vision.” They have strong building abilities, including their own wood shop, which allow them to offer solutions that others often cannot.
Following is an interview with Habitar's Mitch Newman, principal and founder; Hannah Tindall, senior associate interior designer; and MacKenzie Cain, designer.
PE: Can you give our readers a brief history of Habitar?
MN: I started Habitar Design in 2007. I’ve always been very design-oriented, which influenced my real estate development work. I had been a developer since 1999. In 2007, it was clear to me that real estate was going to crash, so I launched the firm, hiring Kapan Shipman full-time as she had been doing my design work. It became clear that many of the projects required construction, and that I would have a competitive advantage if I used my construction expertise to provide a complete package of design and construction. Between design and construction we have 13 employees. During the average day, new customers call, and existing customers receive coordinated high-end construction.
PE: Will each of you explain how your professional background carries over to the day-to-day work you do with Habitar?
MN: My life as a writer, which evolved into acting and directing, has given me a lot of insight as how to work collaboratively with my artistic staff to explore until we come up with a great solutions. Getting the right solution is not always a straight line; it sometimes requires making mistakes and letting your unconscious guide you.
I also was a physician, so I treat my clients like I treated my patients. My job is to look after their interests as if they were family members. There’s also a hand-holding component, as home renovation can be very invasive and frightening. It’s important that we are understanding, communicative and thorough during every stage of the process.
HT: I knew from a young age that interior design was what I wanted to do for a living. College helped me realize that residential design was the best fit for me. I liked the idea of working with a client one-on-one, helping them make their house feel like home in a meaningful way. I find a lot of inspiration through travel, especially in historically significant cities with a rich architectural story. I also spent much of my youth in the dance studio, which gave me a keen sense of how humans move through and utilize space.
MC: Growing up, I always knew that interior design was something I wanted to do. I had the opportunity in one of my high school classes to design a home from the ground up. We created our own floorplans, dimension drawings and even got to build a wooden model including furniture and decor. This assignment sealed the deal for me. When it came time to decide on a college major, interior design seemed like the only obvious option.
Today, I like to spend as much time outside and traveling as possible. The main source of my inspiration stems from these experiences. Nature, architecture and even people can influence a design. Whether it is the colors, textures, patterns or even creating a sense of movement, all of these things can be interpreted and incorporated into any design concept.
PE: What have been some of your favorite projects with Habitar?
MN: We did a kitchen in an old house that had about three or four previous renovations. It was a beautiful old house but the kitchen was like a horseshoe, built around a closet and a stair that came up from the basement. We designed a solution where we removed the closet and supported the ceiling with a steal beam. We covered the stairs to make them look like cabinetry. There was no trace of the closet or stairs, and the entire kitchen was open. Kapan Shipman, our senior interior designer, designed this renovation, and we figured out how to build it. It entirely changed the nature and value of the house.
HT: My favorite projects are ones where we are doing a gut renovation of a home — totally re-working the layout of the space to make it more functional for the owner. In a recently completed project, we renovated a room to make it more functional for a family with three young daughters. The kitchen was small and not very practical, so we moved it to the other side of the room and totally changed the layout. The old kitchen became a cozy family room, and there was still some space left over near the back door for a sizeable mudroom for everyone’s coats, shoes and school supplies. The clients love it, and are so much happier cooking and spending time with the family in this space.
PE: Can you share the start-to-finish process that Habitar typically goes through on projects?
HT: We spend a lot of time looking through inspiration photos online with our clients. They especially like sites such as Houzz and Pinterest, because they make it easy to share their ideas and photos with us. On our end, we do like to get out to trade shows and showrooms to see what the newest offerings are and what is flying off the shelves. In our office, the designers are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. Collaborating on designs or simply just sharing cool new materials or products with each other.
MN: Our concept is to be our client’s guides. It’s not uncommon that I will compliment one of my designer’s projects in front of a client, and the client will say, “Well, I designed it.” That’s perfect. We want to help the client find the things that will fulfill their vision and then pull it together for them.
After the client tells us their vision, we build a model of it and seek their comments. Based on their comments, we redraw it. We continue on through as many iterations as it takes until they have exactly what they want. After that, we’ll select exact materials with the client. Once that’s complete, the design team and construction team will put their heads together to make sure everything can be built as designed or to discuss how to make solutions more cost-effective.
PE: What challenges and opportunities have you run into on remodeling projects?
MN: The plumbing is always the most important issue to work out, and it usually concerns where the toilet can be located. Everything else is pretty mobile except in high-rise buildings. My biggest fear is dealing with an old piece of cast iron that will crack on the floor below or above when I open it.
HT: Clients want to totally re-work the layout of a bathroom, but don’t always realize how difficult and expensive this can be. Especially in high-rise buildings, there are a lot of restrictions, but technology is getting better every day, and more is possible.
PE: What are some examples of hands-free technology Habitar has worked on, specifically for bathrooms and kitchens?
HT: We haven’t done any work with hands-free technology yet — these things can be pricey, and clients just don’t seem to be interested in spending the money on it yet. I am seeing a lot of cool products on the market though that I’m hoping to incorporate into designs fairly soon. Nest has a lot of great products to offer, and I also think that Phillips Hue Lights are really neat.
PE: Beyond hands-free technology, are there other design trends Habitar is noticing?
MC: Recently, I feel that clients want to go with designs that will stand the test of time rather than incorporating what might be “trendy” at the moment. Whether that is incorporating neutral colors, natural wood finishes or stone tiles and countertops, this idea seems to be popular.
HT: The color gray is still very popular, and we still use it a lot in our work. I am also impressed with the offerings in ceramic and porcelain tiles lately — tiles that look very similar to real wood or marble are products that we use a lot in our designs.
PE: Does Habitar feel it is ahead of the game when it comes to using environmentally friendly materials, products and processes?
MN: Because of my background in development I know a lot about insulation, windows, efficient HVAC systems and LED lighting. I think a lot of green technology is still “hype” — for example a quartz countertop that uses recycled glass. I think it will be a long time before we run out of sand or quartzite. But building a house that needs less fossil fuels on an ongoing basis is very important.
MC: Creating a design that is environmentally-focused is always a personal concern, but unfortunately it tends to be a bit more expensive. Since we deal mainly in residential remodeling, our clients have limited budgets, and having the most “green” product isn’t their biggest concern. With that being said, there are many companies that have made huge strides towards creating products that are more efficient and environmentally friendly. I will typically try to show options with these qualities to our clients. One thing that we do try and do is locally source a lot of our materials either here in Chicago or in surrounding areas.
HT: Being LEED certified, I am always pushing to use more of these materials. Some things that do remain popular among clients though are dual-flush toilets, and low-flow shower fixtures. We are starting to see more and more people wanting to use washlets as well.
PE: What is currently in the woodworks for Habitar?
HT: We are keeping quite busy, and have a number of projects happening right now. One I am excited about is a gut renovation of a beautiful home in Hyde Park, which will take place this summer.
MN: We’re growing. I’ve been considering launching a product line of cabinetry made in our woodshop. Not sure if that will happen this year or not.