In the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the heroine had to sort through either too little or too much of a good thing—until finding a happy medium. Homeowners in need of a fresh look often confront the same dilemma; furniture and appliance stores offer only one aspect of improvement, while many design and construction firms want complete control of the project. Bo Li, owner of Distinctive Elements in Lansdale, understands the choices her clients are faced with and has decided to offer something “just right.”
Li was originally intending to be a buyer for a big-box store. Because she needed to understand the application and end use of the products she would be buying, the company sent her to school for interior design. Along the way Li realized she had a passion for it and began her own firm instead. In the beginning she offered design only, adding the finishing touches to completed spaces, but clients wanted a “one-stop shop” that could provide all aspects of the renovation process.
Li realizes that women—her primary audience—have to make many decisions. Although they comprise slightly more than half of the U.S. population, women account for 81 percent of all purchases made, control decisions for 91 percent of all home sales and, perhaps unsurprisingly, make 94 percent of all home-furnishings purchases. Women obviously have an interest in home improvement, yet they account for less than 9 percent of the construction industry, and less than 6 percent of these construction firms are owned by women—Li among them.
Li learned of the difficulties this imbalance creates when her mother hired a contractor for a home-renovation project. “Being a single woman and not knowing anything [about construction] is difficult,” she says. “It’s no different from walking into a car dealership, except this is personal; someone is going through your house. Because the industry is predominantly male, as a woman you have to take them at their word. I started my own company because my goal was to help women to be comfortable in dealing with the construction business.”
That was nearly eight years ago and through word-of-mouth referrals Distinctive Elements has grown to offer, design, supply and construction services for homeowners throughout Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
Distinctive Elements allows the client to have one contract and experience one unified flow of work, from the initial design through completion. Its designers blend form with function, assist clients with the selection of finishes and amenities, and then its contractors provide dependable, professional execution of the plan and do it all with sensitivity to budget.
The company has partnered with professionals who have a wide range of expertise in order to address clients’ concerns both structurally and aesthetically without needing to bring in an outside resource. Registered architect Jonathan Mount has enjoyed working with Distinctive Elements. With more than 30 years of industry experience behind him, he provides diverse architecture and design services to clients on a wide array of project types, sizes, locations. “Every project has been a great success,” he says. “They are knowledgeable, experienced and dependable. They’re creative and have a wonderful sense of space, light, color and texture.”
The Distinctive Elements team also includes talented craftsmen with a variety of specialties, from carpentry to tile work to window treatments. “We pool together contractors that are good at what they do, in order to make something on paper come to life,” Li says. Each of Distinctive Elements’ projects has a foreman on the job site at all times to make sure it meets Li’s standards for quality control, while project manager Ron Greeby ensures that all the materials needed are correct and delivered on time.
Distinctive Elements is unique in that clients also have the option to use them for as much or as little of the project as they would like. Li has put together a project questionnaire to help prospective clients think through every aspect of the project in preparation for the initial consultation. She then uses this information to facilitate the discussion. Based on that meeting Distinctive Elements puts together an estimate for the installation of the project. Clients can then decide if they want to pay a consultation fee or bring Distinctive Elements in to complete the design. Homeowners also have the option of ordering materials through the company.
“We can provide just the design or design it and supply the materials so that they can have their own builder install the project or they can choose us for the whole nine yards,” she says. “We keep it completely open.”
The right renovations are an essential part of meeting clients’ needs today, as well as protecting their return on that investment in the future. This approach to interior design and renovation projects allows homeowners on any budget access to expert advice. “When you put money into your home it can be a huge amount,” Li says. “What many homeowners don’t know is that mistakes can become expensive. They can call on us for an initial concept and use that as a guide. We can help you to make sure you are on track. ... If you have assistance you can avoid mistakes.”
According to Li, Distinctive Elements works with homeowners whose projects range from inexpensive to millions of dollars, and the key to successfully designing for such a diverse base is to tailor its approach for each project. “Our group pays attention and listens to the client’s needs,” Li says. “We are versatile.” While she draws much of her inspiration from travel, Li also believes in doing research to grow her knowledge base. “Through keeping myself in the industry, reading and updating myself on industry advancements, I avoid being a complacent designer. … Every project has to have a different element that I haven’t done before.”
Distinctive Elements also meets customers’ needs by providing them with exceptional service. Li’s clients know they can reach her at all times and that Distinctive Elements will return all calls within 24 hours. On one occasion a homeowner wanted a unique door installed in a restored farmhouse in time for the holidays. When the door the homeowner had chosen did not fit—and with Thanksgiving quickly approaching—Li went to a half-dozen salvage yards before finding one from an 1800s era home that was being torn down. The Distinctive Elements team worked together to ensure it was refinished, delivered and installed in time for the arrival of guests.
Restoring old farmhouses is a passion of Li’s. “I am working on a project where the family wants to have an addition to their circa 1800 farmhouse,” She says. “It is challenging to make it look like part of an existing home without overpowering it—to allow you to walk through and feel you are back then but with all new amenities. There is a fine balance between making it look old and making it function.” Too often, she says, builders install all-new materials during a renovation and the home loses its character. Instead she loves to learn about the history of these historic homes and understand why they were designed as they are.
Making creative use of salvage is not only stylish; it is also environmentally responsible. Distinctive Elements is very conscientious about reusing and recycling existing materials or, if an item is still in good and usable condition, donating it to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. Its designers strive to be “green” in many aspects of their designs by educating themselves and their clients about the impact their material selections have on the environment and incorporating energy-efficient technologies such as LED lighting. Li says that these technologies are well worth incorporating into a design or renovation. Among her favorite new products are touchless faucets. “I have a 2-year-old daughter, so my hands are always messy,” she says.
Though she prefers a convenient, hands-free approach to some of life’s messes, Li and the team of Distinctive Elements are certainly hands on when it comes to working with clients. Whether they are in need of a complete renovation or some decorating advice, homeowners will find just the right degree of design at Distinctive Elements.
Serving Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery County
215-478-6262 | www.distinctiveelements.com
Photograph by Kim Billingsley