Sunday, December 24, 2017

Can I use someone else's design for my remodel?

Larry and Dianne have wanted to remodel the master bathroom in their house for some time. Partly, they hoped to knock down a wall, install a larger shower, and expand the vanity so it could accommodate two sinks. But they also believed that the remodel would result in some mold issues they had discovered shortly after buying their house. So their desire was for comfort and cosmetic appeal, but also based on a healthier environment.

After meeting with several prospective contractors, they settled on one they liked. He had done some work for them earlier and, while they had some issues with how long it took him to follow through on finishing touches, they liked the quality of his work quite a bit. He drew up some design plans and presented Larry and Dianne with a cost estimate. All in all, they were pleased with the look and the price.

That was two years ago. Right after getting the plans, a storm uprooted several full-grown trees in Larry and Dianne's yard, which resulted in some unexpected costs for removal and then planting of new mature trees to replace the trees destroyed in the storm. Because of the cost, they put the master bathroom remodel on hold.

But now, they are ready to move forward. They dug out the plans and called the contractor to see if they could schedule the work. After waiting a few weeks for a response, they finally got a call from the contractor letting them know that he was solidly booked with large projects and would not be able to even consider their project for a year.

Larry and Dianne want to do the remodel now, however. So they plan to find a contractor who can take on the project. Nevertheless, they loved the design plans that the prospective contractor had given them and hope to use them on the new project.

"He hadn't charged us for the plans or anything," writes Larry. "Would it be wrong to just hand the plans over to a new contractor and tell them that's what we want done?"

While Larry and Dianne might be able to find a contractor who would agree to follow the plans drawn by their original contractor, the drawings still represent the work done in good faith by him. It's one thing to ask a contractor to come up with plans after looking at a few other bathroom designs Larry and Dianne liked in magazine photos or even in friends' homes, quite another to take the work done by someone else and use it as his or her own.

Even if it's unlikely the old contractor would ever discover that it was his plans that were being used, Larry and Dianne would still know. The right thing to do is to simply ask the original contractor for permission to use his plans. It's unlikely he'll be using these plans for future work, so the chances are that he'd be agreeable. If not, then Larry and Dianne should start from scratch with a new contractor. They'd rest easier at night knowing they did so, and they even might be surprised and pleased with what a new contractor designed. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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