26 March 2008

Is That A Class-A Rated Throw Pillow, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Welcome to all of the folks from asid.org in Washington, DC, who have stopped by. Hope I haven't hacked you off. Well, not too much, anyway. As an architect, I would like to hear your comments as well. My email is redstickrant@gamil.com. If you do not want it published, please say so at the beginning. Or else it may end up here in pixels for the world to read.

I do not often comment on things architectural on this blog, but I saw this post by Radley Balko, Via Instapundit, who takes to task the licensing of interior designers and other, less visible, professions. I can not say if it is necessary to license florists (which does, on the face of it, seem silly), but when it comes to interior designers, I have a dog in this hunt in two ways. First, I am a licensed architect, and the issue of licensing interior designers has been debated since at least the mid 80’s when I got out of school. Second, my wife is an intern-interior designer who is sitting for her licensing exam in two weeks.

For me, the issue of licensing comes down to this: is it necessary to protect the life and safety of the public? I am not licensed by the state to carry the title “architect” because I can draw well-proportioned building or make a snappy floor plan (both of which I can do). I am licensed because I am qualified to apply the standards necessary to protect the life and safety of the public, and I assume a legal responsibility to uphold and execute those standards. Every time a design professional stamps a set of drawings, that is what we are doing – taking public responsibility that the design complies with those standards.

And those standards are voluminous. In Louisiana, a commercial building design must comply with: The International Building Code 2006, NFPA 101 (The Life Safety Code), the National Electric Code, The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), The State Plumbing Code, The State Sanitary Code (if food preparation facilities are involved), and the State Energy Code. If a health care facility is involved, a whole new set of Codes and Guidelines are involved, both Federal and State. And there are separate Codes dealing with elevators, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, military facilities, and jails just to name a few.

Some of the Codes we work with.

And interior designers? Initially, I agreed with Radley. They don’t deal with all that Code stuff, so what’s the point except to make yourself feel important? But that has changed over the years. Our practice is almost exclusively in commercial design (we do very little residential design), and we rely more and more on interior designers to help us select finish materials for projects such as schools, hospitals and dormitories. Those materials have restrictions in the Codes (flame spreads, smoke developed ratings, texture requirements, space planning and layout standards, etc.). Therefore, the persons making these design decisions needs more than a casual acquaintance with their properties, with the Codes, and with commercial construction practices.

So I am now, grudgingly, in favor of licensing interior designers.

But do not make the mistake Radley, and most everybody else, makes - interior designers and interior decorators are not the same thing. Interior decorators decorate what others have designed. They mostly deal with furnishings and finishes in existing spaces, usually without respect to the Codes, and are not extensively trained in materials, methods, and construction practices. Interior designers also deal with furnishings and finishes, but they are (or should be) extensively trained in materials, techniques and Codes, and able to design spaces to meet Code (space planning is often a part of an interior designer’s scope of work)

Anyone can call themselves an “interior decorator”. And since they do not usually deal with issues of Life Safety, that is as it should be; and no license required. Interior designers, however, often do work with design problems that require an understanding Life Safety when making design decisions, and as such should be held to a standard, as I am, with respect to maintaining the life and safety of the public.


Anonymous said...

If you really believe that interior designers should be licensed, then the only test they should be required to take is the Codes Test. Unfortunately, the current rush to license designers is orchestrated by ASID and ASID alone and they push for the NCIDQ which barely addresses the codes issue. Check out California if you want to see the correct way to license designers. But that's not good enough for ASID. They have introduced a bill to force a Practice Act on designers who must pass the NDICQ. How does that address the issues you raise in your column?

.....CLIFFORD said...


I don’t usually respond to anyone who won’t leave a name, or at least a “nom-de-net.” At least, not seriously. But I will make an exception here as I think you are in the business like me, and you raise some good points worth discussing.

As you know, architects take many tests, on a range of issues, in order to get licensed. All, in some form or another, deal with one’s ability to synthesize a whole range of information and apply it to Life Safety of the general public. We are allowed to use a restricted term, “Architect,” to show that we are qualified in that regard, and held liable for it. It separates us publicly from “building designers,” who are not so trained.

Like you, I do not agree with “cosmetic licensing.” The State has no compelling public safety interest in that. It is just a feel-good to allow one group to charge more for a service. That is why, until a few years ago, I opposed the ASID jihad (and it is that) to license interior designers.

What changed my mind is personal experience. After working with a great group of interior designers at a large architectural firm in Boston, I came to expect the same level of competence from the interior designers elsewhere. I was very, very disappointed. I was paying for a consultative service but having to most of the work – and clean up (and sometimes pay for) their mistakes. (e.g. – selecting a standard office carpet for patient areas in a medical center – had never even heard of the word “non-microbial!”)

So now I support licensing. Not the “I-have-a-college-degree-so-I’m-special” licensing, but something substantive. And NOT, I repeat, NOT, to the Professional of Record level of a licensed Architect or Engineer.

My wife will be sitting for the NCIDQ next week, and I have gone over several of her mock exam problems and written materials. What I saw does seem to address Life Safety, though not all that overtly and not as much as I want. But it does appear to be there.

When I got licensed, it did not make me a better architect the next day. Nor will licensing make my wife a better interior designer. What it will do is say to the public that each of us is qualified to work at particular level in our profession.

Thank you for your comment, and I hope this rambling response helps. (P.S. If you REALLY want to get me started about an organization strangling our profession, ask me about NCARB.)

Anonymous said...

Interior Design is not a single profession. The first thing that everyone should consider is that anyone can use the title, and many have taken it. So in any discussion of "Interior Designers" we are talking about a wide range of backgrounds, education, testing etc. So unlike other professions where when the discussion arises about qualifcations, scope of work and overall abilities you are working from a single point of reference.

Design continues to evolve as the public finds what they need. Two issues arise: Many designers work in areas of code. Many designers do not work in areas of code.

That is the area of issue. Regulation allows access by Registrants. With access their are responsbilities and requirements. So if those that want to work in that area can and do then they will have to be regulated. The goal is and should be to exempt those that call themselves Interior Designers but no not choose to work in code....I don't have a blogger ID but am happy to provide you with who I am...

.....CLIFFORD said...


I think there is a distinction already: interior design vs. interior decoration.

My argument is not to license for the sake of, well, self-esteem; but to separate those who design, create and finish space in the public realm (commercial buildings, educational facilities, etc.) from those who decorate it only or work in the domestic realm. (residential design, decorating offices, etc.)

I know I am a distinct minority in the architecture community when it comes to this issue. I am not arguing for licensure out of any sense of altruism or solidarity with fellow designers. I am arguing for this reason only: if designers are going to be involved with decisions affecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public, and I have to rely on those decisions, I sure as hell want them qualified.

Case in point: A few years ago, my wife's niece, a cashier at Sam's who had never been trained as a designer, said she was starting an "interior design" business. She was a huge fan of the show 'Trading Spaces,' and she reasoned, "How hard is that?" (actual quote). I asked why an interior "designer" instead of interior "decorator"," and she said that "designer" sounded more "professional." Thankfully, she never followed up on her quest. To prevent this kind of thing actually happening is why I support licensure.