Considering a project’s scope is an integral part of the design process, but less discussed are the legal parameters of what a registered designer is actually allowed to do. In the U.S, 36 states have their own laws that dictate the scope of an interior designer’s profession, including the extent to which they are permitted to alter a structure without an architect or engineer’s approval. If a designer wants to, say, knock out a wall, it is legally required that one such expert must review and literally stamp a designer’s plans before they are built. It is a step that not only requires baking extra time into the design process, but it also incorporates additional fees into the project’s budget.
If those laws seem outdated, it is because they are. Such bills date back decades, to a time when design was held in a different regard. “Interior design as a profession has matured,” says designer Joan Kaufman, the principal of Naperville, Illinois–based Interior Planning & Design Inc. “There is the aspect of picking out paint and pillows—my firm does that too—but we can also gut a bathroom and draw up our own blueprints.” For Kaufman and many other registered designers, it is high time to update the legal landscape to better reflect their professional capabilities and avoid putting unnecessary constraints on their business.
The cause has attracted the attention of the American Society of Interior Designers, which is now in the midst of a multiyear effort to expand registered interior designers’ practice rights across the U.S., pushing for state legislation that will allow registered designers to stamp and seal their own plans for nonstructural renovations and be recognized as a distinct profession akin to architects or builders. So far, ASID’s efforts have been successful in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and, as of last month, Illinois—where local designers like Kaufman are finally free from a bureaucratic roadblock they have been butting up against for decades.
While the specifics of state laws vary, they can significantly impact the type of work that registered designers can pursue. Until June, designers in Illinois were not able to bid on government contracts, for example, and any plans for code-compliant commercial spaces or residential projects over 5,000 square feet required the oversight of an architect or engineer. “That’s been a big problem for us,” says Kaufman. “Any interior design work at a state building, design firms aren’t allowed to bid on.” Consequently, those jobs have gone to architecture firms.
For designers who work at larger A&D firms, like Gensler or HKK, such policies are not an issue, but for small design businesses, it can be a major obstacle. “I started out as a designer at a big architecture firm, and when I left in the 1990s and started my own business, what I did for my previous company yesterday, I could no longer do the next day, because I was not an architect,” says Kaufman. “I then had to pay architects to oversee my work, stamp and seal my work, and then I had to pass that fee on to my clients. It’s difficult to compete in the marketplace with that additional fee tacked on when I am capable of doing that work myself.”
While elevating the perception and legal scope of the design profession may seem like a cause any designer would rally behind, there has been some hesitancy in the field, as these laws only pertain to “registered” designers. The requirements to become a registered designer vary by state, but, at minimum, it generally involves NCIDQ Certification, which in turn demands a design degree and two to four years of work experience under a supervisor with NCIDQ accreditation. While Gary Wheeler, the ASID president and a designer himself, acknowledges that many designers do not feel the need to obtain or maintain NCIDQ credentials in order to run profitable businesses, he says certifying designers is the only way to guarantee a uniform skill set for the professionals allowed to stamp plans. (Architects and contractors with these privileges have their own hoops to jump through, similarly comprising examinations, college degrees and hands-on experience.) “It is about elevating the responsibilities [of the profession] and making sure that those that are practicing meet their requirements for health, safety and welfare,” says Wheeler. “We can only do that through testing and legislation.”
Kaufman, who is an ASID member, lobbied for what would become Illinois House Bill 4715, meeting with her state representative, Margaret Croke, and state senator, Laura Fine, at least once a year for the past several years. Kaufman’s argument centered on the plight of small women-run businesses like hers being stymied by bureaucracy and outdated perceptions of designers.
Wheeler agrees with Kaufman’s view that these issues undoubtedly disproportionately affect women. “In this country, most interior designers are women, while the majority of architects in America are men. These women run great, successful businesses, but they’re often held back because of these types of policies, which have created a glass ceiling.”
That line of thinking influenced the process of getting HB 4715 passed, even making it into State Representative Croke’s official comments at the passing. “Interior design is a traditionally female-dominated industry, and I’m proud to lead the efforts to ease the challenges they face,” said Croke.
If the passing of such legislation has been met with trepidation by designers, you could say it has been met with outright opposition by the architecture community in many states. Legislation similar to what was passed in North Carolina, Illinois and Wisconsin was killed in Alaska after architects in the state objected. “It’s mainly architects [who oppose], and the engineers get riled up by the architects,” says Wheeler. “The three bills that have been passed in the last year got through because they had no opposition from the local architectural communities. No one spoke out against us. They weren’t happy, but they came to the table and we negotiated. We worked together.”
That opposition stems from a fear that designers will cut into architectural jobs. Kaufman says that fear is misguided and compares the two professions to that of doctors and nurse practitioners. “This is not limiting anyone else,” says Kaufman. “What this is doing is expanding the right for those qualified by education, experience and examination to do more and work at a higher level. That’s not for everybody, and that’s OK. But for those qualified and capable, let’s let them do it.”
The ASID plans to reintroduce legislation in Alaska, Iowa and Nebraska, as prior efforts in all three states have failed due to opposition in some cases and government red tape in others. “Opposition is [typically] rooted in misperceptions about what interior designers do and are qualified to do,” says Lauren Earley, ASID’s manager of government and public affairs. “What we find most often is when we remedy those misconceptions and explain, ‘Hey, interior designers are educated, they have experience that’s required to graduate these educational programs, and they have a two-day certification examination that shows they are specialized to know codes and fire safety’—once we’ve done that, many of the concerns are completely mitigated. And we have found that, once we negotiate, these groups become unopposed to our bills.”
Raising awareness of the role that interior designers play in the built environment is critical to changing attitudes about the profession, Earley says. “It’s about modernizing the law and the public perception of what interior designers have long been doing. It’s a game of catchup. We [want] the regulations to match what practitioners are qualified to do and have actually been qualified to do for decades.”
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