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Interior Designers in Architectural Practices

Lynne Wilson Orr, Principal, Parkin Architects Limited

I am fortunate enough to have degrees in both interior design and architecture and I am registered with both ARIDO and the OAA.  The practice of which I am a part provides architectural and interior design services to clients, so I get to do both. As a result, I know what it is like to be an interior designer who practices within an architectural office. It is challenging but also very rewarding.

Our practice is focused on institutional projects for the most part. Healthcare, laboratory, justice and correctional projects make up the bulk of what we do. These projects are highly programmatic, technically complicated (how do you get that multi-ton magnetic resonance machine down an 8’ wide corridor when it is 10’ in width and can’t be turned on its side?!), and challenged by infection prevention and control requirements, security issues, occupational health and safety concerns and, of course, budgetary restraints. Interior design for these projects cannot be a pastiche added to the surface at the last moment. It must be inherent in the design from its conception. So our interior designers are part of the design team from the very beginning of every project. By integrating the designers, we encourage cross pollination of ideas between disciplines; we expose architects to the advantages of having interior designers participate in the space planning with their specialized knowledge of ergonomics, furniture and materials and finishes and we create buildings that work for the clients and users.

Many people think of their new facility, whether it is a hospital or a courthouse, as their private space and want to decorate it like they would their living room at home. Everyone thinks they can do the Interior Designer’s job for them as it is just decorating, right?  Interior Designers are so much more than decorators. Quite frankly, our Interior Designers are integral to our success as a firm. Not only are they a part of the project from the very beginning, but they stay with projects through contract documents, contract administration and finally, after all the hard stuff is done, they select the furniture. That last comment is a joke as the furniture selection process is worse than the colour selection for people expressing their personal preferences. Interior Designers may not know all the intricacies of some of the equipment in every room, but they look at the plans and point out that there is no room to be able to reach the soap dispensers if they are installed as shown. They look at traffic flows, ergonomics of how people will use spaces, lighting levels, is there glare from windows on computer screens, can people easily find their way through the place and what landmarking elements would assist them, etc? And they understand the impact of the space on the users.

When I attend healthcare design conferences, I often meet Interior Designers whom I know and we chat about what their projects are, what the scope of their work is when working with architectural firms, and how frustrated we all are with certain client types. We also complain about how travelling is no longer enjoyable and definitely not elegant!  I am always struck by how limited many designers are, by the architectural firms with which they work, to picking materials, finishes and furniture. They have no input into space planning, limited input to the development of interior elevations, reflected ceiling plans, millwork design, etc. If we tried to restrict our Interior Designers to just the ‘decorating’, we would have a riot on our hands and justly so.

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