Everybody Wins! Design Musical Chairs

Earlier this month I wrote about my perception of the status of the kitchen and bath business currently where I live. Since then I discovered the following article that talks about what some architects in New York have done to make their services more affordable and changing the way the public perceives architects: “Putting Yourself Out There” a special report by Architectural Record. http://archrecord.construction.com/news/economy/2010/1003putting_yourself_out_there.asp

They formed a firm called Design. Starts. Here. and set it up in a street-level space with a glass store front allowing any and all to come in for “affordable” design services appropriate for the masses. The intent being to take the status of their field down a notch or two to be more appealing to those who here-to-forth would never have considered professional design services within their reach. It made me think of Architect Bob Borson’s blog where he wrote about the public perceptions of architects. They are usually portrayed as really brainy but very nice people. The kind of people who you’d like your children to aspire to be (or at least marry) someday. In his blog Life of an Architect, he listed ten reasons why someone would want to become an architect. http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/top-ten-reasons-to-be-an-architect/ Here’s number two: 2. People respect architects. Even if they don’t really understand what we do, there is a perception that architects are ethical and responsible and will endeavor to make the right decision to our own detriment. It’s part of the reason that ‘architect’ is chosen so often as the vocation for title characters in movie and TV roles. Architects aren’t generally viewed as driven by financial rewards like doctors or as scurrilous as lawyers (can be).”

To a degree, interior designers share this common public image as well. Yet long ago, someone decided that offering cheap or free design services to sell cabinets (in a manner not unlike the Design. Starts. Here. architects) would be a great idea to get the masses to buy without any regard to the effect that it would have on the profession. Nowadays you can go into any big box store and walk out with a kitchen redesign for a fee that does not represent the designer’s time invested in it, professional experience and training. In fact, many people wishing to enter the kitchen and bath profession use the big box store as a portal for training which the stores are all to happy to provide… So everybody wins! (The public, the store management and K&B newbies!) Not so fast….

You see –here’s the catch: Kitchen and bath design is highly technical and takes a lot of experience and training to be good at. How can that be if the “designer” you are working with was (unbeknownst to you) just transferred in from the Garden Department yesterday? Because of this fact, the big box stores have a cadre of behind-the-scenes people that work to ensure that projects are implemented correctly (a scheme that actually works sometimes). Some offer free design services with the purchase of cabinets yet ding you in other ways like charging a ‘measuring fee’. As a former big box store employee, I can tell you there is no free ride. And if custom high end products and hand holding from a professional is what you seek, then you are barking up the wrong tree.

So you say –architects and interior designers are not the same thing even though they do similar work because interior designers and decorators are not required to be licensed. Well that depends. Actually most states require interior designers to become certified if they are doing work for the public sector. It all has to do with public safety that includes everything from understanding egress from burning buildings, building codes and guidelines, office ergonomics and economics and the flammability of fabrics in hotel rooms and office lobbys. To be able to test for these credentials, one has to have earned a degree in an accredited school and the training is very similar to that of an architect. Speaking from experience here –I went through six years in an interior architecture school and worked side-by-side in architecture studios with would-be architects.

So how then are kitchen and bath designers equal to other interior designers? They are when it comes to residential design (which is what kitchen and bath designers do). And this is the sticking point for many professionals, both architects and designers who feel slighted because there are no license requirements for residential designers (below a certain square footage in some states or none at all in others). Bottom line is, if there is no risk to the public involved, licensed designers are not required. This is a fuzzy area as we all know (who watch HGTV’s Mike Holmes’ show “Do It Right”) that there are a lot of scarey dumb-dumbs out there who shouldn’t be designing cardboard boxes let alone someone’s house. Many architects will tell you that knowing how to swing a hammer, does not a designer make, yet there are scads of “home designers” out there who have never set foot inside an architecture school and have learned their craft through experience (trial and error –hopefully not on my house). Also, trained interior designers will tell you that knowing how to put together a collection of fabric and paint swatches is not a good representation of their profession either. So THANK YOU big box stores for relegating kitchen and bath designers to the bottom of the heap when (IN REALITY) there is a whole lot to becoming good at this profession that goes far beyond basic design training. If any thing, the kitchen and bath ARE the places where safety is likely to be an issue over other areas in the house– which is the reason the National Kitchen & Bath Association has developed guidelines and has a program for certifying K&B designers (even though certification is not required to practice).

In an economy where landing a project has become an intensely competitive game of musical chairs, there are a lot of design professionals scrambling to find new ways to make a buck by reinventing themselves (finding a niche or trying to change their public image) or giving away free services to lure buyers in. It’s not surprising that the argument rages on to impose or increase licensing requirements –not for the purpose of providing public safety or guaranteeing a certain standard of craftsmanship, but to reduce the competition for the available chairs.

In the end, when it comes to residential design, creating licensing and certification requirements would preclude homeowners from making design and construction decisions for their own homes… So this is where the argument invariably winds up. Freedom to remodel should be somewhere in The Constitution (maybe an amendment) right up there with the right to freedom of speech and the right to own nail guns!

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