Beverly Russell, editor-in-chief of Interiors magazine, was quoted in Monday's Washington Post as saying that "the education of architects is not known for its practicality." She was commenting on the continuing controversy between architects and interior designers over interior design licensing in the District.
Russell asserted that, among other shortcomings, architects "don't know a thing about lighting" or "about ergonomics and seating" (ergonomics is the study of the interaction of the human body with physical objects and environments).
Certainly some architects exhibit knowledge and performance that substantiate Russell's claim. But there are plenty of exceptions. And what about interior designers?
Serving recently on an architectural design awards jury, my fellow jurors and I were continually appalled by photographs of "decorated" interiors included with competitors' submissions. Most were so overdone, and the project's architectural merits so obscured, that consideration for an award was impeded.
Indeed, a common complaint by architects is that interior designers and decorators, along with clients, often compromise the architect's esthetic intentions by choosing unsympathetic, if not downright atrocious, furnishings. Yet not every designer or decorator deserves the label "interior desecrator."
Unfortunately, casting aspersions does little to illuminate the controversy over licensing, nor does it help convey to the public a clear picture of what designers do and why they should or shouldn't be licensed.
State licensing of professionals is legally justifiable because of the constitutional power -- and duty -- of government to promote public health, safety and welfare, and because improper practice of certain professions could pose serious physical risks to clients and the public.
However, licensing professionals does not guarantee performance, just as it in no way ensures safety or esthetic success. Establishing minimum educational criteria and requiring satisfactory completion of examinations does eliminate from practice most marginally qualified or incompetent individuals, but that's all it does. Licensed professionals still make plenty of mistakes.
The rationale for licensing architects and engineers seems clear. Buildings, if designed incorrectly, are subject to countless modes of failure, many of which are life-threatening. Hence, most jurisdictions have adopted detailed building codes, in addition to licensing laws, that regulate design and construction.
By law, structural components must stand up under diverse loading conditions, and building materials must resist combustion. If fire starts, buildings must provide sufficient means of exit and, in many cases, incorporate active systems for suppressing flames and smoke. Environmental comfort must be provided through natural and mechanical means. Safe plumbing and electrical systems must be installed.
In most states, licensed architects must first obtain an accredited architectural degree, typically culminating five to eight years of college and professional school. After accumulating a minimum of three years of experience as an apprentice, they then must pass a rigorous four-day examination administered annually by a national registration board.
The examination covers general design issues, site planning, construction materials and methods, structural analysis, mechanical systems and professional practice. Candidates are given 12 hours on one of the exam days to design and present an entire project. Many are unable to pass the exam in one sitting and must wait a year to try again.
The exam does not test for creativity or talent. Instead it verifies that architects know how to make buildings safe and workable -- how to design stairs, corridors and exits for code-complying exits, how to drain water away from building foundations, how to analyze a structural column, how to place steel in a concrete beam, how to provide adequate light and ventilation for reasonably proportioned rooms.
Architectural licensing exams, and architectural school curricula in general, do not focus on interior design as commonly portrayed in the media. Indeed, for most people, interior design calls to mind glossy photographs of decorated spaces.
To many, interior design concerns furniture, fabrics, wall coverings and graphics, ceiling and floor finishes, window treatments, light fixtures, plants and books on coffee tables. Think of the thousands of designer baths and kitchens that appear in monthly publications. And there's always the battle of styles -- traditional versus contemporary, conservative versus avant garde.
Clearly, if this is interior design, it hardly seems to require regulatory licensing. But now both architects and interior designers (who may not be architects) are practicing what used to be considered primarily architecture: the design of complete environments, usually offices, within already existing structures, almost like buildings within buildings.
A designer might face tens of thousands of square feet of totally empty space sandwiched horizontally between concrete floor slabs of a huge office building. The only fixed elements are columns, plumbing and mechanical risers and the surrounding window walls.
Laying out from scratch potentially hundreds of rooms, thousands of linear feet of partitions, duct work, electrical circuits, plumbing, hung ceilings and lighting is a major design task. Modifications to the existing structure -- penetrating or removing parts of floors, constructing interior stairs -- also may be involved. Only after all this is done will interior "decoration" get under way.
Like designing the building as a whole with its systems, such interior design is still architecture, as distinct from decoration, and must meet all code requirements. Therefore, it seems appropriate that whoever is responsible for interior "architecture," as distinct from its decoration, be licensed.
Given the inevitable overlap between architectural and interior design practice -- like overlaps between architects, landscape architects and civil engineers -- the appropriate strategy, from a public point of view, should be to focus less on creating new titles and more on clarifying professional tasks, obligations and necessary expertise.
Licensing agencies should worry about defining clearly what constitutes building construction that should be regulated -- renovations, additions, tenant improvements -- and the competency of those who assume design responsibility for it.
From a legal point of view, licensed architects are qualified to practice "interior design," regardless of the title they use or the alleged impracticality of their education (in fact, many study lighting, acoustics, color theory and furniture design). As for interior decoration, architects can satisfy or offend the eyes of the beholder as well as anyone else. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.