Throughout every step of the design process, the Interior Designer must have the users’ best interests in mind, including their safety.
So You Want to be an Interior Designer?
Many states regulate Interior Design's practice with legislation that requires interior designers to meet a baseline of education and experience. This is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
As an interior designer, you are responsible for more than just the look and feel of a space – you are also responsible for your client’s safety.
A daunting task, you say? Not when building and fire codes guide the way!
Maintaining life safety codes is one of the reasons behind the importance of Interior Design legislation. About half the states in the US, Puerto Rico, and the Canadian Provinces have Interior Design legislation.
Building Codes: More than Alphabet Soup
Understanding building codes, life safety codes and standards, and how to apply testing standards to interior building materials and finishes is a significant part of the IDFX Exam.
NFPA, ASTM, CAL TB: The alphabet soup of fire codes might seem like they are just trying to trip you up on the NCIDQ Exam. But they serve a critical function in the real world. Building and fire codes are there to protect the safety of the public. It is the responsibility of the interior designer to meet code in their designs.
The NCIDQ Exam places emphasis on codes in all three exams. One of the basic rules of thumb I used when deciding between two equally good choices on the IDFX was, “Which is better for life safety?”
The same for the Practicum, the NCIDQ codes apply to all problems to pass the exam. Interior designers must know the most current code requirements, especially in the jurisdictions where they are working. Remember that codes are not permanent; they are revised over time, or new codes are added.
Earlier, we identified one change to a fire code, CAL TB117, and the new version of CAL TB117 went into effect in January 2014.
Under the original 1975 law, the foam used in furniture cushions should withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. This rule led to the use of flame retardants, chemical additives to slow the spread of flame. But in later years, these chemicals were been found to have serious health effects.
The revised law CAL TB117-2013 (adopted in January 2014) requires a smolder fabric test. Furniture manufacturers can meet this need without the use of flame retardants. The revision changes the testing requirements, but it does not explicitly call for eliminating flame retardant chemicals.
Manufacturers had 1 year to comply with the new regulation, and in January 2015, practicing interior designers started seeing the CAL TB117-2013 on furniture labels.
Not Meeting Codes? Get Ready for a Lawsuit…or Jail!
Why does Life Safety matter?
Aside from the obvious answer of protecting the public, designing responsibly and meeting code is critical to avoiding potential lawsuits. If a design puts the public in danger, the designer could be sued.
In 2013, architect Gerhard Becker was charged with manslaughter after a firefighter died trying to save his Los Angeles home. The police investigation found the home’s fireplace to be the fire source, accusing Becker of cutting corners in its construction to save time and money. Gerhard had specified an exterior fireplace for interior use.
The LA City Firefighters Union President Frank Lima said we want to send a message, “Build stuff right and don’t cut corners.”
Becker pled no contest to the charges. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
While charges brought against a designer or architect are rarer than before – back when building codes were not as stringent, lawsuits are only becoming more common.
In 2011, the Trump SoHo developers, a luxury Manhattan hotel, filed a lawsuit against the building’s interior design firm. The developers claimed that the design firm did not meet building codes, including too-small bathtubs and closets and insufficient lighting in the passenger elevators.
The interior design firm had to pay $1.5 million in damages and delays to fix the errors.
Meeting Code: The Interior Designer’s Role
We've talked about the role building, and fire codes play, but what about your role as the interior designer? A large part of the interior designer’s work involves meeting codes, including:
- Space planning that allows for proper egress and exiting
- Lighting design that meets emergency lighting requirements
- Exit sign placement so building users can always locate their nearest exit.
- Fire extinguisher placement to meet code
- Specifying door hardware that meets code requirements
- Specifying building materials and finishes that meet fire codes
- Specifying commercial furniture that meets fire codes
In the real world, other disciplines may be responsible for some of these items. But depending upon the jurisdiction, this is all the interior designer's responsibility.
For example, before studying for the Practicum, I had never designed an exit sign placement plan or emergency lighting plan.
At my job, this scope is within the realm of our lighting designers. But for the NCIDQ, I learned how to do both and successfully passed the Practicum.