What is a Commercial Interior Designer?

One of the biggest hurdles an Interior Designer has to overcome is communicating what we do. Educating the public on what we do and how we do it has become an integral part of the job we do. When I recently asked a friend and non-designer, what she thought I did her response was, “Oh, you just pick pretty paint colors and fabrics all day. That must be so much fun!” While building a new home has its own requirements that must follow jurisdictional codes, a commercial facility is on a much larger scale and involves many details that an Interior Designer must incorporate into his or her design that wouldn’t typically matter in a person’s home. In your home you can use any fabric you want on your windows. In most commercial settings fabrics must meet NFPA 701 fire rating, which limits what we can select. In a residential setting you would purchase a chair based solely on how it looks and if it was comfortable. In a commercial setting, say for an example, a retirement community, we would need to make sure the foam in the cushions are firmer, that the chair seat is at the right height, that it’s not too deep, and that it has arms so the elderly don’t struggle to get out of it. We would also use a fabric with a waterproof backing so that it’s easier to clean.

While color and fabrics are part of our job, it is a small piece of a very big puzzle. The short answer is commercial Interior Designers design any building that isn’t a house. Commercial jobs can include offices, restaurants, retail stores, dentist offices, hospitals, retirement communities, banks, factories, shopping malls, educational facilities like colleges or elementary schools, and government building work. All of these facilities have regulatory codes that must be followed that typically don’t apply in a residential situation. For example, the ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act has set requirements for all new and certain renovated buildings to ensure handicapped people can access them.

Fire is one of the most important issues in public buildings today. Depending on the type of facility, generally all fabrics and wallcoverings specified must pass certain fire tests set by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency). This ensures that fabrics and wallcoverings used won’t make a fire worse and allow an occupant time to exit a building safely during a fire. A lot of people don’t think about where their fire codes came from, but in the 1900’s there were multitudes of hotel, theater, and night club fires across the United States that killed lots of people. Boston’s night club The Cocoanut Grove is one of the most famous fires that killed 492 people in 1942. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the biggest one. In 1903 a theater fire in Chicago killed 602 people. This fire alone changed codes to enforce the maximum amount of people allowed in an assembly space and changed the requirements on exit requirements that are still used today.

In addition to fire regulations, facilities such as a hospital or skilled nursing have requirements that include infection control and maintenance challenges not applicable in residential settings. Textiles, flooring, wall paints, and hand rails all must withstand rigorous disinfection protocols that typically involve bleach. Some fabric manufacturers are even putting silver into their fabrics as an antibacterial. The privacy curtain you commonly see around hospital beds needs to be washed to over 140 degrees in order to kill germs and special fabrics are needed to handle that kind of wear and tear a normal fabric couldn’t handle. Some commercial designers will specify the medical equipment and its location for hospital rooms. That means we need to know what it does, who uses it, and its size.

Behavior is integral to any design and in commercial design public spaces are mini-cultures or societies that have their own structure, rituals, policies, and behavior patterns that all need to be thoroughly researched and integrated into the overall planning of the spaces. Take a hospital for example. In this type of environment an Interior Designer is going to look at how the Doctors and Nurses work throughout the day, when the shifts change, what their habits are, how they interact with their patients, when and where they eat or relax. Then we’ll evaluate what they do and don’t like about their current workplace. The results of this could impact where a nurse’s station, med-prep (prescriptions), nourishment stations, and charting duties are located in order to create an efficient flow for the staff. For example, hospitals often have long hours for doctors so they will often provide a quiet room that will allow a doctor to take naps.

HIPPA: the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires privacy for discussing patient’s status and securing all health records to protect privacy of the patient. This requires changes in where medical charts are kept, who can access them, and even who can view a computer monitor at a desk. This must be taken into consideration in the overall design. Lighting and sound transmission are very important in hospital environments. Lighting intensities need to be flexible so that patients can sleep, but still allow staff to monitor them. Energy efficiency is also a challenge as hospitals are typically used twenty-four hours a day and that costs a tremendous amount of money to heat, cool, and keep lit. Using fluorescent or LED (Light Emitting Diode) fixtures that can dim will allow flexible lighting and save money. An office environment has similar challenges that require flexibility and energy savings.

Sustainability has made big changes in the design industry over the past decade. A lot of buildings are now requiring LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which requires a LEED certified interior designer to specify specific sustainable (environmentally friendly) products within a 500 mile range of the building site in order to meet the point requirements set by the U.S. Green Building Council.

As an Interior Designer it is our job to not only provide you with a beautiful environment, but ensure that it is also healthy and safe too.


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