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interior design, remodeling, architect, general contractor, sub contractor, interior decoratorWhy you really DO need an Interior Designer, and WHEN to hire them.

You might be surprised how often I discover how little people understand about the true importance of having an Interior Designer assigned to your new construction or remodel project. Or how often Interior Designers are mistaken as “Decorators.” The two are NOT interchangeable and there are important differences between the two. And while interior decoration is part of almost every project I do, I am first and foremost, an Interior Designer. The “architect of the interior experience.” Care must be taken not to confuse these two roles and you never want to hire an Interior Decorator who is most of the time untrained and non-certified in actual interior design, for your valuable and precious home, or commercial space project.

So please read on as I am about to illustrate the important differences between all of the major players involved with a new construction or remodel project, along with WHEN you should hire each, and how the entire process goes. But first, if you are already embarking on a project and would like to speak to me about becoming your Interior Designer, please click here to shoot me a personal note and I promise to respond back to you promptly!

Let’s first take a look at the primary roles of the Architect, Interior Designer, Interior Decorator and the General Contractor.

Architect? Contractor? Interior Designer? Interior Decorator? Who does what, and WHEN do I hire them?

The Architect

An architect is a person trained and licensed to plan, design, and oversee the construction of buildings. To “practice architecture” means to provide services in connection with the design and construction of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings that have as their principal purpose human occupancy or use. The architect’s design work focuses on the structure. The shell. And includes design of exterior. In the case of residential homes, the Architect’s primary work beyond the structure involves the basic shell of interior, basic design and placement of cabinetry, built-ins, doorways, etc.

The architect hired by a client is responsible for creating a design concept that meets the requirements of that client and provides a facility suitable to the required use. In that, the architect must meet with and question the client extensively to ascertain all the requirements and nuances of the planned project. This information, known as a program or brief, is essential to producing a project that meets all the needs of the owner—it is a guide for the architect in creating the design concept.

Architects deal with local and federal jurisdictions about regulations and building codes. The architect might need to comply with local planning and zoning laws, such as required setbacks, height limitations, parking requirements, transparency requirements (windows) and land use. Some established jurisdictions require adherence to design and historic preservation guidelines.

Many times the Architect consults with the Interior Designer during their work to capture and refine design concepts into structure, or adjustments to exterior design and materials based on a certain theme, and for consistency with the planned interior experience.

When to hire an Architect

The Architect should be hired when planning the design and construction of a new home or commercial space such as an office building, restaurant or other. An Architect is also needed when planning a significant remodel project involving changes to structure and walls, and impacting codes or regulations. In either case this is also an important time to hire your Interior Designer in order to properly coordinate all design planning and work. By the way if you are in search of a talented and qualified Architect, I work directly with several of the top Architects in Portland, Los Angles and Dallas, and can certainly refer you to one. click here to shoot me a personal note!

Example of Architectural Floor Plan

architect_plansThe Interior Designer

A professional and properly licensed Interior Designer, also called an “Interior Experience Designer,” is the designer of the interior environment and experience, and is an important extension of the Architect for the overall design of the home or commercial space. This interior design work is NOT interior decorating, although decorating is the final phase of a comprehensive interior design project. Interior decorating is explained further below.

The Interior Designer is responsible for taking the basic interior shell and framework for either a brand new home or commercial space, or involving a remodel, and transforming and completing it into the final living environment as per the client’s needs and desires. As part of an interior design project the Interior Designer sometimes works in coordination with tradesman/designers such as cabinetry craftsman in order to coordinate final design and construction of interior surfaces, cabinetry, built-ins, storage etc. The Interior Designer may also work to refine both the exterior and interior design of the structure/shell along with the Architect.

Interior design is a serious, multifaceted profession in which creative and technical solutions are applied within a structure to achieve a unified and consistent interior environment. These solutions are imaginative, innovative and functional, and enhance the quality of life, facilitate specific lifestyles and family needs, and promote overall health and well-being of the occupants. Designs are created in response to and coordinated with the building shell and acknowledge the physical location and social context of the project. Designs must adhere to code and regulatory requirements, and encourage the principles of environmental sustainability. The interior design process follows a systematic and coordinated methodology, including research, analysis and integration of knowledge into the creative process, whereby the needs and resources of the client are satisfied to produce an interior space that fulfills the project goals.

Interior design includes a scope of services performed by a professional designer, qualified by means of education and practice, to enhance the overall experience and well being of the public. These services may include any or all of the following tasks:

  • Research and analysis of the client’s goals and requirements; and development of documents, drawings and diagrams that outline those needs.
  • Formulation of preliminary space plans and two and three dimensional design concept studies and sketches that integrate the client’s program needs and are based on knowledge of the principles of interior design and theories of human behavior.
  • Confirmation that preliminary space plans and design concepts are functional aesthetically appropriate and address , accessibility, environmental, and sustainability guidelines.
  • Selection of colors, materials and finishes to appropriately convey the design concept and to meet the client’s daily needs, practicality maintenance, and environmental, requirements.
  • Selection and specification of furniture, fixtures, equipment and millwork, including layout drawings and detailed product description; and provision of contract documentation to facilitate pricing, procurement and installation of furniture.
  • Provision of project management services, including preparation of project budgets and schedules.
  • Preparation of construction documents, consisting of plans, elevations, details and specifications, to illustrate non-structural and/or non-seismic partition layouts; power and communications locations; reflected ceiling plans and lighting designs; materials and finishes; and furniture layouts.
  • Preparation of construction documents to adhere to regional building and fire codes, municipal codes, and any other jurisdictional statutes, regulations and guidelines applicable to the interior space.
  • Coordination and collaboration with other allied design professionals who may be retained to provide consulting services, including but not limited to architects; structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, and various specialty consultants.
  • Administration of contract documents, bids and negotiations as the client’s agent.
  • Observation and reporting on the implementation of projects while in progress and upon completion, as a representative of and on behalf of the client.

* A glossary of terms is included below.

Each area of the home requires a certain amount of attention to detail and design work in order to properly compete a new or remodel project. One good example of this process involves the design work for a new or remodeled kitchen.

EXAMPLE: RESIDENTIAL KITCHEN DESIGN – The Interior Designer takes the footprint of the space and draws up a basic cabinetry and appliance layout and then refines it into a final design with plans, elevations and specifications lists all based on the homeowner’s lifestyle, level of interest in cooking/baking, caliber of appliances and amenities desired (i.e. warming drawer, pot filler, coffee station), storage, function and entertaining requirements..

The overall design is realized through the thoughtful selection of cabinetry and hardware style, materials, finishes, paint color, plumbing fixtures, lighting (task, recessed, under counter, architectural), millwork and window treatments appropriate for the style of the home; their exact placement and scale/sizing, as well as consideration of an island and/or hood design, functional and decorative lighting design creates maximization of overall usability and circulation for the kitchen, including how it relates to the whole home design.

Concept & Design Development:

conceptDesign Specification & Documentation:

specsThe Construction Process – Taking Shape!:

implementationThe Designer also conducts site visits with the contractor, subcontractors, artisans and tradesmen to review drawings, layouts/designs, and to locate switches and outlets and lighting documented in the drawings and specifications, all of which are crucial for a successful and seamless outcome.

When to hire an Interior Designer

For new construction which requires an Architect, the Interior Designer should be hired as early as possible either at the same time as the Architect so that they are able to add valuable input into the proposed concept for the new home or commercial space, or at least during the architecture design work so they can begin their design concepts, and work in sync with the Architect. Sometimes the Interior Designer is brought in after completion of plans, and when there is also a licensed contractor in place for the construction, which can still work, but this is NOT optimal, and usually many design opportunities are missed which could have been integrated into the architect’s and contractor’s plans in order to maximize the home’s overall design and longevity.

In the case of a remodel, it’s very important to speak to the Interior Designer first before anyone else. The interior Designer should lead the concept and design process from the very beginning because they have the unique ability to not only create an interior experience tailored to the exact lifestyle desired by the client, but they are able to incorporate the new design into the existing home or commercial space in a cohesive, and consistent manner. This is a much different skill set than an Architect or Contractor.

In either case I have top quality Architects and Contractors who I work with on a daily basis, and for remodels we are able to lead the entire process from concept through construction, bringing peace of mind to the client.

The Interior Decorator

An experienced and talented interior designer IS also a decorator, and interior decorating, the process of concept, selection of furnishings and accessories, is a natural part of an interior designer’s role and is the last phase of the design project, however, concepts and planning for decoration occurs all throughout the master design process.

A Decorator is NOT an interior designer and the two roles are NOT interchangeable. Almost all decorators have no formal interior design training, education or certification and a decorator should not be hired for an interior design project such as a remodel or new construction. A decorator is able to come into an existing interior and select furnishings and accessories such as artwork, vases and other decorative items for an existing space.

When to hire an Interior Decorator

The right time to hire an Interior decorator is anytime you need furnishings or accessories for your home or business, and as long as it’s NOT for an actual interior design project. And as a reminder, almost ALL interior designers such as myself, are talented Interior Decorators and I am hired quite often just for decoration projects.

The General Contractor

The General Contractor is a manager, and possibly a tradesman, employed by the client on the advice of the architect, engineer or the architectural technologist and in support of a qualified Interior Designer, or employed directly by the client him/herself if acting as the manager. A general contractor is responsible for providing all of the material, labor, equipment (such as engineering vehicles and tools) and services necessary for the construction of the project. The general contractor hires specialized subcontractors to perform all or portions of the construction work. Responsibilities may include applying for building permits, securing the property, providing temporary utilities on site, managing personnel on site, providing site surveying and engineering, disposing or recycling of construction waste, monitoring schedules and cash flows, and maintaining accurate records.

A general contractor must first assess the project-specific documents (referred to as bid, proposal or tender documents). In the case of renovations, a site visit is required to get a better understanding of the project and the visit may be conducted independently or with the assistance of the Interior Designer. Depending on the project delivery method, the contractor will submit a fixed price proposal or bid, cost plus price or an estimate. The general contractor considers the cost of home office overhead, general conditions, materials and equipment as well as the cost of labor to provide the owner with a price for the project.

IMPORTANT: If the General Contractor supplies pricing for the project without the assistance of an Interior Designer, or without the interior design plans, the Contractor usually quotes on “general level” materials for basis of the home, which many times can be sub par for the true home the client desires, and the Interior Designer’s work will impact final costs for the appropriate materials to be used for the project. Many times the client is unaware of these ramifications and thinks their “dream home” has been specified and priced at a reasonable price and then later finds out the home will really end up costing double or even triple the original Contractor bid. This is why it is so vitally important to engage your Interior Designer as early on in the process as possible. The Interior Designer is your “advocate” making sure you get the design of your dreams while balancing realistic costs and budget constraints.

Contract documents include drawings, project manual (including general, supplementary and/or special conditions and specifications), addendum or modifications issued prior to proposal/ bidding and prepared by a design professional such as an Architect and/or Interior Designer. The general contractor may be the construction manager or construction manager at risk.

When to hire a licensed Contractor

Right off the bat I will say that in general, a General Contractor is NOT who your first phone call should be unless you have a good recommendation for a qualified one who can also help you find the Architect for the project. In almost every case, a talented and qualified Architect along with the assistance of the Interior Designer, can help you with the plan for the type of home or commercial space, along with the approximate budgets for the project. The BEST time to engage a General Contractor is either during or after the Architect and Interior Designer have designed the plan for the structure and the interior. That’s not to say though that the General Contractor would not be consulted for input and pricing during the design process, but the important point is that Builder’s and General Contractors do not possess the unique design capabilities of the Interior Designer and should not be hired first to be responsible for the design.

If you hire me to be your personal Interior Designer, I assure you that I can recommend reliable and talented builders and contractors for your project who I have great experiences working with. My job is to make your interior design project as stress-free as possible for you, and NOT a job.

write_meRoles and Responsibilities / The Process

This section is extremely important and I hope you will read it. Very few people understand the process and the various roles and responsibilities involved during a new construction project or a remodel. And believe it or not, YOU are also part of this process and affect the outcome of the project, so I always go out of my way to make sure that potential clients understand this process, so that the project can go as smoothly as possible.

Role of the interior designer

The Interior Designer is the overall lead on the design process, before, during and after construction, and is the direct Liaison between the client and the General Contractor. The Interior Designer works closely with the General Contractor all through the construction process in order to insure design plans are being followed, and that the “quality” of construction is in keeping with the design plans.

Many times issues arise during construction which require decisions and/or adjustments to the design and it’s the contractor’s job to bring those to the attention of the Interior Designer who then coordinates design adjustments and consults with client before any changes are made.

Certain projects such as smaller remodels MAY not have a General Contractor in charge and some clients opt to hire independent Sub Contractors directly to do the work. In this case, which is NOT recommended by the way, it becomes even more important to have your Interior Designer involved and taking the lead throughout this process in order to insure the project not only comes out exactly as planned and at the highest quality, but even more importantly to keep the project from becoming a complete disaster. Clients who try to “self-manage” their own project without the assistance of an Interior Designer and Contractor face disjointed and inferior quality work, and even risk the need for rework, driving costs way beyond what was expected.

It’s important to note that Interior Designers are NOT licensed General Contractors, and are not responsible for the construction work, but they are an invaluable asset with their trained eye in helping ensure the quality of construction, and that no improper shortcuts or changes in course are taken which many times would escape the eye of the client.

Role of the general contractor

As I stated earlier, the General Contractor is responsible for the overall construction for the project and is in charge of coordinating and managing all Sub Contractors for the project based on architectural and interior design plans. The Contractor works closely with the Interior Designer and consults with the Designer before each phase of construction in order to ensure a complete understanding of the design plan and goals. The General Contractor has been hired directly by the client and also interacts directly with the client at certain points, and any design decisions or meetings needed involving impact to the design are always conducted along with the Interior Designer.

It’s important to note that many Sub Contractors such as cabinet makers are also designers in their own right for their specific practice, and the Interior Designer sometimes works directly with these Tradesman in finalizing designs, but as part of the process the Sub Contractor should never be making alternate design decisions during construction independent of the designer because they have been tasked with only the parts of the work they are responsible for, and lack the overall vision and consistency of the design possessed by the Interior Designer.

Role of the Sub Contractor

Sub Contractors are “specialists” focused on various parts of the construction work, and are under the overall direction of the General Contractor. Quality Sub Contractors are talented professionals who are highly skilled at their piece of the construction puzzle, and they are hired as part of the overall team of Sub Contractors to quickly and efficiently complete their part of the construction work. Many times General Contractors hire the same teams of Sub Contractors over and over when they have a team of Sub Contractors they can rely on, and who work well together.

The Sub Contractor is razor focused on what their specific tasks are, and because of that they are generally “compartmentalized” thinkers, unlike the Interior Designer who must be a “comprehensive” thinker involving the entire interior experience. So just to restate, it’s extremely important that Sub Contractors are following the design plans exactly as specified, and under the direction of the General Contractor, and any proposed changes to the design direction must involve the Interior Designer, along with approval of the client.

Role of the client

Believe it or not, you, the client, are a very important part of this process and directly affect the outcome of your own new construction or remodel project. It’s vitally important for the client to understand these roles and responsibilities. There are so many things going on during this process that can be very overwhelming, and sometimes a client can end up in meetings or make some snap decisions directly with the General Contractor without the guidance and advice from the Interior Designer which can sometimes throw the whole project off the rails. To make your life a whole lot easier, that is what your Interior Designer is there for. Lean on that person. Rely on your design professional, and you will have much more peace of mind!

I hope you have found this information valuable and informative about the various roles involved with interior design and construction. And it’s also my hope that you especially understand the vital role the Interior Designer plays in every new construction or remodel project for both residential and commercial. I’m excited to become your Interior Designer, and hope your first call, will be to me. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please don’t hesitate to contact me HERE with any questions at all!

~ Wendy O’Brien, Principal – Wendy O’Brien Interior Planning & Design


* Glossary of Terms

“Accessibility” means features of buildings or spaces that enable use by people regardless of their level of ability.

“Building Shell” means the architecture of the existing building, including the framework, the perimeter/exterior walls, the building core and columns, and other structural, load-bearing elements of the building.

“Construction Documents” mean the detailed working drawings that define the work to be constructed. This may include partition plans, power and communications plans, reflected ceiling plans, material and finishes plans, and furniture layout plans, as well as elevations, sections and details, along with the drawings of associated consultants.

“Contract Documents” means the set of documents that form a part of the legal contract for services between two or more parties. These typically include detailed instructions to the contractor, tender forms, construction documents and specifications.

“Contract Administration” means the set of services which may include developing and monitoring schedules and construction costs; ensuring construction is completed in conformance with contracts and design intent; liaison with contractors and consultants throughout the course of construction; reviewing shop drawings and submissions from the contractor; observing and commenting on construction progress; monitoring move-in and furniture installation; and conducting required post-occupancy evaluations.

“Environmental” means the aggregate of the physical conditions of the interior environment that affects the health and safety of the occupants, including air quality and circulation, temperature control, ergonomic layout, physical circulation plan and related matters.

“Maintenance” means the ability of a product or material to be kept to its proper condition, and the work required to sustain that condition over the life of that material.

“Non-structural or non-seismic” means interior elements or components that are not load-bearing or do not assist in the seismic design and do not require design computations for a building’s structure. It excludes the structural frame supporting a building. Common non-structural elements or components include, but are not limited to, ceiling and partition systems. These elements employ normal and typical bracing conventions and are not part of the structural integrity of the building.

“Partition” means a wall which does not support a vertical load of a structure other than its own weight, but may support loads attached to it such as cabinetry, shelving or grab bars, and does not extend further than from the floor of an interior area of a structure designed for human habitation or occupancy, to the underside of the deck of that structure.

“Programming” means the scope of work which includes, but is not limited to, conducting research; identifying and analyzing the needs and goals of the client and/or occupant(s) of the space; evaluating existing documentation and conditions; assessing project resources and limitations; identifying life, safety and code requirements; and developing project schedules and budgets.

“Reflected ceiling plan” means a ceiling design that illustrates a ceiling as if it was projected downward and may include lighting and other elements.

“Space planning” means the analysis and design of spatial and occupancy requirements, including, but not limited to, space layouts and final planning.

“Specifications” means the detailed written description of construction, workmanship and materials of the work to be undertaken.

“Sustainability” means the use of resources in such a way that they are not depleted; a method of practice or use of materials that is capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.

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