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Starting Out: When and How to Bring an Architect into Your Interior Design Projects

A key part of being a successful interior designer is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Depending on your training, you may have the capability to perform as an architect in addition to your usual designing-and-decorating modus operandi. But if you do not have the ability (or desire) to fill this role, you will need to work with a trained architect to bring larger projects to life. In the context of an interior design project, architectural tasks could include completing accurate technical drawings of the project spaces, and if renovation or ground-up construction is involved, completing a set of construction documents that can be submitted to the local government to acquire the necessary building permits

This article will help you to determine if and when you need to bring an architect into your projects,  how to ensure smooth collaboration, and how to protect the integrity of your work along the way.

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What Does an Architect Bring to a Project?

An architect is trained to design structurally sound buildings and all of the systems within them, like plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and more. In order to become licensed, an architect must graduate from an accredited university with an architecture degree, complete two years of work experience under the sponsorship of a licensed architect, pass seven architectural registration exams (AREs) administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), and then take a number of continuing education courses each year to maintain a license. The reason architects must undergo such vigorous training and testing is because of the enormous liability they undertake in their work: If a building is not constructed and maintained to legal standards, the consequence could lead to destruction, devastation, and even the loss of lives. 

Overall, architects are responsible for:

  • Structural and engineering expertise
  • Construction knowledge and ability to draft construction documents
  • Relationships with permitting boards
  • Expertise in space planning

When Is It Necessary to Involve an Architect?

While structural engineering work is a specialization that needs to be executed by a trained architect, some of the other responsibilities mentioned above can be handled by a properly trained interior designer. For example, interior designers who have obtained the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) credential have proven their ability to draft viable construction documents through its required testing. Even without completing the NCIDQ, many interior designers can receive the proper training in technical drafting as part of their education or on-the-job training.

As a general rule, you should collaborate with an architect when a project requires:

  • Construction, and you do not have architectural drafting training or adequate knowledge of building systems and construction processes.
  • A significant change to its structure, in which case consultation with a structural engineer is required.
  • Exterior work; an interior designer may be involved in exterior design schematics, but an architect has to finalize the design to make sure it’s structurally sound, compatible with the exterior conditions of the location, and meets all stipulations of the local building permitting committees.

Even if You Can, Do You Want to?

You may have the ability to function as an architect, but do you enjoy this aspect of a project? Providing architectural services will broaden the scope of projects you can compete for – and complete – as a design firm. But doing so requires:

  • A larger staff
  • A different professional network
  • Higher overhead in terms of legal guidance and insurance
  • A higher risk tolerance overall

Know what drives you to be an interior designer. If your favorite part of the job is choosing fixtures, materials, and furniture, taking on architectural duties may be an unwanted distraction from the tasks you most enjoy. If you are more focused on the bigger picture and prefer to delegate design details to team members, then acting as an architect and a designer could be the right path for you. 

To grow the scale or number of your firm’s projects, you will have to delegate to team members or external service providers. As the head of your business, you get to choose where you want to be most hands-on, and then find capable, trustworthy partners, such as architects, to support your projects.

How to Bring an Architect Into a Project

If you decide that you prefer to outsource architectural responsibilities rather than complete them in-house, you will need to build a network of architects in the markets in which you work. 

Here are some things to consider:

  • Know your options: Carefully research the licensed architects in your markets.
  • Do your due diligence: After selecting the architects whose work aligns with your creative visions, meet with them — then find out as much as you can about how it is to work with them. Ask other colleagues for information and references. You can’t blindly reach out to their past clients, but you can leverage your network to get a more complete sense of their reputation, working style, and temperament.
  • Control the process: Once you build a network of preferred architect partners, consider making it a stipulation for your clients that they only hire one of your preferred architects for their projects. Every service provider on your project is a reflection of your work, so it's crucial to be heavily involved in their selection and management. 

While there is great overlap between what an interior designer and an architect can do, they are two very different specializations. As an interior designer, know what you enjoy most about your profession and find trusted partners to help you with the tasks where you have less passion or expertise. Not all of your projects will require an architect, but when they do, be ready to provide your clients with a shortlist of top-quality architects you know you can work with to ensure a successful outcome. 

For advice on how to establish your interior design business, visit our comprehensive guide on how to start an interior design business, which covers this topic and more!

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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