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Finding the perfect office is an exercise in patience, an endurance test. Aligning the realities of a budget with your vision of a dream space with tons of natural and a generous kitchen is itself a process.
Adjusting expectations and accepting market realities alone can take weeks or months. Then you still have to find a space that doesn’t ask you to make too many compromises.
In the process, one of the greatest expenses of them all can fall through the cracks.
Someone, preferably a respected professional, needs to transform your raw commercial space into thoughtfully designed, beautiful office space.
Conceivably, either an architect or interior designer can help with this step in the transformation. In some cases, you might want to employ both.
The question is: what exactly do architects do? What do interior designers do? And what’s the difference?
Here’s how to decide which approach is right for you.
What do architects do?
Architects design and plan buildings of all types, not just commercial real estate. They design public spaces, homes and infrastructure projects as well. Their chief concern is the functional, aesthetic relationship between people and the spaces they interact with.
In commercial real estate, an architect’s work is not limited to a building’s interior. Its structure, facade and surrounding environment all fall under the architect’s expertise.
After designing and modeling the space, the architect then closely supervises the project’s construction.
Ambitious commercial plans, like campuses for large enterprise companies, require an architect’s vision and expertise. But architects work on smaller scale commercial projects, too.
What do interior designers do?
Interior designers possess many of the same skills and sensibilities architects do. They design for optimal interaction between people and the spaces they inhabit.
The biggest difference,of course, is that interior designers plan space already defined within a building’s structure. They can manage the construction and removal of walls in a building, but a building’s structural profile (including zoning) isn’t their forte. Any consideration of the building’s structure usually falls to an architect.
For most commercial tenants, an interior designer can more than manage their needs, designing a beautiful, functional space.
But your space’s build-out and design aren’t the only considerations.
When to use an architect, designer or both
Sometimes hiring an architect has little to do with aesthetics. In some states, for example, commercial projects require government-issued permits to allow the work to commence. Traditionally, approval for those permits falls to architects.
“In many states (not all), interior designers are currently unable to sign-off on drawings for permitting,” says Lance Amato, a director at New York architecture firm Vocon. “In those cases, partnership [between architects and designers] is critical for construction of environments.”
A change in this dynamic is already underway, though, as some states consider giving designers more leeway.
“Commonly, the division of labor between interior design and architecture focuses on the aesthetic vision of the space, and technical direction and documentation, respectively,” says Amato. “That trend is shifting slowly, as many states have allowed interior designers who are certified and pass the NCIDQ (National Council of Interior Design Qualification) exam to sign off on non structural interior elements.”
Similarly, other building regulations that would typically land in an architect’s area of expertise doesn’t exclude a designer from owning the project.
“I would say for a commercial space like a restaurant, you need someone with knowledge of things like ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance,” says Jennifer Fisher, an Austin-based interior designer with her own firm, J. Fisher Interiors. “I personally make sure I have people on my team, like a good contractor, who will have that knowledge.”
Coupled with the inherent similarities between the two disciplines, increasingly it appears they are reaching a point of convergence.
“It can be hard to really define the difference between architects and designers because their skills can overlap,” says Fisher. “A good high-end designer will have people on her team who understand architecture, and some architects got their start in the design world.”
As for how clients interact with both groups, Amato points to technology as an important tool in the relationship.
“Visualization programming has offered clients a better understanding of their future spaces,” he says. “Programs such as Revit and Rhino ensure that the concept envisioned for spaces meet client approval early on in the project, to avoid any potential issues down the line.”
An increase in transparency and a larger degree of cooperation between designers and architects doesn’t make it any easier for a tenant to decide who to involve in their office renovation.
In which case, it’s best to fall back on advice from fellow commercial tenants or a source even more readily available.