NCIDQ News: ‘Begin-tegrated’ Design Collaborating Early for Success

July 1, 2008

The multiple benefits that occur when architects and designers work together on a space presents a strong case for pursuing similar, future collaborations.

By Carol Jones

Recently, the New York Times followed the creative process of an architect and interior designer who took a decrepit living space and turned it into a haven. This work was done "on paper," with the goal of enticing a buyer to purchase an $800,000 property (which would need an additional investment of $500,000 for renovations).

This project may not seem unusual on the surface, but what caught my attention is that the architect and interior designer walked the empty space together, tackling the project as a partnership from the beginning of the process. The resulting design is an exceptional space. And when you hear the team discuss their efforts, you would not know who was responsible for the "inside" or the "outside"; they talk jointly and enthusiastically of the design concepts and their shared vision.

When I was gathering notes for this particular article, I scribbled, "In the future, architects and interior designers will be partners in a process that enriches the outcome." Yet, it appears that the "future" has been occurring in some arenas for a while. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "integrate" means: "to make whole by bringing all parts together." I believe that in successful design, this act of integration needs to happen at the beginning of a project process. Perhaps we should call the process "begin-tegration,"—emphasizing the importance of architects and interior designers working in lock-step from project inception in a collaboration that is highly visible to the client.

We already understand the benefits of integration, whether in building design or other disciplines. For example, a successful LEED® project demands a truly integrated team in order to create a holistic building that meets sustainable principles on all levels. The increasing complexity of buildings—including knowledge of technology, building systems, codes and materials—requires a team of interdisciplinary designers who are specialists in their fields. Team members often include architects, interior designers, engineers, code consultants, lighting consultants, AV consultants, contractors, and artisans. An integrated design team views building design comprehensively ... as a single entity considered from both an interior design and architectural perspective.

As the New York apartment story indicates, the line between architecture and interior design, as it applies to the design of an integrated building, is becoming increasingly blurred. Ideally, an integrated design process and resulting outcome will be seamless. But, if collaboration is preached all around us—and if we understand why it is
beneficial—then why is it so difficult to achieve?

My firm conducted focus groups last year to gain a better understanding of what was and was not working in terms of designers and architects collaborating on integrated projects. We asked our interior designers, and then our architects, what they thought each profession brought to the design process and where opportunities for growth existed. The results were enlightening and have enriched our collaborative process.

The advantages of integrated design, from the interior designers' perspective, include:

  • more complete programming
  • an increased sensitivity to the end-users and human factors
  • enhanced functionality of buildings

Architects also felt that interior designers bring a different process and approach to the project, which encourages a holistic outcome. Architects stated that, when they work closely with interior designers, they gain an increased knowledge of building materials and applications (architects often have less continuing exposure to new product knowledge) and an increased awareness of interior design capability and areas of competence.

When an integrated process is implemented, interior designers gain an increased appreciation of architectural design and focus, and broader knowledge of building construction and technology. Both disciplines enjoyed the result of cross-pollination: Architects become more sensitive to interiors and interior designers become more sensitive to architecture. The focus is on the quality of the solution rather than the respective training of the participants.

Regarding (generalized) perceptions of each other, the interior designers believe that they see a building from the "inside out," while often, architects view it from the "outside in." Interior designers are dismayed by what they view as impracticality on the part of architects, including a preoccupation with form for its own sake and the need to make an architectural statement at the expense of functionality. The architects' perception is that interior designers are initially overwhelmed by the "blank page" aspect of architectural design—i.e., the absence of a building envelope. Architects feel that interior designers may be initially mystified by the architectural conceptual process and that, out of their comfort zone, interior designers are often intimidated and reluctant to speak up or to challenge the team. Some ramp-up time must be allowed for the interior designers' learning curve regarding building type and oral and visual architectural vocabulary.

The focus group made suggestions for implementing an integrated process that includes interior designers playing a central role at the beginning of the project-leading the programming process and interior space planning. Ideally, the integrated team will physically sit together to allow free exchange of ideas and collaborative problem-solving. Additionally, clarity on roles and expectations is essential (a team partnering session at the project initiation is one way to achieve this important step).

To be effective on integrated projects, interior designers must be excellent team players; be comfortable taking initiative; have confidence; and need to be able to assert their views. They must have an affinity for three-dimensional and large-scale elements and have good visualization skills.

An integrated approach to architecture and interior design creates spaces that enhance how we work and live—balancing the structure, the systems, and the grace of the building. This integrated approach encourages architects and interior designers to challenge and inspire each other, establishing a true harmony of design creativity.

Carol Jones is a principal in Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning, one of Canada's largest integrated design firms. An NCIDQ Certificate holder, Jones serves on NCIDQ's board of directors. More information about NCIDQ is available at

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