NCIDQ: The Safety-Sustainability Connection

Sept. 27, 2006
By Beth Holst
The challenge of designing an aesthetically pleasing yet secure environment.

For interior designers, the meaning of "safety" in the phrase "public health, safety and welfare" has changed since September 11, 2001. Previously, professional interior designers associated the term with specifying slip-resistant flooring, using non-flammable materials, and creating interior layouts that meet building and fire codes. However, how we define "safe" in the United States has changed in recent years. A safe design now takes into account protection against a host of natural and unnatural hazards, including explosives and biological toxins such as anthrax.

In my mind, designing interior spaces to protect against the effects of terrorism runs contrary to the concept of designing to enhance human well-being. That might seem counterintuitive— after all, staying alive is certainly enhancing our well-being! As I see it, striking a balance between safety and aesthetics is the key challenge facing all design professionals. Clearly it is a problem the profession is prepared to tackle; safety and accessibility issues have surfaced in the past, and aesthetically pleasing interior design projects that meet fire and safety codes, as well as ADA requirements, have become commonplace.

The original intent of this article was to discuss designing safe and secure interiors. Along the way, I realized that designing with sustainable materials goes hand-in-hand with public safety and well-being. How did my research for an article about designing to protect against terrorism lead me to sustainable design? Among other things, I encountered Messages in the Dust, authored by Francesca Lyman for the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA). Published in September 2003, this document was crafted to help "environmental health professionals throughout the world learn what the lessons from the environmental health response to the (9/11) attacks were." It identifies things that went right, things that went wrong, health and environmental challenges, and most importantly, 12 lessons learned from 9/11.

According to Lyman, "A significant vacuum here (New York) was that the agencies didn't address the hazards right under people's noses in interior spaces." Images of office and apartment interiors taken days after the Twin Towers collapsed show layers of dust and debris. One observer noted, "How could something as huge as the World Trade Center, with all its contents—computers, fluorescent lights, plastic chairs, everything—just disappear? It had to go somewhere." That "somewhere" was in the dust and pollutants that filled and contaminated the air for weeks after the disaster.

Whether a disaster occurs from a man-made bomb or a naturally occurring hurricane, the interiors and contents of homes and buildings can be strewn into the atmosphere in seconds. In the case of Ground Zero, first responders and construction trades people were exposed to acrid, toxic air. The NEHA report includes at least one lesson learned that applies directly to design professionals: to improve the way buildings are designed and constructed. The report states, "Firefighters and their advocates have long been concerned about building materials because of their tendency to make for unusually toxic fires. To make for a safer post-9/11 built environment, construction planners need to investigate safer materials and designs that facilitate easier evacuation in emergencies. From an environmental health perspective, designers ought to also look at construction materials for their durability as well as elimination of toxic products and processes."

This lesson learned is one that NCIDQ takes to heart. As a member of the NCIDQ board of directors, it is my charge to represent the public and make sure the Council continues to create an exam that tests candidates for knowledge that will protect the public's health, safety and welfare. Clearly, that knowledge includes safety standards and sustainability issues. NCIDQ keeps the examination current through a job analysis every few years. This is critical to the task of testing the knowledge and skills of emerging professional interior designers who have met the education and experience requirements to sit for the examination. This analysis is ultimately beneficial to the public, for the designer's passage of the examination indicates that they have the knowledge and skills to design the interiors of public spaces and homes with our health, safety and welfare in mind.

NCIDQ Certificate holders are particularly adept in the use of standards for safety. Working with allied design professionals such as architects and engineers, they know how to adapt current standards and codes into a workable design so employees may have a better chance of escaping a building in case of an emergency. By speaking with several NCIDQ Certificate holders, I learned how they are adapting standards to create reception areas and other spaces that are both beautiful and safe. Whether designers are specifying planters with concrete and steel strategically placed for security, or creating separate entrances for vendors and delivery personnel, spaces are being designed with security in mind. Design professionals have also become creative with the use of blended identification measures in already established spaces. One example is Chicago's Sears Tower. There are now 34 optical stiles that only open for specific identification badges of authorized personnel. The stiles blend into the existing lobby design with stainless steel and etched glass casings.

After 9/11, we are guided to continuously improve designs that may save future lives. By adhering to safety standards, considering sustainable materials, and constantly scanning the latest technology to create safe environments for all, the goal of NCIDQ is to enhance human health and well-being by ensuring that interior design professionals are qualified to design spaces for the public.

  • Beth Holst is the public member of the NCIDQ board of directors. She also serves on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Homeland Security Standards Panel (HSSP). ANSI-HSSP identifies existing consensus standards and, where none exist, assists the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and those sectors requesting assistance to accelerate development and adoption of consensus standards critical to homeland security. For more information on NCIDQ, visit

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