The Right Stuff

June 1, 2003
Robert Nieminen

Taking on weighty issues facing the profession — ethics, aging in place, sustainability—Michael Thomas embraces a philosophy in which transparency with clients, a high code of ethics and an abiding passion for good design are the only ways to ma

Always do right—this will gratify some and astonish the rest." Had the board members of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom or even Martha Stewart herself heeded Mark Twain's advice, how different would our view of corporate America be today? How different would the public's perception of interior design be if every design professional lived by that common standard?While members of professional associations such as ASID or IIDA or AIA are required by their membership to abide by a strict code of ethics, the reality is that most states with a registry of interior designers have no code of ethics to govern the profession, a fact that Michael A. Thomas, FASID, CAPS, president of the Jupiter, FL-based Design Collective Group, would like to see changed. "It blows my mind that you can have a code of ethics for attorneys or a code of ethics for medical professionals, but there's nothing that governs interior design specifically," he says. Thomas hopes to do what he can to influence local government to address the issue of ethics in the design community where he operates his 10-year-old firm. "In addition to all the laws that govern the safety and welfare of the public, we also need to look at how ethics plays a role in ensuring that the public really does get served in a way that makes it more equitable for everyone."Throughout his 30-year career, Thomas had the opportunity to work primarily on his own, following his passion and forging his ideals, as well as developing an interest for teaching along the way. After working for F. Schumacher & Co. upon graduating from The Unity School, founded in an historic 1920's Italianate mansion in Oklahoma, Thomas worked briefly for Ethan Allen, where he was part of the in-store experience program, educating consumers and helping them bring design ideas into their homes and offices. Today, Thomas is an active lecturer and workshop trainer teaching business development across the country, including continuing education courses for ASID.What led him to examine ethics, in part, was a "very rude awakening" he experienced after having moved to south Florida from Houston, the former having a reputation for not staying above board, he says, referring to the role Palm Beach County played in the controversial 2000 Presidential Election. Thomas is at a loss to understand why unethical business practices are so rampant in his community and the profession as a whole. "I just don't understand why interior designers, architects, realtors or builders can't act in a real transparent manner," he explains. "If you have something that you bring to the table that is of great value to a client, you need to share that with them." Of course, what that value is worth also needs to be expressed clearly to the client as well. "I have never understood the concept of why you have to go around the corner and work out a deal on the side when you can just say, 'My time is worth this. The value I bring to the job—my education, my experience—is worth this, and this is how I'm going to charge.' I don't understand why we have to try to hide it."If Thomas' philosophy sounds hard line, that's because it is. His perception of ethics boils down to the basic premise of right versus wrong. "I think when you look at ethics, it's pretty much black and white," he says. Unlike morality, which oftentimes deals with heritage, culture, religion and one's own sense of what is right, ethics deals with rules of practice with respect to a single class of actions, as defined by Webster's. Although Thomas admits that, as you look at interior designers who get themselves into trouble with ASID's code of ethics, for example, you may find areas of gray, he also insists, "If you really get down to the very bottom line, you either did it or you didn't."In the classroom, Thomas challenges his students to consider the question: How do you know when you're in violation of a code of ethics? In the case of Martha Stewart, Thomas said the very day she was convicted, he held up a copy of USA Today for his students and asked, "Well, was she guilty or not?" Perhaps only Martha knows the real answer to that question, but for the rest of us he has come up with several different indicators, all of them not surprisingly straightforward."First of all, you just kind of know. I think if you're a good person, you're going to have a little bit of butterflies in your stomach that says, 'Hmm, not quite right.'" Another test depends on the answer to the question: Would you like to read about it in the paper the next day? If not, it's more than likely an ethics violation. Thomas dubs the next indicator the "pillow-talk syndrome." "If you can lay your head on the pillow at night and not worry about what you're going to have to say tomorrow," he explains, "it probably means you're following good ethical standards." On the other hand, if you're worried when you wake up in the morning, "there's probably something that you've done wrong," he adds. Then, finally, there's always the touchier question of whether or not you'd want your mother to find out about it. While Thomas says it's immensely helpful that professional associations offer guidelines for designers to follow, perhaps more important than knowing if you're violating a code of ethics is knowing what to do about it. One of the things he discusses with his students is what to do if you find yourself, either purposefully or not, involved in an unethical situation. He suggests coming clean and putting it out on the table by simply telling a client or vendor or coworker: "Do you know what? I did this. I wasn't thinking. Please forgive me." The result, he says, is that your opinion of a person who admits fault and accepts responsibility will likely go up, rather than down. It's that sort of honesty and transparency with clients that Thomas credits for the growth and success he's experienced over the last 10 years.His affiliation with ASID is also what he attributes to a successful career—a fact he feels needs to be communicated to students in interior design programs. Case in point: in a recent lecture he gave to about 75 students from the Tennessee chapters of both ASID and IIDA, one of the first things Thomas emphasized was the need to build strong alliances upon graduation. He was amazed by the responses he received after asking the group of students how many intended to stay with their respective associations upon graduation. Almost half of the students said, "I don't know that I can afford it," or "I don't know that I need it.""You absolutely have to build these alliances in this day and age with a variety of people, and ASID is just one of those ways to do that. Any professional society is going to offer you a phenomenal amount of information, but you've got to be able to go out and tap into it—it's not going to come knocking at your door."Thomas is grateful that a friend, John Robinson, FASID, who was the president of the ASID Gulf Coast chapter in Houston, invited him to join and volunteer. The decision to become a member shaped the rest of his career as a design professional and helped him get through some turbulent economic times during the mid '80s while still in Houston. In a meeting with a number of colleagues during that particularly challenging period, Thomas recalls, a respected design professional by the name of Mary Ann Bryan, FASID, brought the peer group together and said, "If we all sat down and we all discussed our challenges, we might find solutions. We're all in this together. We're all suffering. We're all losing our business and our practices, and if we combined efforts, if we shared space, if we shared sources and knowledge, we might actually survive the challenges we're facing." It was this shared resolve that gave Thomas the ground he needed to stand on at a time when he was lucky to get clients to pay him and enabled him to move his career forward."I'm not anything like I would be if it wasn't for my volunteer participation [in ASID]. I just don't think you can be out there practicing at a premium, high standard level without some association with IIDA or ASID. I can't think I would be where I am at now without the networking opportunities and resources available to me that I just couldn't have done on my own."When Thomas' late 70-year-old mother was battling breast cancer, the concept of aging in place began to make a deep impression on him. After going through the process with her and having nowhere to place her except in a nursing home, it became obvious to him that as he continued to age he would be facing those same kinds of challenges in the future. Looking back at what he could have done differently to accommodate her in his condominium residence, he realized that structural changes would have been required to meet her needs.His interest in aging in place was solidified in 1999 when the education department of ASID asked Thomas to participate in a white paper study onaging. Through telephone interviews, they discovered that, contrary to popular opinion at the time, consumers were not interested in downsizing their residences as they aged or moving into extended care facilities—they wanted to stay within their communities close to family, friends and places of worship. As they continued the study and developed case studies on a select group of clients, Thomas says, "It became very obvious that staying where they're at, accommodating their aging needs in whatever way possible, meant that we were creating a secure home environment that didn't necessarily require a lot of extended care initially, but would allow for changes gradually and make it possible for them to stay at home a little bit longer." To be sure, ASID's Aging in Place Study found that the majority of respondents (77 percent) said they are extremely likely or somewhat likely to remain in the homes they currently live in as they age, even into retirement.Thomas was surprised, then, when he encountered some resistance from older clients when his firm began offering them the option of applying aging in place concepts into the design of their homes. One client, in particular, protested when she was told that Thomas wanted to remove the curb to the shower in the bathroom for a barrier free entry and placing plywood behind the shower walls for installing grab bars later on. "I don't want my home to look like an institution," she exclaimed. In response, Thomas notes that designing with aging in place principles isn't limited to the elderly, and in fact, just makes sense. He presents a scenario in which an elderly client has a grandson who injures his leg playing football, for example. How much more effective is the design of the space if the client is able to accommodate the injured person in the home where there's a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor without major barriers? "It makes phenomenal sense to design a residence that allows anyone to walk in, whatever their physical condition, and feel that they're not isolated, that they are part of the family."As a result of his experiences and seeing the tremendous value in designing for aging in place, Thomas and his firm no longer offer this design approach as an option to clients—it comes standard. "Part of the solution in getting clients to accept this is, first of all, we just go ahead and do it. We don't tell them anymore. It's just good design."He shares a similar conviction about sustainable design as well. In his mind,sustainability, as with ethics, aging in place and universal design, will not be an option in the future. "If we're all going to continue to live as a population on this planet, we have a certain amount of ethics to abide by, making sure there is a planet that has clean water and clean air, that we try to recycle as much as we possibly can."While clients are beginning to look at green design as a viable alternative to traditional building methods, resistance predictably comes in the form of cost. But like he approaches aging in place, Thomas simply designs with sustainability in mind and opts not to offer it as an alternative. "We just make it part of the process and we don't even highlight it. So clients don't get an opportunity to say, 'No thanks, I don't want to be part of that,' or 'It's going to cost too much.' We think it's that important." Of course, Thomas says, he will explain the residual benefits of using sustainable materials to educate the client and maintain that level of trust and transparency, but he firmly believes in creating environments that are going to be safer to live in at the onset where clients don't have to worry about their health and safety as they age. And, of course, how ethical is that?"Wouldn't it be nice to know that I'm making a decision on behalf of a client, bringing a particular product that has the ability to be recycled or has the ability to be disposed of in a proper way? There's an ethical issue—am I really believing what I'm proposing? Do I really believe that it's going to make our life better? I absolutely do."Although sustainability hasn't quite reached the mainstream, Thomas believes that when the demand from the public finally gets to manufacturers and starts to increase the amount of production of green design, we'll start to see that sustainability won't be an option and that decisions against green design or against universal design or aging in place will really become a violation of ethics. "People want to live and work in a good environment. They're there eight to 10 hours a day. They want to be able to control their natural resources. They want to be able to lower the cost of doing business. And green design, when it's affectively applied, does those kinds of things."As we start to see good examples of how green-designed buildings make a significant impact in the way we live and the way we work—if people can begin to see that—then those people who have the influence, perhaps the deep pockets, will say, 'I want to step forward and do that.' That's when we're going to start to reach the critical masses."Until then, Thomas is content pursuing his passion for the profession of interior design. "How much better can you do in an occupation where you have taken the safety of the space, you've taken the health of the client, you've tried to implement this building process or remodeling process and work with the architect, the facilities manager, the electrician, the plumber, and when you walk away and you say, 'I really had an impact in your life,' then you realize the depth and responsibility you take on as a designer. That's a wonderful joy."

  • Michael A. Thomas, FASID
    Design Collective Group, Inc.

    337 E. Indiantown Rd.
    Showroom E-16
    Jupiter, FL 33477
    (561) 745-4146



    The following list, from ASID's Aging in Place Study, features a selected list of Web sites that offer resources on aging in place and design.
    AARP's Web site includes a wealth of information about aging, the mature market, aging in place, universal design, products and more. You do not need to be a member to access the information on this site.
    ASID's Web site includes information about universal design (look under DESIGN/Design Specialties), with links to other resources and related
    professional organizations.
    Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not apply to
    residential buildings, this site, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, contains technical assistance (including a checklist with guidelines and specifications) that can be useful to the residential designer.
    Operated by the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, the National Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification conducts applied research and policy analysis; provides training, education and technical assistance; and maintains a clearinghouse of reports, guidebooks, newsletters and factsheets in the areas of supportive housing and home modifications for elderly persons who wish to remain in their homes.
    The Center for Universal Design has information about improving
    accessibility and other issues, publications and a list of additional resources.

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