An Ounce of Prevention...

Jan. 1, 2003
Donna Vining, FASID

An Ounce of Prevention...

Most of us grew up hearing the phrase, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," an adage that is as true today as it was when it was first coined. We all go to our dentists every year, for example, in order to prevent mouth and teeth problems. Men and women have yearly physicals in order to prevent, or at least detect, any possible health problems. We have our automobiles serviced to prevent accidents. Too often, however, we don't take preventative measures until there's been an alarming wake-up call. Everyone remembers all too vividly how the entire world was horrified on September 11, 2001. As a result, the United States leapt into action, creating The Department of Homeland Security in order to prevent another catastrophic event. But why do we wait for disasters to awaken us or prompt us to action, when we can do our part today and become advocates for preventing harm to our loved ones? Does the public have to wait for a "disaster" for states and provinces to understand that Practice Acts for Interior Designers will prevent possible loss of life and promote safety and welfare?Licensure of any profession is contingent upon proving that if the profession were not licensed, then the public's health, safety and welfare would be at risk. That is why doctors, dentists, engineers and architects are licensed. It is interesting to note that of the 26 professions involved in the building industries in California (ranging from engineers to plumbers, electricians to architects) the only one that is not licensed is the interior designer. (CCIDC, 1999) Yet, interior designers have a profound impact on the health, safety and welfare of the public. They are key members of the building team, providing safe access to and exit from interior spaces. They create barrier-free design; possess knowledge of national, state and local building codes and standards; and understand materials and their properties including flammability, toxicity and slip resistance. They are also experts in ergonomics, indoor air quality, conservation, illumination and acoustics (Koffel, 1999).Numerous lives have been lost because of poorly designed interiors. The 1942 Coconut Grove Club fire in Boston, MA, is one of the most infamous examples: 491 people died in this fire—most from toxic fume inhalation, according to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) Web site. Many fire codes and exiting requirements changed as a result of this tragedy. In today's interiors, because of a combination of improved fire codes and the expertise of design professionals, the materials specified for furniture, flooring, wall covering and window covering meet appropriate fire codes. The result is fewer deaths due to toxic smoke inhalation and flame spread. Approximately 75 percent of all codes pertain to fire and life safety. Who has the greatest impact on those issues? Professional designers of the built environment. We must focus first on prevention, then on early suppression and detection, as the primary means of providing safe interiors.Recently I heard someone state, "Nobody ever died from a bad color scheme." True, a poorly chosen color scheme will not likely kill someone; however, even a bad color scheme must be fire retardant. At the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in 1980, for example, 84 people died and 679 were injured as a result of the second largest life-loss hotel fire in U.S. history. Of the 52 pieces of evidence that were collected by the NFPA from the MGM, 34 were interior finish or furniture materials that could have been specified by an interior designer. Eighty-two of the 84 deaths were due to smoke inhalation.One need only follow a wheelchair user into a poorly designed store to see numerous problems and frustrations related to accessibility. Watch a wheelchair user transacting business over a too-high counter, struggling to use a "handicapped" bathroom stall, or maneuvering through narrow aisles. A qualified interior designer would have, at a minimum, designed this space to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines. A professional qualified interior designer is trained to create spaces that take into consideration all disabilities—physical, sensory and cognitive.Do interior designers affect the public's health, safety and welfare? They most definitely do, but like the "easy-to-open" packages we use in our kitchen or the readable highway directional signs that point our way in a dark night, the average person does not think of the design professionals responsible for making our lives safer or more comfortable. Whether it is the lighting in a grocery store that lets you to read the fine print of nutritional labels, the slip-resistant flooring in the mall, the ceiling tile in a conference room that absorbs noise from loud voices, the flame retardant, non-toxic fabrics and materials used on your office furniture, or the well-designed floor plan that allows you to leave a space quickly in an emergency—qualified interior designers play a primary role in enhancing your well-being and protecting your safety and health.It is time for design professionals to stop arguing that the interior design profession affects the health, safety and welfare of the public—and instead start proving it. Each of us, as members of a caring, civilized population, has an obligation to contribute to the well-being of all peoples. Interior designers have many opportunities to do just that:* Join the NFPA to assist them in fire prevention education in both public spaces and private residences.* Collaborate with advocates for the disabled to create spaces that go beyond the minimum requirements of the ADA.* Work with psychiatrists and psychotherapists to create interior environments that positively affect people with mental illness.* Join with physicians to create healing environments for the sick.* Collaborate with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to develop safe spaces for our aging population.* Work with educators to develop standards that surpass "minimum or acceptable" for our children's learning environments and pre-schools.At the same time it is imperative that we improve the minimum qualifications—including education, experience and examination—for the interior design profession. The Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER) introduced its FIDER Professional Level standards for accrediting interior design programs in 2000. FIDER has demonstrated a progressive approach to programs by establishing an outcome based process, rather than a process that follows the traditional prescriptive model. In the last couple of years, the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) examination was updated to reflect the current practice of interior design. The examination's content is focused solely on issues relevant to the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the public. NCIDQ also has a two-year monitored experience program, the Interior Design Experience Program (IDEP), which requires a certain number of hours working at various tasks under the direction or supervision of a registered design professional. Combination of a FIDER-accredited degree, participation in IDEP, and passage of the NCIDQ examination helps to shape a professional interior designer, qualified by education, experience and examination, to protect the public's health, safety and welfare. And that is worth more than a pound of cure—it may even save a life!Donna Vinning, FASID, is president of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification. NCIDQ is located at 1200 18th St. N.W., Ste. 1001, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 721-0220.

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