In this month's NCIDQ forum article, J. Derrell Parker presents an interesting dilemma that got me thinking. He writes, "Although we, as professional interior designers, may be exposed to cutting-edge work spaces that we design or see in glossy trade magazines, the sad fact is, the majority of office workers inhabit boring, unhealthy, unproductive spaces."
Is it true, I asked myself, that industry professionals have become overexposed to innovative design? Have we had too much of a good thing? If so, then Parker's next questions are begging to be answered: "Why is there such a dearth of unattractive spaces, and what is our role as professionals in changing the status quo?"
In addition to offering some practical steps designers can take to improve the design of office environments (see page 58), Parker suggests incorporating sustainable design, universal design and designing for health, life safety and welfare as an answer to the latter part of his question. While his suggestions are certainly viable (and ethical, for that matter), part of the problem seems to lie with client acceptance. Every designer that has offered sustainable design options to a client knows that the response is often a qualified yes. "Yes, if it doesn't cost more. Yes, if it doesn't take more time."
Even when the right choice may be obvious, it ultimately comes down to the client's decision, a fact that was made painfully clear to Joe Connell, one of four principals at The Environments Group (TEG) featured on the cover of this month's issue. He told Interiors & Sources during an interview that he once tried to convince a client to accept what he felt was the right answer to a design problem. "She looked at me glaringly and said, 'Joe, it is our prerogative to make the wrong decision. It is your job to tell us the consequences of those decisions,'" he recalls.
Perhaps one reason for the "dearth of unattractive spaces" that litter office buildings throughout the country is the fact that the industry hasn't done enough to educate clients of the consequences of the decisions they make. To be sure, when asked what impact the sustainable design movement has had on business, Connell replied with the word, "disappointing." In his 21 years as a design professional, the number of clients that have asked for a specific emphasis to be placed on green design is limited to three, he says. When clients are presented with healthy design solutions, he likens the job of the designer or architect to an attorney who is obligated to provide counsel to a client, even when they disagree.
While sustainable building and design may not have taken hold in the mainstream just yet, it's important to consider what the profession has accomplished. Cary Johnson, principal at TEG, points to the fact that a great deal of developments has been made in the design of workplaces that we may take for granted. Air quality is expected now; life safety is expected; accessibility is expected; quality lighting is expected and even legislated; ergonomics—the list goes on.
"When you look at all we've accomplished that is a must now, you no longer have to go in and fight a client for these elements of good work place design," Johnson explains. In other words, "Good, strong design is extraordinarily powerful, and we need to harness it in service to our client's goals," as Johnson's colleague Fred Schmidt, principal at TEG, puts it.
Indeed, the fact that the status quo needs changing presents an opportunity for practitioners to do a good thing, particularly in designing healthy, sustainable work places. And, as Schmidt points out, "Our profession historically has embraced social issues, and here is another opportunity to come out early and support what is an important issue."
If the past is any indicator, we will one day soon find that designing healthy, exciting and effective work places won't be an option, but a given—and the people occupying the office landscape will thank us for it.