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The Right Mix of Interior Design and Facility Management

April 26, 2010

A blend of interior design and facilities management creates a formula for success, producing outstanding designs and buildings that meet everyone’s needs

Do you have the right mix of interior design and facilities management? Think of it as a good cocktail – complementary ingredients can produce a smooth, relaxing experience, but the wrong combination could lead to a souring result.

Mixing individuals’ goals and personalities into one building project can often be unpredictable, but it doesn’t have to be. The right ingredients, which include a common, clear understanding of work scope and early involvement of all design professionals, can make any project a success and result in a quality product.

When you plan for a new building or a renovation of an existing building, you’re essentially looking for a mix of:

  • A solid, healthy structure.
  • A functional building that meets the needs of the people using it.
  • An aesthetically pleasing space.

To meet these requirements, a project must include the input and expertise of clients, architects, interior designers, engineers, and construction professionals. The wrong mix – or a missing ingredient – can ruin the outcome. But the right mix will result in a successful project that everyone will turn to time and time again as a benchmark.

Facility managers and interior designers both need to play an active role when coming together at project time. Interior designers help you choose interior finishes, spec furniture, and coordinate with the architecture of the space. The scope of your interior designer’s services should be determined early in the planning stages. With an in-house designer, a relationship has been molded over multiple years; the understanding of priorities is already in place. But when an outside designer is mixed in, project expectations must be established.

Finishing Touches

You often have the added responsibility of protecting and caring for items brought into a project by the interior designer, including artwork and plants. You may not be a part of the selection process for these items, but you should be part of how these items are maintained and secured. Plan for this upfront.

Art (whatever shape) and plants can be protected by using alarms and signage. At the University of Arizona, the use of original artwork and native plants in the residence halls has become a facility standard to enhance education.

A small, battery-operated alarm is placed behind and attached to the piece of art and the wall. If the art is removed, the connection between the wall and the art is broken, and the alarm goes off. The alarm is affixed to the art, so the sound of the alarm travels with a removed piece of art. The batteries are on a replacement schedule with residence life maintenance staff members, who have been trained and understand the value of protecting the artwork. In addition to the alarm, the University of Arizona had its interior designer create a plaque to post next to each art piece. The plaque offers a description of the piece and of the artist, along with a message that reads: "This artwork is alarmed." Since inception of this method, theft has no longer been a problem.

This same concept is used with plants. Using live plants in a public setting, especially in residence halls, is a challenge. Utilizing a framed information plaque (similar to the ones used on the artwork) near the plants helps communicate to everyone the plants’ needs. This information plaque provides plant specifics and a simple statement indicating that the plant is maintained by the University of Arizona – and that no additional watering is required.

In some public spaces, personifying the plant helps get the message across. An example of a message displayed with plants at the University of Arizona: "Hi! I’m Freddy Ficus, and I’m here to purify the air in your building. To keep me healthy, the maintenance staff waters me on the first Tuesday of each month. Please don’t water me or dump any items into my soil – that can make me very sick, and I will not be able to do my job of cleaning your air. Thank you!"

Building a Foundation
The right mix can be hard to define, but starting with the correct ingredients helps. To begin:

  1. Select an interior design professional who will be an integral part of the design team.
  2. Provide information upfront identifying goals and benchmarks.
  3. Be flexible when listening to new ideas and concepts.
  4. Practice continual and open communication.

Putting in effort at the beginning is much easier than repairing damages after completion. Here are a few tips to get the interior designer/facility manager relationship on the right track:

Create trust between your team and the interior designer. This requires both parties to bring professional talent and knowledge to the table. You know and understand your building and strive for efficiency and smooth operation. An interior designer wants to create an aesthetic image for your concept. Both of these goals need be met, but not at the cost of an explosive relationship that ends in a project disaster, causing delays and added cost.

One way to build trust? If you’ve had a good experience with an interior designer, continue to go back to him/her instead of trying out someone else. The more you work together, the more you build trust. Successful interior designers should be working as hard as you are to develop strong relationships via responsiveness and good communication, which includes discussion of how the services they’re providing can improve.

As an example of enhancing communication, the University of Arizona (UA) uses an informal review process with Aviar Design, its third-party designer, to facilitate feedback. It’s also important to be thorough, understanding where and why decisions are made. Transparency is key. For example, an interior designer may decide to put more color and texture into a healthcare facility’s color palette to move away from an institutional look. Not fully understanding why these decisions were made, the facilities management staff might not take too kindly to the new look. Communication helps in situations like these. Instead of stewing about the decision, ask the designer for information about why that decision was made. In this case, the selected finishes required less repeat maintenance (protective door jamb surrounds that reduced repetitive painting).

Invest time in the selection of an interior designer (just as time is spent in the selection of architects and construction entities). The combination of reviewing an interior designer’s qualifications and past projects, as well as touring existing facilities that he/she has worked on (and vice versa), will provide information about what’s expected for the project.

Asking for certain experience and education qualifications has worked for the UA to help its facilities management staff receive solicitations from firms that meet this level of qualification requirements. The UA also looks at past performance evaluations, which helps get background info on previous work experience.

Discuss how certain aspects of work will be implemented. Set the responsibilities, but also bring up issues early before they become problems. The development process needs to be open to color, shape, lighting, and other elements that can result in great design project. Once a sense of commonality is established, the focus moves to continuing involvement throughout the design and construction process.

Communication is Key
It’s important for the interior designer to ask for information about maintenance and building standards from you, and to communicate this throughout the project. In return, you need to listen to the interior designer’s suggestions and ideas. Bringing the interior designer into the project at the conception of the design phase will create a cohesive final product and reduce costs by eliminating change orders. When an interior designer works with other design team members, electrical and data sources can be better located, finish materials are better detailed for installation, and project scheduling is more effective.

For example, the interior designer may propose the idea of a floorcovering that features your organization’s logo. Don’t assume that the detailing of the logo will create more maintenance issues and increase installation costs. Spend time discussing and investigating. The interior designer can explain how the pattern is cut into the floor. If it’s by computer-operated water-jet equipment, which provides a very precise cut, maintenance shouldn’t be a concern. With this flooring, the seams are sealed and the flooring material is placed on a backing. Once it’s ready to go, the product (with the logo detail) ships and installs as a solid piece, which reduces installation costs and time. By coming to an understanding, your concerns are alleviated.

An interior designer will want to create and develop an interior space that looks good and functions to the required use, but also ensures the health, welfare, and safety for occupants. This goes beyond selecting furniture and finishes. It requires the interior designer to be educated on products, codes, and materials, and to be able to successfully communicate this vision.

Your role in this partnership is to openly express and believe from the start that input from the interior designer is necessary to the outcome. There may not be complete buy-in on all ideas or concepts, but the overall philosophy of a comprehensive team needs to be embraced; design ideas need to be aired, shared, and dared. Your responsibility to the design team includes bringing building standards information and including other departments that will have approval of the plan. Corporate hierarchy regarding space and finishes also needs to be discussed early.

For example, you might be involved in an education grant project with a focus on creating a new learning environment geared to how students learn (not the standard "desk-in-a-row" design). A good designer should meet with departments individually to find out what each group needs. Then they should meet with a group of students about how they want to learn and what they need out of the space. Obviously, two different sets of requirements will result. The designer should be able to help you combine the two sets of requirements into one space that can change quickly to support different teaching and learning styles.

Communication between interior designers and facility managers also assists in creating a sustainable interior environment. One important area where you and the interior designer need to share ideas early is the development of space uses. Shared or dual-use spaces save real estate, resulting in costs savings, but also reducing the amount of material headed to landfills. As reducing the negative effects on the environment and providing healthier interior spaces becomes the priority, working with an interior designer who’s knowledgeable about LEED is also beneficial.

Seeing it Through
As the design process begins to finalize, other critical information needs to be added, such as maintenance and custodial support. You should provide existing standards for cleaning and maintenance. These discussions will assure that the look and feel at opening is carried through for years to come. As materials, colors, and other design elements solidify, it’s critical for you to know what’s ahead so you can prepare or procure equipment essential to upkeep and maintenance. Interior designers may bring ideas about materials to reduce maintenance time, or finishes that require less toxic cleaning chemicals. The University of Arizona implemented a new requirement for greener cleaning products to keep its buildings healthy and sustainable. The interior designer was able to do research and provide information on cleaning methods for sustainable products that were less toxic than the products the housekeeping staff had been using.

As the process enters the shovel-in-the-ground stage, the design team should continue its vigilance and involvement. As no surprise to anyone involved in construction, the blueprint-to-built process sometimes leaves a gap. That’s what the request for information (RFI) process is for. As questions arise, you and the interior designer need to continue to communicate, making sure that alterations, additions, or deletions don’t interfere with original goals.

This cooperation must continue during the submittal process, as the general contractor submits exactly what’s going to be used. Submittals for interior finishes and furniture may vary from the original design intent. These variances should be reviewed by you and the interior designer for aesthetic and maintainability considerations. Final inspections and a punch list should be completed by both parties to make sure both accept the final product. It may mean an agreed-upon change that fits the design concept and the ability to maintain the space in the future.

As the facility is occupied, the need for informational manuals, warranties, and other documentation is vital, and is something the interior designer should be asked to provide upfront as part of his/her services. This type of documentation should be detailed and easy to store and retrieve. It should also provide references for repair or replacement in the future. The value for the interior designer? The design will stay looking good for years to come, which reflects well on his/her work. The value for you? Access to important information on maintaining the newly designed space.

Linda Kay Mracek is a principal designer at Aviar Design (www.aviardesign.com) in Tucson, AZ. Ray Corral is director of residential facilities and associate director of residence life at the University of Arizona (www.arizona.edu) in Tucson, AZ. Deborah Hanson is an interior designer at the University of Arizona.

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