Saturday, March 12, 2011

Professional Turf

The architecture profession has opposed the licensure of interior designers in most states, believing that the granting of licenses to interior designers is unnecessary and anti-competitive. Many in the interior design community have argued, instead, that architects’ opposition amounts to little more than turf protection, combined with a degree of condescension and gender bias on the part of a predominantly male profession toward a predominantly female one. Which side is right?

Architects and interior designers both determine the location of walls, and while that activity unites these two fields, it has also become a metaphor for what divides these two professions in their battle over licensure. Because it remains difficult to sort out the differences between what architects and interior designers do in terms of the design and detailing of building interiors, architects have claimed that any effort to define that difference – to build a clear separation between their respective responsibilities - becomes impossible. Further, architects have argued that since they already have legal responsibility for the entire building, inside and out, licensing interior designers becomes unnecessary and redundant.

Walls look different, though, depending upon which side you are on. What may look, to architects, like an attack on the wall around their profession often looks, to interior designers, like an effort to keep them out and to monopolize an area of activity over which architects have never had complete control. Electrical, mechanical, and structural engineers, for example, often work extensively on the inside of buildings and architects have not questioned the legitimacy of engineers’ licenses. Why then do architects question the expertise of interior designers whose knowledge of furniture, fixtures, and finishes often extends far beyond that of most architects?

This dispute has become more heated as the global economy has increased competition between the two fields. As design services have become readily available from almost anywhere around the world, the urge to protect one’s turf becomes ever stronger as free-trade fervor seeks to override all such protections. This has led, in the case of interior design licensure, to the decidedly odd situation of libertarian groups opposed to professional licensure altogether joining licensed architects trying to prevent their interiors colleagues from becoming so. How long will it take before these same libertarian groups to turn on architects? As Aesop famously said, “we often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.”

While politics has dominated the battle over interior design licensure, ethics may offer more help in sorting out which of the antagonists in this situation have right on their side. Duty ethics has certainly played a major role in this dispute. Both architects and interior designers claim to have the best interests of the public in mind and we have no reason to doubt their well-intentioned desire to do what they believe to be right. However, duty ethics hasn’t helped us resolve this conflict, since both groups have pointed to their duty to protect public health, safety, and welfare as the reason why they have taken opposite positions.

Utilitarian ethics may provide more useful path forward. When we look at this situation in terms of what would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, it becomes hard to support either side, for internecine war between two professions does a lot of damage to the reputation of both and very little to help anyone else. If anything, the growing belief that the greatest good comes from a much more integrated form of practice, in which architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors work more closely together, makes this dispute over licensure seem like a battle left over from the last century. A more creative solution, and one that would allow both sides to transcend this self-defeating fight, might involve the licensing of the integrated teams that will increasingly create our built environment. We can become so intent on protecting our turf that we don’t notice that the ground has shifted and that the turf we have so long protected may no longer matter. 

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