On this week’s podcast, Bryan Soukup covers the topic of occupational licensing and how burdensome regulations have impacted the industry of interior design. We also discuss how the emergence of COVID-19 has changed the way interior designers do their job.
Bryan is the Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). He leads the Society’s strategic efforts to advocate for the interior design profession from a legislative, regulatory, and policy perspective before the federal and state governments. He is the Society’s sole registered federal lobbyist and chief advocate at the state and local levels. Previously, Soukup worked in law, politics, and government relations. He has worked on statewide political campaigns in Tennessee, has been the chief legislative advocate for a variety of national organizations and charities, and is an internationally published author on several law and policy subjects.
Hi and welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. On today’s episode, we delve into the topic of occupational licensing and how burdensome regulations have impacted the industry of interior design. We’ll also discuss how the entrance of COVID-19 has had serious impacts on the industry. But before we dive in, IWF does know that many Americans are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19, and that it’s more important than ever to show what America is made of. IWF is highlighting American ideals of ingenuity, generosity, and kindness. From everyday Americans donating blood, to companies providing free food and housing, it’s a beautiful reminder that we’re in this together. Visit iwf.org or check us out on Facebook and Twitter and follow our campaign using #inthistogether, that is #inthistogether to learn more.
Now to our guest, our guest today is Bryan Soukup. Bryan is the Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for the American Society of Interior Designers. He leads the society’s strategic efforts to advocate for the interior design profession from a legislative, regulatory and policy perspective before the federal and state governments. He is the society’s sole registered federal lobbyist and chief advocate at the state and local levels. Bryan, it’s a pleasure to have you on She Thinks.
Thank you so much Beverly, great to be here with you. We’re really excited about this interview. More than 80% of the interior design profession are women, more than 80% of the firms that interior designers represent and work at are small businesses with four or fewer employees and more than 83% of those firms are women or minority owned. So we think this is a really great opportunity to get our story out there. So thank you for having me.
Oh, well we appreciate it. I want to start us off by just giving the definition of occupational licensing. Occupational licensing is a form of government regulation requiring a license to pursue a particular profession or vocation for compensation. So as we mentioned, and as you just said, you work in the industry of interior design. Can you just give us some background for those of us who are not aware of how much licensing is required for somebody to pursue this profession?
Absolutely, I’d be happy to. Interior design, it’s generally not what you see on television on a daily basis. Interior decoration is a very important part of interior design, making spaces look aesthetically pleasing and look pleasing to the owner, to the organization where you’re designing that space is very important, but interior design goes way beyond just the aesthetic. Interior design really came into its own as a profession about a hundred years ago, with residential declaration in about the 1920s and from the 1920s to the 1940s, that really expanded into the commercial spaces, starting with corporate offices in the 1950s and the 1960s. Over the course of the ’70s and ’80s as interior designers started practicing in more public spaces, convention centers, hospitals, hotels, the private education and the private examination and training requirements really expanded.
So, the profession today is a much more building sciences backed profession than it was probably a hundred years ago, and probably what many folks are used to seeing on television. Interior designers are required to complete formal post-secondary education. They’re required to complete thousands of hours of paid supervised experience and an 11 hour internationally recognized exam before they can become privately certified by the Council for Interior Design Qualification. This again is a private certification, this is not a state level certification. Unfortunately though, interior designers do work in very highly regulated spaces.
Again, the work that they’re doing on a daily basis is aesthetic, but it’s also involved with the regulatory system of the construction industry. So we’re talking about the building codes, we’re talking about Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. When an interior designer moves a wall, let’s say you’re an interior designer who wants to turn a corporate boardroom into private offices, talking about COVID and how we’re going to be working in more secluded spaces these days. An interior designer is qualified to actually put up that non-load bearing wall to turn that conference room into two private offices. Of course, that affects egress. So how do you get out of a workspace if there’s an emergency? That effects the occupancy loads. So unfortunately, when interior designers do that work, they have to go and get their plans approved for a building permit. Unfortunately in only 11 states, due to some of these onerous licensing requirements, regulatory requirements for other professions like architecture and engineers, only in 11 states do interior designers have the ability to obtain those building permits.
So in most states interior designers actually have to go, because of the architect statute license the engineer statute and license, the interior designer actually has to work under what’s called the responsible control of the architect or engineer, have that architect or engineer review their work and then use the architect’s construction document stamp, and only then can the interior designer can go take their construction documents to the building office, to the permit office, to obtain their building permits for their clients.
So it’s a very bureaucratic system. It’s a very outdated system, obviously architecture and engineering are much older professions that came of age in the United States and became regulated in the United States, when licensure really was the only path to professionalism. So interior designers unfortunately have to work under that space. Again, because only 11 states allowed them to work independently, the current regulatory system is a real burden and barrier to entry for many interior designers across the United States.
I’m glad you gave some explanation of that. I think when most people, I know I include myself in this, when I think of interior design, I don’t automatically think of somebody needing to move a load-bearing wall, which obviously would need permitting to make sure that it’s done correctly. But do you find that there are plenty of people who work in this industry who aren’t working on that aspect of it? Meaning they’re not moving walls, they’re not dealing with structural integrity, they’re actually just working with a space that’s already there and updating it. Is this something where you find that everybody is lumped into the same category? Or is there really a variation and the type of requirements that are asked depending on what type of interior design someone is doing?
Absolutely and just to clarify, even the most qualified interior designers are not working within the structural realm. They’re not moving load-bearing columns. They’re not moving load-bearing walls, they’re moving non load-bearing walls. They’re doing ADA compliance, they’re calculating occupancy, they’re doing fire safety. So they are doing regulated work that is governed by the health, safety welfare of the public, but it is not load-bearing. It is not seismic, but certainly yes, interior design is a very, very broad profession.
You have everybody from folks who, just on the weekends are doing residential decoration for friends, all the way up to people who actually hold PhDs in interior design, who have studied everything as far as construction and design is concerned. Everything from, again, fire safety, Americans with Disability Act and accessibility and everything in between. That’s why the profession has decided that, as we go around the states to try and get interior designers the ability to independently work without having to work under an architect or engineer, that we do not want to pursue full restrictive licenses, what the interior design industry promotes and respects is the ability for interior designers, those interior designers who do want to work in the regulated spaces, those interior designers who do require building permits because they’re moving a wall, or they’re locating emergency lighting, or a fire extinguisher cabinet, that those interior designers have the ability to voluntarily register with the state so that they can obtain their construction document permit.
For those interior designers who enjoy working under an architect, or engineer, or another registered interior designers, or for those interior designers who again are just working in the residential space, the decorative space, we do not feel that the state should be requiring these folks to gain a license, or restrict the title interior designer. Again, it’s a very broad category. The American Society of Interior Designers, the organization that I represent, represents everybody from your interior decorator all the way up to your doctorate interior designers.
So, we believe in opening the marketplace, we believe in bringing everybody who is interested in good design into the marketplace, but certainly allowing the ability for those interior designers with the qualifications to have the ability to independently work without an architect or engineer over their shoulder.
You gave this stat earlier about how many women work in this industry. So I’m assuming when you see this, you see women who are definitely impacted who maybe have skills, but like you said, don’t need to get all of the licensing depending on the style or the type of interior design that they’re doing. Do you hear from a lot of women out there who are struggling with the cost of going through all the steps they need to take to be qualified or get that permit, or get that licensed to do what they’re doing? Do you hear from women quite a bit?
Well, again, fortunately, the interior design profession, as we’ve gone from state to state to try to obtain these abilities, these extra business rights, we have not supported in recent years the full restrictive license. So thankfully, we haven’t heard from many practitioners who feel that the current regulations for interior designers are onerous. They might feel that the regulations for architects or engineers in relation to interior design might be onerous, but not that those regulations for interior design are onerous. We hear more about the complaints from interior designers. I believe IWF recently interviewed one of our members, Robin Strobel, and I was reading IWS’ article with Robin the other day. We hear more complaints from the Robin Strobels of the world. Robin owned a small business in Wisconsin. It’s a small interior design business in Wisconsin, and she wants to be able to work independently, to be able to take her project from inception, through drafting, through obtaining her permits for the clients all the way through completion with the general contractor, who’s ever actually doing the construction.
We hear complaints from those practitioners because right now, they have to go pay an architect or pay an engineer to use their construction documents stamp. It adds bureaucracy to the process, it adds time the process and it also adds cost to the process because interior designers are either paying it out of their own pockets or the pockets of their business to obtain this review and stamp by architects or engineers, or they’re passing that unfortunately on the client. So it’s raising prices for construction. It’s raising costs for construction, and really we don’t believe based on the private education, certification, experience and examination that that needs to happen. So really, where we’re hearing the complaints from our practitioners are from the lack of the ability based on these other licensing laws to complete their work.
I want to take time here to let our listeners know about a new campaign that you just mentioned, Bryan, that I want to let people know where they can find more information. The campaign is called Chasing Work. It is a storytelling campaign, which educates us on how over-regulating employment locks workers out of opportunity. So there are stories of men and women, just like the woman you mentioned, Bryan. So if people are interested in learning about their stories they can go to iwf.org\chasing work that is iwf.org\chasingwork. So Bryan, I want to pick up on that. I know that you talk about how you’re trying to help women like Robin, that you just mentioned there. Do you see that states are trying to push reforms that will help people in her situation? Or are you seeing progress on this front?
You know, we hope so and we’re certainly working in many states. We were very lucky in Nebraska to have a great effort behind a recent effort to gain these practice and business rights for interior designers. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the bill across the finish line, but we saw great outreach from the Platte Institute out in Nebraska and former state Senator Laura Ebke, who worked with her colleagues to bring this issue to light again. So many times when you think of interior design, you don’t think that interior designer needs a permit or any sort of regulation. Again, most forms of decoration, some forms of interior design does not require any sort of regulation whatsoever, but for their ability to obtain those permits, you do need some sort of government oversight to obtain that stamp and seal, but we were very lucky in Nebraska to get a great outpouring from the legislature. A lot of people who were very interested and supportive of our topic, and we’ve seen that in other states, Wisconsin, North Carolina.
So we do see people’s eyes opening to the idea that an interior designer is more than just a decorator and can do a lot of the same work that an architect or engineer can do and that it’s about consumer choice, really when you think about it, instead of a consumer, just having to go to an architect. They’re not touching anything load-bearing an interior designer can now … Excuse me, a consumer can now go to an interior designer to do that work, but just like most of these cases, looking at the medical field and some of these other fields, there does seem to be that bit of a turf war component when talking about architects and engineers and interior designers, now we personally don’t think that this is about a turf war.
When we are looking to expand what an interior designer can do under the regulated system, we don’t want to take that away from an architect. We don’t want to take that away from an engineer. We want engineers and architects to be able to do everything they’re able to do today under the current system. All we want is for interior designers to do what they are educated, trained, and tested to do.
There has been some easing of requirements in certain areas of work during COVID-19 and during this pandemic, we can take a look at some of the health and safety requirements, medical professionals who are now allowed to operate over state lines. Do you see that the trend to ease restrictions on licensing and people being able to do their profession, do you think that could filter into this industry as well?
We certainly hope so and you mentioned the medical field being able to practice, or more professionals in the medical field being able to practice independently during COVID-19. We certainly hope to see that. Fortunately in many states, construction and construction–related services were deemed essential services and that’s really important and it makes sense because you saw in many states, structures like arenas and convention centers being converted into field hospitals, and that sort of space planning is something that an interior designer could and would do. You also see perhaps doctors’ offices that are changing their space planning to protect the healthcare workers as well as the patients. So it’s definitely something that we think lends itself to this deregulatory movement in response to COVID-19.
We certainly think that after COVID-19 is behind us, we’re going to see several residential and commercial clients looking for more efficient ways to create and change interior spaces. As I said earlier, our issue is really about consumer choice. We think in response to COVID-19, when you’re looking at how do we change corporate offices, we’ve seen a trend over the last 20 years in interior design of open office plans. We think we’re going to see a trend now away from that, when we think about social distancing. Material selection, in nine out of every 10 commercial and residential projects, an interior designer, not the architect, not the engineer, is the one that is specifying both products and materials. Looking at materials, we see antimicrobial materials, we see certain natural materials that kill germs on contact. So we certainly think there’s going to be a marketplace and a desire amongst the market to see more interior design, better interior design, more healthy interior design as we change the spaces we live in.
We spend 90% of our lives inside and we certainly think that our homes and our public office spaces, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airports, all these public spaces where we are now going to need to see social distancing and we’re going to need to see different sort of space planning. We think those are really all going to change and hopefully prompt a move towards deregulation of the industry where interior designers can work more freely and openly because they will definitely be contributing to the changes in these interior spaces as we move forward.
That leads me to my last question for today and that is, how are interior designers doing during COVID-19? A lot of the states have opened up, but you have bigger cities like New York, Washington D.C. et cetera, where there’s still shutdowns and orders, certain states where shutdowns are still in order. Do you find that a lot of people in this industry have been struggling during this time?
Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, more than 80% of interior design firms are not multinational firms. They’re not these huge firms that are working in London and Hong Kong and all around the world. They’re small businesses of four or fewer employees. Just like most small businesses during COVID-19, they are struggling. We have something at ASID called the Pulse Survey, which every two weeks surveys our members and we’re certainly seeing some downturn in the construction economy. We’re seeing folks not building new and not renovating their space as well. A lot of people are out of their commercial spaces and their office spaces during COVID-19.
We’ve seen other problems that are associated with COVID-19 for these small businesses as well. Most importantly, being that they can’t access construction sites, most construction sites in states where construction worker isn’t deemed essential, interior designers can’t get to their construction sites to work with their clients to do the fit out of these spaces. So certainly, we’re seeing a downturn. I think we’re starting to see now an upswing as we start to move out of COVID-19. But again, everything we talked about today, it’s all about small businesses. It’s all about making sure these small businesses can not only recover from COVID-19, but can contribute to the economy and their states and nationally, and give consumers more choices when it comes to design and construction work.
As you were saying, there, hopefully there’ll be a lot of work for interior designers as we’re changing the way people are working and living, maybe going from those open concept offices to something that is more social distance appropriate, could lead to a lot of work for interior designers once everything gets opened up. So Bryan, we so appreciate your work on this and standing up for so many workers across the country who just want to make a good living for themselves. So we appreciate you helping them do that.
Thank you so much Beverly, really appreciate your time. Really appreciate your listeners and let us know if we can contribute any other way in the future.
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