Safety 101 for the Design Professional
Whether you’re an interior decorator, a professional organizer, or a home stager, design professionals are responsible for more than just making a space look aesthetically pleasing. You are also obligated to consider what your clients need within that space to stay safe. In most places, there are certain codes and regulations that your designs must comply with.
Don’t let the idea of safety regulations overwhelm you! As long as you do your research and stay alert while you develop your plan, you’ll create a space that both pleases your client and meets all of the safety requirements they need.
Design professionals are responsible for considering things like:
- Fire codes
- Building codes
- Accessibility regulations
- Health guidelines
- Environmental issues
In addition to your clients’ wants and tastes, you should also think about their:
- Needs and safety
- Mental and physical health
- Physical and emotional wellbeing
Here’s a quick breakdown of how safety needs and regulations in your area can influence how you alter private homes, workplaces, and public spaces.
Fire and building codes
To comply with fire and building codes, pay attention to where you place furniture and décor. Avoid blocking entry ways, safety exists, and high traffic areas like hallways. In the event of a fire or emergency, these key areas will be used by panicked people trying to get out, and/or by emergency crews trying to get in (sometimes with large equipment). Make sure everyone can move comfortably around the space, even in a hurry.
Fire codes also influence which materials are safe to purchase when it comes to carpets, furniture, and curtains. In the case of a fire, people are actually in more danger of being harmed by inhaling toxic fumes released into the air when certain materials burn than they are of being hurt by the flames. Research the fire codes in your area and avoid high risk materials.
Particularly in workplaces and public places, the spaces you design should be accessible to everyone. You’ll be responsible for ensuring that people living with disabilities can move about the space and reach things properly, even if they use a mobility device.
In the United States, accessibility is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Public buildings must meet the ADA standards and accommodate persons with disabilities. Accessibility guidelines vary from place to place but they are regulated almost everywhere. While you’re considering the needs of your clients, research the regulations in your area, especially if you’re working with a business or public building.
Health and Safety
Consider the health and safety of everyone who uses the space. Does your client have pets? If so, avoid decorating the space with plants that are poisonous to animals when consumed. There aren’t many cats that can resist chewing on the leaves of a new house plant.
Will small children be in the space frequently? Try not to decorate with small objects that might present a choking hazard. Little figurines placed low enough for small hands to reach can be swallowed easily. Curtains with long, looped tassels hanging down are a strangulation risk for children and animals alike, because their necks might be level with the loops.
Shelves that aren’t anchored to the wall might be climbed and tipped. Open storage for risky products or tools might be too easy to get into. Evaluate the space and your plan very carefully. Part of addressing health and safety concerns is to pet- and child-proof the space reasonably, without getting carried away and bubble wrapping the room.
Consider more than just the physical safety of your clients in your design. You should also design with their mental and emotional wellbeing in mind. Make sure there’s enough natural light, give them enough space to move and adjust, and choose a decorative and color scheme that helps to reduce stress rather than contributing to it.
As you transform a space, choose products and services that are environmentally friendly whenever you can. Use materials that aren’t toxic, avoid products that create pollutants, and generally try not to waste resources. Check your local building codes because some cities include guidelines and standards in order to reduce that area’s “global footprint”.
Lighting and acoustics
Especially in the workplace, adequate lighting is important and can even be a safety issue. Many building codes actually regulate the amount of lighting required in workplaces and public buildings. Good lighting helps your clients avoid eye strain, reduces the frequency of accidents, and is essential in the event of an emergency.
You should also be aware of the acoustics in the space. Will that noisy ceiling fan annoy everyone in the office? Perhaps you should skip it. Don’t underestimate the importance of your clients’ ability to see and hear comfortably while they go about their day. This contributes to their overall wellbeing.
What if the client won’t co-operate?
Some clients already know what they want and talking them out of it can be difficult. If that idea presents a blatant health or safety hazard, however, you’ll need to convince them to choose something else. Your responsibility is to negotiate what the client wants and what meets mandatory health and safety requirements. Steer them towards an option that has a similar style but isn’t as risky. If your client insists that the office should be organized according to their self-taught feng shui ideas, claiming that the best place to put the office desk is right in front of the fire exit, you’ll need to gently guide them towards a safer floor plan.
You might need to help clients rethink what they want even when their idea doesn’t threaten formal building regulations. For example, the client who wants to include a floating staircase as part of the chic new daycare perhaps doesn’t realize the danger this presents. Floating staircases have spaces between each step and can extremely dangerous design for small children, and you should respectfully help them understand why a different style of staircase should be used instead. Remember to keep in mind that a floating staircase (with more than three steps) that has no railings is against safety requirements! Your goal isn’t to scare your clients with stories of things gone wrong, but rather to help them see why another design is safer.
Aim for balance
Navigating safety regulations while you’re trying to design with style can be a challenge, but it’s essential to coordinating a great space. If you design with safety in mind, the space will meet codes and regulations while also making your clients comfortable. Don’t forget to take your own safety into account as well! If you’ve got a design element in mind that is outside your scope and ability, speak with your clients and contract a professional to get the job done right!