11 July 2019/ rent_office_guide

Should you hire an architect or interior designer to sort out your new office space?

Two experts weigh in on who is best qualified to lead your renovation

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When purchasing or leasing a space long term – whether for investment or for your own business – it's likely you'll need to make some modifications. This will involve hiring an expert or two, but who do you need? An architect? An interior designer? Both? Who is best qualified to lead your renovation project?

To provide some clarity, we asked the advice of two property and design experts who spend much of their professional time on construction job sites.

  • Laurie March is a project manager who is a third-generation remodeller. She found her sweet spot as an advocate for property owners, which led her to becoming ‘The House Counselor’ on US home improvement and real estate channel HGTV.
  • Colleen Arria is a designer and principal at commercial design-build firm Stantec.

Q: How do you know whether you need an architect or designer?

A: You may not know until you consult. Once you pull in either one to work with you on a project, they’ll tell you who else is needed on the team. "Both are going to know whether they’re personally able to do what needs to be done. If a designer needs to bring in an architect, they'll say so," says Arria. “Both have specialist areas of expertise. For example, an architect will know all the building regulations and whether it’s possible to change a building’s usage and how to go about it.”

"The architect deals with the exterior and orientation of the building – architects will be your best friend for that," says Laurie March. “A designer thinks about how people live and work in the space, with consideration for how everyone will use it – now and in future." Both Arria and March agree that when you're truly starting from scratch, it's optimal to have both.

Q: Is an architect also a project manager?

A: Not necessarily, but sometimes. Essentially, a project manager is someone who advocates for the owner's interests with all the parties involved – and that can include the architect and/or designer. However, in some cases, the architect also plays the role of project manager. This works well if there's good rapport, trust, and probably some history between the owner and architect.

However, if the architect is also bringing in their own general contractor, sub-contractors, and/or structural engineer, it may prove more beneficial to have a separate project manager who the owner trusts to communicate with the architect, vet the other people on the project, and make decisions for the overall benefit of the project.

Q: When is a change to a property too small to need an architect or designer?

A: You may be thinking that the space you're about to sign a lease on is so close to perfect that you can DIY any changes with just a couple tradespeople’s help. Let's consider a few examples of small-scale tenant improvements that apply to many small business situations:

  • You need to soundproof one room that's going to turn from an office into a recording studio for branded content.
  • You're converting one kind of quick-service dining venue into another type, and you just need a couple of new commercial appliances.
  • You're moving office spaces, and upgrading the broadband and wireless, but with the help of the provider.
  • You're putting new furniture into the office lobby, and making decorative additions, such as getting your logo produced into signage for your office's interior reception wall.

All of these scenarios, while not strictly requiring a designer, may become exponentially more difficult if you don't have one from the outset, as our experts point out.

"Soundproofing a room is not as simple as just putting material on the walls. Because of the physics of how sound travels, you may need to reinforce the ceilings, and even the floors, if you don't want to create a nuisance for other tenants," says Arria.

With food service, she continues, not only are there sets of specific food safety regulations and licences, there are also fire regulations to think about. When you make networking changes, there will be considerations for where the cabling is going to run. And even for something as seemingly simple as furnishing – the heights and materials of furnishing that may work in one set-up won't necessarily work in another.

The other pitfall to overseeing your own tenant improvements, March reminds us, is that someone needs to assume responsibility for any amendments the local planning office determines you should make. Whoever applies for permission to make changes is responsible for overseeing the process. And, if there are required amendments that are outside of your understanding, you’ll definitely need to call in expert help.

Q: At what point should you bring in an architect and/or designer?

A: Don't delay. In fact, Arria suggests bringing one on while you're still looking at spaces, especially if you’re planning significant renovations. "Before you sign a lease, it's in your best interest to hire an architect or designer to look at the property. We'll be able to see potential costs, problems or other variables." You might be looking at a property in terms of postcode, footfall, proximity to your house, or simply the potential you foresee in the building. But a designer or architect can look into a space, assess things that may not even be visible, and tell you whether or not it will work for your business.

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