The remodeling world is full of confusing terms. (Did you know that MDF stands for “medium density fiberboard”?) Before you initiate a renovation or home improvement project, learn who does what, and how they can help you.

By Kristen Shelton
April 26, 2007

A new wraparound deck is the perfect place for a quiet drink at dusk or an all-out bash in the summer. Consider a lower deck that doesn’t require a railing for an unobstructed view.

Photographer Lisa Romerein

Architect vs. Residential Designer
The similarities between an architect and a residential designer end once the plans are drawn. From blueprints to site management, an architect can see you through the entire building process. In the United States, architects must be licensed and registered, which means they must meet three National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) requirements: education, experience, and examination. Many also register with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), an organization with a strict code of ethics and professional conduct that requires members to continue their education.

If your needs end with drawn plans and you intend to manage construction yourself, you may prefer working with a residential designer, whose primary task is to furnish preliminary and detailed designs for the proposed structure. Some, but not all, residential designers register with the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD), which mandates five years of educational and design experience. While AIBD specifies standards and ethics with which the residential designer must comply, it doesn’t require any standardized exams.

Editor’s tip: If you’re interested in green design, look for a pro who is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional. These abbreviations (NCARB, AIA, or LEED), found after the architect’s name on his or her business card, signify particular qualifications and interests.

Interior Designer vs. Interior Decorator
Designers and decorators have different areas of expertise. Designers address spatial planning, lighting, and decor; decorators focus on surface decoration.

Interior designers, as defined by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ), are professionals concerned not only with the creative aspect of living spaces, but also with technical solutions. They work to create functional, aesthetically attractive rooms that enhance the quality of clients’ lives. An interior designer can help you use your space wisely and design for safety, accessibility, and acoustics. In addition to working with standard interior details, such as paint and fabric, designers can assist with historic renovations and environmental conservation. Thanks to education requirements and exams administered by the NCIDQ, interior designers are qualified in a number of areas. Professional members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) have these credentials.

If all you need is a fresh pair of eyes (with good taste, of course) to update your home, interior decorators may be more cost-effective. Decorators typically work with paint, fabrics, flooring, and lighting to make a room attractive. With no state-mandated requirements, such as licenses or exams, decorators can become qualified by earning a degree in the field, or through proven experience.

Editor’s tip: Before contacting a designer or decorator, create a scrapbook with images of paint, fabric, furniture, and lighting samples you like. Then take it with you on interviews. Talk to several professionals, and choose the one who works best with your ideas and budget. Ask about fee structures: Some people charge hourly, others work on a cost-plus basis (the designer purchases materials for the home and sells them to the client at cost, plus a percentage to compensate for time and effort), and still others charge a flat fee.

These organizations offer referral services on their Web sites: American Institute of Architects,; American Institute of Building Design,; American Society of Interior Designers,