Historic Preservation and Interior Design - Community Engagement at Work

Presented by: Valerie L. Settles, PhD

The Council for Interior Design Accreditation (n.d.) states that accredited interior design education helps insure students are prepared to be “responsible, well-informed, skilled professionals” in the field so they can best serve their clients. Fortunately, interior design exposes practitioners to a wide range of clients in a variety of locations – interior designers can serve anyone from wealthy clients to non-profit community organizations. Therefore, it is incumbent on the interior design educator to expose students to experiences that provide relevant examples of the breadth of the profession so they are able to learn what area best fits their skill set and interests. When students have the opportunity to work with clients in the community, they are able to grow as designers while also helping others; experiential learning is an important component in assisting students to reach a deeper level of understanding for their discipline. Thompson and Beak identify five basic criteria for projects integrated into experiential learning: they are directly integrated in the curriculum; they force students to engage the critical aspects of their discipline; they involve students in productive inquiry; they are largely student-driven; and they are representative of real-world scenarios (Thompson & Beak, 2007). Experiential learning is also an effective technique for developing the critical thinkers and effective problem solvers so important to the professional market in which students will soon be competing. This practice helps students develop “responsibility, independence, and discipline” while learning to be accountable to themselves and their peers so that everyone participates equally in the completion of the final product (Bell, 2010). As students engage in experiential learning experiences, they are also able to gain a better view of “the big picture” that is so important in motivating them to become more interested in learning, rather than simply completing assignments. The “big picture” suddenly becomes very clear when students have the opportunity to speak to someone in the community with a need; they begin to understand the importance of the work interior designers do and the importance of doing that work well. This case study presentation follows interior design students in a historic preservation course as they implement criteria of Thompson & Beak and learn about the challenges of preserving older buildings and how interior designers play an integral role while interacting with local community organizations. Working with a local chapter of the National Main Street Organization, students were asked to develop a design to convert an upper floor in a historic building to residential spaces to provide housing in the central business district of a small western town. After meeting with the client, students organized relevant project groups, developed the program, researched pertinent information, and completed working drawings that were presented to the client. Following completion of the project, students completed a reflection exercise that asked them to evaluate what they learned during the course – about historic preservation and about themselves as designers. Comments made by students included: “This class broadened my mind with design and the possibilities there are…it made me think outside the box in other classes of what I could do.” “I see the process of design in a more complete way… having to rely on the work of others makes you realize how important each part of the design process is.” “After taking this course I realize that saving and repurposing historic buildings is environmentally responsible.” Students who completed the Historic Preservation course were not only exposed to a potentially new area of specialization in their future practice, but grew to understand the importance of their role in helping others in the community while maintaining the common culture held within our historic resources.


  • Bell, S. (2010). Project-based learning for the 21st century: Skills for the future. The Clearing House, 83(2), 39-43.
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://accredit-id.org/
  • Thompson, K.J., & Beak, J. (2007). The leadership book: Enhancing the theory-practice connection through project-based learning. Journal of Management Education, 31(2), 278-291.
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