In no particular order - except for the first question.

What is the difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator?
The difference is fundamental. While the two terms often seem interchangeable outside the profession, there are two key distinctions; first, Interior Designers are commercial, industrial, hospitality and healthcare practitioners, while Interior Decorators are residential. In the Province of Ontario the designation Interior Designer is protected by statute and cannot be used without formal accreditation. The second difference is "scope of work". Interior Designers provide space planning, coordinate the required engineering disciplines, "pull" building permits, tender and administer trades as wel as furniture, fixture and equipment (FF&E) contracts and manage the space build-out. As a by-product of the process, they also create intuitive and stimulating environments that promote operational efficiency for all and individual wellbeing, perhaps the most noticeable aspects of a project. The finished space presents an image that is brand-consistent and professional, however, the "look" is much more than merely skin deep. What's visable is just the "tip of the iceberg".
What is the best starting point when exploring new premises options?

New premises are ultimately about new space but, for a variety of reasons, contacting a real estate broker is not necessarily the most prudent place to start. True, everything revolves around the particular space, but what kind of space is best and how how much is required, and what do your expect from employees near and long term, are not primarily real estate questions, They are organizational. The simplest approach is to duplicate that current amount of space, plus a reasonable growth factor. For many organizations, even most, approaching a move in this way achieves an easy and functional result. All the current capacities are accommodated.

However, few would argue that we live in very fluid times, when the ever-accelerating pace of technological innovation continues to disrupt even primary assumptions. Moving premises can be an exhilarating task that provides a unique opportunity to examine the current organizational thinking through the lens of new possibility. At no other time is fundamental change so immediately attainable and practical to achieve. An experienced interior designer can help facilitate realignment, large or small. You know your business and your industry, inside out. But surprising insights occur when a skilled external practitioner asks the "right" questions. In fact, the thing most often heard after a move, is how the planning process streamlined operational effectiveness.

To be effective the exploration must be specific and detailed; rather than a general metric applied like a one-size-fits-all algorithm based on staff count and typical management ratios. Quick précis' have their place at times but when an organization has decided to move, anything less than a detailed examination of reality in light immerging trends, squanders a rare opportunity for change. The best starting point is with an eye to the future rather than the past.

What is the difference between "rentable" square footage and "usable" square footage?

The difference is usually not significant unless, for whatever reason, the space is tightly planned (squeezed). In such circumstances, the difference between rentable and usable square footage can be a critical consideration. Actual space can be hard to calculate accurately. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) has developed and from time to time revises a standard for space calculations that is generally accepted throughout North America. It does not hurt to include a BOMA standard proviso in the lease agreement.

Virtually all floor plates (incremental slices of the building) have space allocated to "common" areas like the washrooms, elevator cores, mechanical and electrical rooms, and even the lobby. The total amount of that space is then divided on a per capita basis and added to the square footage of each tenant. If the tenant leases the whole floor the impact is usually insignificant. But if the leased space is only a few hundred square feet, it is important to note that some of that space is not in the unit.

There is another, more insidious space money siphon of which the selection committee should be aware; unusually shaped buildings or ordinary structures with excessively small column grids (the distance between supports) or unusually large column mass. Furniture is essentially a series of right angles, so are filing cabinets, and offices. Populating irregular space with regular objects, or space with a high number of obstacles (like columns), increases the likelihood that this fundamental mismatch results in in an inefficient space distribution. An interior designer can usually mitigate much of the problem by allocating space and placing amenities in a way that uses the irregularities of the space to best advantage.

Any interior design firm will help you evaluate space options as part of their service. McTernan Design Associates offers a no strings, flat rate evaluation of up to three spaces, with a report comparing the pros and cons of each; fast, easy and very attractively priced. It is intended as an introductory offer, of course, but available regardless of whom you ultimately select to plan your new space.

What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of creating a universal space standard?

Universal space standards are square-footage and furniture allocations somewhat akin to having a series of fixed pay categories. The floor space and amenities any employee enjoys becomes a function of their job title rather than, say, merit or serendipity. The advantage to the organization is two-fold. First, having standards mitigates any potential rivalries that may arise from the perception of favoritism. Law firms spring to mind. Second, they allow the organization to plan overall space requirements more effectively. In many organizations, particularly large ones, having universal space standards is viewed as a plus.

That said, they are not for everyone. From time to time an organization may feel the need to promote an individual, to ensure retention for example, even when doing so alters their normal "staff count" ratios. Under the space standard the person promoted is entitle to move up a notch and, to maintain the integrity of the protocol, that shift may result in unwanted construction expense or other physical disruption. Universal space standards can be an effective strategy for organizations managing large numbers of employees over many floors or facilities. In some cases they may also be useful for smaller companies. But rigid adherence to the standards, arguably a necessity, is probably less challenging when there are many people and lots of space to cushion any anomalous impact.

What kind of things should we be looking for in the lease negotiation?

Lease negotiations are quite rightly the province of your real estate broker and we would not presume to intrude therein. It goes without saying that the landlord wants to get the highest price possible with the least amount of expense. Raw space typically comes with slab floors and "T" Bar ceiling (bare concrete and white acoustic tile with 2' X 4' fluorescent fixtures). If the space is not currently in that condition you can usually negotiate a credit so the cost of getting things back to base-building condition is not your expense. Similarly, if you plan to completely redo the space you can usually negotiate a credit for the finishes that would be there but are not being installed. That allowance is typically based on "materials" and not "time and materials".

Make sure the space has all or most of the amenities that you and your employees desire/require. Are the elevators fast and reliable? Are there nearby food options? What is the parking situation like, for staff and visitors? Is the building easily accessible by transit? Is there a safe place to park bicycles; shared conference/teleconference space; building-wide WiFi; a fitness facility; and retail amenities like shopping, dry cleaning, pharmacy, banks or bank machines, shoe repair and car wash? Is there a loading dock for deliveries and couriers?

What sort of regulatory approvals are required?

For virtually all commercial office space, a building permit or permits are is required. Permits are generally issued by the municipality even though the code requirements include a combination of provincial and municipal standards. In the Province of Ontario, only Ontario Building Code registered firms can make an application for building permits. After the plan is substantially complete, designers submit a harmonized set of drawing, the stamped permit set, to the city for approval. The set includes the overall space planning; partitions, doors, windows, furniture, and specialty areas; board room, cafe, server rooms, etc., overlaid with the engineering specifications; structural, electrical, mechanical, acoustic and so on. Permits are issued on the strength of these drawings.

Who should manage the build-out work?
Throughout the course of construction many conditions and options arise that require on-site choices to be made. While there are many disciplines and trades involved in the project team, only the interior designer possesses the overarching perspective to ensure that the operational considerations and physical realities mesh to achieve client goals. The project designers represent the best and most efficient choice for coordinating the build-out. They certainly have the greatest understanding of the objectives.
What qualities should we be looking for in an Interior Designer?
Planning new space is an intense process. It requires considerable thought and experience.There are literally thousands of decisions, large and small. More than any other member of the project team, the interior designer provides timely and unbiased advice to keep things on track. There will be many meetings and discussions, and that time will be much more productive if you get along with the people. Therefore, the most important consideration in selecting an interior designer, assuming comparable skill and experience, is finding someone with whom you can work closely. That is not necessarily the person you like the most, nor even the one with the best sales pitch. Rather, it is the person who shares your values and understands the objectives of the project.
What is LEED certification and how does it impact an office build-out?
LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design®, one of the most popular "green" building certification programs used worldwide. In Canada the iniative is administered by Canada Green Building Council, a not for profit, advisory and certification organization. Buildings generate up to 35% of all greenhouse gases and 35% of landfill waste comes from construction and demolition activities. While debate over the causes of global warming persist, few would argue that actively engaging in sustainability is anything but prudent. This is particularly true when one is building-out of new space. Not only do the materials chosen have a big impact but also the design philosophy of the project can determine the operational footprint of the space for years. The need for sustainability will only grow over time. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, moving to new premises affords one the opportunity to make many organizational changes. Sustainability and accessibility are two that should be at the forefront for all.
How long does an office build-out take?

There are so many variables involved in building and moving into a new space, not least of which being the specific furniture, fixtures and equipment involved, that it is impossible to offer a meaningful estimate without first knowing both the objectives and the location. The number of square feet involved also has an impact on the schedule, but the effect of size is often non-linear. Generally speaking, start to finish, a "typical" project clocks-in less around nine to twelve months; roughly 1/3 planning and design, 1/3 source selection and procurement, 1/3 construction and finishing. Unless the space is quite small, less than that is probably wishful thinking.

It is critically important in the planning and design phase to ensure that the current and evolving needs of the enterprise are included in the new space. Some furniture and fixtures have long lead-times. These are often the unique or "sizzle" elements of the project. Few want to end up with a space that looks just like everyone else. The construction takes time. All of these tasks require precise coordination so that delays are kept to an absolute minimum. The professionals at McTernan Design Associates would be delighted to provide you with a more accurate schedule projection for any project, large or small.