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The Phases of the Architectural Design Process

The architectural design process is a creative problem-solving endeavor that transforms ideas and visions into the 3 dimensional reality of the build environment.


As Vitruvius stated so eloquently and simply about 2000 years ago, “firmitas, utilitas, venustas” – that is, architecture must be “solid, useful, beautiful.” Louis Sullivan refined the expression in 1896 by saying “form follows function”. This is the fundamental principle in the early stages of the design of any build environment and is critical  to having a well conceived design.. The first step of this process is called programming.

Architectural programming is the comprehensive evaluation of the functional requirements, goals and needs of a Client  and the surrounding community into a beautiful and cohesive form. In other words, it’s the ”wish list” of what the client wants. The scope, size, features, purpose, and functionality of the spaces are defined. Together with the Architect, the vision is developed and refined. The Architect leads  through a “programming” exercise to help explore the needs of those who will live, work or play in what’s being created.

Programming discussions include but are not limited to: project scale, occupancy, room sizes, room function, spatial relationships, circulation through spaces, view capturing, interior environment, budgets, technical needs, aesthetics, health, safety and privacy requirements.

The Architect will also gather information on the building site or existing structure (if it’s a  remodel). .  

This is the point where the discussions on the budget will be discussed.   It is helpful for the Client to understand the costs of construction can vary greatly depending on the site, size, structure, material selection, and finishing detailing.


Once the requirements of the project are determined the design phase begins.  The Architect gives shape to the vision and communicates through drawings.  The Architect provides a preliminary evaluation of the program in the pre-design phase and prepares schematic design drawings illustrating the project to review with the Client.

The Client input into this phase is vital, as they get the first glimpses of how the project will take shape. It is important that the Client establishes clear decision-making process with the Architect during this phase.


As the project moves through the schematic phase the design sketches become more and more refined and progress from rough linework  to dimensioned drawings, with more detail added along the way.


Once approved by the Client, drawings at this stage are usually sufficient to initiate any neighborhood review process, if necessary.  If the Client is working with a Builder,  they can start the discussion of construction cost estimate. It’s arguably “best practice” to select a Builder early in this phase and include them in with the process.


Design Development is a logical extension of Schematic Design. Just like it sounds, the design is developed, and the project moves from the realm of ideas to a more solid and real form.  Team members such as structural and mechanical engineers, landscape architects, interior designers can be brought into the process. Their input is overlaid with more detailed information.

Throughout Design Development, it is important to evaluate how systems, material selection, preliminary structure and detailing reflect and impact the schematic design.  The team works out detailed coordination issues while enhancing the project so that major revisions are not needed during construction documentation or worse, during construction.  At this point, the Architect will prepare to scale floor plans and building elevations for initial review and approval.

This is an exciting part of the process where rough sketched ideas are refined into the three dimensional view of your project.  Although the Clients involvement will take time and numerous decisions must be made, working with the Architect should be a fun and rewarding experience.  The Client is encouraged to review plans—to see how the spaces will be utilized.

Spending considerable time contemplating your design now during the earlier stages of the process will save time and potential expensive changes later.  As a note of caution, significant changes made after approval of the DD’s, during the construction drawing phase may warrant additional fees.  Once construction has commenced, changes made to the design (especially those involving structural components of the building) can be quite costly so open communication and flexibility between the Architect and Client is critical to insure that the project proceeds as envisioned.

During the final steps of Design Development, scaled plans, elevations, building sections, and important details of the project are presented to the Client for approval.  This step could also include electrical, mechanical, plumbing, structural and site information that’s key to the project.


Continuing the design process, the Architect and the consultant team prepares drawings and specifications suitable for permit submittal and construction which are referred to as construction drawings (CDs). These drawings are an instrument of communicating the project to those who will be involved in the construction of your project; the CDs set the parameters for the building process

CDs are produced on a larger scale and describe, in detail, the components of the project that need to be fabricated and assembled. During this phase the Architect will continue to coordinate with consultants to insure a complete coordinated set for construction.

At the end of this phase and if client has not selected a contractor, the finalized set of Construction Drawings is suitable for distribution to potential contactors for bidding on the construction project.


During this phase, The Architect administers the construction process to assure conformance with design intent, visit the site during construction, and address any field conditions as they arise. Typically with a project of any complexity the Architect is retained to answer questions, deal with clarifications and administer revisions if necessary.  The Architect also protects the interests of the Client and the integrity of the design. This final phase, along with all the others described above, will ensure the smooth and satisfactory completion of the project. The ultimate goal for Architects is to help you turn the clients project vision into an affordable reality.

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