The Phases of Architectural Design

The role of an Architect in a typical project involves much more than designing and drawing. Architects also act as project managers, client advocates, researchers, and liaisons to the multitude of government entities, consultants, and engineers that are involved in bringing a building to life.

In engaging with an Architect, you may discover quickly that they perform their work in a highly specialized and organized fashion, referring often to the “Phases of Design” which break up a complex scope of work into distinct stages.

Why do we break architectural design into phases?

Architects are educated and trained to utilize a design system which provides structure for an inherently complex process. Each design project is broken up into distinct phases, each phase with a different goal and set of deliverables. The project progresses in complexity and completion as each phase is wrapped up.

Though the phase length or intensity may vary from project to project or firm to firm, the general progression of the architectural design process remains the same across the industry. Early stages are much wider and more open, with further refinement and detail added at each phase, resulting in a completed design for a building.

As a client, you will find references to the architectural design phases in your contract, on your drawings, and in conversation with your Architect, designer, or others involved with the project.


What are the phases of architectural design?

There are (generally) five phases of design:

1.       Schematic Design

2.       Design Development

3.       Construction Drawings

4.       Bidding

5.       Construction Administration

Some architecture firms will have an additional phase at the beginning of the project called “Pre-Design”. At Workbench, we refer to this as Concept Design, and include this phase on larger projects.

Read on for an primer on each phase of the process.

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Concept Design

Defining the program.

Before pencil can hit paper on a design, your designer or architect will dedicate time towards understanding your project goals and gleaning insights about your desired functional uses, lifestyle habits, and aesthetic values. Open conversations, a site visit, and sharing inspirational images will help your designer refine the scope and vision for the project.

During this phase, your designer will work with you to develop what is known as a “program” from this interrelated information- the list of needs, uses and constraints which will help shape the design. This may include wishes for specific room adjacency, square footage requirements, prioritization of unique site, discussions about spaces for your hobbies or existing furniture, and more.

In addition to gathering information from you directly, your designer will perform a site analysis- researching local zoning codes, building codes, and environmental requirements to confirm your desired building can be constructed on your site. If not already provided, there will likely be initial reports such as an as-built drawing set, a site topographical survey, or a soil/geotechnical report that should be provided to your designer or ordered before design can begin.

The pre-design phase is analytical and creative- it is key at this point to align on a defined program, total budget, and project timeline. A well-refined program and schedule, along with clear communication and collaboration, will support the rest of the design process and keep things running smoothly.

Schematic Design (SD)

Beginning the design.

Following determination of programming requirements, feasibility conditions, and conceptual ideas, the project is ready to move into Schematic Design.

Schematic design is the point at which you and your designer work through the ideas, constraints, and potentialities of a project, with the end goal of designing the site placement, shape and size of the building, relationships and sizes of rooms, and basic exterior design. You will leave schematic design with an understanding how the building will look, function, and feel.

This phase is highly iterative (and fun!), with a lot of client involvement and feedback in the process. As the design progresses, your designer will move from loose hand-sketching and diagrams to more formalized drawings. During your working meetings, you may be presented with several design options and discuss the merits of each before selecting a direction for the building.

During schematic design, your designer or architect will create drawings including site plans, floor plans, elevations, and preliminary digital models or renderings. The building floorplan, general dimensions, and other major details will be determined.

If a planning permit or another jurisdictional review is needed, the schematic design package may also incorporate drawings and preliminary recommendations from sub-consultants such as civil engineers, geotechnical engineers, landscape designers, or surveyors.

At this phase in the process, the site plan and exterior elevations need to be finalized and approved by the client- it becomes challenging and potentially costly to change them later.


Design Development (DD)

Working out the details.

With schematic design complete, the Design Development phase begins.

This is the phase of the process where any remaining program considerations are resolved, and an additional level of systems and material detail is added to the design package. Your designer’s drawings will transition from schematic to highly detailed and information-rich, with the dimensions, floorplan, interior sections, and materials all being determined at this phase.

Engagement and coordination with outside sub-designers, engineers and consultants is needed to research and develop the structural, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical system designs.

At the close of the Design Development, the design and drawing set is near finalized, and no significant changes should be initiated following this. To create a simpler and more timely transition to construction, it is ideal to have all interior and exterior finish materials selected at this point.


Construction Documents (CD)

Preparing for permitting.

The Construction Documents phase is the most time intensive for an architect or designer, though the level of client involvement and frequency of communication will likely taper off at this stage. Your designer is hard at work finalizing all the technical information and specifications required to get the project permitted and built.  They are also coordinating final designs and drawings with engineers and sub-consultants, making sure all the building systems and components are properly detailed. 

The deliverable at this phase will be a complete set of drawings and specifications (the Construction Documents) for your new building. This set will be then be submitted for permits as well as used to develop construction bids and updated cost estimates.



 Determining the cost.

This phase is as straightforward as it sounds. As a design-build firm, our construction project managers and contractors will prepare a construction bid for your project, interacting with the architect or designer for any needed clarifications.

Contractually, Workbench typically places the Bidding Phase within the Construction Documents Phase, setting the goal of being ready to start construction as soon as the project’s building permit is approved.


Construction Administration (CA)

Monitoring the build.

Once the building permit is granted and construction begins, your architect or designer will transition into the Construction Administration phase. They will check in with the general contractor and periodically visit the job site, making sure that the details of the building are being constructed as they designed and helping troubleshoot any questions so that construction can stay on track.

As construction progresses, it is reasonable to expect formal change orders may be initiated, in which case your designer would put together any requested drawings or supplemental information, working together quickly with the field team to correct any issues.


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Workbench is an architecture and general contracting firm based in Santa Cruz, CA and serving Monterey County, Santa Cruz County, Los Gatos, and the greater Bay Area. Follow along with us on Facebook, Instagram, or Houzz.