If you’re considering doing a design project, either a new house, or a remodel or addition to your existing house, I’d like to try to describe the architectural design process for you. I’ll present it in a linear, orderly fashion, but keep in mind that not all projects are simple – often the project becomes more clearly understood as it develops, and/or the owner decides to proceed in a different direction, so previous phases may be revisited to some extent.

A typical residential design project consists of five discrete phases. These are: Pre-design, Schematic Design, Design Development, Contract Documents, and Construction Administration. Depending on the scope of the project, the desires of the owner(s), and how quickly decisions are made, some of these phases may be abbreviated, or extra lengthy, or not required at all.


Pre-design involves any work required which occurs before design begins. Typically it includes discussion with the clients about their goals for the project, including their functional requirements, aesthetic preferences, etc., as well as budget, schedule, and quality goals. For a remodel or addition, measurements are taken of the existing house, and ‘as-built’ drawings are created from these (if you have existing drawings these can save time and expense). These as-built drawings form the base for subsequent design work. Other pre-design work may involve photo documentation of the existing structure and site, code research, review of neighborhood covenants etc.

Schematic Design

In this phase the information collected in the pre-design phase is used to generate design ideas. This work starts very conceptually, taking the site configuration into account (including potential passive solar strategies), orientation, exploring adjacencies, circulation, etc. As schematic design progresses, the design begins to gel. Several options are studied, reviewed, and then one is chosen to develop further. 3D studies are done, to visualize the different options. At the end of this phase a definite design direction has evolved, and the scope of work is fairly well established.

Design Development

In this phase the preferred Schematic Design scheme is – you guessed it – developed. Often the scale of design drawings jumps from 1/8” to 1/4” per foot. The design becomes more detailed, and systems (e.g. structural and mechanical) are reviewed and incorporated. An Outline Specification is developed to accompany the drawings, and includes written information (i.e. flooring materials, door hardware, appliances etc.) that cannot be contained in the drawings.

Construction Documents

In this phase the drawings required for Permit and Construction are created. Usually by the end of Design Development there is not much work required for Permit submittal. The drawings are refined, dimensions are added, special conditions are detailed. The Specifications are finalized, and become part of the Construction Documents.

Construction Administration

In this phase the design becomes reality. The architect’s work here involves assuring that the design intent is being met in the construction. There may be weekly site meetings with the owner and contractor, and clarifications and details may be requested from the contractor for items not included in the drawings.

There can be additional phases – for example Feasibility Study (if someone wants to determine if a project they’re considering is even possible, or if a house they’re considering buying would lend itself to a remodel they’re envisioning), Post-Construction Services, etc., but the ones laid out above are typical to most projects.

How a Contractor is selected varies from project to project – sometimes the owner brings a contractor to the project, sometimes one is selected in the course of the design, and sometimes one is selected through a bidding process. I often recommend a contractor to owners, based on the type of project, and what the owners are looking for.

In a future post I’ll talk about How to Work with an Architect, with tips on how to ensure your project is a successful one.