5 (+1) Phases of Architecture Design - Architecture Career Guide
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Construction Administration

5 (+1) Phases of Architecture Design

What are the phases you go through to design a project?

Construction Administration

What a lot of people may not know until they are in the field of architecture is that it is typically done in phases. I have had a lot of lay people respond with, “Don’t you just draw the building and then have somebody else build it?” Well, yes and no. We will get into different construction delivery methods in a later post explaining where we might actually build it too, but for the design part, yes we do draw it, but there is so much more that goes into it that it that is unseen, and because of that it should be done in phases. There are many reasons for phasing what we do, but two of the biggest reasons are: first, it breaks down the giant task into smaller manageable chunks and second it helps us follow a natural progression into the amount of detail we put into the drawings based on the finalization of decisions. It would be a huge waste of time if we created a fully detailed set of drawings, only to have the owner decide he wanted something different, or our mechanical engineer informs us that their ducts won’t fit in our design.

So what are the phases of design? Typically you will see reference to the 5 phases of design, but I like to say 5 +1, because there are times when we may be adding a phase, depending on the project. The phases are: Programming (the +1), Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents, Bidding and Negotiation and Contract Administration. Below is a brief synopsis of each phase, I will follow up with a more detailed post on each phase.


The reason I call this the plus one is that is not always necessary for every project. A lot of times an owner/client will approach you with a need for design, but they already know what they want. In an example of an office building, they may know they need 10 offices, 1 reception area, 1 open office area for 20 workstations, 1 breakroom and a couple of restrooms, each with appropriate sizes and square footage needs. This is what we base our floor plan on, after we verified their assumptions and add for building factor (walls, circulation, etc) and is a lot of times what we base our fees on as well.

There are also times where a client may come to us and say, “I want to build a recreation center and I have an idea of what I want, but I’m not sure”. This is the point where we might come in, and for a fee beyond our typical scope, sit down with the owner, the different user groups, facilities and maintenance and anybody else involved to figure out exactly what they want. We do this through various meetings and interviews and document every idea in the book. Often times we will send out what I call “stakeholder surveys” to ask pertinent questions to get the conversation started. From here, we will sit down with the owner and decide what is realistic for this project and what needs to be shelved. We then put together a written narrative of what we interpret as the spatial needs, a summary of the spaces involved and even an adjacency or bubble diagram of the interaction of these spaces. This gets put together in one report for the owner that will serve as the guide for what the design needs to be.

Schematic Design

Once we have a program to start with, the real fun begins…design. This phase will resemble what an architecture student is most accustomed to. We put together space plans, layout a bubble diagram and adjacencies, start putting in walls, draw elevations, draw sections, come up with material choices, and coordinate all of this with the owner. But wait, what kind of structural system are we using? Have we allocated enough space for a mechanical closet? Are we sure this will fit on the site? And most importantly, are we even close to the owner’s budget? These are all things we need to be aware of even at this early phase, and is something interns may not be used to. Remember in an earlier post I talked about how architecture is not done in a vacuum? This is a perfect example of having to work with so many different people, even at the early phases to make it work.

Design Development

So you have all of the spaces laid out, they fit within the allocated square footage, we are within budget and the owner has signed off on the design (they did sign it right? More on that in another post), so the next step is to detail it and give it to the contractor right? Woah, slow down. For some smaller projects it may be possible to just jump right into Construction Documentation, but for most there is still a lot left to do. In Design Development, we need to have more in depth discussions about the actual design with others. We need to meet with any necessary governmental agencies (Building Department, Fire Marshal, Planning, etc) on any big issues. We need to check to make sure our design will meet pertinent codes (IBC, ADA), and have coordination meetings with our consultants to make sure everything is working together. We need to further detail our Schematic Design to make sure our design will still work.

Construction Documentation

We are all coordinated with consultants and government agencies, the owner has signed off on the design and we are still within budget (you did check that budget number again right?), so let’s get building. Not yet. We still need to detail a lot of these construction conditions, because we cannot expect the contractor to be able to read our mind and know exactly what we want, nor do we want them to. We need to coordinate with the consultants and government agencies again to make sure we are still on track. We need to complete the Project Manual which includes the product Specifications, alternate selections, allowances, insurances and bonds and a lot of the technical information for the contractors. This is typically the longest phase in the design process and is also where the highest percentage of design fees comes from.

Bidding and Negotiation

Now that we know what to build and how, we are going to need somebody to build it. Note: This is assuming a traditional design-bid-build delivery method and does not take into consideration construction manager or design-build methods, which we will go into in another post. Our biggest role in the Bidding and Negotiation phase is to assist the owner in selecting the right contractor. We typically do not select the contractor, but we can recommend and advise the owner in their decision. Depending on the project type and legalities (public work needs to be open-bid), the owner may already have a contractor in mind, invite a select number of contractors to bid, or have an open bidding process where anybody is allowed to bid. The bids are typically in a sealed envelope with a proposal the contractors put together on how much they can build the project for based on the contract documents. This is why this phase is also referred to as CSP, or competitive sealed proposal. The contractors do not know what the others will charge and hope that they are the lowest and/or most capable contractor. Our role in this whole process is to assist the owner in soliciting for the bids (placing ads in the newspaper), making documents available for interested parties, reviewing and scoring the bids and assisting the owner in their decisions. It is also in this phase that contractors may ask questions to help them put together their numbers, so we need to issue addendums that have more information or answers to their questions to all parties bidding.

Contract Administration

Once a contractor is selected, the owner will issue a NTP, Notice to Proceed, and the contractor will begin work. In this phase we are responsible for assisting the owner during construction, answering contractor requests for information (RFI), issuing architect supplemental instructions (ASI), and providing construction observation. It is important to know that during this phase, we are not responsible for the construction management. Our role is to observe the construction to ensure that it is being built per the contract documents and report back to the owner. We are not there to supervise the contractor or their subcontractors, and remember that the contractors work for the owner, not us. We will make site visits, generate field reports, monitor project schedule and budget and certify applications for payment from the contractor. Towards the end of the project, we will check the contractors “punch list” and ensure the owner receives as-built drawings, warranties and operations and maintenance manuals.

As you can see, there is a lot that goes into the process of designing and constructing a building and would be way too much to digest in one swoop, so we need to break it down into smaller phases in order to not get overwhelmed. And just like the project is broken down into smaller phases so the team doesn’t get overwhelmed, you can break down each phase into smaller milestones and goals so you don’t get overwhelmed either.