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Design Development: A Key to Success

In the design of a building or a renovation, there are generally three phases of work:

  • Schematic Design, when many ideas with design potential are proposed

  • Design Development, when the most promising ideas are developed in greater detail and assessed against engineering, construction, and budget constraints

  • Construction Documents, when important details of the selected design are refined, specific building products are chosen, a final cost estimate is prepared, and everything is documented for use by the contractor during construction

Arguably, Design Development is the most important phase of an architect’s work. It is the time when abstract design concepts and forms must be converted into real building components and systems. The architect does this work cautiously because the vitality of innovative ideas is often lost when the comfort of pragmatism and familiarity is allowed to dominate decision-making.

Design Development may be the least understood and appreciated part of the design effort. When owners attempt to lower architectural fees, the time available for Design Development is often shortened. Doing so makes it difficult to fully assess each design option. It may also limit studying what appears to be the best option in sufficient detail to completely grasp its complexity and construction difficulty. This will eventually surface during construction, and lead to project delays and higher cost when design issues must be resolved in the middle of building the work.

The Product of Schematic Design

During the first phase of the design work, the architect generates a number of interesting ideas that address a client’s needs and wishes. If creativity is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration,” Schematic Design is the “10%.” The drawings and sketches that are produced show lines and shapes that illustrate architectural concepts, but they do not show specific construction assemblies or systems (structural, mechanical, etc.) Schematic drawings are of very limited value in developing accurate cost estimates.

The Work of Design Development

Selecting ideas with the most potential, the architect develops several in greater detail and with more dimensional accuracy. The “90% perspiration” mentioned above is the effort required to turn the design concepts shown on the schematic drawings into actual construction assemblies in such a way that the character and strength of the original design idea is maintained. Specifically:

  • A more complete picture of the required site work will be formed when ground-level changes, proposed drainage patterns, and the location of utility lines, walkways, steps, driveways, and retaining walls are added to the site plan.

  • Floor plans are refined to show specific furniture placement, built-in casework locations, mechanical and utility spaces, and likely structural support locations (walls and posts).

  • The walls and ceilings of different rooms are shaped to provide spatial variety and interest and to determine the structural support system needed.

  • Exterior wall studies show how various wall areas can be differentiated, windows and doors grouped, and different surface finishes applied to enhance the building’s appearance.

  • Important interior walls are studied to assess the impact of finish material combinations and to organize the locations of moldings, light fixtures, switches / outlets, and artwork.

  • Reflected ceiling plan drawings are produced to locate desirable ceiling plane changes and to discover conflicts among light fixture, ventilation grille, and sprinkler head positions.

Each design option is not analyzed to the same depth. Many apparently promising designs will prove to be problematic after a small amount of study.

During this phase of the design work, engineers and contractors evaluate the impact of the various architectural designs on the building’s technical systems and its method of construction. Some consultants will do preliminary plans and construction details to identify areas of conflict between the desired architectural design and the space requirements of structural, mechanical, and plumbing components. Each architectural design option may be affected differently.

At the conclusion of this work, the best design will emerge. In the process, specific construction information will have been developed on which to base better cost estimates. More importantly, many problems that would have surfaced during construction will have been identified and solved.

Construction Drawings

The main purpose of the Construction Drawings phase of the work is to document (with drawings and specifications) the result of all of the project’s design and construction decisions. The only design work that should remain is the production of key construction details needed to build the project. Why?

Working within a tight design budget, the architect and the engineering consultants find themselves under pressure to efficiently document a lot of information in a limited period of time. Cooperatively, they endeavor to resolve any remaining design issues between the architectural and engineering components of the work while producing a well-coordinated, thorough set of drawings.

Unanticipated time that must be devoted to solving basic design problems that should have been addressed earlier in the design process will delay the completion of the design work, lead to fee problems, and postpone the start of construction. Commencing construction to adhere to a desired starting date without having resolved these design issues is unwise. It is much more difficult to solve design problems properly, discretely, and inexpensively during construction.

The Bottom Line

Good design takes care, and care takes time. Clients who want well-designed and properly constructed buildings and renovations that can be built within a reasonable time frame are advised to provide sufficient resources within the overall budget to develop the building’s design properly.

An imaginative architect can generate many interesting ideas quickly, but it takes a good deal more time to turn one terrific idea into an elegant, buildable design.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767