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5 Key Architectural Design Phases [Explained]

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The design and creation of a building can be a long and complex process. Organizing an architecture project into design phases can clarify the process and put it into manageable steps.

Here is what you need to know about the architectural design process, stages of architectural design, and how to be more efficient in your architectural design phases to ensure a smooth process and better customer satisfaction. In this article, we will discuss the 5 phases of architectural design and how to implement them for maximum success.



Purposes of Design Phases

It’s first critical to understand why the stages of architectural design are essential to the overall project's success.


Better Project Management

Most professionals spend so much of their time trying to win projects that they may not consider what architectural design process they have in place once they’ve been awarded them. It typically takes several architectural design phases to reach a completed project, and many architects have several projects going on at once.

Juggling all of these design stages and multiple processes is a complicated part of the job, but formalized phases of architectural design can make it easier and smoother.


Help Manage Client Expectations

A building is a permanent structure; once it is made, it’s very difficult to go back and change elements the client doesn’t like. Architects need to get it right before building and are often restricted by budget.

A structured architecture design process with set phases can help your clients feel in control and give everyone clearer insights into what is happening. With 3D home design software , owners can better understand how the final building will look and a photorealistic view of the finished product. This realistic visualization will also help manage expectations and mitigate any misunderstandings later. It will result in more trust from the client and less stress for the architect.



Pre-Design Process

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) officially lists five separate design phases. AIA lists Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents, Bidding, and Construction Administration as the vital stages of architectural design. However, there is one critical phase to add: Pre-Design.

The Pre-Design phase helps architects identify any potential issues or challenges they might encounter. It also enables them to determine the scope of the work that needs to be designed. While no actual designing is done during this phase, it will allow you to ask your client the questions needed to get insights into their problems, desires, and requirements. This part of the process is where the research and majority of the decision-making should occur.

Some of the projects that are done in the Pre-Design phase include:


Site Analysis

Understanding where the building will be, and any current issues are critical to the project's success. It is during this phase that property surveys are taken, as well as any geotechnical and financials. If there is currently a building there, this is the time to make sure all testing is completed. Asbestos testing, lead testing, and different hazardous material testing are critical to identifying the safety of the building.


Zoning Analysis

Potentially the biggest part of Pre-Design, zoning analysis identifies and confirms what you can build, including use and size. This is also where you need to research whether any codes might affect or interfere with your project.


Project Scope

The client needs to articulate the project scope of work as much as possible. Talk with them about their expectations and their overall vision for the project.


Project Goals & Building Program

Identify and list the proposed uses of the structure to help you determine what needs to go into the design.


Project Budgeting & Schedules

Although it might be too early to establish the budget or schedule, you might want to get a rough idea of the two during this phase.



Architectural Design Phase 1: Schematic Design

The first of the five phases of architectural design, Schematic Design typically accounts for 15% of the total amount of work for the architect.

It is during this phase that the owner and architect talk about the project and the owner’s requirements. The architect does the research and analysis of the property, including building and zoning codes that might affect the site analysis.

According to the official architectural design phases, AIA states that the programming phase is the owner's responsibility. They will often hire a programming consultant to do this themselves. However, many architects provide programming services during this phase as well and use it as an add-on to their other services.

The overall objective of this phase is to establish the basic design of the building with the shape and size. The architect will produce and develop the comprehensive plan and preliminary exterior design. The architect will also create a rough plan for how the building’s exterior will look and operate.

The Schematic phase of the architecture design process typically involves many sketches, meetings, and discussions with clients to determine the basic design. It is fun for clients since they get the chance to dream, discuss, and see plans.

Design software makes this stage easier for both the client and the architect. Clients can get better, more realistic visuals of what is going on and architects can make fast changes without needing to start sketches from scratch every time the client has a new idea.

Once the architect and client decide on a design the architect has created, it’s time to move on to the next stage.

2D site plan designed with Cedreo
3D site plan designed with Cedreo

Architectural Design Phase 2: Design Development Phase

Of all the stages of architectural design, the Design Development Phase accounts for about 20% of the work and fees. It is during this stage that the architect and client come together to pick out the materials for the building, including interior finishes, windows, fixtures, appliances, doors, etc.

During the Design Development stage, the architect creates a more detailed design and implements any revisions. This design will be very specific with both interior and exterior design elements shown through 2D floor plans , 3D floor plans , and architectural renderings that help the client visualize the project clearly and quickly.

Some reasons architects use planning software include:

  • Add another floor/level quickly
  • Design new layouts
  • Save various floorplan options as templates and modify them promptly for different clients
  • Add furniture, appliances, and décor for client visualization and expectation management
  • Convert 2D floor plans to 3D in one click

Some clients enjoy this part of the process, while others get quickly overwhelmed with the number of decisions. The right visualization tool can make this process easier and add to the excitement.

3D floor plan of one level of a modern house designed with Cedreo
3D rendering of a modern house designed with Cedreo

Architectural Design Phase 3: Construction Documents

The third phase is where the majority of the work happens. It accounts for approximately 40% of the architect’s fees depending on the project and firm. It’s during this phase that the architect and engineers complete the technical engineering and design, which includes any heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems, plumbing, gas, electrical, structural engineering, and energy calculations.


Building Permitting

Also during this phase, the architect submits multiple drawing sets for approval from the Department of Buildings. A separate collection of Construction Drawings will also be required.

Obtaining the necessary building permits can take a considerable amount of time. However, employing streamlined design software can help make the process smoother, freeing up the architect’s time for other tasks.



Architectural Design Phase 4: Bidding & Negotiation

Once building permits are approved, it’s time for the owner to select their contractor and sign all the necessary contracts to begin construction. Although this stage can be started before completing the construction documents, estimates will be more accurate if you begin this stage after approval. This part of the architecture design process is shorter and typically only makes up about 5% of the architect’s time and fees.

Oftentimes multiple contractors submit bids to be chosen from, or the client can hire a contractor directly. In either case, the architect’s job is to assist the client by answering contractor questions or providing additional documentation requested by the contractor.

If the owner has an exact budget from the beginning of the process, you might want to consider hiring a contractor early on to consult on it. They can look over the schematic design, oversee design development, and check construction drawings from the onset to help ensure that the project stays within the budget. Architects and cost estimators can only provide estimates of the budget, but a contractor can almost guarantee the construction price.



Architectural Design Phase 5: Construction Administration

Once the contractor has been selected, it is time to move on to the construction administration phase. This is typically the longest phase, it accounts for close to 20% of the effort and fees for most architects.


Preconstruction Tasks

During preconstruction, the architect arranges and leads the meetings, as well as the progress meetings during construction. The architect also reviews testing, such as soil or concrete, to ensure nothing will interfere with the plans.


Concurrent Construction Tasks

In most cases, the architect does not supervise construction, so there is not as much effort required beyond visiting the job site to see progress and ensure that the contractor follows the plans. In addition, the architect is typically available during this point to answer questions and provide any additional information should an issue arise. However, it is common for the architect to provide other services due to change orders.

During this phase, 3D renderings still provide a critical reference to help the construction go as planned. Detailed visuals and technical plans for contractors will help ensure that the plan is adhered to with minimal deviation.



Post Construction Tasks & Project Close-Out

Once construction is completed, the last step is to perform a final walk-through and create a punch list of any remaining tasks to complete the project. However, this is not the time to add to the scope of work.

When the punch list is completed, the Certificate of Substantial Completion declares that the project is completed. However, there are still documents to finish between the architect and owner to close out the project, including:


Project Record Documents

These documents should plainly define all the requirements along with the owner’s input. This should include drawings, the depths of the foundations, project manuals, any Change Orders and contract modifications, and Addenda.


Operation Maintenance Manuals

This comprehensive document will give the owner procedures to run and maintain the different systems and equipment in the facility. It will provide the owner with all of the essential details of everything on the property and how to ensure that it runs smoothly.


Warranties and Bonds

Warranties and bonds are legal documents that assure the owner that the contractor will fix any faulty materials or work that arises during the warranty period.


This contract ensures that if the contract of guarantee is given, the Surety will provide a performance bond for the part of the bidder. It ensures the bond and supports action that could impact the bond.


Waiver of Liens

This is a document from the architect regarding payment. It waives the right of the architect to place a lien on the property for the stated amount.



Standard Architectural Design Phase Fees

Breaking down fees by stage is important to ensure that architects do not spend more time on any one phase than they should. A breakdown of typical fee ranges for each of the 5 phases of architectural design include:

  • Schematic Design: 10-25%
  • Design Development: 10-25%
  • Construction Documents: 35-50%
  • Bidding: 5%
  • Construction Administration: 20-30%

There is a bit of range for each stage, apart from Bidding, due to the firm, architect, owner, and building. However, architects can cut down on these fees substantially with home design software. This technology can considerably cut time and effort spent making changes and reduce the risk of costly misunderstandings.



The Architectural Design Phases Summarized

There are 5 phases of architectural design: Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents, Bidding, and Construction Administration. However, Pre-Design and Project Close-Out are considered unofficial, but still essential, architectural design phases that take additional time and energy.

Architects that have a clear understanding of how each step works in the architectural design process can make better bids and find ways to save both time and money. It also ensures a smooth operation for the architect, contractor, and client.



Streamline Your Design Phases

The architectural design process can help professionals streamline their process and manage client expectations for a project that fits budget and specifications. However, how well each stage is executed can vary.

Cedreo home design software can expedite the schematic and design development phases by making changes and updates in a fast and relatively simple process. It can also make the process faster by reducing client overwhelm and providing clear visualization into what they want.

Want to see how home design software can help your architectural design process? Request a demo and get started for free today!

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