The Design Process: How an Architect Works

It is not surprising that most individuals and institutions have little idea of how an Architect works and how a building is designed and constructed. Most people and institutions deal with a major construction project rarely, perhaps only once or twice in a generation. The process, in fact, is not complicated. The client hires the Architect. The Architect designs the building taking into account the budget, the program, or needs of the client, any other constraints and objectives, together with the requirements of the site and the aesthetic preferences of the client. The contractor builds what the Architect designs. The client pays for it.

Most Architects work with an AIA (American Institute of Architects) contract for their services with the client. This contract divides the Architect’s work into five stages, Schematic Design, Design Development, Working Drawings, Bidding or Negotiation, and Construction Administration.

Schematic Design

This is the initial phase of the Architect’s work. During this phase, the Architect will first develop a program, with the client, of the project’s requirements, listing all of the functions which the client expects the building to provide. In complicated buildings, such as a hospital or an airport, the development of a program may require the services of an expert Program Consultant. The Architect will also investigate the Building Code and Zoning Ordinances to determine what constraints these requirements entail. Particularly problematic projects may require a Code Consultant to advise on these subjects. In addition, the Architect will consider the site and the physical context of the project to discover what possibilities and difficulties these aspects impose on the project.

There should be an initial discussion between the Architect and the client of the budget. Some clients at this point do not have an idea, or only a vague idea, of what the project might cost and expect the Architect to inform them of the possible cost. Other clients have a fixed budget in mind. It is important that the Architect and the client frankly and honestly discuss the budget from the beginning.

Finally, the Architect should learn what are the aesthetic preferences of the client. The Architect can discover what the client expects the project to look like by discussion, by asking the client what buildings the client admires, and by encouraging the client to keep a scrapbook of buildings which the client particularly appreciates. But this process is a two way street. The Architect should also open the client to possible aesthetic directions which the client may not be aware of or which the client may not have considered. The Architect can and should introduce the client to different kinds of creative approaches and different ways the project can look. This can be done through sketches, discussion, looking at photographs of different projects and visiting different projects.
Once the Architect is reasonably familiar with the program, the building code and zoning constraints, the budget, the site and context considerations, and the aesthetic directions the client is willing to consider, the Architect can develop a series of schematic options. These are the Architect’s initial solutions to meet the challenges of bringing together the project’s constraints and possibilities. In general, there are at least several different possible directions which can be considered. For some projects, however, there are only one or two more obvious solutions which should be pursued. The various options are presented in sketch form in plans, diagrams and impressionistic perspectives. They form the basis of a discussion between the Architect and the client.

Three Schematic Design options presented in site plan and sketch

As a result of these discussions, the Architect may modify one or more of the options for further discussion, combine the promising aspects of several of the options or develop entirely new options. This process will lead to the selection of a preferred option, which will form the basis of the further design of the project.

Once the preferred option is selected, a preliminary price can be established. This is the earliest point at which a meaningfully detailed price estimate can be made. The Architect may prepare pricing drawings and preliminary specifications, describing the extent of each trade. On the basis of these documents, a General Contractor or a Cost Estimator will be able to generate a reasonably accurate preliminary cost estimate. It is important that the Architect have another party develop the cost estimate; Architects are notoriously bad at estimating the cost of their own projects. For a smaller residential project, a contractor may be willing to generate a cost estimate for free or for a nominal fee. A larger project require the services of a specialized Cost Consultant.

Once a preliminary cost estimate is established, the client can agree to continue with the design, expand the scope of the design if the preliminary cost estimate is less than expected, or reduce the scope of the project if the price is greater than is acceptable.

This first phase, the Schematic Design, is sometimes considered as a feasibility study. Until this phase is completed, the client does not know whether his requirements can be met with a satisfactory building within an acceptable budget. Once this phase is completed and acceptable to the client, the project can be considered feasible.

Design Development

This is the next phase of the design process. During this phase, the Architect takes the preferred option and develops it by fleshing out the Schematic Design, studying the plans at a larger scale, looking in detail at all of the exterior and interior elevations, making material selections, developing lighting possibilities, examining the spaces and forms in three dimensions, and conceptually developing the structural, electrical, plumbing and heating systems. This is when the Architect may develop models and more detailed perspectives of the project. The Architect will present and discuss options with the client for each of these aspects of the project. At the end of this phase, the client will have a fully studied and fully developed project.

Design Development Models

The building may change during this phase of the design as it is studied more thoroughly.
The building may become more or less complicated; it may develop added dimensions not fully understood or discovered during the previous Schematic Design phase. The development of the structural or HVAC system may introduce transformations to aspects of the project. If the changes to the project appear to affect the price significantly, an updated cost estimate should be made at this point.

These two phases, Schematic Design and Design Development, will involve the active participation of client. The Architect will be learning the priorities, expectations and preferences of the client at the same time that the client will be learning the creative possibilities of his or her project. This is an exciting learning process for the client. It is probable that the client’s horizon for architectural design will be substantially broadened. At the same time, the Architect will likely confront unique requirements from the client, the site and the program and will have to use his imagination to develop a unique solution which brings all of these variables together.

Working Drawings

The next phase of project is called the Working Drawing or Contract Document phase. During this phase, the Architect develops the detailed drawings and specifications. With engineering consultants, the Architect fully develops and integrates the structure, the plumbing, the electrical and the HVAC systems into the building. These documents describe exactly how the building is put together and detail each condition. Every element of the structure, every nail and connector, every light fixture, door, window, sink, towel bar, toilet paper holder and so forth is described, detailed, located, dimensioned and drawn.

These are the documents which are used by the General Contractor to construct the building. They are also the documents used to obtain a Building Permit. Finally, these are the documents which form the Contract between the client and the General Contractor; hence the name Contract Documents. These are complicated, serious legal documents, the accuracy and completeness for which the Architect bears a heavy responsibility. They are not meant to be particularly comprehensible to the client.

Working Drawing Plans, Sections and Details

Although the client is much less involved in this phase of the project, there are less important details and decisions about which the Architect will want to consult with the client. As an example, the door knob type and material must be selected with the client.

Bidding or Negotiation

Once the Working Drawings and Specifications are completed, the project is ready to go out to bid or to have a negotiated price fixed to it. These are the two methods of securing a fixed price from a General Contractor to construct the project. Each of these methods has its benefits and inadequacies.

The bidding process works as follows: several general contractors are selected to bid on the project. The contractors are pre selected on the basis of their recommendations, the types and size of building they are used to working on, their work loads, and their general compatibility with the client. The client makes the final selection of the list of bidders, usually in close consultation with the Architect.

Once the list of bidders is selected, each bidder is given several sets of the Working Drawings and Specifications and from three to six weeks to come up with a price. A due date for receiving the bids is established. The Architect is available to clarify any points in the bid documents. In general in this country, the low bidder is given the job. If two of the bids are close, however, some clients will select the slightly more expensive bidder if they have reason to believe that contractor will perform better.

If all of the bids exceed the estimated price by an amount which is unacceptable to the client, there are three courses of action which the client may take. First, the client may choose to increase his budget and accept the higher number. Second, the client may ask the Architect to cut parts of the project back until an acceptable price is reached. Third, the client may re bid the project to a different group of General Contractors. And forth, the client may abandon the project. The client generally makes this decision in close consultation with the Architect.

Even if an acceptable price is received during the bidding, there is commonly a period of negotiation between the client and the winning General Contractor. For instance, the project may be slightly adjusted to conform to the methods which the particular General Contractor is used to in return for a slightly lower price. It is at this when the final terms of the Agreement, such as the payment schedule and the construction time, are worked out between the General Contractor and the Client. The Client and the General Contractor then sign the Contract between them. This consists of the Agreement, usually an AIA document, the Working Drawings and the Specifications. The Architect assists the client in understanding and negotiating these documents and arranges for the signing, assuring that all copies are properly signed by both parties.

A negotiated Contract works differently. A General Contractor is identified early in the design process, using the same criteria as outlined above. The General Contractor then gives an early estimate of the probable construction cost based on the preliminary drawings. The General Contractor is kept informed about the project as it develops. The General Contractor’s expertise and input are sought and incorporated into the design. If the design changes, the General Contractor is expected to update the estimate. Once the final Working Drawings and Specifications are completed, the General Contractor is asked to give a final “hard price.” It is expected that this final hard price will not differ significantly from his most recent updated estimate. Then, as is the case with the bidding process, the final terms of the Agreement are worked out and the Contact is signed.

As noted above, each of these two methods has its benefits and inadequacies. The bidding process, in theory, brings to bear the salutary effects of competition to secure the lowest price for the client. In practice, this is sometimes not the result. A good competitive bid. requires a great deal of effort and time to develop. If the General Contractor is busy, he may simply give a quick but sufficiently high bid, figuring that if he does not win the bidding, he has lost little time in preparation of the bid and that if he does win the bid, he is secure in knowing that he will make a good deal of money. If all of the General Contractors bidding on the project take this approach, the client loses.

The negotiation method in theory avoids this pitfall by assuring the preferred General Contractor early in the process that he will do the work and consequently encouraging that General Contractor to take the time to “sharpen his pencil” to come up with a good price. In theory, that General Contractor will have the time to bid the various trades for the project more aggressively than he would during the bidding process, resulting in tighter prices to the client. In practice, this may not happen. The Contractor, lacking the competitive incentive, may work less diligently to obtain the best prices.

In general, if the General Contractor is well known and trusted by the client and/or Architect, a negotiated price is a more likely choice. A negotiated price is also a reasonable choice if the construction market is so busy that it is difficult to secure the interest of General Contractors in committing the time and effort to develop a competitive bid. The bid process, however, is frequently used because of the not unreasonable belief that the competitive pressure will result in the lowest price.

Construction Administration

Once the Contract is signed and the date of commencement is agreed upon, the construction work is begun by the General Contractor. The Architect’s role during this process is to respond to questions by the General Contractor, devise solutions to any surprise conditions not anticipated in the Working Drawings, monitor and approve the payment requests, review the shop drawings, and in general visit the site so that he is sufficiently familiar with the construction. To the best of his ability, the Architect inspects the work of the General Contractor.

The Architect is also available to make changes to the project desired by the client. Not infrequently, during the construction process, the client may wish to add or modify different parts of the project. The Architect makes these changes with additional drawings and notes and issues them to the General Contractor for pricing and construction.

It should be kept in mind that the Architect is not responsible for the performance of the General Contractor. The Construction Contract is between the building’s owner and the General Contractor, not the Architect. It is the General Contractor who is responsible for completing the project on time and finally assuring that the work is done in conformance with the Contract Documents.

Towards the end of the construction, the Architect issues a Certificate of Substantial Completion. This means that the project is complete enough for the client to use it as intended, leaving only small details to be completed. The Architect, the General Contractor and the Owner then draw up a Punch List of items to be completed. Once the General Contractor completes this list and any other obligations of the Contract, a Final Payment is made to the General Contractor. The project is now complete.