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An architectural design project consists of four phases - Preliminary design, Schematic design or rough sketches, Design development or more refined drawings, and Contract Documents. These phases are basically sequential, however, as the design process proceeds, phases can overlap and flow from one to the next. The nature of the flow is determined by communication between the client and the architect, depending on the individual client's needs.


In the preliminary design phase, the client and architect establish the basic parameters of the project. The desired spaces are outlined, the time constraints are established, the budget is discussed, zoning and permit issues are determined, and survey drawings of existing structures are obtained. This phase covers any research that needs to be done before the start of the actual design of the project.

Schematic Design

In the schematic design phase, the architect takes this information and generates several alternative solutions to the design problem posed. During a back and forth process involving meetings to discuss the schemes and work done by the architect independently, a design will emerge. Once the client has settled on a direction, it can be developed and further issues can be determined in the next phase. Depending on the type of project, some cities require a preliminary review of the plans at this point to decide if the design is appropriate for the neighborhood.

Design Development

In design development, the specifics of the situation and coordination with consultants are initiated. Working with exact dimensions, the architect composes a series of drawings that finalize the interior and exterior of the project. In this phase, coordination with a structural engineer will begin. Other potential consultants may include an energy consultant, a lighting designer or a heating & cooling (HVAC) engineer. 

Contract Documents - Construction Documents

During the construction drawing phase, the architect puts decisions to paper and finalizes specifics, such as the exact size of windows, types of materials, sizes of structural members, and other documentation needed to build the project. Often design development and construction documents overlap. As more specific information and decisions are made, issues settle and shift through the process. Consultant work is finalized with the design. The drawings become ready for submittal to an enforcing agency and for the contractor to build the project.

There are several different purposes for the construction documents of a project. One is to obtain a building permit from the city. The city wants to see that the project follows the necessary guidelines concerning life and safety issues as well as city zoning regulations. These drawings may be relatively straightforward; they are solely what is required by the city.  The second purpose of the drawings is to ensure that the client and the contractor understand each other in the design and building methods to be used in construction. To this aim, the level of specifics described by the drawings varies dependent on the needs of the client. If you are doing the construction yourself or are familiar with the working style of the contractor building the project, you may not need a lot of details specified. If, however, you have a complex and detailed design and are working with a contractor who you do not know, construction documents legally hold the contractor to build the project, as you would like it to be built. The more detailed the construction documents, the more you will know exactly how the project will turn out and how much it will cost. 

This is especially important if the work to be done includes specific and unusual details.

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