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The Design Process

For a design project to be successful there must be close collaboration between the client and designer. This is especially true for sustainable design where positive economic, social and environmental outcomes are all highly valued.

When a client approaches me about working with them, the first phase of the design process is to determine if we are compatible enough in personality and sustainability values to continue our relationship. If, after meeting and initially discussing the project, we both feel we have enough in common to continue the relationship, a formal contractual agreement is drawn up. This agreement defines the designer’s responsibilities, the fees to be charged, and a payment schedule for those fees, as well as what is not included in the design duties. When the contract is agreed to and signed by both parties, the actual design process begins.

Below, in chronological order, are the three phases of the typical building design process. Of course, there can be variations in this process depending on the project goals, and the designer might be asked to develop the project only partially.

PHASE 1 - The Owner Program
This is a written document that specifies the scope of the project and directs the design. The program typically defines the project’s intended activities and functions, the spaces needed, aesthetic desires, budget, site assessment, governmental constraints and requirements, and possible future needs. Sustainability goals also need to be defined. A detailed owner program is necessary to achieve a great design. For residential projects this phase of the design process almost seems like life planning.

PHASE 2 - Schematic (Conceptual) Design
In this phase the owner’s program starts to take graphic shape. I like to communicate schematic design through the use of conceptual floor plans and 3-dimensional computer modeling. This is an exciting time in the design process with “big picture” thinking taking place, and creative and innovative ideas being proposed and evaluated. It is also at this stage that a broader design team might be formed depending on how the project is evolving. Other team members might include a selected contractor and/or specialists in structural engineering, mechanical systems, alternative technologies, etc.

PHASE 3 - Design Development
The focus of this phase is for the design team to develop the practical solutions that make the project buildable. Costs are evaluated and, when necessary, alternatives are developed to keep within the budget. This is the time of decisions and there are a myriad of them, from final building size to selecting cabinet hardware; many of these decisions must be made by the client. In the end a design is decided upon and the drawings and written specifications that will guide the construction are prepared. These may also be the bidding documents in the case where the contractor has not part been a member of the design team or has not provided a final construction cost.