Guide to Architectural Design Phases

Creating a building is a process, which is why architecture projects are broken down into these basic design phases.

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You’ve been awarded the project – congratulations – now what? Most architects go through several design phases to reach a finished project. You will probably have several projects going on at once. Having a formal, step-by-step process helps you by making sure you aren’t forgetting anything.

It also helps clients. Building a new home or business can be intimidating – even for clients who have built several buildings already. They want to make sure they get it right and they usually are ruled by their budget. A building isn’t something that is easy to fix or change after it’s been built. If this will be their home, emotions can run high. A structured process will help alleviate those fears. Your clients will feel like you have it all under control, and they will trust you.

We are calling this a “guide” for a reason. Each architect, architectural firm, and client will impact how the design process goes and none of them will do it the same way. Architects will develop their own flow. Firms will have their own standards. Clients may need to change things up for their management or organizational needs. In general, the design process will have these phases:

Table of contents

  1. Programming/Pre-design
  2. Schematic Design
  3. Design Development
  4. Construction Documents
  5. Bidding
  6. Construction Administration

Programming / Pre-Design

The first step in the architectural design process, the programming or the pre-design phase, is the problem-seeking phase. During this time, you are determining the scope of work to be designed. No actual design is being developed at this point. You will mainly ask your client questions to gain an understanding of their problems, wants, and needs. This is also where the research and decision-making process happens.

According to standard American Institute of Architects agreements, the owner is responsible for the programming phase. Sometimes they will do this phase themselves. Usually they will hire a programming consultant. Most architects will offer programming services in addition to their architectural services. This is considered to be an additional service or add-on. Regardless of who does the programming, it is essential that all client-users can participate in the process. This ensures that the design meets everyone’s needs.

Six-Step Process to Programming

If you are new to the concept of programming, the Whole Building Design Guide has a six-step process to follow. You can read more details for each step here.

  1. Research the project type
    Establish the types of spaces, number of square feet per person or unit, relationship of the spaces, ratios of net assignable square footage to gross square footage, cost, and site requirements typical for the type of project.
  2. Establish goals and objectives
    Look at all the goals the owners might have for the building – the organizational goals, the form and image goals, the function goals, the economic goals, the time goals, and the management goals. How do they want the project to fit into their overall organization? How should the form and image of the building impact the users and surrounding areas? What will be the main and side uses of the building? What is the budget and is it firm? When do they want the building to be occupied? Are there any restrictions or requirements that will impact the design process?
  3. Gather relevant information
    Use good questions to gain a very clear understanding of every space in the building and the client’s wants and needs. Take your time with this step – the more questions you ask now, the more accurate the programming phase will be. The questions should be both quantitative, e.g. how big should the space be, and qualitative, e.g. how should the space feel. If the client has an existing building that serves the same purpose, use that as a springboard to nail down what the client wants and doesn’t want. Listen to the client complain about all the issues with their current master bathroom. People often have a stronger idea of what they don’t like than what they do like.
  4. Identify strategies
    This is when you would break out your bubble diagram. Now that you know how each room will be used, you can look at how those spaces fit together. Continue to get the owner’s input at this stage. Just because you think you know how the spaces should fit and flow together, doesn’t mean that is how the owner wants or needs it.
  5. Determine quantitative requirements
    At this point, develop a total cost for the project based on the typical cost determined in step one. Prepare the client for all the costs not just the cost of construction, like your design fees, contingency, furniture and equipment, testing, surveying and any other costs. If the total cost is more than the client’s budget, you can do several things. If the client has indicated the budget has some wiggle room, look at increasing the budget (although, this rarely happens). You can either decrease the quantity or quality of the design, or a combination of the two. You should revisit step three at this point – review the client’s wants and needs to find a solution. If the client can decrease the square footage in one room, but must maintain the square footage in another room, could they find cheaper materials to balance it out? Work to find a balance between the budget and the client’s needs.
  6. Summarize the program
    Document all the information, needs, goals, and costs in summary statements and present them to the client. Have the client sign off on the scope of work developed throughout this process. Once the programming is approved by the client, it’s time to move to the next step of the process.

Why Include a Programming Phase?

When programming fell out of vogue in the 1980s and 1990s, most architects dropped the programming phase and fit the information gained in programming into the schematic design phase. You should go through the architectural design process in the way that works best for you, but I would encourage you to keep the phases separate. Fully understanding the problem is the first step to solving it. Some other advantages to the programming phase include:

  • All parties, particularly end users, have a say in developing the scope of work prior to any design work.
  • All research and data are looked at early in the process, so the design is based on the correct information.
  • No effort is wasted, and no time lost during redesigns later in the process. This is the easiest and most cost-efficient time to make changes to the design.

Schematic Design

The schematic design phase is when you will be developing the basic form of the building. There will be a lot of sketching vs. formal drawings. You will likely be engaging in a lot of back and forth with clients to nail down the basic form – it can be a lot of fun!

Generally, you want to develop the floor plans, site plans and building elevations. This will give you a complete description of the building systems (structural, mechanical, HVAC, plumbing and electrical), interior and exterior finishes and the building site. You should stay in this phase until you have the basic form and function approved by the client. If your client hasn’t settled on other details yet, that’s OK. Develop several design alternatives and move on. Those details will be resolved in the next phase.

Design Development

This phase is when you really dig into the details. Now that you have the basic idea, you can begin to refine them. If the schematic design phase produced several design options, now is the time for the client to pick one.

You will be looking at specific materials in this phase and evaluating them for beauty, durability, and price. This is when your client will be selecting the materials for countertops or shower tile. This part of the process can be fun for some clients and a total nightmare for others. Your job is to guide them through it, while letting them make the decisions.

This is also the point where you will be solidifying the plans into actions – developing not just what will be done, but how it will be done. If it’s a design-build project, then you would likely include the construction company at this point. They can provide preliminary cost estimates and advise to refine the design.

Construction Documents

During this phase you will switch from being a service provider to providing a product: two complete sets of drawings. The first set is a Permit set. This set will be sent to the appropriate authority in the building permit application. The other set, the Issue for Construction set, can be finished after the Permit set is completed and submitted. The permit process can take a long time, so getting those drawings sent in first will help move the process along.

In order to cut down on the clutter on the drawings, you only need to include information necessary for each set. Information vital to the contractor, like the details of a decorative design element, won’t matter to the permitting authority. Including all the information on both sets will clutter the drawings and confuse the contractor or permitting authority.

The construction documents will fill in all the details and include every element of the design. The higher the quality and completeness of your documents, the more accurate bids you will get – this is important during the bidding phase. Each construction drawing set should contain the following sheets:

  1. AO Sheets - Project Information * Cover Sheet * Accessibility Notes and Details (not usually included on residential projects) * Site Plan * Landscape plan (for more complex projects) * Life Safety Plan
  2. A1 Sheets - Demolitions Plans
  3. A2 Sheets - Floor Plans
  4. A3 Sheets - Elevations and Sections * Elevations * Building Sections
  5. A4 Sheets- Finish Plans * Reflected Ceiling Plan * Power Plan * Finish Plans * Finish Schedule
  6. A5 Sheets- Interior Elevations
  7. A6 Sheets- Schedules and Wall Types * Door Schedule * Window Schedule * Equipment and Finishes Schedule * Wall Schedule
  8. AD Sheets- Details
  9. S Sheets - Structural Drawings
  10. M Sheets - Mechanical Drawings
  11. E Sheets - Electrical Drawings
  12. P Sheets - Plumbing Drawings
  13. Other Consultant Drawings: example acoustical design information or content provided by a specialty kitchen consultant

After drawings are created and submitted for approval by the relevant authority, there is always a waiting period. In some cities, like Chicago, the process is so long some hire an expediter to follow the drawing set through the process and check on the application at regular intervals. This encourages the permit set moving through the approval process as quickly as possible.


The point of the bidding phase is simple – find a construction company to build the project. You will again become a service provider and guide your client in finding the best construction company based on their qualifications and price. The construction company will be entering in a contract with the client – not with you.

Negotiated vs. Competitive Bids

There are two different types of bids: a negotiated bid and a competitive bid. The negotiated bidding process is more relaxed, as you are only dealing with one contractor. With this type of bid, the client or the architect selects a preferred contractor and works with that contractor to develop a cost and proposal for the construction. A competitive bid is the one we usually think of – where you have several contractors all competing against one another for the project.

Competitive Bid Process

First, you will have to create a list of contractors you want to invite to the table. Use Google to find contractors in the project area – travel costs can add up quickly. Look at their website and see if the projects they have worked on in the past are like your project, both in size and quality. From there you can find and call up architects who have worked with the contractors. Ask them questions about their experience. Were they happy with the quality of their work? Was the contractor’s bidding price accurate?

Next, call up the contractors. Explain the project and make sure they have the time and resources for it. Send the project documents, including the drawing set, to the contractors who are prepared to take on your project – usually this is done by uploading them to a file sharing site.

Typically, contractors take about three weeks to put together a bid. Once you receive all the bids it’s time to pick a contractor. Usually, cost is the most important factor. This is where the accuracy and completeness of your construction documents comes into play. If the bids are all similar in cost, give yourself a pat on the back – you did your job well! When this happens, the cost becomes less important and you can focus more on other aspects of the bid – like the quality or experience of the contractor.

Construction Administration

During the construction phase – typically from the Notice to Proceed to when the client occupies the building – the architect provides construction oversight. This is where you are ensuring the building is constructed to the design specifications.

Pre- and During Construction Tasks

You will be arranging and leading the pre-construction meeting and the progress meetings during construction. Any testing done, like soil or concrete testing, will be reviewed by you. You will review and approve submittals from contractors. This can include shop drawings, product data sheets, and samples.

You will be reviewing and approving monthly pay requests from the contractor. These detail the work done during the month and requests payment for that work. Any Requests for Information from the contractors will be sent to you and it is your responsibility to respond to them as quickly as possible. Any delay on your part could hold up the project. These are typically sent if there is an issue with the design or specification, or if site conditions bring up an issue. You will also need to do regular site visits to see how construction is progressing and if it is following specifications.

Sometimes, you will need to issue Change Orders. This often leads to an increase in the price, so owners do not like Change Orders. People make mistakes or change their minds. It happens. Still, try to avoid Change Orders like the plague.

Post Construction Tasks

After the construction has been completed, you will perform a final walk-through and develop a punch list. This list is any remaining items to complete the construction as specified. This is not the time to try to add on things that were not included in the scope of work.

Once those punch list items have been completed, it’s time for the Certificate of Substantial Completion. This essentially declares the project completed. After the project is completed, there are still several documents that need to be exchanged between you and the owner for the project close out, including:

  • Project Record Documents
  • Operation and Maintenance Manuals
  • Warranties and Bonds
  • Consent of Surety (if bonded)
  • Waiver of Liens

About ten months after project close out, you might be required to do a warrantee inspection. Many warrantees expire after one year, so this is the time to make sure everything is working as it should.

Your Fee During Each Phase

When putting together your architectural fees, it’s helpful to know what percentage each phase should take of the total cost and effort. Why is this important to you? You don’t want to spend 30% of your total time on the Schematic Design phase if you should only spend 15%. Doing so will cut into the budget for later phases. Including an outline of your phased-based pricing in the your proposal is key keeping everyone on track.

The programming phase hasn’t been included here, as it’s not technically part of the design process. If you do provide programming services, they would typically be under their own contract or part of the Schematic Design phase.

  1. Schematic Design: 15% of Architectural Fees (Range 10% – 25%)
  2. Design Development: 20% of Architectural Fees (Range 10% – 25%)
  3. Construction Documents: 40% of Architectural Fees (Range 35% – 50%)
  4. Bidding:  5% of Architectural Fees (Range slightly off from 5%)
  5. Construction Administration: 20% of Architectural Fees (Range 20% – 30%)

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