Guide to Schematic Design

Multiple design phases in projects help ensure a smooth schedule for everyone. The Schematic Design phase is the first phase of the architectural design project schedule. Good programming and planning lay the groundwork for a successful design process, and ultimately a successful construction project.
Molly Jacobs

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What's the Schematic Design Phase?

(source: author)

Schematic design in projects can be a lot of fun, especially if the design team practices good planning and project management moving forward. While the overall goal of the architectural design process is to have a built and occupied structure, these first efforts during the schematic design phase are imperative for success and efficiency in the rest of the project scope.

What is Schematic Design?

This is first phase of the architectural design process. At this stage, the design team begins to describe the architectural and tectonic elements of the proposed project design. Here, the team will take ideas about project program and concept, and translate them into architectural and spatial designs. Many ideas are explored in this phase, in order to explore the best possible solutions and designs.

Two important components for a successful schematic design phase are site analysis and programming. Both the building program and location have significant implications in the design process, so it’s important to have a solid understanding of these foundational components at this stage.

Community Development Partners
Schematic Design Site Plan, Rockwood 10 (source: Community Development Partners)

Who's Involved in Schematic Design?

This phase begins shortly after the project is started. While all team members and stakeholders can be involved in the schematic design process, it is more likely that the project Owner and Architect will be the most involved in this phase.

During this phase, the Owner and Architect will work closely, to make sure all the necessary building program needs are covered in the project design. In fact, the Owner may be more involved in the day-to-day workings of the Schematic Design stage than any other design stage hereafter.  

During this phase of design, the architecture team will use tools like schematic diagrams and sketching to quickly convey spatial ideas to the Owner. These tools allow iterations, and prevent any team member from settling on an idea prematurely.

What Comes After Schematic Design?

By the end of schematic design, the architecture team should have a fundamental understanding of the scale and the systems of the project. There should be clarity about the various consultants and engineers that will be needed in order to proceed to the design development phase.

After schematic design, the project will move into design development, and then into the construction document phase. Monograph’s Project Planner is a great tool to keep track of your progress during the various phases of design. The schedule and the budget of a project will determine the scope of each phase of the design.

During the next design phases, the Architect will flesh out the schematic design ideas even more, in order to more fully understand how the various systems and elements of the building design are integrated in the ultimate construction project.

It is common for multiple ideas and design concepts to be explored and developed during the schematic design phase. Ultimately, only one is chosen, but it’s important not to settle on any particular option too quickly in this stage, in order to make room for creative solutions and approaches.

If multiple design options are explored in schematic design, it’s necessary to choose one before moving forward into the design development phase. It’s important, and sometimes hard, to not insist on a particular preference or idea in the schematic design process. This can cause tension between the Owner and the Architect.

Recap: All the Design Phases You Should Know.

According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the 5 phases of a design project are:

  1. Schematic Design Phase
  2. Design Development Phase
  3. Construction Document Phase
  4. Bidding Phase
  5. Construction Administration Phase

Check out Monograph’s Guide to Architectural Design Phases to see how these phases relate to one another, and how Monograph's Project Planner can help your team effectively and efficiently move through a project's design process.

What is the Difference Between Concept Design and Schematic Design?

The difference between concept design and schematic design lies in the level of resolution. Concept design can be abstract, while schematic design begins to articulate spatial and architectural elements in a way that isn’t necessary in concept design.

While a goal of schematic design is to settle on an overall concept for the project - this stage should also produce a framework through which to move forward into design development, and eventually construction.

Concept design can be loose and diagrammatic. There is no need to address issues of scale or constructability during this process. However, in schematic design, standard conventions of architectural drawing (plan, section, elevation) should be used in order to articulate space and scale.

concept design (source: author)


schematic design (source: author)

What is Included in Schematic Design Documents?

Schematic design documents should include:

  • project summary and narrative
  • site and code analysis
  • existing and proposed site plans
  • floor plans for every level
  • multiple building sections
  • building elevations
  • structural schematic drawings or narrative
  • mechanical schematic drawings or narrative
  • plumbing schematic drawings or narrative
  • electrical schematic drawings or narrative

Examples of Schematic Design

(Waechter Architecture)
Schematic Design, Danish Brotherhood Hall (source: Waechter Architecture): collage and annotations are used in addition to standard architectural conventions in order to convey the most important aspects of this project's design

Schematic Design options for basement renovation (source: author): multiple design ideas are presented to an Owner for a basement remodel, in order to explore

How to Use Monograph in Schematic Design Phase

Monograph’s Project Planner is a useful tool for all team members throughout every design phase, including schematic design.

Design teams can use our pre-made project plan templates for project management, or customize the project plan to suit your team’s practice. This tool helps you construct the budget and project plan with one simple interface. You can allocate fixed fees or hourly rates to various team members in order to effectively schedule and budget.

No matter how complex or simple your project is, the Project Planner is an all-in-one solution to plan your design comprehensive and effective schedules and budgets.

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