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The Building Design Process

David A. Nace

For architects, engineers and contractors involved in the design and construction of buildings, the design process is second nature.  However, for a building owner that is involved for the first time or only occasionally in building projects, the design process can seem complex and daunting.  This article is intended to provide an explanation of the steps in the design of building projects.

The design process begins with a needs assessment.  Depending upon the use of the building, this may be conducted by the client, contractor or the designer.  In a manufacturing building, the client may determine that an additional 5,000 square feet of manufacturing space is required to house a new machine or a new process.  For an institutional building like a church or school, the needs assessment may include additional building square footage but may also need to reflect updated building code requirements. 

Our designers utilize a process called programming to conduct a needs assessment.  During the programming phase of the project the designer discusses the additional space needs with those that will utilize the space.  The designer also reviews the zoning and building code requirements for the project to determine the type of construction that can be used. The process of turning an initial needs assessment into preliminary drawings is called schematic design.  At the end of the schematic design phase, the designer will prepare a schematic floor plan, several schematic elevations and some typical wall sections.

This information is used by the architect, engineer or contractor to provide a preliminary budget and schedule for the project.  The contractor will use a combination of past project experience and subcontractor pricing to provide a schematic design budget.  On projects where a contractor is not yet involved, the client should insist that the architect or engineer provide a preliminary budget and schedule at the end of the schematic design phase.  Their budget will generally be based on published building cost information or recent project experience.

Once the preliminary budget and schedule have been accepted, the designer moves into the next phase of design called design development.  This is where the preliminary floor plan, elevations and typical wall sections are expanded to include a complete set floor plans, complete building elevations and sections of all the walls.  This is also when the building structural, mechanical and electrical systems are designed and incorporated into the drawings.  While the schematic design process may only take several weeks and is relatively inexpensive, the design development process is far more tedious and may take several months to complete.  Design meetings are generally held every two weeks during the design development period to ensure that the client, designer and contractor are all in agreement on the development of the design.  At the end of the design development process, the client should again receive a cost estimate and schedule based upon the design development drawings. 

Once the design development cost estimate and schedule have been approved by the client, the designer moves into the development of construction drawings.  At this time, all the schedules, details, and notes that are required to construct the building are added to the drawings.  The construction drawings are also used to obtain the building permit for the project. The construction drawing phase culminates in a set of drawings and specifications that enable the contractor to provide a final price using subcontractor bids in the case of a design and construct project.  If a contractor has not been involved in the design process, the construction drawings are used by the architect or engineer to obtain construction bids.

This article has discussed the building design process.  However, many construction projects also require land development for construction.  We will discuss the land development process in the next article.