Design Process Demystified

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Ever wonder how the design process works when working with an architect? From a high level view, most design professionals follow similar steps, but every architect has their own unique process to go from design concepts to a finished building. Before engaging an architect, it’s important that you understand how their design process works and if that process feels like a good fit for your personality and how hands-on you want to be with your building project.

What sets Living Shelter Architects apart from others is our focus on healthy choices, personal connections, and establishing a cohesive partnership to create the right design for your situation. Design is not a product but a collaborative process that takes thought, research, coordination, and time to create the right place for you, your budget, and your site.

Let’s explore what happens when you hire Living Shelter Architects for your building project. Our design process consists of six phases which give many opportunities for us to discuss, define, and refine the project direction and details over time. Each of the design process phases are outlined below:

Phase 1: The Initial Meeting

The first hour of consultation is free, and can be held at our place or yours. This is where we find out the basics of what is important to you – the project you are considering, what your goals and special needs are, what styles appeal to you, and what your budget is.

We discuss what is included in different levels of architectural service, help you understand the soft and hard costs involved in the project you have in mind, and determine whether the chemistry is right. After all, we will be working closely over some time, and how well we relate with each other will impact both your experience and the quality of the finished product.

To get started, please complete the questionnaire on the contact page. If we decide to work together, we then enter into a simple Consultation Services Agreement to establish a program and budget, explore some options, and determine how to serve you in the best way possible.

What happens next? We move into the research and discovery phase call Phase 2: Program and Feasibility.

Phase 2: Program and Feasibility

Programming is a research and discovery phase, where we explore many questions and answers. For Custom Homes and Remodel projects, we provide you a series of questionnaires to help you think about how you want to live, which guide us when we design your new space.

For Business and Community projects, a Master Planning process is a better programming tool. This can include a Design Charrette with your team of stakeholders, followed with a written outline that is used to help direct each phase of the project.

We conduct pre-design research during this phase, so need legal information pertaining to the site, such as surveys and easements, ready for us to use. If we are going to remodel or retrofit an existing building, As-Built building plans are provided. Photographs from books, magazines, and websites can be very helpful in conveying your individual tastes and goals to us, so we take time to go over them in detail and discuss what aspects you are drawn to.

We visit the building site to get familiar with its gifts and surroundings, and develop a few thumbnail sketches to explore some spatial relationship options. These activities and follow up discussions help determine what priorities you would like reflected in the design and how those are best approached with our services.

No matter the size or scope of the project, we have found a Team Approach early in the process makes for a better outcome. If you have a building contractor selected, we like to bring them in to the conversation at this early stage. This ensures a continuity in the design direction and delivery, and secures you a place on their schedule of work. If desired, we can suggest contractors and associates to join the team.

Many people believe that architects jump right into the design phase and immediately begin producing drawings and models for their clients, but we actually spend about 5-8% of our total effort beforehand. Now that we’ve done our research, we’re ready to get to start designing in Phase 3: Schematic Design!   

Phase 3: Schematic Design

The Schematic Design is the first phase of the drawing-producing services, where about 10-12% of our total effort is spent. This includes basic layouts of proposed floor plans, site plans showing how the buildings relate to the surroundings, outlines of the most prominent elevations, and a simple massing model to help visualize the structure in three dimensions. There are typically 1 to 3 client meetings in this phase.

The drawings are presented for your review where options and refinements are discussed. This is the easiest time to make changes, so you may want to take some additional time with the proposed design alternatives. If there are major revisions to a single alternative, or you would like to see more options, a second round of design is done before completion of this phase.

We really like to have a builder selected and on the team by this point. That way, after the review and refinements noted, your builder can be tasked with creating a ballpark estimate of the construction cost. If the cost range is within your comfort level, the process can continue – if not, this is the time for more adjustments before moving forward.

With an Integrated Design approach, this phase will include at least one in-depth team meeting and follow up discussions to identify which elements provide the biggest offset to others, such as a higher level of insulation and better windows for a much smaller heating/cooling system. If you are a business or organization, your operational structures and practices become elements of this integration.

Architectural fees can now be estimated, and if appropriate, a fixed-fee amount determined for the remainder of the project. Fees are based on the complexity of the building and site, the code enforcement jurisdiction, and the level of service and documentation we all agree is best. A Construction Documents and Services Contract is prepared for you to sign, and we are set to continue to Phase 4: Design Development!

Phase 4: Design Development

In Design Development, we start moving forward with one design, and develop it further (hence the name!). This includes refined floor plans, a site plan, all exterior elevations and building sections. This is also a great time to develop some interior elevations and integrate Landscape and Interior Design team members. The massing model can also be further developed in this phase to study detail elements and finishes. We typically expect to spend about 20% of our total effort here, including 2 to 4 client meetings.

The Structural Engineering consultant starts their design work in the Design Development phase, so we meet with them to go through options that best meet your program and goals. Structural elements can be expressed or hidden in a building, and different solutions are more appropriate for each of these directions.

Once the design drawings have been approved by all parties, we are ready to shift to Phase 5; Construction Documents!

Phase 5: Construction Documents

Blueprints, Permits, Action! We take care in preparing accurate plans to build from, so there are limited surprises in the field. There are several levels of Construction Documentation, and we are happy to customize our services for individual project needs. Due to the focus on production and the variety of options in this phase, 35% to 55% of our time can be spent here.

Our first focus in this phase is preparing permit-ready documents. This includes coordination with structural consultants and making sure the code requirements are clearly described so your permit review goes as smoothly as possible.

Then we add finish details and specifications as appropriate to the project. This section of service adds good value because permit documents do not address the finer details which pull a project together, create a Net Positive building, or specify healthy or sustainable products.

With an Integrated Design approach, this phase includes time documenting the design decisions and systems coordination completed in earlier phases. Some of this is done in our office, and some by other consultants on the team.

Builders will use the Construction Documents for bidding, and if you are getting a construction loan your bank will use these as well. A more thorough set of documents makes for a tighter bid from a seasoned contractor, with less left to assumptions and allowances. Some of our custom home clients also want to act as their own contractor, which can require a higher level of documentation than for drawings used by a seasoned builder.

With the construction documents completed and permits in hand, we’re ready to move forward into Phase 6: Construction Administration!

Phase 6: Construction Administration

As with our Construction Documents services, this phase has different levels available. Our time here can be as little as 5% of the total effort to as much as 25%. No matter what the service level, we always remain available to answer questions from code officials and contractors throughout the project - the main difference lies in the frequency, depth, and documentation level of phone, email and site consultations.

On each project, a pre-construction meeting with the entire team is required before anyone onsite sets a form or swings a hammer. Regular onsite meetings are scheduled as appropriate to ensure everything is going as planned. Having us as your advocates, coordinating adjustments with contractors and consultants, and just having another set of eyes and ears while things are in motion, can all make a huge difference in your experience and peace of mind.  

With an Integrated Design approach, the construction phase is highly efficient. The extra time spent at the beginning really pays off now. With early project planning dedicated to systems coordination and finish details, this phase can focus on quality control.

At the end, we offer a final walk-through service to ensure no detail is missed. Technically, this marks the completion of our design process. However, we love to learn how your project is working out a year out, and to help fine tune any elements that will add value. Getting photographs after landscaping has matured is also a real treat for us, and will allow us to better tell your story to others and inspire them to take their own steps toward healthy living!