Design Phases

There are 5 design phases to architectural services.

They are (in order) Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents, Bidding, and Construction Administration. These phases are the breakdown of how architects define their design services and they are the steps of an architect’s role in design.

In this article we will be discussing the phases of design as defined by The American Institute Of Architects. The five phases of design are a way for Architects to break up the work they do into categories. For the purpose of making it easy for everyone to understand. The design phases are an outline of the design process.

Pre-Design and the 5 Design Phases

There are five phases of design. For the purpose of this discussion we will not consider pre-design or feasibility study as one of the phases. We will provide a brief description of pre-design. The percentages below indicate what portion of an architect’s fee will be allocated to the given phase. Schematic Design, for example, is approximately 15% of the architect’s work for an ordinary level of complexity.

The percentages of architectural fees can vary, those indicated are based on our experiences on a typical project. The architectural fee breakdown is a general guideline of how an architect’s resources are distributed throughout a given project. The Design Phases are:

0. Pre-Design

1. Schematic Design 15% of Architectural Fees  –  Can Range 10% – 25%

2. Design Development  20% of Architectural Fees  –  Can Range 10% – 25%

3. Construction Documents 40% of Architectural Fees  –  Can Range 35% – 50%

4. Bidding  5% of Architectural Fees  –  Can Range slightly off from 5%

5. Construction Administration 20% of Architectural Fees  –  Can Range 20% – 30%

Architectural Fee Breakdown will vary on project specific needs and project type. If a client requests multiple design options, a physical model, and 3D renderings, for example, the Schematic Phase may be a bit higher than normal. Different architecture firms may propose a different fee breakdown on the architectural design phases.

Pre-Design Phase / Feasibility Study

Pre-Design is a a general term for what we do before we start designing a building. This will include preliminary research on the property owner’s part and the architect. Clients do not always hire an architect for this portion.

Read the story "No Pre-Design services and bad due Diligence" , it will open your eyes.

At our firm we provide pre-design architectural services, this can include helping developers decide if they should purchase a property. The services often involve a zoning analysis  to determine what we can build. Land Surveys and site analysis are part of pre-design. The client gets a property survey by a licensed land surveyor, not an architect. The Architect can provide diagrammatic design studies to address the building envelope and how it could be used,

The developer may want to establish a project budget in the Pre-Design Architecture phase. To learn more about pre-design, check out "Pre Design Services".

Pre-design will be determining the information we need to begin design. Here are a few factors to consider:

Site Analysis

  • Survey, Geo technical, financial, etc…
  • If we are dealing with an existing building: asbestos testing, lead testing, or other hazardous materials investigation.
  • Zoning Analysis / Code analysis
  • Establish what you can build, as for use and size.
  • Specific Code Issues that may affect the project.
  • Project Scope
  • Client must identify to the best of their ability the project scope of work.
  • Project Goals
  • Building Program
  • A Building Program is a list of the proposed uses.
  • Project Budgeting
  • Project Schedule
  • Selection Of Project team

Schematic Design (SD)

Schematic Design is the first phase of design. It will account for approximately a minimum of 15% of the architect’s work, and therefore the fees on the entire project as well. Of course, the percentages can fluctuate based on the level of complexity of the project and the Delivery method. In schematic design the architect and the owner discuss the project and any requirements provided by the owner. The architect does precedent research and analysis of the property. The analysis will include zoning and building code issues that may affect the development, as well as site analysis.  Programming is part of schematic design. This is when the client provides the architect with a list of what spaces are going into the building. The architect establishes the size, location, and relationships between all the spaces.

The basic goal of schematic design is to develop the shape and size of the building with some basic design. We develop the general plan and basic exterior design in Schematic. During the schematic design phase, we figure out more or less how the building will look and operate. Schematic phase has a great deal of sketching, lots of meetings with the clients, and basic design. It is overall the fun part for the clients. Schematic is where you are really doing the general design, but not getting into deep detail.

Once the basic design is locked down and the architect provides the client with drawings, the architect and owner will agree to proceed to the next phase of design.

Design Development Phase (DD)

The Design Development Phase is going to be approximately 20% of the architects work and fees, but can fluctuate based on the level of complexity of the project.

In Design Development the architect and owner will work together to select materials including interior finishes and products such as windows. doors, fixtures, appliances, etc… The architect will revise the drawings with more specificity and detail than in Schematic Design. Engineering will commence on the structure, plumbing, electrical, heating/ventilation systems, energy analysis and any other project specific systems. At the end of design development, a good deal of product selection and systems design should be progressing. This phase concludes when the interior and exterior design of the building is locked in by the owner and architect. Below is a 3D rendering of a house at completion of design development. The following image is a diagram of the house showing some of the systems and materials in place.

Construction Documents (CD)

The Construction Documents Phase is the largest of all the phases for the architect and will be about 40% of the architects work and fees. Although the percentage may vary a little from project to project or with Different Architecture Firms. In the construction document phase the architect and engineers finalize all the technical design and engineering including structural engineering and detailing, heating air conditioning and ventilation systems, plumbing, electrical, gas, energy calculations, and all products and materials are selected and scheduled.

The architect produces multiple drawing sets including a filing set (or Building permit set) for approval from the Department of Buildings and a separate set of Construction Drawings. You do not need to submit a full CD set to the Building Department. For example the Building Department does not care what type of bathroom tiles or cabinets you are going to use.

At Paolo Volpis Architects  we typically do our construction documents by making separate drawings customized for each work type. For example the electrician gets his own drawings that only show the electrical work, and the concrete contractor only gets drawings for foundations and concrete work. This reduces confusion on job sites and makes it easier for everyone to price the job and know exactly what they are responsible for. Below is a sheet from our construction documents with details of the exterior wall construction.


Bidding should be self explanatory. At this time the owner prepares to select the contractor for the job and sign contracts to proceed with construction. This will typically take up 5% of the architects time and fees. Multiple contractors submit bids on the job or the client can directly hire a contractor without getting competitive bids The architect’s role here will be to assist the client. We will answer contractor’s questions, provide any additional documentation if requested by the contractor. This phase can be started at the beginning of the project. You do not need to wait until all of the construction documents are completed but the price will be more accurate if you do.

If you have an exact budget in mind at the beginning of the process, we may recommend you hire a contractor early to consult or even better, hire a Certified Building Estimator. The GC can and review the schematic design, design development, and construction drawings from the beginning in order to ensure the project is within the specified budget. Only a contractor can guarantee a price for construction. Architects and cost estimators who provided budgets cannot guarantee those prices, but can provided and educated budget price.

Construction Administration (CA)

The Construction Administration phase of architectural services is the final phase. CA and accounts for at most 20% of the architects time and fees on a project in most cases. While this phase is the longest, it does not usually comprise the majority of the architects work. On typical projects the architect does NOT supervise construction. The architect will periodically visit the job site to see progress and ensure the contractor is following the plans. If needed the architect can review contractor’s monthly invoices to confirm work completion. The architect will be available to answer questions and provide additional information to issues that arise. During this phase it is not uncommon that some additional services for the architect arise due to change orders.

In some juridstictions the  Buildings Department requires architects to perform multiple progress inspections and special inspections. The architect and engineers must submit Technical Reports to the BP. Progress inspections are conducted by the architect. Special inspections may require a third party Inspection Agency with a specialized license.

The architect stays on the project until the the building is finished. Final inspections are all completed, and the owner obtains a Certificate of Occupancy.

Phases Of Design

The above information is a basic break down of the Architect’s Phases of Design. The percentages of cost provided will fluctuate from project to project and between different architecture firms. These phases are universally accepted among most architects in the United States. A Licensed Architect should be able to give you an in depth explanation of their fee structure. If you would like to learn more you can see another post we wrote on Architectural Fees.

As I will persist to remind people, if you plan on hiring an architect, always remember to hire Registered Architects who are licensed and insured in your state! Paolo Volpis Architect is registered in many States and is NCARB Certified, which allows to be registered in any US State and some foreign jurisdtictions.