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Architecture Project Stages

Architecture school often places a big emphasis on design. But it is important to understand that design is only one of the stages of an architecture project. The process of first finding a client through to getting your design built and the client moving in involves a lot of very different stages.

This diagram shows the breakdown of the stages of an architecture project. The percentages are indicative and of course, may vary between projects. What is important to note is the proportion of design (about 30%) compared to the remainder of the project. This may come as a surprise to many students.

Stage 01 | Pre-Design + Project Establishment

Pre-design is the process of first obtaining a client and then gathering information about their project and starting to do some research. The first step is to develop a contract with your client which includes:

  • Arrange, attend and record meetings with the client.
  • Understand the client brief and project needs.
  • Prepare and agree on a fee proposal and contract for your services, based on the brief and preliminary research.

Preliminary research and information gathering would include:

  • Desktop research – Obtain any existing drawings, plans or reports (eg. site surveys, flood levels, soil surveys) of the site and immediate surrounds.
  • On-site research – Visit the site and make an initial assessment of the site conditions.
  • Make initial inquiries about regulatory requirements (ie planning and cultural heritage requirements, flood levels).
  • Identify existing conditions and constraints.
  • Recommend a list of other specialist consultants that might be required on the project (eg. structural, civil, electrical engineers, geotechnical/ soil reports, quantity surveyor, etc.).

This phase is really about gaining an understanding of the project, the client needs and the services you will provide based on this. Once the client has signed a contract and agreed on the project scope, your services and fees you can then proceed to prepare a preliminary design for the client to consider.

Stage 02 | Concept + Schematic Design

Concept Design is also sometimes called Schematic Design. This stage is about finalising your research and information gathering and developing design options for your client to consider in response to the brief and the information you have gathered. During the design phase, you will:

  • Arrange, attend and record meetings with the client, authorities, consultants and other relevant parties.
  • Undertake a preliminary assessment of authority regulations and requirements.
  • Prepare a detailed site analysis and concept.
  • Prepare sketches, diagrams and other information to adequately explain the concept and possible design options.
  • Prepare design briefs and possibly contracts for other consultants.
  • Undertake preliminary selection of materials and finishes.
  • Obtain a preliminary cost estimate based on the initial design for the client’s consideration.
  • Confirm a final concept design and obtain client approval to proceed to the next stage of design.

What is important about this stage is that there may be a lot of iterative designs. It is unlikely that the client will love the very first idea you present to them. So initially there may be several very loose different concepts or options with pros and cons for each that you discuss with the client to get a more firm idea of what will and will not work for them. This process could include a bit of back and forth and several meetings until a general concept and layout are agreed. There may also be a requirement to refine the design based on cost estimates. The client may find that they have to reduce or refine the project scope and consider their priorities.

Once the client agrees to a preliminary design in writing within a clear budget, you can move forward to Design Development.

Stage 03 | Design Development

Design Development is about taking the agreed concept and developing the design in a lot more detail. At this stage, there should be no major changes to the main concept, location and form of the building or structure and this stage should be about refinement and making things work. At the end of Design Development you will:

  • Develop the practical and functional aspects of the design to ensure spaces sizes accommodate the client brief (eg. furniture, circulation, daylight) and council and authority requirements (eg. disabled toilet sizes, window sizes in proportion to floor area etc.)
  • Coordinate the work of specialist consultants
  • Consult, and attend preliminary meetings, with relevant authorities to determine their requirements and relevant regulations.
  • Provide a set of plans, sections and elevations to explain the building form including spaces, sizes, openings, materials, fixed joinery and appliances (eg. ovens, toilets, basins, sinks)
  • Provide a schedule of proposed materials and finishes.
  • Review the developed design against the budget and coordinate the preparation of an updated estimate of the cost of the works.

At the end of Design Development, you will have a set of documents that describe the building that will be built. Once the client has agreed you can move on to obtain Planning and Development Approval.

Stage 04 | Planning + Development Approval

Most projects will require a planning or development application under the requirements of the local council or planning authority in your state or territory. Depending on which country you live in, it may have a slightly different name.

The planning or development application process is intended to ensure that all development meet required regulations and criteria and are assessed and approved consistently as outlined in the relevant local planning scheme.

You would have met with the local councils and authorities during the Concept and Design Development stages so you understand their requirements.

During this phase, you will:

  • Confirm the statutory authority requirements that you have previously researched.
  • Attend meetings with relevant authorities to discuss the final proposal before the application is lodged.
  • Prepare the application including analyses, studies, reports, plans, elevations, diagrams, and other required information. Your authority will usually have a checklist.
  • Assist the client with lodging formal application, or apply for them.

The timeframes for the application process can vary between councils. Some may take several weeks but in many cases can take 3-6 months depending on the size and scale of the project. Larger, more commercial projects may require they are advertised with community consultation or input, while a small residential renovation that meets council requirements could be a much faster process. The project may stop during this period, or the client may choose to continue into Construction Documentation which can be a risk if there are any major changes required by council or authorities.

Stage 05 | Construction Documentation

During Construction Documentation you will develop a complete and co-ordinated suite of very detailed documents that will allow a builder or contractor to price and construct the project. These will be used to lodge a final building approval application and call tenders or negotiate a construction price with a  contractor.

  • Prepare a suite of architectural documents for construction including:
    • Construction drawings – A graphic descriptions of what things look like and where things go.
    • Specification – Written requirements about building materials, equipment and construction systems that outline the standards to be met and describe the quality of materials, finishes and quality of work necessary to be submitted for statutory approval.
    • Schedules – Detailed lists of internal and external materials and finishes, sanitaryware, appliances, furniture, electrical and audiovisual equipment, and everything the contractor will need to know to purchase all the different components of the project.
  • Consult and reference authority, building, trade and construction standards and regulations.
  • Obtain a final cost estimate.
  • Prepare and coordinate a complete set of contract documents including consultant drawings, schedules and specifications, site surveys, reports and approvals.

Once the construction documents and cost estimate are approved in writing by the client you can start the process of selecting a contractor and submitting for final building approval. Building approval should hopefully be a formality if you have been consulting with the building surveyor as one of your consultants through the design and documentation process.

Stage 06 | Contractor Selection

It is critical that the set of construction documents are clear, comprehensive and co-ordinated. If they are missing information or contain errors this could result in additional costs during the construction process. With a good set of documents, selecting a contractor can occur several ways:

  • Competitive tender – The project is opened to any contractor who will be provided with the full suite of contract documents and prepare a submission that responds to your requirements. This could include a construction price, proposed team and experience, previous project history, a project programme with key milestones and any other provisions, conditions, or exclusions form the price.
  • Non-competitive tender – A list of selected contractors will be invited to tender rather than open to the public.
  • Negotiated contract –  On behalf of the client, the architect negotiates directly with a preferred contractor to come up with an agreed price.
  • A combination of the above.

Depending on the quality and completeness of the construction documents, this stage may require some negotiation before the contract is agreed. The prices may be higher than expected, the contractor may have some questions or exclusions, or even some proposals to save money. Aspects of the design may have to be reconsidered or redesigned.

Once the client agrees with the contractors proposal, scope of works and price, and a contract is signed, construction may begin.

Stage 07 | Contract Administration + Construction

Contract Administration involves ensuring the construction contract between the client and the contractor is executed under the terms of the contract.

As an architect, you may take on the role of contract administrator or Superintendent on behalf of the client, or this may be undertaken by another party. The role of the contract administrator is to ensure smooth communication between the contractor and the client under the contract terms and processes. Contractual obligations include:

  • Regular site visits to review the progress of the work following the programme.
  • Responding to Requests for Information (RFI)s from the contractor.
  • Issuing Superintendent or Architects Instructions for any changes to or clarifications of the design.
  • Assessing progress claims and issuing progress certificates to determine the correct amount of work has been completed against the money the contractor is claiming.
  • Assessing claims for contract price variations and adjustments of time.

If the contract documents are complete and thorough, this stage of the project should be more of an administrative process. However, if the documentation is poor there could be a lot of questions, price variations and ongoing issues with the contractor. It is far easier to draw and document something on paper than it is to change it on site after it has been built.

Regardless of how good your documents are, there will always be issues, something you have forgotten, contradictions in the documents and unknown site issues such as tree roots or an unidentifiable pipe that was not on the drawings, or unpredictable complications like unavailability of a product. But if you have a good contractor and a good relationship you can work with them to easily and amicably resolve any problems.

Stage 08 | Defects And Post-Construction

Once construction is practically complete and the client is ready to move in, the project will enter the Defects Liability Period and post-construction. The contract will usually allow for a period of time, often 12 months where a percentage of the contract is withheld and not fully paid out to the contractor in case something goes wrong or a defect appears.

A defect could be something like a leaky roof, peeling paint, breaking hinges or the security system fails. At the end of the project as the contract administrator you will:

  • Review the entire project and make a list of defects or problems when the project is practically complete and before the client moves in.
  • Track all defects including any that arise during the defects period after the client moves in.
  • Ensure the contractor adequately rectifies all defects before final payment is made.

Again, this process should ideally be an easy administrative process. With a good contractor, there will be very few defects, and if there are, they will be quick and willing to fix them.

So What?

As you can see, the stages of an architecture project are each quite different and complex. What is exciting is that an architecture project provides the opportunity for a variety of activities and skills. If you are working on a small project in a small practice or as a sole practitioner, following a project from the initial client meeting through to seeing it built can take years, but can be very fulfilling. Alternatively, working in a large firm on big projects allows you to focus on either design, documentation or construction and project delivery on site. They are very different skills and bodies of knowledge.

What is most important is that good design is important and it is not everything. Just as important in getting something built is the ability to design within a budget, satisfy the client, document and manage a contract. They are equally important parts of the process of taking a design from client to concept, construction and beyond. Which parts you choose to embrace and focus on are up to you!!

Liz at ArchiMash


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