Published in May 2006

Understanding the Architectural Design Process
By Tony Warner, CTS-D

Being on the same ‘page’ helps expedite projects—and relationships.

     The architectural design of a building is one completed in methodical stages. Understanding the evolution that most designs experience is critical for all members of the design team. As more AV firms decide to make an entrance into the design side of the industry, it is important for them to fully understand and appreciate the processes their clients commonly use.
     Perhaps one of the most striking differences between the design industry and the installation industry is timeline. When a project reaches the point at which it is ready to be constructed, many of the complex financial and political issues have already been addressed. For instance, budgets and funding are key issues that have to be considered throughout the design process. At other times, working through local legal issues and ordinances pertaining to the land use, neighborhood requirements or building codes may have to be addressed. Any one of these issues might halt or delay the project for long periods of time.
     It can sometimes take years to get through some of the political issues of a design. On occasion, a design team could spend several years working on a project only to have it canceled or shelved indefinitely due to financial constraints or other non-design-related issues. Although it is indeed important to promote early involvement in the process, the AV designer must be prepared both mentally and financially for these frequent disruptions to a project’s design cycle. In many ways, it is the collective experience of these project peaks and valleys among team members that fosters camaraderie, so they should not be avoided.
     Traditionally, the design process is comprised of multiple stages. At each stage, the design team issues a formal submission to the client for official feedback and approval. A normal project often will include four or five major submissions. The most frequent stages are broken down into Programming and Concepts (10%), Schematic Design (35%), Design Development (65%) and Construction Documents (100%). There are often additional submissions or variations of these, but generally speaking, these are the most common.
     When a project commences, it usually begins with what is referred to as a Programming phase. It is in this phase that the design team holds its initial meetings with the client to assess its needs, preferences, preliminary budget, etc. The goals for the project, and the building, are discussed and documented.
     The Programming phase often results in a detailed Programming Report or a Basis of Design document. Directly following, but sometimes simultaneous to, the Programming phase is the Concepts stage. Here, several options for the building’s overall shape and layout are presented for review. This may include engineering studies that would impact the core building design as well. Often the Programming and Concepts stages are called a 10% stage.
     When these two stages are completed and approved by the client, the design team begins work on the first major milestone: Schematic Design, which is the stage in which the shell of the building is modified more based on feedback from the Concepts stage. Additionally, primary spaces are allocated and laid out internally. It is a stage characterized by significant architectural modifications. During this phase, the various engineering trades work at laying out the building structure and service entrances for utilities. The Schematic Design phase decides much of what the final building will look like from a structural perspective. It is typically referred to as the 35% stage in the design process.
     Following the completion, review and approval of the Schematic Design submission, the design team will move into the Design Development project stage. Here, pieces of the building begin to come together. Many of the engineering and technical systems are developed during this phase. Following this stage, the primary work that should remain is detailing and minor system changes. Any major systems or building considerations should get resolved during Design Development. This phase is often called 65%.
     Following the approval of the Design Development documents, the design team will proceed to the final design stage: Construction Documents. This phase, when all of the intricate detailing of the project typically occurs, is considered by many to be the most labor-intensive stage of the project design. Significant coordination between trades is a critical aspect of this stage.
     Although some projects may include a draft specification submission in one or both of the previous submissions, it is primarily during this phase that the project specifications are developed. The Construction Documents phase is called 100%. At times, it may be called 95%, with client comments then getting incorporated into 100% documents. For the most part, however, the Construction Documents are those documents that will guide the contractors during construction.
     The purpose of the methodical design process built around periodic submissions is to continually protect the client and designer from wasting time and resources on a design that does not meet the client’s needs.
     The AV designer, however, must understand that the architect has different needs than the AV designer from each of those submissions. The whole model of the staged submissions is one that starts out at a very high, conceptual level and then gradually gains more focus and definition with each submission.
     For instance, the AV designer may use the Concepts stage to define the concepts of the AV systems while also supporting the architect with any AV issues that could impact the building’s concept. It’s often only at the very end of the design that those two paths fully converge, but it’s important for the AV designer to understand the importance of both throughout the entire process.



Tony Warner, CTS-D, is director of the Audio-Visual Design group for RTKL, a 60-year-old worldwide planning, architecture, design and creative services organization. He has worked on projects for such clients as the US State Department, the US House of Representatives, the National Institutes of Health and the US Naval Academy. Send comments to him at twarner@testa.com.

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