Architecture Explained: The Phases of Designing & Building a Project


Designing and building a home or planning and constructing a space for a new or growing business is a complex task. One way to make a complex task seem more manageable is to break it up into smaller tasks, and architects apply a similar strategy to the design and construction process. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) defines Five Phases of Architecture that are commonly referred to throughout the industry: Schematic Design, Design Development, Contract Documents, Bidding, Contract Administration. 

Having a basic understanding of what happens during each of these work phases will help you communicate with your architect. Being familiar with each phase’s milestones and deliverables is also important because architects typically organize contracts and project schedules around them. Here at WC STUDIO, we value clarity and want the experience of working with us to be as straightforward and stress-free as possible. We name and define our work phases slightly differently than the AIA to make them easier for our clients to understand. Below is an outline of our project phase breakdown with a description of the deliverables or milestones at each step. This list may be modified to meet a particular project’s needs and the length of time each phase will take depends on many factors, but most projects will progress as follows:



Pre-design is an information gathering phase that will be the foundation for the design phases to follow. The main goal during this phase is to learn everything possible about our clients’ personality, lifestyle, and needs as well as determine how much space you need now and likely to need in the future, and how that space should be used, organized, and arranged. This information is organized into a document called the Program, which describes all the rooms and spaces for the project, their approximate sizes and any specific qualities or unique features you are looking for. The other part of Pre-design phase is observing and documenting the existing conditions at the project site. This usually entails a survey of the land to determine the property line locations and/or measurements of any existing structures. We also do background research to better understand how the site relates to the surrounding area, climate, people, and the regulations that affect the project. We track these regulations in a Zoning Summary document and talk to city planning staff if questions arise. Clients should expect to be very involved and ready to answer personal questions during this phase. We sometimes give “homework” assignments to get to know you better. Collaborating in this way allows us to better understand your values and needs, resulting in a design that reflects your individuality with optimal functionality.

PD Deliverables: Program, Zoning Summary, Exisiting Condition drawing(s)
PD Duration: usually 2-4 weeks



In this phase, we begin the process of translating the Program into an efficient building design. This is when we start exploring design concepts; it is the time for testing options and getting a general idea of the look and feel. The floor plans and shape of the project will begin to take form, but the specifics about materials and details will come later. The Schematic Design phase includes several meetings where we present ideas to our clients using images of other projects, hand sketches, and models to help visualize the size, shape, and relationship of spaces to each other. We listen and observe your reactions, then refine the ideas according to your feedback until we reach an agreed upon design direction to develop further in the following phases.  Clients can expect to be quite engaged throughout this phase and to be asked for approval of the Schematic Design before work proceeds. Make sure to let your design professional know if you don’t understand something and take the time necessary to give thoughtful feedback. It is always possible to make changes later, but it is easiest during this phase when the design is most fluid.

SD Deliverables: Preliminary Site and Floor Plans, Preliminary Exterior Concept (if applicable)
SD Duration: usually 4-8 weeks



During Design Development, we advance the design significantly based on the floor plan and exterior concept approved in the previous phase. The first priority of this phase is to define and develop all the important aspects of the project and produce a set of drawings and outline specification to show potential contractors for preliminary cost estimating. If adjustments are necessary to bring the project scope in line with the construction budget, it is most efficient to do this sooner than later. Once we know we are on track, we will talk more specifically about the interior and exterior materials and functionality. As we dial in the layout of the indoor and outdoor spaces we will refine the window and door placements and make adjustments to the building form. This phase is usually when our clients feel the project coming to life and it becomes possible to see themselves in the new space. By the end of the Design Development phase, the building exterior will be more fully designed, the interior layout completed, dimensions of all spaces finalized, and most materials selected. A structural engineer will be added to the team, and consultants for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems may be needed depending on the complexity of the project. The deliverable will be a more detailed set of drawings that communicates the overall layout and volume of the building or space, all significant equipment, and the type of material or finish for every surface of the project. 

DD Deliverables: Drawing Set and Outline Specification document
DD Duration: usually 8-12 weeks



In this phase we develop the Design Drawings into a thorough and precise set of Construction Documents. These drawings and specifications have all of the details, dimensions, and notes necessary to communicate the entire design intent to the builder. We show how the building components should be connected, specify all of the materials, finishes, fixtures, equipment, and appliances to be installed, and coordinate our drawings with the structural engineer’s and any other consultant drawings. The Construction Documents phase often requires the most time, which can surprise clients because the design seems complete after Design Development. However, this is a critical step in the process of successfully and accurately executing the design you have invested in. Early in this phase there may still be options on the table for some of the items to be specified. Clients should be prepared to make decisions during this phase. It is our job to make recommendations and educate you about the options, but ultimately you will be the one occupying and maintaining the home or building and you have the final say.

CD Deliverables: Drawings and Specification for Construction
CD Duration: usually 8-12 weeks



During this phase we add to the Construction Documents any additional information required to get a building permit. This is the information needed to show the project complies with the applicable land use, building, and energy codes, and any other applicable guidelines and regulations required by the city or jurisdiction issuing the permit. We submit these drawings along with the various forms required for the permit application to the local plans reviewer, monitor the progress during the review period, and give additional information or clarifications as requested. Little, if anything is needed from the client during this phase—except patience. Our goal is to shepherd your project through as quickly and painlessly as possible, but the length and cost of this phase can vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction, complexity of the project, and any special historic district or community design review processes.

BP Deliverables: Drawings and Forms for Building Permit Application
BP Duration: usually 12-24 weeks (varies widely)



We are happy to introduce our clients to a number of reputable builders we work with and trust. We can also be available to attend interviews and walk-throughs, help you evaluate contractor qualifications, and provide assistance with obtaining and reviewing bids. Some clients already have a contractor in mind when they come to us, but many take advantage of our extensive contractor rolodex and relationships to find their builder.

BP Deliverables: Drawings and Specifications for Bidding
BP Duration: usually 3-6 weeks



While most of the architect’s work is done before any building begins, our consistent presence during the construction phase is equally important. During this phase we visit the jobsite at regular intervals to answer questions from the builder and proactively address potential issues. The frequency of our site visits could be weekly or monthly depending on the project and your needs, but it is vital to have us keeping an eye on things to ensure the finished project meets your expectations. Inevitably, some decisions must be made or modified in the field, and our involvement and ability to work quickly with your contractor to solve problems is essential for helping you avoid costly delays and change orders. During Construction Administration, the architect’s role is advisor to the owner. At our site visits we will take photos and write field reports to document the progress, confirm the materials and workmanship are of the quality you agreed to, and verify your contractor’s billings accurately reflect the amount of work completed. At the end of the project, we help you develop your final Punch List to ensure all work is completed to your satisfaction. 

CA Deliverables: Field Observation Reports
CA Duration: concurrent with construction timeframe


Knowing that a significant investment of time and resources will be required to complete a project can make it feel like an intimidating undertaking. However, experience tells us that the biggest hurdle to starting or moving forward on a project is more often the anxiety around what we do not yet know. To help eliminate some of the unknowns about working with an architect, we put together this guide and downloadable tip sheet outlining each step in the process. We hope it gives a clear picture of what to expect as one of our clients and that you feel more prepared to discuss your project with an architect when the time is right. And if you are ready to get started now, we offer free consultations in our Tacoma office. Schedule yours today.

Cady Chintis