A Comprehensive Outline of The Architectural Design Phases


Architectural design is an intricate and detailed process, with careful consideration of the project’s context, budget, goals, materials, and regulations. From conception to completion, there are multiple phases that must be followed to ensure success. In this article, we will explore each of these phases in greater detail; from initial concept to the completion of  construction, we will look at the major milestones, key considerations, and common mistakes to avoid.

We will also provide you with best practices for adapting these phases to meet specific project needs and give you an idea of how the architectural fees can be broken down across all the phases. With this comprehensive guide, you’ll have all the information you need to ensure your project is a success from start to finish.

The “pre design phase”


There are significant benefits to engaging with your architect in the pre-design phase. Their experience and knowledge can assist in a better understanding of your project scope. By having an initial consultation meeting your architect, they can advise on what administration and regulations may be applicable, whether the project is feasible, and what other design experts will be needed prior to you undertaking the design process. They will also be able to strategize the flow of information between the project team and ensure efficient consulting with the various design experts.

Usually discussions and input during pre-design will serve as additional design services, and is specifically recommended for high complexity projects or for first time clients to help navigate them through all the design phases. work in an existing building may also require early engagement as this can often have significant hidden challenges which an experienced architect will have knowledge of.

At level the following services make up the Pre-design phase of a typical project.

  • Site analysis,
  • programming,
  • existing conditions,
  • budgeting,
  • code review


Architectural design phases

As a client embarking on a construction project, it is important to understand the different architectural design phases set out by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the key considerations for each of the five phases.

The design process, from the schematic design, to the completion of construction, can be complex and multi-faceted, but with a solid understanding of the architectural design process, you can ensure a successful outcome.

In this article, we will provide an in-depth exploration of the AIA’s architectural design phases, including major milestones, common mistakes to avoid, and best practices for successful execution.


Phase 1: Schematic Design Phase:

The first phase of the architectural design process is the schematic design phase, accounting for approximately 15% of the architectural fee breakdown.

During the first phase, your architect will work with you to establish the project scope, program requirements, and the overall schematic design of the construction project. They will also conduct an analysis of the job site and create basic design sketches and layouts.

This phase sets the foundation for the remaining five phases, so it is important to have clear communication with your architect and a shared understanding of your vision for the project leading into the design development.


The Schematic design phase is where the size, shape and basic layout of the building are determined. This phase usually requires significant client input for the architect to begin preparing drawings and communicate the basic design by means of models and rough sketches.

Good communication between client and architect will result in a clear understanding of the design intent and offer a good overview of the entire construction project.

At this stage the architect may want to consult with other design experts such as structural, mechanical and wet-service engineers, depending on the complexity of the schematic design and relevant architectural data.

Phase 2: Design Development Phase:

The next phase is the design development phase and accounts for approximately 20% of the architectural fees.

Here you and your architect will work together to refine the outcome of the schematic design phase into a more detailed final design. This will include selecting materials, specifying finishes and products such as doors, windows, fixtures and any built in appliances.

This phase is concluded when both client and architect have clearly established the interior and exterior design and have progressed well in refining the technical specifications, project specific systems and building systems which will be detailed in the construction documents phase.

The architect will also co-ordinate the design with various other consultants at this stage for their input.

Coordinating the design with the various design experts

In order for any architectural project to be a success it is critical that the design is coordinated between all the various design experts and specialist trades making up the project team. The best way to ensure success on your project is to communicate the design development to the structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and any other applicable experts as early on in the design process as possible.

The architect plays a central role in this coordination as they often have the best overall understanding of the design intent and a basic working knowledge of how the various components of the building need to fit together.

Communicating the design development.

It’s important to keep in mind that during this phase, changes can still be made, but they will become more difficult and costly as the project progresses.

At Level, the architectural design team compile design development construction documents including building elevations, plans and 3D renderings to clearly communicate the design to the client.

Design development drawings ensure that the final design aligns with the outcomes established in the pre-design and schematic design phases. Once the design is agreed, these documents will be approved by all parties in order to proceed to the next phase.


An important outcome of the design development stage is to provide preliminary cost estimates. These will be rough estimates that will be reviewed under the next phase, leading up to the bidding process. The design will be reviewed throughout this stage for compliance with local and national building codes and regulations.

Phase 3: Construction Documents Phase:

The construction documents phase makes up the largest portion of the architect’s work, owing to around 40% of the architectural fees. The architect prepares multiple sets of construction drawings, including a set to be submitted to the local building and planning department, showing compliance with planning laws and bylaws and building regulations.

Another set of detailed construction drawings, schedules of quantities and specifications will be produced to be used for bidding by construction contractors and construction. Each of these sets contain key information to ensure smooth and satisfactory completion of your project.


For a typical project these documents include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Floor plans
  • Elevations
  • Sections
  • Architectural details
  • Technical Details
  • Door and Window schedules
  • Finishing schedules


The complete set of construction drawings can be extensive and will include drawings from the various consultants and design experts appointed for their design services. One of the biggest challenges faced during the Construction Document phase is to ensure that there are no clashes between the various components and services that make up the entire project. The architect plays an instrumental role in coordinating the detailed drawings of all the design experts and all the project specific systems, prior to commencing the bidding process.

The coordination and communication between the experts is best managed by the architect as this ensures a single cohesive set of construction documents to be sent to the construction company for an accurate bid.


Architecture firms are often able to provide preliminary cost estimates that run alongside design development, providing the client with a rough cost estimate to ensure the project stays within broad budgetary constraints.

For more complex projects it is better advised to have a dedicated cost estimator or quantity surveyor on board throughout the architectural design process to ensure the design intent can be carried through to construction.

Phase 4: Bidding and Contractor Selection

The construction documents are used to solicit bids or negotiate a contract with a contractor in the bidding or negotiation phase. This phase makes up 5% of the architectural fees, and can be run as a competitive bidding process or a negotiation with a contractor directly appointed by the client.

If the client has a direct contractor that they prefer, it can be useful to include them in the discussions during earlier phases of the architectural design process. This will speed up the negotiations and ensure they have a clear understanding of the entire project.

competitive bid packages

It is important to note that no architect or cost estimator cannot guarantee the price of construction according to their estimates. In order to have a guaranteed price of construction, the project must be costed by a general contractor under the bidding phase.


The most effective way to ensure a fair and reasonable costing is to undertake a competitive bid process where multiple contractors submit bids based on identical construction documents and project information making up the competitive bid package.

  1. IFB (Letter explaining what is being bid for, the format required and the timeline for bids to be submitted
  2. Full set of construction drawings
  3. Schedules of quantities and specifications
  4. Timeline for the project
  5. Initial estimates (If cost estimator was involved)
  6. Preambles or any special conditions/contract conditions to be adhered to in the bidding.

REVIEWING THE BID and selecting a contractor

You and your architect will review the bids in order to select a contractor. Diligence during this process is crucial in ensuring that the project is built within budget and on schedule, and that you have a good understanding of the costs and timelines of the project.

Care should be taken in reviewing the bids as the cheapest option or lowest bid is not always the correct choice. Taking the most expensive bid is also not always advised and the only way to make an informed decision is to compare each line item across all Bidding contractors to establish the best construction company for your specific project. Once the contractor is appointed the architect will issue a construction set of drawings to build from.

Phase 5: Construction Administration phase:

The construction administration phase makes up the final 20% of the architectural fees. Your architect’s role is to provide construction oversight and ensure that the contractor is building the project according to the construction documents and to address any issues that arise during construction. This phase is critical in ensuring that the project is built as designed, and that any issues are resolved in a timely manner.

The advantages of the architect having coordinated all the inputs of the various design experts will surface during this phase as most of the issues would have been addressed across the first four phases of design. They will have a detailed knowledge of the construction program and where the applicable trades fit in. This will help avoid abortive work and potential delays or cost overruns.

Majority of the architect’s work in this phase will consist of inspections of the job site and meetings with the contractor and other design experts. This ensures the quality of execution and that the work is carried out in line with the conditions of the building permit and design development construction documents.

The architect may also be required to review contractor’s monthly invoices and issue payment certificates which ensure that the amounts being invoiced align with progress on site. Once the final payment certificate is issued and final payment is made, the construction phase is concluded along with the project as a whole.


The final phase of the process is the closeout, where your architect ensures that the project is completed according to the contract documents and that all necessary closeout documents are provided. This phase is essential in ensuring that the project is completed to your satisfaction and that all necessary documentation is in order. Once all documentation is in place and any snags are attended to, the project will reach final completion.

Adapting the phases of architectural design

The architectural design process can be adapted to meet the specific needs of your project. This is especially applicable with projects such as existing buildings or buildings that have unique design challenges, or require specialized expertise to develop highly complex systems.

Your architect will consult with specialists and experts regarding other project specific systems and adapt the phases of design to suit the inputs they require. This may include structural specialists for unique structural solutions or mechanical engineers, where a large amount of mechanical or electrical services may be required and could result in additional construction administration.

Even items such as exterior and interior finishes that require specific provisions to be made earlier on in the construction program can result in a different design process. It is the architects role to ensure all these matters are communicated timeously and that all the various experts and specialists are aware of what is required of them.

Best Practice for Successful Execution:

The phases of design are set out in order to simplify the sometimes overly complex process of architectural design. Architecture firms such as Level Engineering, are dedicated to providing their clients excellent architectural services across all the phases ensuring a finished project that surpasses client expectations. The best practice to ensure successful completion for your project, is to appoint the right experts to guide you along the way.

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Picture of Scott Zurn, P.E.

Scott Zurn, P.E.

Founder and CEO of Level Engineering & Level Design Partners. With more than 4 decades of experience, Scott Zurn has contributed to all aspects of the building industry, serving both public and private sectors. He’s achieved tremendous success in commercial and residential markets, held leadership roles such as building official, city engineer, and director for local governments, and accomplished hundreds of millions of dollars in successful commercial building and civil infrastructure as a designer, project manager, and leader. As the Founder of the Level brand, Scott is dedicated to ensuring the entrepreneurial success of design professionals, as well as creating positive environmental impacts through design work. Read Scott’s full bio here.

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