If you are looking to bring your dream construction project to life, you will first need to turn your idea into a workable and realistic design. There are many phases in the life-cycle of a construction project, and each phase has a number of component steps that need to be completed. The design stage is no different. There are multiple different steps that must be taken before a final project design has been chosen. Each of these steps is an important component in construction management process as a whole.

For project owners, there is perhaps no portion of a construction project that requires as much input and collaboration between the owner and other team members as the design phase. If you are anticipating bringing your project to life, you will want to have a firm understanding of the design stage as a whole, as well as each step within it.

In this article, we will be taking a close look at the first part of the design process known as schematic design. The schematic design stage is one of the most critical components of the entire design process. It is during the schematic stage that your ideas will begin to be examined, tested, and adapted to the real world. During this stage, you’ll work closely with your architect to produce the foundational design documents for your project. You’ll most likely be presented with multiple options and choose the design that most closely reflects your desired outcome for the project.

To better understand what the schematic design stage is, we will look at it within the context of the design process as a whole. The production of schematic design is one portion of a lengthy design process that will require input from multiple partners on the project. A brief overview of these steps in the design process will not only contextualize the schematic design stage but also illuminate the owner’s role throughout the project design period.

What is the Schematic Design Stage?

The schematic design stage is the very first portion of the design process. The overall goal of the design process, as a whole, is to produce a complete design for the project. This includes all engineering considerations, as well as the specific materials, equipment, systems, and spaces included in the project. By the end of the design period, which is typically referred to as the construction documents stage, all structural and design related concerns should be accounted for.

The schematic design stage is the first portion of this process. Typically, the production of a schematic design occurs shortly after a project has been started. Most construction projects start with an owner retaining the services of a construction project manager, who will start off by conducting a feasibility assessment of the project to determine its viability. Broadly speaking, once a project has been found to be viable an architect is brought on board and begins the process for drafting a schematic design. This marks the beginning of the schematic design stage.

What is the Goal of the Schematic Design Stage?

The goal of the schematic design stage is to settle on an overall design concept for the project. Every construction project starts with an idea. Typically, an owner has an idea for the project that they want to be built. Transitioning from simply an idea to a workable and realistic design concept is the central goal purpose of the schematic design process.

By the end of the schematic design process, two important facets of the project should be known. The first is the scale of the project itself. During the schematic stage, the owner and architect will work together to go over the goal of the project and the envisioned end result. The architect will then produce a number of sketches for potential project designs before one is settled on. These sketches will probably have variations that impact the scale of the project. Put another way, each different design will use the project site and available space in different and unique ways. This will necessarily have an impact on the scale of the project itself. Once a final schematic design is settled on, the scale of the project moving forward should be defined.

The second key piece of information that should come out of the schematic design stage is the relationship between parts of the project. As the schematic design process advances towards its conclusion, the relationship between different spaces within the final project should become increasingly clear. The first step of this is to outline the spaces that the final structure should have. Once these are defined, the architect will produce a number of different representations that utilize these spaces in different and unique ways. The owner will then choose the representation that best aligns with their vision for the finished project.

Defining the relationship between spaces in the project, and settling on a scale for the project aren’t the only outcomes associated with the schematic design process. Rather, these are two of the central goals of the schematic design phase as a whole. Coming out of the schematic design process, you should be able to look at the project and understand what the scale of the project is moving forward, and what spaces are in the final building and how they relate to one another.

What is the Process for Producing a Schematic Design?

The schematic design stage is an exciting period for project owners for a number of reasons. During these early stages, the owner gets to finally see their idea for the project to begin to take shape. It is also an exciting period because the owner has a great deal of agency in shaping the outcome of the final project. During the schematic design process, the owner is perhaps more involved in the day-to-day workings of the project than at any other point in the project’s life-cycle. This is not to say that the owner doesn’t make important decisions throughout many other stages of a construction project. Rather, in the schematic design stage, the owner’s input and decisions are the driving force.

The process for producing a schematic design is highly collaborative. In an ideal world, the owner would approach an architect with an idea for the project and the architect would be able to quickly produce a design that exactly matches what the owner had in mind. In reality, this is almost never the case. Instead, the process for producing a workable design for the project will almost certainly require many iterations before a final design is settled on.

The process for schematic construction is fairly straightforward at a macro level, though this shouldn’t be taken to discount the considerable amount of skill that goes into producing a workable schematic. At the beginning of the process, the architect will sit down with the owner and figure out the project goals and requirements through an extended conversation. This conversation will include information about what elements the owner desires in the final project, as well as what features the final project is required to have.

Once the architect has a good understanding of what elements the owner is looking for in their project, they will begin to explore different designs that embody those ideas. Understand from the outset that this is usually an extensive process of trial and error. The architect you are working with will most likely produce a number of different design options. From these options, the owner will select which ones they like or don’t like. The architect will take these revisions and suggestions and continue to refine the chosen design options until a final schematic design has been chosen.

During the schematic stage in the design process, it is not uncommon to have multiple design options that ultimately aren’t chosen. This is a natural part of the design process as a whole and is to be expected. The collaborative nature of the schematic design stage makes it very important to choose an architect who is flexible, patient, and capable of hearing the owner’s desired outcome. Open communication is key during this stage in the design process. At the same time, working with an architect who becomes frustrated when their preferred design option isn’t chosen will not be an enjoyable experience. Keeping this in mind during the selection process for potential architects can save time and energy further down the road.

What Happens After the Schematic Design Stage?

You might be wondering what happens after you have selected a specific schematic design to move forward with. The schematic design stage is usually the very first step in a design process that can be quite lengthy depending on the size and complexity of your project. Even the schematic design phase of a project can take months on large projects.

After a schematic design has been chosen, it will be time for the architect to flesh out the chosen design. The next phases of the design process are the design development stage and the construction documents stage. Let’s cast an eye towards each of these to gain a better understanding of what comes after the schematic design phase.

Design Development

After a schematic has been chosen, it’s time to turn it into a comprehensive design. This portion of the design process is known as the design development phase.  If you are the owner and you enjoyed the schematic design stage, don’t worry, you’ll still have lots of input during the development phase.

During the design development stage, the primary goal is to create a detailed design that includes the types of materials that will be used on the project, what the interior and exterior of the space will look like, and what kind of equipment, systems, and furnishings will be used in the building. These are all important questions that will have an impact on the aesthetics of the space as well as the budget.

The design development stage, like the schematic design phase, will require both the architect and owner working closely together for design review. Following the design development stage, you should have a firm understanding not only of what the final building will look like through extensive three-dimensional modeling, but you will also have a more accurate picture of the budget required to build the space.

Construction Documents

After the design development stage, you will have a clear idea of what your final project model will look like, what materials will be used both on the interior and exterior of the project, and what equipment and systems will be installed. The next stage requires less input from the owner, but still requires extensive work on the part of the architect. This stage is the production of documents that will be used for physical construction, which is known as the construction documents phase.

The construction documents phase is usually the last phase before you accept bids on the project from contractors. During this phase, the architect will refine their drawings that came out of the design development stage even further. These drawings will be as comprehensive as possible, as they will be the foundation for the physical construction processes. Typically, the documents produced during the construction documents phase will include all construction specifications and materials required for the project management. This information is then provided to the potential contractors who will be working on the project so that you can receive accurate bids.

Closing Thoughts

The schematic design phase of a construction project is an exciting period in the life-cycle of the project. It is during this phase that the owner’s idea for the project begins to come to life. The schematic design process is characterized by trial and error and will require extensive input on the part of the project owner.

At the start of the schematic design period, the architect will sit down with the owner and gather as much information as possible about the project. They’ll then produce a series of potential design directions that take into consideration the intended purpose of the project and the site for the project itself. These designs will then be refined or eliminated based on the owner’s feedback and recommendations. This process will continue until a final design schematic has been chosen.

The end goal of the schematic design process is to settle on a potential design for the project, define the scope of the project, and show the relationship between different parts of the project. This will serve as the basis for moving forward with the design development stage where specific systems, equipment, and materials for the project are chosen.

If you would like to find out more about the schematic design stage or the project management process in general, please contact Gilliland Construction Management today.



  1. https://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/schematic-design-this-isnt-architecture/
  2. https://www.msbarchitects.com/what-is-schematic-design/
  3. http://blog.archability.com/?p=267
  4. http://www.thjarch.com/projects/process.html
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By Kirt Gilliland

May 01, 2019