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What is the Design Process?

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

Listen to the full podcast episode here.

Welcome back to episode two of Design Create Inspire. I am incredibly grateful to have received such great feedback from the first blog and podcast and am looking forward to continuing to design, create, and inspire with you.

As I mentioned in my first episode, What is an Architect?, my journey to becoming an architect began in the design world, with an undergraduate degree in Interior Design. The expansive knowledge I gained in my undergraduate and graduate studies, Interior Design and Architecture respectively, has proven to be an extremely valuable tool. The various courses, experiences, and projects have provided me with the unique experience of combining my two passions, design and architecture, into one powerful force.

As an award winning design studio, I take great pride in my design process. I work hand and hand with my clients to ensure that we are designing a home together through a fun, engaging, and democratic process. Building a house should not be a negative experience, rather a once in lifetime, exciting opportunity to work together to create a safe home, an environment that is livable for daily life, and a space that is beautiful from every angle.

While every designer is different, my design process involves a number of steps to ensure a successful outcome. Through these steps, I present sketches, drawings, computer models, and an abundance of ideas, materials, as well as a thorough analysis of my thought process, to ensure the client understands, and agrees with, the vision.

As we lead into the design process, it is imperative to understand that each client’s path is different. While the phases of design remain the same, the way we arrive at the final design is not always linear, with the final product being a direct result of a logical, custom process.

Before we hand over the keys to your dream home, we must start at the beginning, with pre-design.

Pre-Design: Conceptual Design

The first stage of the design process is essentially an information gathering and processing phase. This is where I get to know the client, the current site conditions, and important information such as any existing structures, codes, deed restrictions, site utilities, access, budget, and schedule.

Existing Layout

To begin my process, I start with an analysis of the site. I ask myself a number of questions, such as, “Where are the views? Where would the entrance make the most sense? Do aspects of the current layout make sense, or should the living room be somewhere else?”. As I continue my analysis, I take local conditions into consideration - climate, wind patterns, solar angles, topography, and other significant features - to ensure I am utilizing every aspect of the property in the most sustainable way. Once I have analyzed the space, I present the client with a site diagram, creating a visual representation of candidate building sites, opportunities, and which combinations we would like to explore more.

It is no secret that one of the main stigmas of building a custom home is exceeding one’s budget. I am extremely transparent with my clients, and work with clients to ensure we stay within their budget. To avoid any sort of uncertainty, I begin by creating a program with my clients, essentially a “wish list” for the home. The more details included, the easier it will be to use our budget wisely. For example, if a client has a grand piano that they wish to showcase in their living room, that should be included in the program so I can create a specific space for it.

Once this list is curated, I apply the square footage estimates and assign estimated dollar values to the total square footage. If after this estimate the cost does not align with the client’s budget, we will work together to revisit the size and number of “must have” spaces, for as long as necessary to ensure the estimates and budget correlate. It is imperative to align the budget with the size of the home before beginning the design process, as once the process begins it is much more difficult to let go of certain elements.

The last piece of this phase is to create a design schedule together which will be impacted by the following:

  • Owner’s Schedule

  • Designer’s Schedule

  • Consultant’s Schedules

  • Permitting Schedule

  • Contractor’s Schedule + Availability

Creating an ideal, realistic schedule is essential, as well as understanding the importance of identifying any constraints early on that may change this schedule along the way.

This phase is complete when the client and designer have agreed to the program and budget that has been developed together.

Phase One: Schematic Design

I like to call this phase, “Parti time!”.

Developing the relationship between the existing and new
Parti Diagram

This is where the ideas form and I begin to create a rough shape of the building. I will generate at least two design options for the client, using all of the information gathering from the Pre-Design. This information allows me to create a parti, which is the narrative for the project. We will reference the parti many times throughout the project, helping us make decisions as the project becomes more detailed and defined.

In this phase I meet with my clients to discuss the designs with the goal of narrowing the field to one preferred design. Oftentimes the final design has elements of both examples, truly creating a custom, hybrid home for the client.

At the end of this phase, we usually have the following:

  • Schematic Site Plan

  • Schematic Floor Plan

  • Sketch Elevations/3D Model

  • Preliminary Cost Estimate

Schematic Design Floorplan

Phase Two: Design Development

At this point in the process we are able to visualize the home for the first time. It is in this phase that I create digital drawings to share with the client, making the building real by drawing the floor plan, including the walls, windows, doors, and stairs. In order to make this digital drawing feel real, I define the exact sizes and relationships of the rooms, as well as begin thinking about the interior and exterior materials, allowing us to conceptualize the framework for the material palette.

It is very common to meet with a client several times to discuss the evolution of the design, refining details and decisions to ensure everything is exactly as desired. Additional details such as landscape, lighting or mechanical professionals, as well as all parts interior, such as material and fixture selection, hardware, finishes, and appliances, will be coordinated at this time.

At the end of this phase, the client will have a set of drawings that resembles a house, but not quite enough information to build from:

  • Site/Grading Plan

  • Floor Plans ¼”

  • Exterior Elevations ¼”

  • Sections

  • Interior Elevations (as necessary)

  • Outline Specifications

  • Structural Concept

  • Lighting Concept

  • Mechanical Systems Concept

Architectural sketch showing proposed design
Design Development Sketch

Phase Three: Construction Documents

As a client there is little input needed from you in this phase, as all design decisions, other than finishes, are finalized in order to prevent any change order costs.

In order to begin the construction process we must create what I like to call, an instruction manual. This manual is a detailed set of drawings and specifications that will be used by the contractor for pricing and construction, which includes the following:

  • Site Plan

  • Floor Plan(s)

  • Exterior Elevations

  • Building Sections/Wall Sections

  • Door + Window Details

  • Interior Elevations

  • Details (interior/exterior)

  • Electrical/Lighting plans

  • Building Specifications

  • Schedules

  • Door

  • Window

  • Hardware

  • Plumbing

  • Lighting

  • Finish

  • Appliance

  • Etc.

Once the drawings have been completed by the consultants they will be submitted for local permitting. Traditionally, the San Diego permitting process is complex and tedious, which is why I prioritize an early start.

Sketch of Proposed Addition

Phase Four: Construction Bidding

Although this phase is placed near the end of the process, it typically occurs alongside other phases of the work, especially if the desired contractor is in high demand.

When it comes to selecting a contractor, there are two means, competitive bidding or negotiated contract.

The process of competitive bidding is exactly how it sounds, two (or more) contractors competitively pricing the construction documents which are based on the drawings and specifications, known as the contract documents.

Each contractor will reference a tight set of design drawings which include every minor detail. With an identical set of drawings, the only difference in bids should be the individual builder’s varying overhead and profit percentage, which is typically a negotiated percentage.

Once the bids are submitted to the client, I review the bids with my client to select the contractor that the client feels is the best fit for their home. This does not always mean the lowest bidder, rather the contractor that together we feel understands the vision of the home best.

Just like any major decision, there are pro’s and con’s:

Pros of Competitive Bidding:

  • Validates the cost of construction among a pool of builders

Cons of a Bid Contract:

  • Adversarial build process – more change orders, finger pointing

  • Subcontract quality is subject to the quality of the low bidder (GC’s choice)

  • Low bidders may feel pressure to compromise quality

  • Up front drawing/design fees are higher to ensure drawings are complete

  • Some local Contractors won’t participate in the bid process at all

  • More time to conduct the bid process and award the contract

The other selection process is through a negotiated contract, also known as a T&M (time & materials), or a cost-plus contract. This process is a collaborative process between the contractor and client, billing for the actual cost of the work plus an agreed upon (negotiated) fee, with the ability to develop and refine pricing along the way.

While this process can be structured with or without a guaranteed maximum price, the collaborative process naturally builds trust between all parties.

Pros of a Negotiated Contract:

  • Collaborative build process

  • Develop a working relationship and trust through the design process

  • Saves the time of the bid process

  • Flexibility – changes reflect real costs not low bidder making up for his low number

Cons of a Negotiated Contract:

  • Schedule is everything with this structure, without a fixed price ceiling delays can quickly increase the overall cost to build

Whichever option the client chooses, I support entirely. It is in everyone’s best interest to enjoy who is working on the project, as we build consensus and a mutual respect for one another. After all we have the same end goal, to build the best home for the client.

Phase Five: Construction Administration

We have finally made it to the final stage of the long design process! This is when we begin to see our patience and hard work paying off.

Location of addition before construction begins
Construction Begins

After we have chosen and awarded a contractor, the construction begins. From this moment I will serve as the client’s on-site agent, monitoring progress and ensuring conformance with the contract documents. It is not my job to be the contractor, but it is my job to make sure the contractor is doing everything that has been contractually agreed to.

I believe this phase is a crucial part of the process which is why I invite clients to be a part of the experience. At the end of the day this is the client’s home and they have every right to ensure their vision is being executed properly according to the drawings we drafted together.

As an addition, involving me, the designer, in this phase allows the vision to be integrated into the home details seamlessly. It is no surprise that designers and contractors think very differently, and it is important to ensure the balance of function and aesthetics in the home.

As construction continues, I visit the site intermittently to meet with the contractor to answer any questions I, or the client, may have, as well as review payment requisitions. These meetings allow me to create lasting relationships with the contractor while reviewing progress of the project.

After what may seem to be decades of construction, the project will reach its end! YAY!

At this time, referred to as Substantial Completion, I work with the contractor to generate a punch list and oversee its execution. Once this list has been reviewed, I will issue a Certificate of Final Completion, release the final payment, and hand over the keys to the client.

Thank you for being patient.

Welcome to your dream home!

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Listen to Bryn discuss the Design Process on the Design Create Inspire podcast here.



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