Design Process 102- Schematic Design

In our quest to de-mystify the design process of an architect, I present the second installment of the series- the phase of Schematic Design. Sounds a bit creepy… “I’m sorry but the infection has spread, we are now in the schematic phase. Won’t be long now before he’s a walking zombie.” If you missed the initial post, you can catch up here – Design Process 101- Programming.

The goal of this series is to address the typical design process of an architect. De-mystifying the design process for the client affords them the understanding of what it is we as architects do, how we do it, and the value of our services. I firmly believe that an educated client is the best client to have. Schematic Design is the phase that typically clients are most heavily involved with- the courtship is over and we are now dating exclusively! Okay, stop being creeped out, don’t take that literally. I don’t date my clients in the traditional sense. Come on, minds out of the gutter, this here design stuff is serious.

Initial Sketches and Ideas– Schematic Design


Schematic Design is similar to a feasibility study. The goal is to answer the question – “Is it possible to add or build this amount of square footage for our projected budget, in a practical and aesthetically pleasing way?” There is no way to accurately answer this question without defining the scope of work. This requires putting sketches to paper and exploring ideas. Many people who go through this process are trying to decide whether or not to add on to their existing home, build a new home, or move to another home. Most people go on to build what is designed, but some come to a different conclusion. In either case, going through the Schematic Design Phase helps you make an informed decision.

Go back and re-read the last sentence, it’s very important. Without Schematic Design you may as well consult the magic 8 ball for your decisions- “Outlook not so good.”


Based upon the information obtained during programming, the client’s wishes, site survey work, pertinent building code, and zoning regulations; as your architect, I will prepare one or more design options for your review. Throughout the phase, lots of questions will be asked, answered, ridiculed, discarded, asked again, etc. It’s a time for questioning and posing a lot of “What ifs?” This is the time to flush out any ideas you may have for your project, no matter how crazy they may seem- well, other than Rococo Revival, I will draw the line on that.

Typically massing models and soft-line drawings (hand drawn) are created- floor plans, furniture layout, key elevations, site plan, and often a key view shown three-dimensionally to help you understand the overall feel of the project. We then meet to review the design together. At this point, you will be asked to provide any feedback and/or direction; for example – “We would like to see these alterations made….”, “What were you thinking? I knew we should have gone with the other architect!” or “This looks good, let’s proceed on to the preliminary construction cost estimate.”


When the Schematic Design drawings are formally approved, having a Preliminary Construction Cost Estimate (PCCE) prepared is highly recommend. This is done to gauge potential construction pricing for the design prior to committing to the remaining phases of work. While most architects can prepare a fairly accurate PCCE (even yours truly), it should be prepared by a local contractor experienced with your project type.

It should be noted that Schematic Design drawings are not sufficient for purposes of permitting or construction. Translating the general concept of a schematic design into workable permit and construction drawings is what is done during subsequent phases of work. The Schematic Design phase usually lasts 4-8 weeks from receipt of applicable contract(s). Typically, the more decisive you are, the faster the process can move. Keep in mind that the scale and complexity of the project also has a great impact to the schedule.

So there it is, the second phase of design completed and you can check that one off. Not so bad was it? Seems kind of fun- drawings, models, ridiculing, deeeezining! Next Up, Design Process 103- Design Development. Stay tuned…

Design On,

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* Originally posted June 19 2012, edited/revised per date above- Keep in mind this is how my firm works. Other firms will differ. However, in general, most architects will adhere to a similar design process. If they don’t, well… they’re just wrong.

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