Design Phase 1: What is Schematic Design?

It is time. You have your survey, and you have gone through the planning exercises and feasibility studies of pre-design. It’s finally time to start the first part of the design process. The design process takes place in five phases, schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding, and construction administration. Here’s what the first phase, schematic design, is all about.

General to Specific

As architects, we always work from general and broad to specific and detailed. We need to answer broad questions, such as the shape and layout of the future home, before figuring out how the building will be built or what the finishes will be. This overall, broad-level design, is what we call schematic design.

Why general to specific?

Think of the design process as an evolution of information. A constant layering of data and solutions. As more iterations are explored, more questions are answered. More answers result in more drawings and more detail. We must start broad because those broad decisions always help answer the more detailed ones. For example, knowing the overall shape and layout of the floor plan gives us insight into where load-bearing walls need to be placed. This will later help answer engineering questions such as beam size, foundation position, and floor depth. We do not want to calculate beam sizes without having the layout in place.  Not having broad decisions answered first, can waste time, solving details that may be irrelevant if a broader change were to occur.

The Prototype Phase

To a certain degree, the schematic design can be somewhat unrealistic at first. Think of this phase as the prototype phase or exploration phase. A phase of exploration, consideration, and iteration to come up with the best solution to the program (building function) and site conditions. In the car manufacturing world, they first create an idealized version of the car before subjecting the design to the restrictions of the manufacturing process. In architecture, it is very similar. We create an idealized version of the home before subjecting it to engineering and other pragmatic variables to make the project buildable. This prototype attitude towards the project early on allows us to explore possibilities and uncover solutions that would be impossible to come across without this part of the process. We want to flush out as many possibilities to capture as many opportunities as possible before concerning ourselves with constructability and engineering. At the end of the day, taking advantage of these various opportunities will make for a better place.

Schematic Team Members

The team members present during this phase of design are mainly your architect, and towards the end of the schematic, the interior designer. The majority of the team members such as the engineers come in during the more pragmatic design development phase. Again, broad to detailed. Think of the architect as the conductor focused on broad aspects such as beat and rhythm while the engineers are focused on specific notes.

Critique and What to Expect

The first thing to expect in Schematics is several meetings once some of the design has been created. The foundation of architecture is rooted in not only iteration but critique as well. Once we have created a draft schematic of the design expect a meeting where you will critique the work and we all work together to solve specific concerns regarding the design. This first round is an opportunity to even start over with the design as it is very malleable and easy to change. This is yours and our opportunity to get it right. As the design progresses into later phases it becomes more difficult to change as the layers of information start to pile up. 

The final product of the schematic design process offers more to look at than any other step in the process because it solves such large-scale design. At the end of the schematic phase, you will know how the building will layout and what the building is going to look like. At the end of the schematic design, you will have a set of drawings including 3D views, floorplans, and elevations of your building as well as a basic snapshot of the intended specifications. These drawings are then shared with the contractor or cost consultant to get rough pricing before proceeding to engineering. 


What’s Next?

Phase two in the design process is design development, where engineering and pragmatic design take a lead role in creating reality. 

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