Whether you’re just starting to think about your project, you’ve started to interview architects, or you’re well into negotiating a contract, it’s important to have a good understanding of the different phases of the design process. These terms will come up in many of your conversations. Preparing yourself by ‘learning the language’ will help you better understand what you should expect to see in the various phases, and why, and it will help you understand your role in the process.

Designing a building is not a straight line. It is a long and detailed process. To organize it and help it go off smoothly, it has been broken down into different phases, each with it’s own structure, purpose and milestones.
We have done an overview of the whole process, and gone into detail of the first phase, Schematic Design in a previous article. Now we are going to dive into the second phase: Design Development.

What is Design Development?

You have finished the Schematic Design phase. You have a design that you like. You’re happy with the layout, the overall shape and size, the look and feel of the scheme your architect has come up with. Design development in architecture is the phase where it becomes real. It moves from a sketch of a building to a developed design of a building that works, functionally, structurally, materially. It’s where an architect’s vision takes on practical considerations. This stage refines the design to meet your needs, making sure it can be built within your budget and that it meets zoning and regulatory requirements you need to get permits from your local jurisdiction.

What is the Design Development Phase?

The design development phase is characterized by deeper collaboration between architects, engineers, clients, and sometimes, construction teams. It involves the selection of materials, the development of structural details, and the integration of electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems into the design. This phase takes preliminary plans and figures out everything that makes it work.

At the end of Design Development, you will have a detailed set of drawings and an outline of material, assembly, finish, fixture and appliance specifications, which serve are used to get a more accurate pricing assessment to verify that everything is on track.
Once all this checks out, the design is approved to move on to the next stage: Construction Documentation, where the design is then drawn to the level of detail where it can be handed over to a contractor to build.

Why is the Design Development Phase so Important?

The Design Development phase is crucial because it represents the stage where the conceptual vision is transformed into a tangible, actionable plan. It’s a period of refinement, where feedback from clients and the input of engineers and other specialists are incorporated to ensure the design is aesthetically pleasing, structurally sound, meets goals for wellness and sustainability, and compliant with all regulations. This phase, most simply, takes the concept and develops it into a resolved architectural design.

Comparing Design Development, Schematic Design, and Construction Documentation

In the architectural design process, three critical phases—Schematic Design, Design Development, and Construction Documents—each play a distinct role in transforming an idea into a buildable reality. This progression ensures that a project moves from broad conceptualization to detailed planning and, finally, to the creation of actionable construction directives. Every phase is a progression in the design, improving the concept and zooming in to a finer level of detail.

  • Schematic Design: Schematic Design is the initial phase that focuses on the broad strokes of a project, establishing the general scope, scale, size and shape, and relationship of its components. It’s more about exploring options and conceptualizing the overall vision than deciding how all the small pieces and details will work.
  • Design Development: Builds upon the schematic design, adding detail and specificity to the plan. It’s where materials are selected, and systems are integrated, refining the schematic design into a more precise, realistic plan.
  • Construction Documents: The final step before construction begins, this phase involves creating detailed drawings and specifications that will guide the construction team. It translates the developed design into technical instructions and legal documentation necessary for building.

What is Included in Design Development Documents?

Design development documents bridge conceptual designs with the reality of construction. They detail they key aspects of your project, ensuring clarity, compliance, and cohesion with your initial vision. Here’s what is typically included:

  1. Architectural Drawings: Detailed floor plans, elevations, and sections showing the layout, spatial relationships, and the overall design intent of the building.
  2. Structural Engineering Drawings: Specifications for the structural framework, including foundations, beams, columns, and materials, ensuring the building’s stability and safety. It is important for the architect in this phase to coordinate the structural needs with the design. This means the size of beams, columns, headers, floor joists, shear walls fit within the spaces allocated, or the design is tweaked accordingly.
  3. MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing) Plans: Detailed schematics for heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) systems, electrical layouts, and plumbing configurations, essential for the building’s functionality. Similar to the structural coordination, the architect uses the MEP development of of this phase to make sure the systems all fit within the design. This means the ductwork doesn’t conflict with structure, there is room for mechanical chases, the boilers and air handlers fit in the mechanical spaces, and so on. If there are conflicts, the design needs to be adjusted accordingly.
  4. Material Specifications: In Design Development, the materials are selected and put together into an Outline Specification. This lists all materials to be used in the construction, including finishes for floors, walls, ceilings, and other surfaces, and can be used for more advanced pricing exercises. This takes the look and feel images from Schematic Design and turns them into real world options.
  5. Schedules: The Schedules in the Architectural drawing set are the sheets that list all the selections for appliances, fixtures and lighting; they map out floor, wall and ceiling finishes, they list all the door and window sizes and locations. These are set up in the Design Development phase and finalized in the Construction Documents phase. They are key in revising the budget and selecting manufacturers.
  6. Compliance Documents: Documents ensuring the design meets all local building codes and regulations, including fire safety, accessibility, and environmental standards. In some localities, building permits can be applied for in this phase.
  7. Landscape Plans: (If applicable) Details of outdoor spaces, including vegetation, hardscape, water features, and environmental considerations. In most projects, it’s important not only to design the building, but to connect the space with the outdoor environment. The landscape can be laid out by the architect or by a separate landscape architect, depending on the contracts and your project goals.

Note that in this phase, the drawings will move from sketches to architectural documents, with drafted plans. 3d renderings and visualizations are generally a supplemental service. See our article to learn more about what is included in the basic architectural services, and what is considered to be supplemental services.

Elements of Design Development (DD)

The Design Development phase brings the project from concept to reality. Here is a breakdown of the drawings and elements your architect will be showing you to help you get into the design, and ultimately will be further refined to give to the contractor for construction. If you aren’t familiar with the different types of architectural drawing, it is worth learning the basics of how these ‘blueprints’ work, so you can really plug into the process.

In essence there are 3 main ways of looking at a building in 2 dimensions: Plans, sections and elevations. Different architects will have different systems for showing you materials and specifications in the Design Development phase.


Think of plans as a view looking down (or up) at the walls and layout of your building. They show you the sizes and arrangement of the rooms, how they connect, how you move around in them. It’s not always easy to put yourself in the space and really feel it based on a plan view, but your architect can guide you, and you can reference the sections and elevations to get a sense of the rooms in three dimensions. Plans are the foundation of architectural design, and will almost always be the first thing your architect shows you to walk you through the design. They include floor plans, site plans (the layout of the building, roads and paths on the site), and reflected ceiling plans, (picture lying on your back, looking up.) These show any special ceiling conditions, (decorative beams, coffers, etc.), ceiling materials (plaster, wood, ceiling tile,) and are used to show locations of lighting fixtures.


Sections are a slice-through view of the building. They show you the heights and ceiling conditions of the rooms. In a section you can start to see how the building is built, the floor and roof thicknesses and structure, and the integration of building systems. In a well drawn section, you can start to feel yourself in the space, understanding the scale and proportion.


Elevations are drawings of the exterior faces of the building, looking at them straight on in two dimensions. They show architectural details, window and door placements and proportions, and give a sense of materials, textures and finishes of the walls and roofs. These drawings help us understand the building’s appearance from different viewpoints. In a neighborhood, your architect might use elevations to show you the ‘curb appeal’, how your building fits in scale and style to it’s surroundings. In the countryside, or on a large lot, you might see your house nestled into the landscape.


The choice of materials impacts both the aesthetic quality and the durability of the building. During the design development phase, materials for structural elements, finishes, and fixtures are selected to fit the vision established in the schematic design phase. Different firms will use different methods to show the material selections. Expect to see them labeled on the drawings, and described in the schedule sheets, laying out which finishes go where. They may also choose to describe them in the outline specifications, (see below.)


In the Design Development phase, your architect will often put together what is call an Outline Spec. This will be a separate document from the large architectural drawings. (Letter size, typically.) This will include a description of the construction materials, workmanship, and quality standards, including many parts that don’t show up on the architectural drawings. This can include descriptions of the building assemblies, images of products or references to quality, to specific requirements for products to be used such as air barriers, adhesives, flashing colors and materials, and so on. This documentation helps contractors understand the project requirements, if you have engaged a contractor at this phase, or it can help estimators put together accurate pricing.

What Happens Next?

After the Design Development (DD) phase, the project moves on to the Construction Documents (CD) phase. This stage involves finalizing all of the details and drawing them in a clear way for the contractor to build. These documents serve as the legal blueprint for builders, and sub-contractors, making sure they have the information they need to build according to the design intent, within budget, and in compliance with all relevant codes and standards.

How does Vera Iconica Help with design development?

Vera Iconica Architecture brings a unique approach to the Design Development phase by emphasizing wellness architecture. We create architecture and space designed to perform holistically, supporting your health and well-being. Through innovative design practices, we integrate natural lighting, ventilation, non-toxic materials, and spaces that encourage physical activity and relaxation. It is not just a building, it is a sacred space that has the potential to support your health, your recovery, your vitality. We want every project to meet your technical and aesthetic goals and enhance the quality of life for you, your family and your guests.