You’ve chosen your architect. Completed the pre-design phase to determine your project’s scope and feasibility. You’ve got ideas and dreams just waiting to take shape. It’s time to dive into the first phase of the design process: Schematic Design. (For an overview of the Architectural design process, click here)

Schematic Design? What does that mean?

What is Schematic Design?

The Schematic Design phase is where the design starts to take shape at the graphic or symbolic level. The building starts to take shape, you can start to feel what it’s like to walk around and through it, but the details necessarily to build it have not been figured out. The schematic design phase can be fast paced and fun, starting with brainstorming, concept generation and working towards a more refined scheme.

Schematic design is generally the first step in bringing your architectural vision to life. This stage is crucial, as it sets the foundation for all subsequent phases of the architectural project. This article will delve into schematic design and what you can expect during this pivotal phase.

As we mentioned, Schematic design is the initial phase in the architectural design process. Perhaps you worked with your architect in the pre-design phase, but that is generally about logistics. This is where the design actually starts.
The primary focus is on translating ideas, visions, inspirations and requirements into physical layouts and plans. Here the architects convert your vision and objectives into preliminary design sketches and models.
The architects role is to provide clear design documents that give you, the client, everything you need to give the go ahead to move on to the next phase.
It’s important to understand that the architect’s role is to provide not just a beautiful design, but also the information that you need to make decisions. It your role to give clear feedback and make clear decisions. This communication is essential to a smoothly managed, on time, on budget design process.
At each step, approvals are necessary to move on to the next step.
At the end or the Schematic Design Phase, you should be happy with the layout and feeling of the project. This means location on the site, building orientation, arrangement of rooms, overall style, size, proportions, amount of windows, have an idea of what goals are for building performance, mechanical systems, and so on.

Schematic Design

Who Handles The Schematic Design Phase?

In the schematic design phase, the lead architect assumes a crucial position, acting as the primary conduit between your vision and the actual design plan. This architect and their team are responsible for initiating and guiding the design process. However, the schematic design phase is not a solo endeavor. It involves a collaborative effort that includes:

  • Client: The client’s input is crucial. Their vision, requirements, and feedback drive the design process.
  • Architectural Team: Comprising architects and designers, this team works on generating and refining design ideas.
  • Engineering Consultants: These professionals provide expertise in structural, mechanical, and electrical aspects, ensuring the design is feasible and compliant with technical requirements.
  • Other Stakeholders: Depending on the project’s nature, this group might include urban planners, interior designers, or landscape architects, each contributing their specialized knowledge to the design. We also like to include the contractor as part of the team in the schematic design process, if possible. This isn’t relevant if the project is planning to do a bidding phase, but we find that the benefits of having the team collaborate in the early phases outweigh the cost savings of comparing multiple competitive bids.

The Schematic Design Process

The schematic design process is a multi-step journey that transforms initial concepts into a workable design framework. This process typically unfolds in the following stages:

Site Analysis

Site analysis is a critical component of the schematic design phase, where the architectural team assesses the physical and environmental characteristics of the project location. This analysis includes examining topography, climate, existing structures, and surrounding landscape.
The team also evaluates legal and zoning constraints, infrastructure availability, and potential challenges.
With our focus on promoting your wellness through design, we are also analyzing the site through that lens. This part of the exercise is specialized and led by our clients varied interests and concerns. It can include the study of different concerns guided by our training in Building Biology. This can mean testing site energetics, electromagnetics, water table analysis, studies of surrounding areas, soil conditions (contamination), and more. This helps optimize site orientation and the layout of rooms within the building.
This thorough understanding of the site informs and shapes the design, ensuring that it is aesthetically pleasing, contextually appropriate, and feasible.

Site Analysis

Schematic Drawings

Schematic drawings are the heart of the schematic design phase. These preliminary illustrations represent the architect’s initial response to the project brief and site analysis. Typically, these drawings include basic floor plans, elevations, and sometimes simple 3D models. They visually represent the scale, layout, and relationship between different spaces. These drawings begin as hand-drawn sketches and can progress into drafted drawings by the end of this design phase. They should still be treated as symbolic abstractions rather than construction-ready designs, visualizing the project’s potential. They serve as a foundation for further design development and client discussions.

Site Plan

The site plan is an integral part of schematic drawings, offering a bird’s-eye view of the entire project in relation to its surroundings.
It outlines the proposed building’s footprint, access points, parking, landscaping, and neighboring structures.
Your design is not isolated in space. How it connects to the outside world is always important to how you will experience the spaces. This plan is crucial for understanding how the building interacts with its environment, addressing aspects like orientation, privacy, views, and integration with existing infrastructure. It’s a tool for visualizing the spatial relationship between the building and its site.

Site Plan

Floor Plans

Floor plans are the cornerstone of schematic drawings, providing a detailed layout of the building’s interior spaces. These plans show the arrangement of rooms, corridors, and other spaces, offering a clear view of the flow and function of the design. For clients to understand the spatial organization, room sizes, and relationships between different areas, floor plans are essential. They are instrumental in discussions about space utilization, circulation patterns, and the start to set up the overall feel of the interior design.

Schematic Design Example

Building Systems

Building systems in schematic design refer to the preliminary consideration of structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. This stage doesn’t involve detailed engineering but rather an overview of how these systems will be integrated into the building. Architects collaborate with engineers to ensure that the proposed design accommodates necessary systems efficiently and sustainably. This early planning helps identify potential challenges and ensures that the building’s functionality aligns with the architectural vision.
It is important to voice your goals for how you want the building to feel and perform. Do you prioritize saving energy? Is fresh air coming in? Peace and quiet, never hearing the sound of fans or ducts? How do you want the lighting to work? Do you want generators/backups?

What Comes After Schematic Design?

After the schematic design phase, the project progresses to the design development phase. In this stage, the preliminary concepts and drawings from the schematic design are refined and detailed. The design development phase involves a deeper exploration of the chosen schematic design, focusing on detailed specifications and integration of all building systems. This includes finalizing materials, structural details, electrical and plumbing systems, and other technical aspects. The outcome of this phase is a comprehensive set of drawings and documents that provide a clear blueprint for the construction phase. This phase is critical for finalizing the design details before moving on to creating construction documents and the actual building process.

What is Included in Schematic Design Documents?

Schematic design documents typically include materials representing the initial design concept. These documents are essential for conveying the design intent and moving forward into the project’s subsequent phases. Key components of schematic design documents include:

  • Conceptual Drawings: These include basic floor plans, elevations, and sections that illustrate the overall layout, scale, and relationship of the building components.
  • Site Plan: A drawing showing the proposed building concerning its site, including any landscaping, parking, and external features.
  • Look and Feel: The project isn’t far enough along to decide on specific materials, colors, fixtures or finishes, but it’s important to start having an idea of what this will be because they are a big part of how the building will feel. The selection of materials and level of finish will also affect the overall budget. We like to produce a ‘Look and Feel’ document during the Schematic Design phase that uses inspiration images taken from historical and contemporary designs that serve as guides for materials, finishes and details that will be worked out in future phases. This helps to get a feel for the project early on.
  • Basic Building Systems Overview: Early considerations of structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.
  • Project Narrative: A written document that explains the design concept, objectives, and strategies, outlining how the design meets the client’s requirements and site constraints. This includes wellness goals and other priorities.
  • Preliminary Cost Estimate: An initial budget estimate based on the schematic design, giving the client an understanding of the potential cost implications of the design.

These documents serve as the foundation for the detailed development of the project in the subsequent design phases.

How Long Does The Schematic Design Phase Take?

The duration of the schematic design phase can vary significantly depending on the complexity and scale of the project. This phase might take a few weeks for smaller projects, while for larger, more complex developments, it could extend to several months. Key factors influencing the timeline include the client’s responsiveness to design proposals, the complexity of the client’s needs, the size of the project, and the level of detail required in the schematic drawings. It’s a collaborative process that requires adequate time for exploration, feedback, and revisions to ensure that the final schematic design aligns perfectly with the client’s vision and the project’s requirements.
Remember that the design budget for Schematic design is typically around 25% of the total design costs. Schematic Design is fun, exciting and creative, and at the end of it, you should have a design that is starting to feel real. But there is a ways to go before all the details are worked out and the drawings are ready to hand over to the contractor to build. Treat every phase as a unique part of the adventure, share clear thoughts and feedback, and let your architect guide you through the journey.