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How Architecture Works: Understanding the Phases of a Project


Let’s say you are driving to work, and you see construction begin on an empty lot on your route. Equipment is being staged and site preparation is underway. For a sizable project, the construction will likely last a year or more, and you will watch its progress daily as the building takes shape.


What you may not realize is that you are watching only the final stage of a lengthy and complicated process that began months or years before. A significant construction project is like an iceberg – the finished building is like the portion of the iceberg that is visible above the water’s surface. The effort that goes into creating the building is largely hidden below the surface but represents the lion’s share of preparation and investment of time.


If you are lucky (or smart) enough to engage an architect for your project, you can let him or her guide you through the steps toward your ultimate destination: a successful project. Here are the typical phases of any well-managed project.


Programming and Schematic Design

This initial phase is where the architect works with the client to determine the client’s requirements and goals, and typically represents 15% of the architect’s workload. What kinds of spaces are needed, and how should the spaces relate to each other? What is the nature of the site, and how will zoning and building codes impact what can be constructed? Does the client want the project to blend in with its surroundings, or should its style contrast with other buildings around it? Critically, what is the budget for the project?


This phase results in one or more rough floor plans, site plans, and elevation sketches. Once the client gives a thumbs up to move forward with their preferred plan, the architect will move to the next phase.


Design Development

During the design development phase, the architect and client work together to fine-tune and finalize floor plans, site plans, and elevations. This phase is where major decisions are made about building materials and optional design features, such as window and door size and placement, and interior and exterior material, finishes, and trim details, and represents about 20% of the project.


Often, many cost-benefit decisions are made during this phase in order to keep a project within the client’s budget, while ensuring adherence to the client’s goals. A good architect can skillfully guide a client through available options to arrive at good solutions to design challenges.


Construction Documents

Once the floor plan, site plan, and elevations are determined, the architect will begin to create detailed construction drawings. Depending on the size and nature of the project, the architect may engage the services of engineers in some of the following disciplines: structural, electrical, mechanical, and environmental. In addition, interior designers, kitchen consultants, lighting and sound engineers, landscape architects or designers, color consultants, or other professionals may be engaged.


The plans drawn by the architects will include detailed elevations of all interior and exterior walls, wall sections, materials lists and specifications. A complete, thorough, and well-organized set of plans can take months or years to complete, based on the size and complexity of the building. The finished set of construction documents should give the contractor all the information needed to price and build the project. The construction documents phase is roughly 40% of the architect’s total workload.


Bidding and Negotiation

Many projects are put out to bid, inviting contractors to compete for the opportunity to build your project. Bids can include, in addition to the contractor’s price, the amount of time needed for construction, information demonstrating the ability of the contractor to perform the work competently, names of subcontractors proposed for your project, proof of insurance, etc. The architect can consult with the client regarding bids received and will solicit additional information as necessary to advise the client, who will make the final decision.


If there is a gap between the client’s budget and the preferred contractor’s bid price, the architect can negotiate with the contractor on behalf of the client to try to reduce the cost, or to adjust the plans and specifications to meet budgetary limits. A small but important part of the architect’s involvement, bidding and negotiation are 5% of the total effort.


Construction Administration

At 20% of the project, this phase focuses on that part of the iceberg that is tangible. Let’s be honest, most clients don’t know how to read and interpret a detailed set of plans. To ensure that the contractor is building the project in compliance with your plans, the architect meets with the contractor and subcontractors periodically, and visits the jobsite regularly. In addition, the architect will often monitor payments made to the contractor to ensure that the client is only paying for work that has been satisfactorily completed. The architect’s involvement at this stage can also be instrumental in keeping the project on schedule.

If disputes arise between the client and contractor, the architects will often serve as problem solvers to settle issues amicably and keep the project moving. The architect is also instrumental in addressing unforeseen problems that can arise during the construction phase, with the aim of reducing unexpected costs or delays.


Reaching Your Goal

Like navigating a ship through icebergs, a construction project can seem deceptively simple at its outset, and impossibly complex and nerve-wracking as it moves forward. Engaging the right architect can make the project much more manageable, and far less risky.

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