The Architectural Design Development Process – What is it & how can it be useful?

Anyone who has gone through it knows that the process of designing an architectural project is mostly chaotic and non-linear...
Architectural Design Development

The architectural design development process goes from schematic conception to accurate execution. For that to happen, architects need to go through several instances of outlining, definition, and integration of the multiple layers of the project.

Design Development is a crucial phase in which those major precision instances take place. In this article, we will untangle design development to understand what it is, why it’s so important and how it’s composed.

The architectural design development process

Anyone who has gone through it knows that the process of designing an architectural project is mostly chaotic and non-linear. However, it’s helpful to think about it as a series of relatively small logical steps.

These steps are the so-called architectural design phases: manageable blocks of iterations that allow for an idea to evolve from the general to the specific.

The American Institutes of Architect (AIA), in its classic official guide to the professional practice, gives the most well-known categorization of five design phases. These are schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding, and construction administration. 

The design development phase plays a crucial role in the middle of the process. It’s the hinge that articulates the schematic design with the construction documents.

First, design development defines more precisely the materiality and direction of the manifold of ideas generated in the previous phase. Then, it also prepares a solid ground to communicate how to build the project in the next one.

Architectural Design Development

Precise outlining: the purpose of design development

Design development therefore has the aim of drafting a precise outline of the architectural project. In other words, it involves the specific delineation of external and internal materials, the layout and dimensions of spaces and rooms, and the incorporation of systematic technical constraints such as structure, plumbing, electricity, mechanics, and HVAC.

It’s the moment in which the architect needs to summon into play a variety of interested different actors. These range from the client to the engineering specialists. The role of the architect is then to orchestrate their concerns into the best possible solutions for the project.

Setting the standard: the importance of design development

That’s why design development is so important: it shapes the core of the project. It sets useful preliminary standards for cost prediction, aesthetic choices, and negotiations with the variety of players involved in the process. It’s a basis for visualization and strategic decision-making.

Usually, it’s also the first step towards preparing the documents for the acquisition of early building permits.

Design development documents

The documents draught in this phase are multidisciplinary. That means that the design choices must be made across an array of several dimensions: civil, structural, mechanical, and architectural.

The resulting drawings and specifications are overall meant to integrate all those systems into the project. Here’s a detailed list of the categories of documents that conform the design development. 


Civil drawings are, in essence, site drawings. They comprise everything from landscaping and sitework to construction site details. The scope varies from project to project depending on the scale and the nature of the project (for example, if the site is urban or rural, if it’s an office building or a bridge, if it’s a private house or a public utility system).

The plans and sheets depict grading, drainage of the ground, but also zoning and site development requirements, property lines, pavement and sidewalks, and walls and curbs. 

Architectural Design Development


Structural drawings comprise all load-bearing elements and the calculations that allowed for their design.

They’re based on the architectural plans, but for clarity they strip away the surface finishings and all non-structural elements. They’re made by engineers and are crafted after precise estimation. They specify the layout, dimensions, and materials of structural elements like columns, beams, and slabs. 


Mechanical drawings are those which refer to mechanical systems such as elevators, HVAC and escalators. Here we can find the design of required mechanical rooms, exhaust shafts and ventilation louvers.

In these documents, design decisions that involve sustainability became of utmost importance. The volume of the concerning elements in the mechanical systems calls for early and conscious thinking which incorporates them harmoniously into the design. 


Architectural drawings are meant to guide the production of construction documents. They range from sketches and diagrams to plans. In them, we should be able to find precise measurements and important details.

These documents comprise the information from all the previous systems and incorporate them as input in every design decision. From electricity to plumbing, they present by the way of design all the technical aspects of the building.

Architectural Design Development

Elements of design development

These documents of which we talked about take the form of deliverable elements. There are two types of elements of design development: visualization and guidelines.

Visualization is the architectural default way of communicating any project. Graphical elements are mainly drawings, but they can also take the form of 3D assets, such as physical prototypes and mock-ups and digital models.

Guidelines are just instructions regarding technical aspects of the project. That’s why they are usually comprised visually in drawings themselves and specified textually in sheets and documents. Let’s take a closer look at both categories.   


Architects think through visualization. It makes sense then that any architectural project is mainly defined by the drawings that represent it.

These are not only a way of visually communicating the building to the client, but also a place for design exploration. The drawings in the design development phase range in scale depending on what is the focus.

However, all detailing should be appropriate to each type of drawing and scale.


Plans mainly show the functional layout of the project. They should depict all floor levels and reflected ceilings, delimiting and labelling accordingly between programmatic areas.

All openings such as doors and windows should be tagged and numbered for later convenience in the construction documents. For special zones of the project that because of their complexity or their repetition require further development (such as auditoriums, lobbies, classrooms, typical residential units), enlarged plans are indispensable.  


Sections deal with the most spatial aspects of the project. At the end of design development, we should expect to have all types of section, from the entire building to wall and detail sections. While it’s not necessary to define all details, detailing of the most important or complex parts should be initiated at a proper scale.

Clearances, infrastructure, and adjacent context should be depicted in all sections.

Architectural Design Development


Elevations are the best way to design and communicate the materials of the project’s envelope. All elevations should appear in the set, with clear material designations and annotations. Complex and unique façade conditions should be zoomed-in in enlarged elevations.

In these drawings, we should expect to locate all openings, operable and fixed, with their proper designation corresponding to plans. 


Perspective images are one of the most direct and intuitive ways to understand and negotiate design choices. Renderings of the exterior and interior of the building are an important part of communicating with the client or with the public.

These images had been and continue to be done traditionally by hand in several mediums such as watercolour, gouache, and ink. Today, digital imaging plays a crucial role in this instance, with 3D visualization and new technologies such as VR covering up more and more ground.


But not every visualization element is necessarily a drawing. Although they are not always essential, for some projects, physical prototypes, mock-ups, and presentation models might be needed in this phase.

Adding a third dimension facilitates the comprehension of details and spatial ideas. Additionally, digital models clear the way for the production and actualisation of drawings with several layers and parameters. They’re nowadays usual assets in the architectural workflow.

Design development models deal more directly with material definition and with the tridimensionality of detail resolution. 


When we say guidelines, we are referring to the actual technical content of the elements in the design development. From sheets and text documents to graphical depiction in the drawings, the guidelines should comprise all the materials, specifications and coordination needed to begin with the construction documents.


At this point, it’s not necessary to have a complete and final list of materials. However, design development should aim at showing the basic and most important materials for the structure, the envelope, and the interior spaces.

As we already said, the indications for materials should be written down and graphically depicted across all the drawings. A list of floor, wall and ceiling finishes should be drafted as well.

Architectural Design Development


The specifications required in this phase are also preliminary, mainly to perform as a solid guide for the construction preparation. The outline document should aid the drafting of more accurate construction documents. It also helps in the bidding process, in the actual construction and in the future administration of the building. 


As mentioned before, development design is concerned mainly with the integration of systems. Therefore, the setting of a harmonious coordination between disciplines is a must during this phase.

Each field contributing to the design development documents should have a fluid feedback loop with the architect all along diagrams, plans, sections, details, and reference sheets.

Design development today

As we already know, coordination and integration are perhaps the most important aspects of the design development phase. Because of this, new technologies from different complex entertainment industries such as cinema, videogames and animation are being incorporated into the architectural design workflow when dealing with 2D and 3D information.

Also, following the flourishing of Building Information Modelling (BIM), CAD systems are becoming more and more sophisticated regarding the potential available feedback between different disciplines involved in the process. Today, digital 3D models of the project can be linked to several types of parameters and updated instantly when plans are modified. 

Along with the advances in software, the massification of 3D printing and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines are allowing for physical printed models to be an important part of Design Development. Exporting 3D information out to physical reality is now immediately available thanks to this.

Rapid prototyping is becoming a considerably useful tool that architects should keep in mind at all moments of the process. In design development in particular, it could aid for example in the discussion and negotiation of how structural elements will perform in a physical scenario, or to show to the client how complex material arrangements would work.

To keep in mind

Since design development is such a complex phase, here are some tips for you that will make the process much smoother. 

  • Coordination as a mantra: work out the system that works best for you and your firm to achieve easy feedback between actors. 
  • Delegate when possible: you’ll not be able to solve everything yourself. Trust in your team and in your consultants and you’ll have time to focus on what’s more important.
  • Enhance the architectural concept: a lot of battles are being fought all the time during design development. Choose yours strategically and focus on the careful detailing of those architectural concepts which matter the most.
  • Embrace change: not all is going to go according to plan. Revisions will happen, and you’ll have to be ready for them. Embrace them as an enrichment of the project.
  • Periodical consistency checks: always check, check, check. It’s common to make mistakes. All the elements, dimensions, tags, callouts, should be cohesive and respond to your general system.
Architectural Design Development


So, at this point you should already have an overall understanding of the design development process. We have talked about its position regarding the architectural design process, its purpose and importance, the disciplines that are involved in the production of documents and the elements of which those documents are comprised of.

In addition, it’s worth reflecting on how the evolution in time of technical tools and the appearance of new technologies is changing the way in which we should approach the architectural practice.

All along the way, you must remember that design development is about linking a schematic idea with a precise execution. Once you understand that, you should be able to comply with the required levels of accuracy and efficiency that design development involves.

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