Understanding Schematic Design

Schematic design, is one of the most exciting stages of a project development...
Schematic Design Phase

Schematic design, is one of the most exciting stages of a project development. For architects, it is the time they get to be their most creative, and for clients, it offers a first glimpse at what their building might look like in reality.

However, there is often some confusion as to what this process really means – So in this article, we will clarify the term and explain how schematic design fits into an overall building project.

We will also look at it’s purpose, what happens during the process, and the difference between schematic and concept design, and schematic design and design development.  

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What is schematic design?

Schematic design is a phase in the architectural design process where architects and designers develop initial concepts and layouts for a project.

This stage involves creating rough sketches and drawings to explore and illustrate the basic size, layout, and relationships between spaces.

The main goals are to establish the overall direction of the project, understand the client’s needs and requirements, and identify potential constraints and opportunities.

The output typically includes preliminary site plans, floor plans, elevations, and sometimes basic 3D models, which serve as a foundation for more detailed design work in subsequent phases.

Schematic design is crucial for setting the project’s vision and serves as a platform for discussion and refinement before moving forward with more detailed planning and development.

In terms of where schematic design sits in a projects overall development, the AIA recommends that projects are structured as follows:

  • 01 Programming strategy
  • 02 Schematic / concept design
  • 03 Design development
  • 04 Preparation of construction documents
  • 05 Tender bid, negotiation and appointment
  • 06 Construction administration
  • 07 Project closeout 

You’ll notice that concept design and schematic design are listed together. Whereas in the UK for example the RIBA doesn’t even make reference to schematic design (and instead just lists the concept stage), labeling its design phases as follows:

  • 01 Preparation and brief
  • 02 Concept design
  • 03 Developed design
  • 04 Technical design
  • 05 Construction
  • 06 Handover and closeout
  • 07 In use
Schematic Design Phase in Architecture

As you can see, schematic design is the second step in the process (in the UK, RIBA describes this process slightly differently, but the essentials are the same). The first phase, programming strategy, is when architects and clients meet to discuss the requirements of the building.

What naturally follows from this is a phase of initial “sketching” by the architect. So, simply put, this phase of project is when architects first get their ideas down on paper.

Depending on their working style, some architects might choose to combine the programming strategy and schematic design stages of a project.

This allows them to respond immediately and visually to a client’s description of what they want. However, in most cases the two stages are seen as separate. 

Schematic design meaning and purpose

The purpose of schematic design is to produce conceptual ideas based on the initial discussions between architect and client.

Note the plural ideas– the goal is not for the architect to propose one finished and polished idea, but to offer a range of possible options that meet the client’s requirements. 

During which, the architect takes into account the area and arrangement of the rooms on site, as well as local zoning rules and any other physical specifications that were made during the programming strategy phase.

Schematic designs should include information about building systems (structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, HVAC) and potential finishes, both exterior and interior. 

While most of the drawings made during the schematic design phase are likely to be plans, as described below these should be accompanied by elevations and sketches of suggested details. 

By the end of the schematic design stage, two essential aspects of the project should be determined.

The first is the scale of the project. The client and architect collaborate to review the project goals and desired outcome, and the architect produces multiple sketches for potential designs before settling on a final one.

These sketches may vary in scale, as each design utilizes the project site and available space differently. Once a final schematic design is chosen, the scale of the project is defined.

The second key aspect that should be established is the relationship between different spaces within the project. As the schematic design process progresses, the relationship between the different spaces should become clearer.

The architect first outlines the spaces that the final structure should have, then produces different representations of how these spaces can be utilized. The owner then chooses the representation that best aligns with their vision for the finished project.

Defining the relationship between spaces and settling on a scale for the project are not the only outcomes of the schematic design phase, but they are central goals of this stage.

what is schematic design

Who’s involved?

Schematic design commences shortly after the project initiation. The architect is primarily responsible for this phase, and works closely with the client to ensure that all necessary building program requirements are incorporated in the project design. The client may be more actively involved in the day-to-day workings of this stage than any other design stage.

The architecture team utilizes tools such as schematic diagrams and sketching to effectively communicate spatial concepts to the client. These tools permit iterations and avoid any team member from prematurely committing to an idea.

Schematic design example: what happens during the process?

The overarching goal of schematic design is for the client to have in their hands a design they are happy with, but this is not a simple march from A to B.

Schematic design is a collaborative process in which the client is heavily involved. Initially, the architect draws out a number of possible options for the building, based on input from the programming strategy stage.

The client evaluates these, either by selecting one design to take forward or requesting further options to better meet their needs. Even when client and architect have settled on a basic design, it will likely go through several iterations as ideas are refined. 

In short, the schematic design process is a back-and-forth featuring a lot of negotiation.

This has the potential to be fraught, for example if a client seems to change their mind about their priorities, or if an architect does not respond well to the rejection of their ideas.

However, when the client and architect are a good match and communicate effectively, schematic design can be an invigorating creative adventure!

The process can be broken down as follows:

  • Design Concept and Goals: Here the design team strives to understand the goals of a project with the clients, as well as aesthetic preferences. Concept ideas are often presented to firstly verify that the entire team agrees on the proposed design concept.
  • Site Analysis: The design team conducts an analysis of the site and its surroundings to understand the potential and limitations of the project.
  • Space Planning: This is a crucial step to understanding the project, as this will take into account user experience, user function, building function, building life safety, and building form. This is often presented in the form of floor plans and reviewed by the client for approval.
  • Programming: The design team develops a program of the building, outlining the functional requirements, spaces and areas, and the relationship between them.
  • Preliminary Code Review: Throughout the schematic design phase, the design team will be verifying major code items that affect the buildings spaces, form, openings, projections, and ingress/egress. This code review should include not only the zoning code but the applicable building code.
  • Exterior Design: There are multiple factors that the design team will consider in the creation of the façade, including surrounding context, desired architectural style, architectural proportion, interior adjacent spaces, and building orientation.
  • Collaborative Iterations: The design process is meant to be an iterative process, as understanding what doesn’t work is important to finding the perfect solution. The schematic design will take into account all factors until all elements of the building are in harmony.
  • Sketching and Diagramming: The design team uses sketches and diagrams to communicate design ideas and concepts to the client, enabling iterations and preventing premature commitment to a design.

At the end of the schematic design phase, the design team should have a solid understanding of the project’s scale and systems, and have a clear idea of the various consultants and engineers that will be required for the next phase of the project, design development.

This is also a good time to review the budget and schedule to ensure that the project is on track before moving forward.

schematic design example

Deliverables: Schematic design drawings

The schematic design phase includes a variety of drawings that depict the exterior, interior, and systems of the building. These commonly include the site plan, floor plan, building elevations, and building systems. They are briefly described below:

  • Site Plan: A site plan is a drawing of the location where the proposed construction project will be situated. It shows the orientation of the building on the lot and the required site improvements, such as landscaping, walkways, roads, utilities, connections, and service drives.
  • Floor Plan: A floor plan is a line drawing of the building’s layout or floor plan. It’s like a bird’s-eye view of the physical building with the top half removed. The floor plan includes dimensions, equipment, furnishings, and other construction details.
  • Building Elevations: A building elevation is a drawing of the exterior of the building viewed from the front. It’s common to draw all four sides of the building, referred to as east, west, south, and north elevations. There can also be some interior elevations that show a vertical surface, such as a corridor wall or the front of an auditorium.
  • Building Systems (HVAC, Electrical, Plumbing & Mechanical): A building system drawing shows the systems being delivered to the building, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), electrical and plumbing, and mechanical systems. It illustrates where they will be located within the building and how they interact, including power sources.

…What design phases follow

By it’s completion, the architecture team should have a comprehensive understanding of the scale and systems of the project. They should also have a clear understanding of the various consultants and engineers that will be required for the next phase, design development.

After the schematic design phase, the project will proceed to the design development and construction document phase. The schedule and budget of the project will influence the scope of each phase of the design.

During the next design phase, the architecture team will expand upon the schematic design ideas further to fully understand how the different systems and elements of the building design integrate into the final construction project.

It is common for architects to explore and develop multiple ideas and design concepts during the schematic design phase. Ultimately, one concept is selected, but it is important not to rush into a decision too quickly in order to allow for creative solutions and approaches.

If multiple design options are explored during the schematic design phase, it is essential to choose one before moving forward into the design development phase, to ensure that everyone is on the same page as the design is developed further.

schematic drawing architecture

To sum up…

In summary, the schematic design phase is the first step in the architectural design process, where the team takes the programming and concept design and translates it into architectural and spatial designs.

The project owner and architect are typically the most involved in this phase, working closely together to ensure that all necessary building program needs are covered.

Tools such as schematic diagrams and sketching are used to convey ideas and allow for iterations. The schematic design phase is a crucial step in understanding the project and is followed by the design development and construction document phases.

The end goal of the schematic design phase is to settle on a workable and realistic design concept for the project.


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FAQs about the schematic design phase

What is the difference between concept design and schematic design?

Some might confuse schematic design with concept design, but it’s important to note that they are distinct. The main distinction between the two is the level of detail.

Concept design is inherently more abstract, while schematic design is the first step in creating the spatial and architectural elements that are necessary for construction.

Schematic design is responsible for taking the conceptual ideas and making it feasible for construction in the real world. It serves as a framework that enables the project to move forward into the design development phase.

The ultimate goal of the schematic design is the successful construction of the design.

Concept design is not required to reflect the real world, it’s more open and creative. It doesn’t focus on practical considerations such as whether the drawing can be constructed. Those architectural concerns are addressed in the schematic design, which deals with more pragmatic issues.


Some architects will argue the two terms are synonymous, while others will tell you concept design is a precursor to schematic design; that the concept design stage involves sweeping, suggestive lines on the page or the quick organisation and reorganization of 3D materials, while the schematic design stage is more precise.

How you refer to the stages of your own work is of course a matter of preference, but it’s good to be aware that others might be describing theirs in different terms.

What is the difference between schematic design and design development?

The design process often progresses through several stages, with each stage intended to refine and detail the design further. Two primary stages in this process are “Schematic Design” (SD) and “Design Development” (DD).

Understanding the distinction between these two stages can help clients, designers, and stakeholders communicate and collaborate more effectively.

1. Schematic Design (SD):

  • Purpose: This is the first major phase after the initial programming and feasibility phase. SD is about defining the general scope and conceptual design of the project.
  • Components: The outputs can include rough sketches, floor plans, elevations, and an initial site plan. These are used to convey the general design intent and spatial relationships.
  • Focus: During SD, architects and designers look at the big picture. They’ll consider site conditions, building orientation, basic room sizes and layouts, and the overall relationships between various parts of the project.
  • Budget: A preliminary budget can be developed based on the schematic design. Since the design details are not yet fully fleshed out, cost estimates at this stage are broad.

2. Design Development (DD):

  • Purpose: This phase builds upon the Schematic Design phase and refines it. The design becomes more detailed and specific.
  • Components: Detailed drawings and documents are prepared. These could include more refined floor plans, building sections, detailed elevations, preliminary selections of materials, and possibly initial mechanical and electrical system layouts.
  • Focus: DD delves deeper into the materials, finishes, fixtures, and exact spatial relationships. The decisions made here will guide the construction documents.
  • Coordination: Other disciplines (structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing) become more integrated in this phase. There’s a stronger emphasis on how systems integrate and on ensuring that everything fits and works together within the design.
  • Budget: The budget gets revised based on more specific information, and the cost estimates become more accurate.

After the Design Development phase, the project typically moves into the Construction Documentation phase, where all the details necessary for construction are laid out.

It’s crucial for clients and stakeholders to understand these phases because feedback and revisions are generally easier (and less expensive) during the SD and DD phases compared to once construction has started.

In essence, while Schematic Design is about broad strokes and general concepts, Design Development is about refining those ideas and ensuring they can realistically be constructed.

What is schematic design in electrical?

Schematic design serves a somewhat parallel role to that in architecture, but with a focus on electrical circuits and systems. Here’s a breakdown:

Schematic Design in Electrical Engineering:

  • Definition: It’s a symbolic representation of an electrical circuit or system. It uses symbols to represent different components (like resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, etc.) and lines to represent the connections between them.
  • Purpose: The main goal is to present a clear picture of how components are connected and how the circuit operates without delving into the physical layout or location of components.
  • Components and Symbols: Standard symbols are used to represent common electrical and electronic components. For example:
    • Resistor: A series of zigzag lines.
    • Capacitor: Two parallel lines (plates) with a gap in between.
    • Diode: A triangle pointing towards a line, indicating the direction of allowed current flow. …and many more.
  • Details: A schematic diagram will typically include:
    • Components: All the parts used in the circuit.
    • Connections: How each part is connected to others, usually depicted by lines.
    • Annotations: Component values (e.g., resistance in ohms, capacitance in farads), part numbers, or other relevant information.
    • Flow Direction: Especially in power electronics or systems, the direction of current or signal flow may be indicated.
  • Reading Schematics: To interpret a schematic diagram, one needs to understand the function and symbol of each component and follow the connections to see the flow of electricity or signals. This allows engineers, technicians, and other professionals to understand, troubleshoot, or modify the system.
  • Differences from Layout Diagrams: It’s important to note that schematic diagrams differ from layout diagrams or PCB (Printed Circuit Board) designs. While schematics focus on functionality and interconnections, layout diagrams depict the physical arrangement of components on a board or in a system, showing the actual paths (traces) for electrical connections.

In conclusion, the schematic design in electrical engineering provides a functional roadmap of a circuit or system. It’s an essential tool for designing, understanding, and troubleshooting electronic and electrical systems.

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