What is The Schematic Design Phase: Meaning and definition

Schematic design, is one of the most exciting stages of a building project. 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.

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 the second phase of the architectural design process. It is the stage where the design team begins to describe the architectural and tectonic elements of the project design. They take the programming and concept design, and translate it into architectural and spatial designs.

Site analysis and programming are important components for a successful schematic design phase. The project owner (if different to the client) and architect are typically the most involved in this phase, working closely with the client to make sure all necessary building program needs are covered in the project design.

The AIA recommends that building 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

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. 

What is the purpose of schematic design?

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. By the end of the schematic design process, the project’s scale and the relationship between spaces within the final building should be clearly understood.

Schematic Design Phase

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.

What happens during the schematic design 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 Phase

What drawings are included?

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 follows?

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.

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.

However…

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.

Schematic Design Phase

What is the difference between design development and schematic design?

Design development is the third stage in both AIA and RIBA’s project structures, following on from schematic/concept design.

In the design development phase, architects refine the drawings they already agreed with their clients during schematic design, adding (for example) interior elevations, wall sections, reflected ceiling plans, and information on windows, doors and furnishings.

Estimates of costs will be produced or perhaps revised during design development. The client remains involved at this stage of the project, and by the end of it should have a clear idea of how their building will look in three dimensions, both inside and out.

What comes after schematic design?

The schematic design phase is immediately followed by design development, as described above. After that comes the stage that AIA calls ‘preparation of construction documents’ and RIBA calls ‘technical design’, during which the client becomes less involved.

Architects produce final or near-final drawings that can be used by contractors to actually construct the building. They should contain enough information that contractors are able to submit accurate bids for their work. 

To conclude…

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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Format your drawings with the correct set of tools. This CAD template enables you as a designer to spend your time on what matters – the design!

FAQ’s about the schematic design phase

What are the 5 phases of a design project?

The five phases of a design project are:

  • Schematic Design: This is the first phase of the architectural design process where the design team begins to describe the architectural and tectonic elements of the project design.
  • Design Development: In this phase, the team will flesh out the schematic design ideas to fully understand how the various systems and elements of the building design will be integrated into the ultimate construction project.
  • Construction Document: In this phase, the team will create detailed drawings and specifications that will be used for construction and permitting.
  • Bidding: In this phase, the project will be put out for bid to contractors, who will submit proposals for the construction of the project.
  • Construction Administration: In this phase, the team will oversee the construction process to ensure that the project is built in accordance with the design documents and specifications.

Why is schematic design phase important?

The schematic design phase is an important phase of the architectural design process as it lays the foundation for the rest of the project. In this phase, the design team begins to describe the architectural and tectonic elements of the project design and translate the programming and concept design into architectural and spatial designs.

Site analysis and programming are two important components of a successful schematic design phase, as the building program and location have significant implications in the design process. The schematic design phase is also when multiple ideas and design concepts are explored, allowing for creative solutions and approaches to be considered before a final design is chosen.

This phase is crucial for ensuring a smooth schedule and workflow for everyone on the project team, and ultimately for the success of the construction project.

What comes after the schematic design phase?

The next phase in the architectural design project schedule following the schematic design phase is the Design Development Phase. This phase is where the design team takes the schematic design and develops it further to include more detailed information, such as specific materials and systems, and to refine the design for technical feasibility and constructability.

After the Design Development Phase, the project will move into the Construction Document Phase, Bidding Phase, and Construction Administration Phase.

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