Understanding the Schematic Design Phase

Schematic design, also known as concept 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. 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?

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 

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 sketches based on the initial discussions between architect and client. Note the plural sketches – 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. 

When making these sketches, architects take 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, these should be accompanied by elevations and sketches of suggested details. 

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 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!

Schematic Design.jpg

What is the difference between concept design and schematic design?

If you look back to the recommended AIA building project structure, you’ll notice that concept design and schematic design are listed together. RIBA doesn’t even make reference to schematic design, labelling 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

Does that mean concept design and schematic design are the same process, with different names? Nobody really agrees.

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 reorganisation 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 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…

The schematic design phase follows the programming strategy phrase of a building project. It is a time for architects and clients to work together, turning initial ideas into potential realities.

It is likely to involve considerable trial and error, but result in drawings with which both parties are content and which can then be refined during design development.


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