design drawings

What your Architect is doing for you today: Intermediate Design Phases


Everyone knows that architects design buildings but, contrary to what you see in the movies, getting that done takes a lot more work than just bending over a drafting table or hefting the occasional scale model into a meeting.  If you don’t happen to know an architect personally, you might not have any idea what we do all day.  Today we’re going to pull back the curtain on the intermediate design phase and share a glimpse of the way we spend our hours while we’re designing your house or commercial space.

We highly recommend our Series on the Process of Design for anyone who is thinking of undertaking a construction project.  

In this post, we’ll talk about what is going on behind the scenes in order to produce the sketches, schedules and technical drawings that will result in a building.  Today we’ll explore what a designer (specifically one of us here at moss) does during the intermediate phases of Design Development, Bidding, Construction Documentation, and Pulling Permits. Some of these tasks fall in a logical order and sometimes they vary in importance or timeline based on the project but we will spend time thinking and working on each of these items as a project moves through the design stages.

Developing the Design

After we get through the first stages – setting the agenda – we progress to developing the project.  We’ll create a comprehensive set of drawings (and other specifications) to communicate the full scope of the project.  Work we undertake during this time period serves three important (and very different) purposes:

  • First, as we create drawings with more detail, we use them to check in with you, to make ensure that we all stay on the same page in creating the design you want. 
  • Second, we prepare the packet of drawings and product information that will be needed by a General Contractor to assess the scope of the project and prepare an accurate estimated price for the project.
  • Third, if the project is going in for a full code review – as many of our designs do – we will work with the building department to produce the drawing set they require to show all the ways that our design is compliant with code requirements.

Generating the Drawing Set

Once we have nailed down a basic schematic floor plan and some idea of what you want the project to “look” like, we get into the fun (and complicated part).  At this point we (your architecture team) are going to be doing a lot less sketching and a lot more AutoCAD drafting.

working drawings

Drafting the Drawing Set: Developing a project is a bit like focusing a camera, it starts out general – a little blurry – and comes into sharper relief as we adjust.  As soon as we begin Design Development, we will begin to make outlines of the final drawings, each showing a different piece of information: one set of plans will cover layout and dimensions, another will show finish materials, a third will show the placements of lights and switches.  Check out our posts on the Design Development and Construction Documents phases for a full rundown of the types of drawings – floor plans, sections, interior elevations and details.

Making Lists: Also known as “schedules”, we make a lot of lists during this stage.  We create schedules for doors, windows, fixtures and finishes, labeling each element in plan with a tag that is keyed to a detailed spreadsheet listing with product information and dimensions.  We also make lists of keynotes that add information to various types of floor plans and exterior elevations and interlink different drawings for the contractor or plan reviewer’s reference.  Read ALL about this in our Field Guide to Architectural Drawings post.

Coordinating fixtures: While some clients like to take a hands on approach to choosing the tile, sink, kitchen equipment etc, others rely on us to provide them with an initial list of all these items that they can then approve or alter.  We make recommendations about Energy Star appliances, reclaimed materials, etc, and collate a detailed list to provide to contractors for pricing and to engineers for coordination.  Once we have that list, we need to coordinate between items – ensuring that a beloved bathroom faucet won’t interfere with the swing of a medicine cabinet door.

Sketching: Yes, there is also still some sketching going on at this stage.  Although we don’t usually provide sketches of interiors or details for permit drawings, we do use them to communicate with the GCs pricing the project, with clients to clarify and explain developing ideas and internally (to test out ideas on each other when we design as a team).  At this stage, sketches are likely to show 3D versions of interior areas – kitchens and bathrooms – that we will also draw in annotated 2D CAD drawings.

Picking up Redlines: (Note: redline is a bad word in social justice circles.  We definitely don’t do that here.) For architects, redlining means making detailed notes on drawing sets in red pen and then entering them into the computer drawing set and ensuring that a change in one drawing – changing a dimension in plan – is properly percolated through every other element of the drawing set.  Often one team member will generate a printed drawing set and another will go over it with red pen to provide a fresh set of eyes or add the weight of more experience to the project.

Coordinating with Consultants

In the phases of design between concept and building permit, we become logisticians, coordinating your ideas (both general and specific) with a huge range of constraints imposed by site conditions, local and national legalities, engineering requirements and more.

test boring machine - soil testing

Digging under the Surface: For new construction we may need to get a soil test (check out our post on Sub Surface Soil Testing here) and formal engineering report on the structural bearing capacity of the ground you want to build on.  

In one recent project we found out that the soil quality wasn’t good enough to support the original scope that we’d laid out with the client.  Working closely between the structural engineer and the client we were able to create a new design which meets their needs while not over loading the less-than-ideal moist silt and clay of their site.

Talking (and writing) to Engineers: We generally collaborate with one or several engineering firms on even small residential projects.  This is the best way to get expert advice on, say, the right size for a new steel beam to support the basement or the best high efficiency boiler for a new in-floor radiant heat system.  Communicating the needs of the client and project and our design intent to the engineers takes a lot coordination.  We’ll meet on site with engineers, exchange detailed drawings and even more detailed emails.   

Other specialists: Depending on the project (its scope and complexity) we may also coordinate with kitchen consultants, refrigeration specialists, interior designers, historic preservation specialists, and other experts.

We value the input and expertise of each consultant team member.  However, each new team represents another layer of responsibility for us, the architects, to coordinate all the elements and make sure that the final design is a cohesive whole with no conflicting parts. 

Putting A Price on the Dream

Pricing often happens in several phases.  We try to involve contractors for pricing as early as possible in the design process so that we can make sure that the scope is on track and realistic for your budget goals.

before_bw images

Bring Contractors on Board: We nearly always work with several GCs and sometimes with several of their subcontractors to determine what the plans for your dream project are really going to cost, given the current building market, the existing conditions of your building and all the items, large and small, included in the design. This, of course, can’t be done until there is a design on paper, so your Architect has to do some work in order to get accurate pricing. 

Scope: Architects also do a lot of writing.  In the bidding phase we provide not only drawings but also a written “scope of work” and sometimes detailed specification documents to ensure that the contractors we communicate with are proposing a price for the same items as each other … and what exactly what we have drawn.

Meetings on Site: In addition to providing contractors with a full set of drawings (to date) and a written scope to fill in the details, we meet with GC’s in the space to address any questions about existing conditions and make sure everyone has a complete understanding of the project before a price is submitted.

Comparing Multiple Bids: Once we have prices submitted by various GCs, we comb through each proposal to make sure that it covers the full design scope, and to convert it into a format that can be accurately compared with other contractors’ prices.  In some cases we can use lower component numbers from one contractor to bring down the overall price of another.  Almost universally, the process of comparing bids brings useful information and questions to light.

Rubber Stamp: Getting Approvals from the Building Department 

The last component of this part of our design work is getting the appropriate Permits and Approvals to go forward with the project.  The various code authorities, in Chicago and in other jurisdictions, check building plans to ensure that all the construction work undertaken in their area is safe and compliant with all relevant codes.  To that end they have a HUGE amount of regulations to sort through in order to approve our projects.  (Note: the ultimate responsibility for providing safe complete buildings lies with the architect, not with the building department, so we are really all on the same side here).

Working with the Expeditor: Chicago’s permit process is so convoluted that we find that its best to delegate communicating with them to an experienced firm of expeditors.  We work directly with that team to streamline the uploading of drawings and paperwork to the City’s website for review.

Submitting the Requirements: Our goal is to submit a set of drawings for approval which will pass all departments with flying colors and answer all potential plan review questions before they can be asked.   This is an impossible task, since the code is so detailed and varied, and each individual plan reviewer sees it through their own personal lens of preferences and experience, nearly every project comes back with a number of “comments” (really questions) from the various review groups.

Responding to Comments:  Once we receive those comments, we work to quickly answer the reviewers questions, provide additional information and (sometimes) advocate to keep our original design by citing portions of the code in greater detail and justifying our own interpretation of what is appropriate (and a better, cheaper, or more pleasing design).

In many cases, responding to comments means coordinating with our engineering consultants to make suggested modifications – or push back against overly strict code reviewer requests – and then making those changes in the architectural drawings as well.

The final result of the permit process is getting the building permit.  From there we move into the final part of our work … and another post.  Check back later for more on Value Engineering, the “Issue for Construction” drawing set, and Construction Administration!