what your architect is doing for you today

What your Architect is doing for you today: Early 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 early design phase and share a glimpse of the way we spend our hours when 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 early design phases of Programming, Field Measuring and Schematic Design.  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 early design stages.

Feasibility Study and Existing Conditions

code research

Initial Interview: After you call our office, but before we even set foot in your new space, we do a quick survey of site information, area, building type and any potential zoning or building code issues. Your initial interview with Matt lets him get a sense of your scope and plans at the same time as he scopes out the building itself for potential and potential problems.

Scope and Proposal: From this he’s able to prepare your design proposal which lays out the scope and our projected costs for time in each of the project phases.

Existing Conditions Measurement and As Built Drawings: When this is agreed, we immediately start working toward finding out as much as possible about the existing structure – if we are remodeling – or the building site – if we are starting from scratch.  We’ll try to get our hands on any existing plans of the building, an official survey of the site.  Still, nothing is as good as actually doing a thorough assessment of the site for ourselves.

As Built Drawings: When we get back to the office, we’ll create a set of “as built” drawings in AutoCAD to record the exact existing conditions with information about floor plan layout, window and door placement, ceiling heights, any lights and switches that should remain and notes on what needs to be replaced or repaired and what should be preserved during construction.  As built plans almost always differ from any existing blueprints we have access to in a few small or many large ways, so we always create our own.


Programming, AKA Problem Seeking, is the process of figuring out what a design project should include.  In many cases this comes from you, the client, who has called us up to say you’d like to convert a warehouse into a restaurant, or expand your house to include a family room and new kitchen. We also spend time thinking about what would make good contributions to your project.  Programming involves distilling the useful information about a project, distilling out the really important components, and using that information to project what elements to include in the design.

Code Review: We also need to determine what the governing code and zoning issues will be for any new building.  We identify the building type which tells us what the requirements will be for exiting, fire protection, and structural needs.  Researching the zoning code lets us know about setbacks, floor area and height maximums, parking requirements, etc.  Both the building and zoning code are incredibly complex documents, routinely updated with often contradictory details.  We build on situations we’ve worked with before, and dig into the details to solve new problems, in order to get the best potential for your project out of what is allowed by regulations.

Site Studies: Each early design project is affected by the buildings and environment around it.  We spend some time taking note of solar angles and prevailing wind direction as well as gathering information on topography, surrounding buildings, traffic patterns, soil conditions, water table and weather.  Some of those are relatively constant throughout the Chicago area but microclimate (and soil) can vary dramatically and we always want recognize the opportunity for good passive design from the very beginning of a project.

Precedent Research: Precedent is sometimes just a fancy word for googling with intent but we also turn to books and magazines, the projects we admired in design school and the work of designers on similar project in other places, looking for examples, inspirations and jumping off points.  In this phase of design you might often hear someone in the office say “Hey, do you remember that project in Dwell recently, where …”  We’ll pull together images of existing full projects or interesting materials with new sketches to explore how your space can come together in three dimension – not just in plan.

precedent research


Early Design

During this phase we’ll be doing more than just sketching floor plan layouts.  We’ll consider the structural condition of the building – what its made of and how well it has been maintained – and bring in consultants to give a sense of what is possible.

Diagramming: Before we get into sketchy floor plans, we begin with diagrams estimating the amount of area that should be allocated for each space.  We’ll consider adjacency (a master bedroom usually doesn’t go by the front door), and then move on to blocking or bubble diagrams to lay out general areas.  We’ll explore different organizational concepts: linear vs axial vs clustered, and how those affect circulation spaces.

Pacing: By this we mean pacing off areas, getting a tape measure to check ideal counter depths and book shelf heights around the office, consulting the internet for industry standards of area and proportion.  Even from the early phases of design it is important to us to use realistic sized for rooms and objects to that we don’t get stuck with unreasonable dimensions as we move further into the project.

Design Charrette: Often our early designs are a team effort.  After someone has undertaken a lot of the research listed above, two or three of us will come together and discuss the project’s constraints and possibilities.  We split up for a few hours or days to work individually, then come back together for a collaborative meeting to compare notes and blend the best ideas from many plans into a few new and improved hybrids.

Sketching: Yes, we do this – just like architects always do in the movies – sometimes even in a moleskin note book a la 500 Days of Summer (although we don’t usually draw on other people’s arms).  Common early phase drawing types include floor plan sketches, interior views, diagrams, sections, concepts for the exterior facade.  We go through many versions and variations in this phase.  If we show you four possible floor plans at our Schematic Design meeting, the odds are we discarded another ten along the way.

Meeting: The early design phases usually conclude with a meeting where we present a distilled version of all the research we’ve done and the designs we’ve prepared to the client and get your feedback.  You’ll see precedent images, diagrams, sketches and floor plans and we’ll discuss together what seems the best way to proceed.

sketching in early design

Each day is made up of time spent on a number of ongoing projects in all stages of design.  (Variety is the spice of life!)  Now you know a little more about what is going on in our office during the early stages of the design process.  Tune in over the next few weeks to find out more about what keeps us busy at our desks – and in the field – all day.