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The 7 Steps of the Architectural Process

October 11th, 2021 | 9 min. read

The 7 Steps of the Architectural Process

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An architect’s goal is to capture your vision and make it a reality. If you are new to the building process, working with an architect may feel intimidating or even confusing. You might be wondering: 

How does the architectural process work? Where do I start? What can I expect the architect to deliver, and what is expected of me? 

At Neumann Monson, we work with clients of all experience levels—from universities with decades of experience to small organizations undertaking their first building project. We believe the best outcome occurs when everyone is engaged in the design process and understands the importance of their role.  

Here, we break down each phase and explain your involvement throughout. By the end of this article, you will know the primary deliverables of each phase and your involvement. 

The Basic Blueprint 

The architectural process involves seven phases: 

  1. Pre-Design 
  2. Schematic Design  
  3. Design Development  
  4. Contract Documents 
  5. Bidding/Negotiating  
  6. Contract Administration  
  7. Post-Construction  

These phases may differ depending on the project type and project delivery method, but most projects follow a similar blueprint. We begin by engaging stakeholders, establishing goals, and exploring concepts. As we proceed, the design becomes more refined, detailed, and tangible. This method allows for exploration and prototyping before committing to a final design.

The Steps of the Architectural Process 

1. Learn: Pre-Design 

The architectural process begins long before we sit at the (figurative) drafting table. We begin by listening, learning, and gaining an understanding of your needs and values. After establishing fees and scope, we host a kickoff meeting where expectations are set for budget, schedule, and communication. 

Kick-off Meeting 

In the meeting, you will meet the project team, including your primary point of contact—the project manager. Together, we will identify key decision makers, establish communication flows, discuss relevant file-sharing systems, and schedule milestones.  

We will also discuss your organization and purpose, previewing the collaborative, creative process ahead. 

Visioning and Benchmarking 

In addition to the kickoff meeting, we will host visioning workshops. While the kickoff meeting establishes managerial objectives, visioning workshops sets the design process in motion. We aim to understand your organization’s values and establish clear project goals. 

To do so, your team will engage in surveys and exercises. You may participate in a visual listening exercise where you will look at examples of past projects and discuss design styles, helping us understand your needs and wants. We may also introduce you to sustainability initiatives like LEED and Living Building Challenge

As the process continues, we may host benchmarking tours where you will visit facilities with similar programs. Depending on the project, we may even facilitate the site selection process.  

The details will look different on each project, but our commitment to engaging your organization stays the same. As the pre-design phase concludes, we will work with you to establish clear objectives and guiding principles that will form the foundation of our work.

community members in a visioning workshop for a building project

Community members in a visioning workshop. 

Pre-Design Deliverables

  • Engage stakeholders and establish budget, schedule requirements, and communication flows
  • Host a visioning workshop and establish clear goals and guiding principles
  • Lead benchmarking tours
  • Assist with filing documents with government authorities 

2. Explore: Schematic Design 

Once we have a clear understanding of your project, we can develop your goals into design options that can be reviewed, modified, and refined.  

We begin with rough sketches and solicit feedback through collaborative, in-house ideation sessions. Our Design Quality team hosts pin-ups and criticism sessions (known as “crits”) to ground the design with clear concepts. This is an opportunity to think creatively and develop multiple concepts for consideration and review.  

As the design evolves, we will solicit your feedback through regularly scheduled meetings. Depending on the project type, we may even solicit public feedback.  

In the Schematic Design phase, the design is malleable, allowing you to make changes and explore ideas. As the design process continues, change becomes more difficult. 

Once a preferred option is selected, we will create more detailed plans and research materials. For some materials, we will conduct a lifecycle analysis by weighing initial costs against long-term maintenance and replacement costs—helping you make the most economical decision. 

We will also involve our in-house Sustainability Team to maximize your project’s energy efficiency and incorporate green building strategies, like LEED. 

As this phase ends, you will receive a report that reviews the work done thus far, including projected scheduling and estimates.

rough architectural sketches in schematic design

Rough sketches in Schematic Design. 

Schematic Design Deliverables 

  • Evaluate the program, schedule, budget, and proposed project delivery method 
  • Produce rough sketches, host ideation sessions, and explore concepts 
  • Conduct material and lifecycle research 
  • Incorporate sustainability strategies 

3. Implement: Design Development 

In the Design Development phase, we begin finalizing the design with increasingly detailed specifications and drawings.  

Think of it this way: in schematic design, you may decide you need an elevator. In Design Development, you will determine its exact size based on product information.   

To begin finalizing the design, we will create more developed floor plans, elevations, roof plans, ceiling plans, and other documents. Our Quality Assurance team will start reviewing the design to reduce the likelihood of future complications.  

We will also work with our Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) consultants to produce a lifecycle analysis of the building’s systems and share our findings so you can choose systems that best align with your budget, project type, and operational goals. 

By the end of the Design Development, the design and cost estimates are more detailed and complete. Now is the time for you to commit to a final design and prepare for construction.

architects reviewing renderings

Project team reviewing renderings. 

Design Development Deliverables 

  • Create floor plans, roof plans, ceiling plans, etc.
  • Produce lifecycle analysis with MEP consultants 
  • Commit to a final design

4. Finalize: Contract Documents 

In the Contract Documents phase, we create a set of final plans and specifications that convey the functional, aesthetic, and performative intent of the project. Continuing with the elevator example, we will now choose a specific elevator and formalize this decision in writing.  

Internally, a Quality Assurance team member who is outside the project team will review the drawings and specifications to make sure they are as clear as possible. This phase results in a set of documents that allows the design intent to be carried through construction.

a set of architectural contract documents

A set of contract documents.

Construction Documents Deliverables 

  • Finalize the design through detailed drawings and specifications 
  • Confirm furnished/provided items 
  • Perform a rigorous quality assurance review 

5. Bidding/Negotiating 

Let’s take a slight detour. The following phase depends on your project delivery method. If you are taking a design-bid-build route, you will need to put the project up for bid. Other project delivery methods will likely include some degree of bidding, though the process may be less formal.  

On most projects, we begin the bidding process by helping you prepare a list of prospective contractors or subcontractors. After, we produce Bidding/Proposal documents, distribute them to contractors, and conduct a pre-bid conference to proactively address bidders’ questions. As we receive questions from contractors, we may issue clarifications called addendums. 

After receiving bids, we help you analyze results and issue a Notice of Award. With a contractor in place, we can coordinate groundbreaking and prepare for construction. 

Bidding/Negotiating Deliverables

  • Produce Bidding/Proposal documents 
  • Organize a pre-bid conference with prospective bidders 
  • Issue addendums and updated bid forms 
  • Accept bid with a Notice of Award 

6. Execute: Contract Administration 

The contractor leads construction. As architects, 75% of our effort occurs before the project ever breaks ground. During construction, however, we check the contractor’s progress and determine if the work matches the design intent outlined in the construction documents. To do so, we will visit the site regularly and maintain an open dialogue with your contractor and subcontractors.    

In construction, we also review change orders and respond to contractors’ requests. Our goal is to partner with the contractor and advocate for your goals and values. As construction comes to an end, we will prepare completion documents for your acceptance.


Architects visiting a construction site. 

Contract Administration Deliverables: 

  • Visit the site regularly and maintain communication with the contractor 
  • Review change orders 
  • Prepare completion documents

7. Post Construction 

Ribbons are cut. Doors open. Glasses clink.  

Now that you are enjoying your newly completed building, our goal is to stay in contact and promote the project through photography and design awards. Six months after construction concludes, we will organize a follow-up meeting to review facility operations, performance, and warranties. We will then host another follow-up 11 months after construction. 

With our work complete, you can now start living your mission. 

Post Construction Deliverables 

  • Promote project through photography and awards 
  • Check-in at six months to review faculty operations, performance, and warranties 
  • Follow up again at 11 months 

Learn More About the Architectural Process 

The architectural process process begins by listening, learning, and exploring ideas. Gradually, those ideas develop into tangible drawings and specifications–leading to construction. Initially, the process may feel daunting, but following these seven definable steps will help you manage expectations.  

Keep in mind: this is a broad overview of the architectural process. Each project requires a slightly different approach. Services, fees, and timelines will vary depending on your scope, budget, and organization. 

On every project, however, we work closely with you to learn your mission and embody it in our work. Client Experience is always the heart of our design process.  

To learn more about the architectural process, check out our project case studies that discuss our process with specific examples.