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What is Design Development, and How Can You Prepare?

March 14th, 2022 | 5 min. read

What is Design Development, and How Can You Prepare?

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Design Development is a crucial phase of the architectural process. In this phase, you will determine materials, systems, and equipment, and the design will begin to represent the completed building. Although Design Development can be an exciting process, some clients may find it stressful. 

After all, making design decisions can feel like a daunting task. Your architect, however, should guide you through the process and help you analyze your options.   

We believe the Design Development process is most effective when clients know what to expect. This article will break down the Design Development process and outline expectations for meetings and time commitments, helping you prepare for the process ahead.  

Design Development vs. Schematic Design vs. Construction Documents 

Before discussing the Design Development process, let’s discuss how this phase relates to the rest of the architectural process. 

Design Development is an interim period between Schematic Design and Construction Documents. Schematic Design sets the path for your project and confirms sizing, exterior massing, and programming elements. In Design Development, these fundamental decisions begin developing into a plan the team will finalize in Construction Documents. 

Design Development involves your architect working closely with engineers and other consultants to analyze systems and materials and estimate costs. For clients, this phase involves both large- and small-scale decision-making. Ideally, all decisions—from the type of mechanical system to paint colors—are selected during this time. 

What is the Design Development Process? 

Broadly, Design Development is a process of creating a more detailed, refined design. The process will look different for each project, but generally, you can expect a few key deliverables from your architect and their team of consultants.   

Analysis of Materials and Systems 

First, your architect will analyze both exterior and interior materials. Their analysis will include a first cost estimate and a life cycle cost breakdown—helping you understand the long-term implications of each material choice. 

Your architect will also work with Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) engineers to analyze the life cycle costs of systems and equipment. Civil engineers and landscape architects will join the process to create options for the site plan. 

Your architect aims to help you weigh the pros and cons of each option and make the most informed decision. 

Beyond materials and equipment, you will also make choices for: 

  • Technology (telecom systems, securities systems, sound masking, etc.) 
  • Light fixtures 
  • Site design 
  • Furniture 
  • Signage 

To help you understand each option, your architect will continue using visualization tools deployed during schematic design, especially 3D models. Throughout Design Development, 3D models will become more detailed and accurate, and by the end of the design phase, you will have a clear picture of the final product. 

material palette

Material selection is a crucial component of this phase.

Cost Estimates 

Cost estimates are also an important aspect of Design Development. In Schematic Design, you will receive a Probable Opinion of Cost for the project. As you select materials and systems, this opinion will get more accurate. 

Depending on your project delivery method, your architect may work with your contractor for cost estimates. For example, design-build and design-negotiate-bid projects allow the architect and contractor to collaborate from the project’s onset and determine the cost of materials. 

For design-bid-build projects, your architect may work with a third-party cost estimator. By the end of Design Development, you should better understand your project’s construction cost.    

What Kind of Time Commitment is Involved? 

You should expect to meet with your architect on a weekly or biweekly basis throughout Design Development. Most meetings will include your core group of decision-makers. 

Although earlier design phases may involve a larger group of stakeholders, a smaller group is preferable for Design Development. A larger group can slow the decision-making process and impact the project’s schedule.

Engaging a larger group of stakeholders can be helpful for some decisions. For example, your architect may engage building occupants when selecting furniture or developing casework drawings. 

On most projects, however, your architect will conduct this research in Pre-Design, allowing them to research options that best suit your needs in Design Development. 

How Can You Prepare for Design Development? 

Decision-making is the top priority of Design Development. Therefore, you should have a process for making decisions and communicating them with your team. 

Although your architect will guide you through the process, you should have your core decision-makers in place and appoint a person to communicate decisions with your project manager. The design process is most effective when the architect and client have a streamlined communication process.   

Additionally, you will need a clear understanding of your project goals. In Design Development, you may have to make budget-based decisions. Keeping your long-term priorities top of mind will help you get the most out of your budget. 

What Happens Next? 

Design Development can be an exciting phase of the architectural process. Preliminary drawings and ideas are refined, and issues are resolved. As you select materials and systems, the design becomes more detailed and reflective of the final product. 

Design Development will look a little different on each project. For example, Design Development may overlap with Construction Documentation if your project bids in phases.   

Although the process will differ on every project, you should always prepare by reviewing your project goals and putting together a core group of decision-makers. With clear communication, Design Development is more likely to run smoothly. 

Now that you better understand Design Development, learn about later phases of the architectural process by reading our overview of Contract Administration.