From the time that a construction project goes from an idea to a finished building, it has to go through several phases. Each phase has its purpose and is just as important as the next. One of these stages, the construction project design phase — or design development phase — focuses on the architect’s ability to take the customer’s needs and turn them into a plan for the job.

But that’s just a rough concept of this stage. Keep reading as we drill down deeper on the design development phase.

What is the design development phase?

The construction project design development phase is the period of a project in which a project owner and architect work together to develop plans, schematics, and details regarding their construction project. It’s essentially the architect taking the project owner’s ideas and turning them into a roadmap for contractors, subs, and code enforcement to follow.

This stage focuses on the architect and the project owner working together to create the building’s design. The architect will listen to the customer’s wants and needs regarding the spaces within the building, the planned use of the building, and more to create something that will work for the customer. This makes this phase as much about consultation as it is about delivering blueprints.

The importance of the construction project design phase

There are certain critical decisions and developments that occur during the construction project design phase that set the tone for the rest of the project. By working closely with the customer, the architect is able to establish three things: the project’s timeline, the project’s budget, and the customer’s expectations.

Project timeline

One of the most important parts of the construction project development phase is establishing a timeline that the customer finds agreeable. The architect will establish a progress schedule based on the customer’s wants and needs, and then present it to them for approval. Should the timeline not work for the customer, certain features or designs might need tailoring or removing. 

Project budget

Along with the timeline, the budget also has to work for the customer. During the design development phase, the architect will create a preliminary budget based on the customer’s desires and the project’s design and materials, as well as the required labor and techniques. This is a preliminary budget, as only the general contractor can guarantee a price. However, it’s helpful to have a rough idea of how much the overall project might cost.  

Learn more: A Contractor’s Guide to the Construction Budget

Customer expectations

In many cases, the design development phase is the first time someone might be diving into the construction world. They’re unsure of what to expect, and they might not have a realistic outlook on what the job entails. It’s the architect’s job to manage these expectations and explain how the project will work moving forward.

Much of the expectation management refers to the budget and timeline mentioned already. An architect can help someone determine what they truly need in the space, develop cost-saving alternatives, or help choose backup materials to keep the project on time if their first choice is unavailable, for example. 

The phases of design

Architects generally break the construction project design phase down into five sub-phases: schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding/procurement, and construction administration. 

Schematic design

The goal of the schematic design phase is for the architect to create plans that establish the size and shape of the building (known as massing) and the overall concept. The architect will meet with the client to discuss how individual spaces within the building will be used, and develop floor plans and elevations. These drawings give the client something to picture and provide feedback on before moving to the next stage. 

Design development

Design development picks up where schematic design leaves off, essentially adding more detail and specifics to the established design. This includes more in-depth sketches and elevations, as well as choosing finishes and materials. Also, building systems such as the electrical system, HVAC, and plumbing become part of the plans. Interior elevations are also part of the design development phase. 

Construction documents

The construction documents phase is the largest stage of construction project design. It entails the architect creating a full package of drawings for the building that code enforcement will use for permitting. The construction documents phase also involves putting together sets of plans for contractors to review to develop bids. Neither of these plans must be 100% complete at the time of submission, but the architect will eventually develop complete plans for refining bids and addressing code questions. 

Dive deeper: 12 Construction Documents Every Contractor Needs to Know


The bidding stage of the construction project design phase is where the owner will begin selecting contractors to handle the job. They may either choose a contractor they know or accept multiple bids. The architect may assist the project owner in assessing the bids and choosing qualified contractors, however, owners should prequalify their contractors as well. 

An important part of the bidding and procurement phase is the architect answering questions proposed by contractors. They’ll respond to RFIs about materials, specifications, and drawings to help the contractors develop accurate bids.

Construction administration 

While the overwhelming majority of the supervision occurring on the job site is the responsibility of the GC, construction administration is the architect’s job as well. During this phase, the architect will survey the project periodically to ensure that construction is going to plan. They’ll also answer questions from contractors and serve as the middleman between the contractors and the project owner.

Risks to construction businesses

Construction businesses need to keep an eye on their risks at all times, but some stages of a project are riskier than others. The construction project design phase is a less risky phase. Since this stage mostly involves the architect and project owner, contractors aren’t heavily invested in the project yet.

Aside from developing and submitting bids and possibly moving their schedule around to accommodate a project, construction businesses are in a low-risk state.

However, for design professionals, there can be quite a bit at stake. This stage of the project involves many meetings, traveling back and forth to the site, and revising plans until they’re hitting the mark. If a project owner decides not to pay an architect, they can’t file a mechanics lien like a typical contractor. They can pursue a design professionals lien, but it’s better to get paid upfront and lessen the risk. 

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