Construction workers and architect talk to a project owner during the construction project design phase

To take a project from an idea to a finished building, construction goes through several phases. Each phase has its purpose and is just as important as the next. The design development phase is an early part of the preconstruction process, and focuses on the architect’s ability to take the customer’s needs and turn them into a plan for the job. Keep reading as we drill down deeper on the design development phase, including the work performed and how businesses can mitigate risk.

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.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) produced this helpful checklist of activities to manage quality during the design development phase of a project.

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 and the planned use of the building, making 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. Part of 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. 

Risks of the design development phase

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 architects and other 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 need to ensure that they are protected. Unpaid architects and engineers can file a design professionals lien in many states — essentially, a mechanics lien by another name.

If you are performing design work in a state where lien rights are off the table, make sure you get payment up front or, at the very least, take the steps necessary to protect your investment in the project.

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