Pre-Design for Fidelity and Buildings with Spirit

For any new building, adaptive reuse, or large/complex remodel architects should begin with a Pre-Design phase to ensure project success. Last week we began discussing the Pre-Design process currently underway for a new high-performance residential design unfolding in the Red River Valley of Texas. So, why share the process with you? 

My hope is that “live-streaming” the architectural design process will serve us both. Writing provides reflection and adds surety to my decisions. I also know that involving others in the design process is a great way to reveal additional opportunities, and avoid missteps. I hope you will take liberty in commenting, as you are led.

On the other foot, I hope that this series gives you a sense of what it is like to work with an architect on a sustainable new home - in this case a Passive House. Questions are encouraged!

So let’s get back to it…


Owner-Architect Agreement & Scope of Services

Before we began the Pre-Design Phase, the owner and I had to form a contract between us. Instead of the kind of legal document chocked full of clauses and cross-references, I like to provide my contract as part of a larger “Proposal” booklet. The architectural design process is lengthy, and is better explained in plain language, with key milestones noted. 

Proposal booklet sections:

  • Cover Page
  • Scope of Services
  • Compensation
  • Standard Terms & Conditions
  • New Client Survey  

After a cover page, identifying the legal parties and project description, the Scope of Services forms the heart of the document. I write mine in narrative format to serve as a project guidebook. This gives me a chance to educate and inform the owner on each phase of work ahead. I have found this approach provides incredible value to both the owner and architect, and sets the stage for a highly effective design process.  

The phases are sequential and build on the work and decisions made in the preceding phase. They start with the general and continue to become refined to the very specific. There are a lot of decisions along the way and this progression organizes those decisions into manageable portions.

The Phases of Architectural Design

  • Phase 1    Pre-Design – code review, site analysis, programming, preliminary budgeting.
  • Phase 2    Schematic Design – basic project design concepts, and define sustainable objectives.
  • Phase 3    Design Development – refine the selected design concept from Schematic Design.
  • Phase 4    Construction Documents - detailed drawings, schedules, and specifications.
  • Phase 5    Bidding & Negotiation – assist in the selection and agreement with General Contractor.
  • Phase 6    Construction Observation – oversee construction and administration of the contract.

Near the end of each phase, the owner and I will refer to the Scope of Services and review the checklist(s) at the end of each phase/section. See Pre-Design checklists below.

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!
— Benjamin Franklin

What is Pre-Design?

Pre-Design is the first phase of architectural design, and is often misunderstood or hastily forgotten. Pre-Design is the time that I both listen to the owner and use a constructive process to assemble and understand the project’s goals, opportunities, and limitations before beginning to conceptualize any architecture. 

Pre-Design is the only phase of architectural design that I do not produce any building drawings. Actually, I do not do any sort of design at all. This may sound boring but it makes the subsequent design process much more straight-forward. 

Taking time for Pre-Design is like eating a good breakfast before starting out on a journey. You might get to the destination without it, but there will be some unplanned stops and setbacks along the way. 

Pre-Design Checklists:

Information Required from Owner:

  • Copy of  property deed - This demonstrates clear title and gives me a legal description of the property. 
  • Site Survey - This will require the owner to hire a professional land surveyor. A good site survey shows property boundaries, roads, test pit sites, utilities, topography, known significant site features, important trees, and any existing structures. The surveyor typically sends the survey to me in AutoCAD format, which works well with my design software.
  • Soils test/septic design - There is no public sewer access where the home will be located, so the owner will work with a septic system company on the design. The septic company will test the soil’s percolation, and advise on any preferred locations for the system. 
  • List of any known restrictions (rocky soil, permitting constraints, easements, etc.)
  • Client Survey – this document provides personal information about the owner, and allows the opportunity to define and share the project goals. It is sort of like playing Twenty Questions with someone you just met, except in this case the questions provide insight into how the ideal home should be designed just for them. 

Information Completed by Architect:

  • Discussion of Schedule - The project schedule is discussed at the outset and helps us establish a goal for completing the Design Process and completing Construction. I always explain clearly that design and construction often take much longer than initially thought. A lot depends on the complexity of the project, the efficiency of the architect and other design consultants, the decisiveness of the owner, and the schedules of others involved, to name a few things.    
  • Code Analysis - The location for the new home does not fall inside a municipality and will not need a building permit or inspections. As the project Architect, this does not mean that I am professionally relieved of these obligations. Last week I shared more thoughts on the topic. ((LINK))
  • Site Analysis - This usually builds upon the Site Survey provided by the owner. A good Site Analysis graphically analyzes what the site offers. For a rural site the site analysis components that affect design may include deed restrictions, traffic/transportation access, available utilities, topography, favorite views, existing built features, the climate, vegetation, and wildlife. 
  • Programming &  Budget Analysis - We are in the thick of this right now. Programming is essentially listing all the spaces (rooms) that the owner wants/needs in the home. We are wanting to keep things as efficient as possible to meet their needs, so I have been tasked with guesstimating good numbers for a start. I then use these respective areas in a couple of different ways. First, I formulate a rough cost-estimate based on a my best low and high cost-per-square-foot guesstimates. Second, I create two diagrams that begin to look at the spaces as relational objects. Based on previous conversations, and the New Client Survey in my Proposal, I use an Adjacency Matrix to better understand which rooms should directly relate to one another. From this I construct a draft Bubble Diagram. Early in the Schematic Design Phase we will use the Bubble Diagram to begin considering how the house should lay out on the Site Plan. It is fun to layer it on to of a graphic Site Analysis. 

Pre-Design is complete once these checklists are complete, and the owner agrees to the program and budget we’ve developed together. Then we can proceed to the next phase.

Current Project Status

We will still be in Pre-Design for at least another couple weeks.

The land surveyor was very busy and had a dozen or so surveys to deliver, before drafting ours. I might use Google Earth as a background image to begin some overlay Site Analysis diagramming. 

The Adjacency Matrix and Bubble Diagrams need to be reviewed and tightened up. As a fun exercise, I might ask the owner to cut-out all the circles and arrange them how they imagine them in the future home. I will do the same thing, and we can compare our ideas. By cross-referencing the Adjacency Matrix during the exercise, we can make sure to keep important space adjacencies linked.   

Anything else that I might need collect information or analyze before we get into design? Questions? I would love to hear your thoughts?