This is the third article in a series on "A Day in the Life of an Architect," this time focused on the design development phase and how to improve design continuity. To some, if not many, the design development phase of an architectural project might be a bit of a "lost phase."
These days, there seems to be a rather accelerated project progression from schematic design to construction documents without taking the time to improve design continuity or to determine what elements of a project need further development.
Like many processes with the advent of technology, some traditional practices are fading away while being regarded as unnecessary. With the many software options used today in architectural practice, design concepts can almost automatically be converted into something that nearly represents a completed set of construction document details. This phenomenon has contributed to the diminishment (if not elimination) of the design development phase.
One might ask, "So, is that a bad thing?" To get at that answer, I will attempt to describe the traditional approach to the design development phase, and some of the positive impacts that would result when it was a thriving phase of an architectural project.
First, as practiced in the past, the design development phase was more of a design phase than a "document phase." The project designer could set the big idea for the project with minimal plans and sketches and turn it over to the team to develop the design. For those developing the design, it was a very rewarding experience because there was a great deal of design challenge remaining in this phase. As an example, often in the schematic design phase the designer would establish only a singular view of the building-normally the "front"-that left at least three other sides to examine and refine to achieve continuity of the design throughout the building exterior. The challenge was to resolve potential conflicts by providing continuity of the design concept on each side of the building as windows, brick coursing, reveals, canopies, doors, etc., were explored.
For those of us that experienced this traditional approach to design development, it was exciting to be participating in the design process at such a significant level. Normally, the same team members that developed the design would stay with the project through the construction document phase and even through construction. I can tell you that this traditional approach created a strong sense of participation and ownership in the design among the team members. That sense of ownership also contributed to fewer errors and omissions in the construction documents. This shared sense of ownership of design is something that is fading out with the more-technically advanced methods of practice used today.
Another benefit of a more traditional approach to design development was in the discovery of what needed to be drawn and why it was needed for the construction documents. One of the first steps in the traditional design development phase was to quickly cut hand drawn sections in larger scale drawings (plans and elevations) and identify areas requiring further refinement. The key was to cut a section at every changed condition in the plan or elevation. This was not an exhaustive effort, often just a single line section providing a reasonable outline or profile of the building at this location. Doing this allowed the design team to quickly see where they could standardize many details and eliminate other unnecessary drawings. This yielded two primary benefits: One was that the details developed were stronger, more consistent, and gave the contractor clear direction. This helped reduce questions during bidding and construction. The second benefit was that this approach allowed the design team to eliminate unnecessary drawings that could overly complicate the bidding and construction process.
All of this isn't to say that today's approach to design development doesn't have its benefits, but wouldn't it be great if we could recapture some of what has been lost from the past?