ARE Project Planning & Design: Design Alternatives

  • 21 December, 2022

Analyzing and evaluating design alternatives is an important part of the architect's role in a building project. This topic is covered in the Project Planning & Design division of the ARE. There are many factors that go into determining which design option should be pursued and developed for design documentation and, ultimately, realized in the constructed project. These factors include the ability of the design to meet program requirements, stakeholder objectives, and project goals, as well as budget and schedule needs.

ARE Project Planning & Design: Design Alternatives

1. Early Stages of Planning

An architect will likely consider and evaluate design possibilities to at least some degree throughout all the phases of the design process, but the schematic and early design development phases will be the particular focus in reviewing the topic for the relevant portion of the ARE. It is in the early stages of the design process that design decisions are likely to have the greatest impact on budget and project objectives, such as programmatic goals. For example, the overall building massing, which is developed early in the design process, may have large implications for the type of structural system used, the amount of site work required, or the amount of vertical circulation required, among many other aspects of the design, and consequently, it may have great implications towards construction cost. As the design process progresses, it typically becomes more and more difficult to dramatically reduce the anticipated construction cost by design decisions without compromising some aspect of the original project goals. Additionally, substantial design changes during the later stages of the design process (such as during the construction documentation phase) may be difficult to implement within the timeframe of the project design schedule. As such, it is important for architects and other members of the design team to explore and effectively evaluate design alternatives, particularly in the early stages of the design process.

2. Financial Implications

In terms of the financial implications of a project's design, it is first important to understand as fully as possible the project construction budget constraints of the owner. Whether the stated budget is actually sufficient for a design that can meet fully the project's goals should be understood as early as possible. If it is not, the architect may fruitlessly pursue many hours of design labor only to go back to square one in order to design a different version of the project with reduced scope or program. In some cases, the construction budget is the most critical factor in project design decisions. In other cases, where the budget is ample and other considerations are of primary importance, cost implications of design decisions may have relatively less importance compared to other factors. A tight budget can sometimes put great constraints on a project and limit design possibilities, but in such cases, even relatively small design decisions can influence whether or not the project is successful from a budget standpoint. It is, therefore, necessary, for these and other reasons, for the designer to have a basic understanding of the relative costs of construction items and for cost estimates to be made in order to confirm design assumptions, as well as to compare and evaluate design alternatives. Sometimes an estimator is part of the architectural firm doing the building design work, while in other cases, the estimator is an outside consultant, but in either case, the estimate is likely to provide valuable insight into the budget impacts of various design decisions. A client may also have their own estimator to confirm that the design will not exceed the project budget. Usually, some amount of design contingency will be added to an estimate to account for design unknowns or potential design changes later in the design process. As the design progresses and there becomes more certainty as to the construction items that will be necessary for the design, this contingency amount is typically reduced.

3. Design Development

In developing the design for a building project, a design team may go through many iterations as a design is developed. Often the first question to be asked of a schematic-level design is whether or not it meets the client's programmatic goals for the project, such as if there are adequate areas for the different intended uses of the building and if there are appropriate adjacencies for these areas of use. Furthermore, the scheme should be evaluated for how successfully it meets any wider project goals and stakeholder objectives. Sometimes, different design schemes will have different implications for not only the budget but also for the construction schedule, which can be an important factor where timing is concerned, whether for funding reasons or simply to have the completed project operating as soon as possible or by some particular deadline. In some cases, the overall cost of two different schemes may be similar, but the relative proportion of the project costs may be given to different aspects of the design. For example, one scheme may require a more costly structural system but cost less for the building's mechanical systems. Or the greater expense of a particular mechanical system in one scheme may require that costs be reduced in other aspects of the design such as the quality level of interior finishes. Design alternatives should also be evaluated from the perspective of constructability, that is to say, whether one scheme or another may be more difficult to construct and potentially result in either an increased risk of change orders during construction or if there is an increased risk of unsatisfactorily constructed building elements or assemblies.

4. Gauging Client Opinions

Where it becomes less obvious which direction a design should proceed or if there are multiple solutions that satisfy the design intent and project goals, the opinion of the client is often sought to further understand what design option may best suit their needs and goals. The architect will then present the options, giving an overview of their variations, along with the pros and cons of each scheme. Once the feedback from the client is received, the design team can select which option to proceed with. Often, the discussions surrounding the design considerations will reveal further insight into the client's vision for the project, and sometimes new design possibilities or solutions to design problems will be revealed in such discussions.

5. Multiple Design Alternatives

Sometimes multiple design alternatives will be carried forward into later stages of the design if a client is uncertain, usually for cost reasons, which alternative should be selected. It is in the architect's interest that the possibility of including such alternatives through the design process is understood from the outset of the project so that appropriate fees for architectural services can be established. Alternatives that add some additional work to the base work of the project are often referred to as "add alternates," and those that subtract some portion of the main extent of work are often referred to as "deduct alternates." By delineating the extent of add and deduct alternates in the drawing set and specification and breaking out their costs within estimates, a client can understand what additional (or reduced) costs are associated with each alternate. This provides the client with the means to make informed decisions as the various pros and cons of each alternative are evaluated.


In summary, the evaluation of design alternatives is a crucial aspect of an architect's work. Rarely is there only one satisfactory design solution for a given project. An architect must therefore consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of various design schemes. These may include impacts on budget and schedule, in addition to how well the designs satisfy a client's program requirements and project goals.

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About the Author: Adam Castelli

Adam Castelli is a licensed architect and engineer currently practicing in the Pittsburgh area. He holds a master's degree in architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Villanova University.

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