Chapter 6.2
Schematic Design



Schematic design is the phase of the project during which the client’s requirements and desires determined in the pre-design phase are resolved into physical, architectural form. The purpose of this phase is to transform the results of the pre-design investigations (see Chapter 6.1) into a concept of “what will be built.” “How it will be built” will be explored later in Chapter 6.3 – Design Development. The term also represents the important illustrative stage where architects can provide added value by using their creativity and ability to synthesize various, often competing requirements. At this stage, the architect and the client begin by agreeing on an architectural expression representing a synthesis of the following elements:

  • the character of the site (including physical features, local surroundings and neighbourhood, landscape features, and regulatory restrictions);
  • the space planning requirements described in the client’s functional program;
  • the image or philosophical objectives that the client wants to project;
  • the design approach of the architect.

Schematic design embodies the physical resolution of the key design criteria (as defined by the program’s key requirements and goals) forming the spatial/architectural/structural “scaffolding” upon which preliminary and final designs are developed.

This form should be based on a design brief or functional program developed during pre-design (see Chapter 6.1). The benefits and value of preparing a well-thought-out program cannot be overstated, and initiating schematic design without first completing pre-design carries the risks of delay, cost overruns and design deficiencies. The pre-design “roadmap” guides the design process along the way to the destination – construction.

Throughout the schematic design phase, the architect tests the client’s program by studying various planning and massing relationships, always within the constraints of the project budget. Ideally, schematic design will conclude with a design that is the best possible synthesis of all the factors being considered.

Schematic designs may be developed in a variety of ways. An integrated design team (IDT) involving a multi-disciplinary team of design professionals as well as the client as a core team member is one approach of several. Sometimes a facilitator is involved to assist the team in establishing and monitoring achievable goals. One example is sustainability, considering the impacts of all design decisions on the life cycle of the building. Inevitably, there will be trade-offs, such as incorporating high performance windows (at greater capital cost), thereby reducing the size and price of mechanical equipment and future operational costs.

Any project should involve documenting all design decisions. At the schematic design stage, integration of sensitive site development, building envelope characteristics, and mechanical and electrical systems optimizes the contribution of each design discipline.

There are several methods to document design decisions. Traditional sketch overlays may still assist in the trialing of program concepts. Current technical software allows architects to undertake preliminary modelling and develop rapid prototypes as well as document the building as a three-dimensional model. Currently, these available features mean that design work is more “front-end loaded” or more intensive during the schematic design and design development phases. Therefore, if using these approaches, there is just cause to adjust work schedules, staff time and invoicing accordingly so that a greater portion of the overall project fee is billed during schematic design. For example, building information modeling (BIM) allows the architect to model the anticipated energy performance of a design, but it also can be time-consuming to generate all the information the model requires to be accurate, so the design fees should be calculated with this additional effort in mind.

As the design character emerges, the need to change program details may become evident. Although the program typically drives the schematic design, there are instances where design drives program. Throughout the schematic design phase, the assumptions made during pre-design should be tested to uncover any inconsistencies or conflicts as well as new opportunities for more effective use of space. Assumptions made earlier need to be validated so that design time and effort can be focused on solid, viable initiatives.

Now is the time to make any course corrections as the design is getting underway in earnest. The schematic design phase is an opportunity for fine-tuning elements of the client’s requirements and adjusting spatial relationships before beginning design development.

Schematic design is also the stage when the architect assembles the design team, including subconsultants who:

  • become familiar with the opportunities and challenges presented by the building site;
  • investigate different types of construction materials, systems and project delivery methods;
  • obtain detailed site information, including services such as water, sewer, gas, power and storm water management;
  • establish the project’s technical parameters;
  • review their design assumptions with the architect and the client.

This phase can make good use of intern architects in the office. They have often spent the last few years in an environment where their projects were concepts only. The critical viewpoint stressed in the academic setting transfers easily into constructive criticism of nascent designs.

See also the discussion on site evaluation and selection in Chapter 6.1 – Pre-design.

Client-Architect Relationship

There are many ways that projects are deemed successful, but perhaps the most consistent is when the architect and client perceive themselves as co-participants in the design process and goals are defined and shared together. This is the spirit evoked in Section GC0 of RAIC Document Six (2018):

General Conditions

GC0 Preamble

0.1 The terms of this preamble are incorporated into and form part of this contract.

0.2 This contract is entered into for the mutual benefit of the Client and the Architect for the development of the Project.

0.3 This contract shall be interpreted fairly and reasonably.

0.4 The relationship between the Client and the Architect shall be one of mutual respect, support, openness, and good faith.

0.5 The final design of the Project is unknown at the outset of this contract and thus exploration of solutions and adaptability to changing circumstances are essential aspects of the relationship between the Client and the Architect. This contract anticipates and accommodates necessary adjustments during the Project’s design and construction.

0.6 The Client acknowledges that the Architect has a duty of care arising by law and from the Architect’s professional status and professional code of ethics.

0.7 The Client and the Architect acknowledge that the success of the Project is reliant on a relationship of mutual respect, support, openness, and good faith with the Constructor.

During schematic design, the architect-client dialogue continues as proposals for specific responses to the project’s requirements are put forward by the architect. It is important for the parties to remain in agreement over the fundamental issues outlined in the functional program. To facilitate effective client participation and to maintain the trust between all project stakeholders, the architect must manage communication and ensure that all design issues and construction budgets are presented as open to discussion. These communications need to be fully recorded and documented.

Minutes of design meetings should be taken by the architect and circulated for review and approval by all. At important meetings it is best practice to have another member record the discussion and decisions of the meetings, leaving the project architect free to concentrate on engaging stakeholders and focus on design issues being discussed. This is an excellent opportunity for involvement of interns and junior staff.

Active client involvement will help resolve difficulties with program elements and facilitate the decision-making if the design needs adjustment as it evolves. It is essential to regularly review the design evolution with the client, and to obtain their “sign-off” on design decisions at key project milestones. Architects have noted that some clients may be reluctant to sign off on design decisions. There are several reasons for this reluctance, including:

  • a lack of certainty that the design direction taken is the optimal solution;
  • the signing-off will result in additional fees for any subsequent design changes; or
  • as a sign-off is often associated with the architect sending an invoice for services rendered, differences between the client’s and architect’s perceptions of completed scope of work may become a point of conflict.

In situations of disagreement, there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the management of the client-architect relationship. However, the general principles of effective stakeholder engagement, and open and transparent communication will support obtaining the needed approvals to advance design decision-making.

The project budget must also be reviewed periodically to ensure the proposed solution meets all functional requirements but remains affordable; alternatively, the budget can be increased or decreased by the client to respond to new ideas.

With a speculative building project, or with alternative construction project delivery systems, the architect may not have access to the full community of user stakeholders. In these instances, the client is considered the user group representative. The architect may request that the client formally confirm significant decisions with these user groups, other stakeholders, or associations. Transparency in communications is a fundamental element of RAIC Document Six, as intended in its general conditions. The architect needs to be included in all relevant correspondence between client and contractor; the same applies to all other participants involved in the design’s evolution.

To ensure that projects run smoothly and design time is optimized, the contractual agreement between architect and client should explicitly require that clients provide adequate information and that architects obtain formal written approval of the schematic design before proceeding. The client, as an active participant, ensures that there are no missteps or surprises as the design progresses during this phase.

In the case of a “fast-tracked” project, when elements of the construction, such as site clearing, grading, laying structural fill and the foundations, are undertaken before the building is fully designed, there are inherent risks which must be identified, and discussed with and understood by the client. When doing design and construction work out of sequence, rework and its associated expense are seldom avoidable.

Pre-design Information Required Before Beginning Schematic Design

The client is responsible for providing a functional program which defines:

  • functional requirements and spatial relationships (adjacencies);
  • flexibility and provision for expansion;
  • special equipment and systems;
  • site requirements and/or restraints;
  • a feasible construction budget;
  • sustainability goals;
  • a time frame or schedule.

In addition to the functional program, the client is responsible for providing full documentation of site conditions, including:

  • legal and physical surveys;
  • zoning bylaw considerations;
  • reports on subsurface conditions, including the presence of hazardous materials or other pollutants;
  • any assessment/condition reports and hazardous material assessment if the project is a renovation to an existing building;
  • any other professional reports or opinions from specialist consultants that will have an impact on the work.

If the client does not have all this typical pre-design documentation (see Chapter 6.1), the architect may help procure it, acting as the client’s advisor. As this approach requires additional work on the part of the architect and attracts additional professional liability to the architect, the overall compensation for schematic design should reflect that additional effort. Alternatively, the architect may request that the client retain independent specialists to provide the necessary information, partly because the architect’s liability insurance may not cover certain specialist subconsultants, such as for hazardous substances investigation and legal and physical surveys. There should be an understanding reached with the client that, if some information remains unknown, this may carry over as a risk into the next phases.

It is not uncommon for clients to desire the transfer of risks associated with ownership of capital assets to third parties, including the architect. This may result in the client wanting all services related to a project, including those listed above, to be provided by a single source. The desire to transfer risk may go further in that an owner may require that those providing services warrant them free of any error or omission. For example, should a designated substances report not mention a location where asbestos is present and needs to be removed, the consultant and not the owner becomes liable for the removal. As a general principle, the architect should reinforce to the owner that as the owner of a capital asset receives the benefits of ownership, they should also take responsibility for the risks associated with ownership.

Design is a learning process for all involved. Throughout developing the schematic design, new ideas emerge, and assumptions are challenged. The client may find that their original intent and vision are now questionable, leading to lack of clarity of project objectives. Schematic design should be delayed until the appropriate level of shared understanding of project objectives is re-established. Any architect involvement with programming and obtaining missing information is considered an additional or discretionary service and should be billed accordingly.

As the schematic design process continues, the architect confirms technical and regulatory considerations by:

  • incorporating appropriate construction materials and methods (with research into durability and life cycle considerations);
  • consulting with the engineering members of the design team to consider the technical requirements of their disciplines;
  • ensuring compliance with applicable building codes;
  • dealing with occupational health and safety codes;
  • ensuring that local zoning and urban design requirements are met.

To complete the schematic design, architects must fully investigate planning and technical requirements as well as the regulations of authorities having jurisdiction (such as environmental impact, site plan control, zoning, parking requirements and limiting distances). Generally, an overview rather than a detailed analysis of building code compliance is necessary at this stage.

Space, Circulation and Massing Studies

As part of the preliminary analysis, the architect will often prepare a series of space plans to identify the comparative size, relationships and optimal adjacencies of the functional areas and spaces anticipated. Relative proportions and volumes can be established and, with the data rationalized to this extent, the preliminary architectural planning and designing can be commenced with greater confidence.

In addition, pedestrian and vehicular circulation layouts linking the relevant spaces and applicable site constraints can be examined, usually concurrently. Subconsultant input, especially related to mechanical and electrical space requirements, vehicular traffic, and vertical transportation systems, may be added to the research agenda at this time. The engineering disciplines’ input helps determine the area and volume needed for service rooms at this very preliminary stage.

On large and complex projects, the architect should ask the client periodically to approve the conceptual drawings as they are developed. These “sign-offs” enable the architect to monitor the schedule milestones and legitimately request additional fees if the client subsequently makes changes to previously approved work.

Having undertaken and established some basic planning relationships through these flow and space plans, the architect, with input from the integrated design team, then begins creating the overall form which the project will take.

Using sketches, block models and other design approaches, the architect explores various forms and relative volumes for the building project. From such studies, the architect:

  • establishes the form and massing qualities of the building;
  • visualizes the space between buildings (proposed and existing);
  • determines the effect of sun, shade, snow, rain and wind on the project and its surrounding environment.

Integrated Design Process

No part of a site, building, or system is unaffected by other parts. A change of a window results in changes to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, results in changes to the controls, results in changes to the electrics. Sustainable and regenerative design objectives are driving the demand for higher performing buildings and sites, requiring greater levels of design effort, testing, collaboration, thoughtfulness, and detailing. High performance building certification systems now require that design processes demonstrate integrative methods where all disciplines work together to solve complex and interrelated problems that cannot satisfactorily be solved by each discipline working in isolation.

The integrated design process (IDP) requires deep understanding of the natural systems present in the environment and evidence-based design. It also requires a shift in thinking about design methodology, processes, and firm operations. Numerous concepts, models and methodologies have been proposed to implement IDP, and each architectural practice, with its engineering and special consultant partners team, must develop and refine their own methodology to achieve best-in-class performance and competitive advantage in an ever-more-demanding marketplace.

The IDP is one approach to optimize building systems: components, such as landscaping, civil works, structure, orientation, envelope, lighting and ventilation, are viewed as interdependent. IDP usually requires additional up-front resources, but has the end benefit of greater ultimate coherence of the overall building design and its systems. During the schematic design phase, the architect coordinates the design team, including civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers. Other specialist subconsultants may be required, depending on site conditions and programmatic requirements (for example, if the project involves a lecture hall, a specialist in acoustics may want to have input into the shape of that space, even at this early stage). Engineering subconsultants help prepare the construction budget submitted at the completion of the schematic design stage (see Chapter 4.2 – Construction Project Cost Planning and Control). The project will progress more smoothly when the subconsultants become familiar with the site and program requirements early in the process.

As the general form of the facility emerges from programmatic data, engineers from the various disciplines work with the architect to develop a design and building system concept that is appropriate to the project goals. Early involvement by design engineers is a significant factor in obtaining the synthesis of building elements that can lead to reduced capital costs and improved building performance.

The IDP requires the seamless movement of data and information across firms’ corporate boundaries. It is important to analyze technological approaches to communication and information management as well as knowledge generation and distribution. Building information modeling (BIM) processes, and the software that makes them possible, have provided the design and construction teams with the means of generating and communicating complex design, construction and operational information. See Chapter 3.7 – Technology Systems as well as Chapter 5.6 – Building Information Management for further discussion.

An important aspect of the application of BIM-based software is the imposed consistency of the graphic language across disciplines. This facilitates the efficient and seamless sharing of drawings. This collaborative design and production regimen begins at schematic design.

Design Alternatives: Evaluation and Selection

The project program may include more than one possible path to follow for planning or for developing architectural concepts. In these circumstances, the architect may prepare design alternatives for the client to consider.

At the schematic design phase, these design alternatives should involve quick diagrammatic studies to address issues such as circulation, planning and volumetric aspects of the project without developing architectural details. Some clients may want to review multiple options, acknowledging that this will demonstrate a thorough examination of the possibilities. Such options should be limited to simple planning diagrams. The number of these exploratory iterations should be agreed upon beforehand so that any fees associated with multiple investigations are accounted for in the professional contract. One design alternative should then be selected with the client and developed in more detail. The architect needs to strike a balance between providing an appropriate level of basic services and undertaking extensive studies that should be identified at the time (and billed) as optional or additional services.

Design alternatives should be evaluated and selected through unbiased discussion and analysis of the pros and cons of each choice, based on:

  • completeness of response to the program and budget;
  • success in resolving functional relationships and adjacency requirements;
  • compliance with previously established sustainable goals;
  • the merits of any proposed alternative structural assemblies and mechanical or electrical systems;
  • comparisons of building efficiencies, including:
    • ratio of net to gross floor areas;
    • ratio between circulation and usable floor areas;
    • wall surface to floor area ratios;
    • capital, operating and maintenance costs (although at this phase, cost calculations will be speculative and remain so until the design is detailed).

The architect should receive a formal “sign-off” of the selected alternative from the client before proceeding with further work.

Building Cost Analysis

During schematic design, the architect prepares preliminary cost evaluations (or works closely with a specialist costing subconsultant), usually based only on the area or volume of the proposed building, multiplied by the appropriate regional unit costs (see Chapter 4.2 – Construction Project Cost Planning and Control).

Sometimes it becomes clear at the schematic design phase that the client’s expectations cannot be met within the proposed budget. The concept can either prove or disprove the foundational research done in pre-design. If the pre-design program is unachievable with the budget given, the architect needs to work with the client to adjust the scope of work and/or the quality, or, alternatively, the client may decide to increase the budget or abandon the project.

In the instances where IDP is utilized, the IDP team should all have acknowledged the budget figure at the outset of design and appreciate the contractual obligations to not over-design or choose materials, assemblies or systems which are beyond the client’s reach. In cases where the budget and program are unachievable, the IDP team may need to consider a “go/no-go” decision regarding continuation with the project.

Documentation and Presentation

Schematic design documents illustrate the functional relationships of the project elements as well as the project’s scale and character, based on the final version of the functional program, the schedule, and the construction budget. For this presentation and report, each team member’s discipline may be at different stages of concept design. It is important that the report captures the client’s and design team’s objectives, so an understanding of the client’s expectations beforehand is important. Sharing previous schematic design presentations and reports with the client beforehand can be useful. The design presentation documents are recommended to include:

  • a site plan showing the proposed location and site circulation;
  • functional block plans showing relative spatial areas and relationships (adjacencies) and circulation routes;
  • vertical sections to depict building height and initial space conjecture for structural support;
  • outline building elevations to display massing and image;
  • illustrative sketches, perspectives or computer-generated presentations (these should be at a concept level and avoid conveying a finished product, which would be misleading at this phase);
  • three-dimensional massing models.

In addition to design presentation documents, it is often appropriate to prepare a report (not always required but always recommended, and generally referred to as a schematic design report) containing the following:

  • design approach or philosophy;
  • description of how the design fits with the pre-design goals or the client’s expectations;
  • an executive summary which supports the decisions made and looks forward to the next phase activities;
  • description of identified sustainable targets and environmental features (special materials or assemblies planned and highlighting any operational or energy savings these elements might produce);
  • probable construction cost (with appropriate qualifications; see Chapter 4.2 – Construction Project Cost Planning and Control) which identifies any potential cost risks;
  • summary of status of design with respect to applicable environmental, planning and zoning regulations as well as building codes;
  • preliminary schedule for design and construction start and completion and a recommendation of the form of construction delivery (lump-sum, design-build, construction management, etc.);
  • description of structural, mechanical, and electrical systems and a depiction of the space needed to accommodate these elements (including vertical shafts);
  • confirmation of basic area calculations and analyses;
  • site data;
  • product and material description and samples of key construction materials or finishes.

The architect reviews the documents with the client and should obtain formal, written approval from the client before beginning design development.

Standard Contract Documents and Checklists

A list of the services to be provided in the schematic design phase is contained in Schedule A or Schedule B, Schedule of Architect’s Services and Client Responsibilities, for use with the Canadian Standard Forms of Contract for Architectural Services RAIC Document Six.

A detailed description of the management of the architectural project, including requirements during the schematic design phase, is contained in Chapter 5.1 – Management of the Design Project.


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Hamilton, D. Kirk, and David Watkins. Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

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Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. “Canadian Standard Form of Contract for Architectural Services Document Six.” Ottawa, ON: RAIC, 2018.

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