How does the Architectural Design Process Work?

Architectural Drawing

Last month we wrote about things to consider when hiring an architect (if you missed this post, click here).  Once you’ve decided on an architect, now what? Today we’re going to talk about the architectural design process and go into more detail about what you can expect when working with an architect. We’ll look at the major steps involved and what you can expect when working with an architect on your custom home or remodel.

The drawing above helped this shingle style family home in Boulder to take shape

STEP 1: PROGRAMMING (pre-design phase)

Architectural programming is the thorough and systematic evaluation of the interrelated values, goals, facts, and needs of a client’s family and the surrounding community. A well-conceived program leads to high-quality design.

Programming is when you’ll meet with your architect to discuss all of your needs and desires for your new home.  During programming, your architect will gather information on your building site or existing home (if you are remodeling). At this time, the owner and architect will begin to form a cohesive relationship and a shared concept for the final building.

Here the scope, features, purpose, and functionality of your home is defined. Together with your architect, you develop and refine a “vision” for the project. Your architect leads you through a “programming” exercise to help you explore the needs of those who will live, work or play in the space you create.

You will be asked to consider what you want both aesthetically and functionally of your home.  What is the time frame for occupying your new home?  What are the indoor and outdoor space requirements or the likely movements and interactions of those who will be living and visiting your home?  The answers to these and other questions will provide insight into uses and living conditions; insights your architect will use to design a home created specifically for you and your lifestyle.

This is the point where the budget for your project will be discussed.   It is helpful for you to understand the costs of constructing a custom home can vary from $250 per square foot to $450+, depending on the variables of site, size, structure, and specifications.

To learn more about programming, check out our blog on how to create a custom home program.

KGA’s Paul Mahony and Steve Combs discuss the architectural design process


Once the requirements of the project are determined via the programming process, the design phase begins.  Your architect gives shape to your vision through drawings.  The architect provides a preliminary evaluation of the program, schedule and construction budget developed in the pre-design phase and prepares schematic design drawings illustrating the project to review with the owner.

Example of rough schematic design sketch
The schematic design phase begins with rough sketches

The designs lay out the program on the site and address schedule and construction budget requirements.   Your input into this phase is vital, as you get the first glimpses, and then a more defined look at how your home will take shape. It is important to establish a clear decision-making process with your architect during this phase.

As you move through the schematic design phase, your home will become more defined

Once approved by the client, drawings at this stage are usually sufficient to initiate any neighborhood review process.  If you are working with a builder at this point in the process, they will discuss a preliminary estimate of construction cost (we encourage the selection of a builder early in the process).


The beginning of design development (DD) is a logical extension of schematic design. In this phase the architect will translate the design of a project from the realm of ideas to physical form.  DD tasks build on the approved schematic design to reach a level of completeness that demonstrates the project can be built.  The schematic design is overlaid with more detailed information obtained from consultants and team members.

Throughout DD, it is important to evaluate how systems, material selection, preliminary structure, and detailing reflect the schematic design concept.  The design team works out detailed coordination issues, while enhancing the project, so that major revisions are not needed during construction documentation or, worse, during construction.  At this point, your architect will prepare to scale floor plans and building elevations for initial review and approval.

White farmhouse with black room and black trim by KGA Studio Architects
Modern Farmhouse Elevation

This is an exciting part of the process where dreams get fleshed out into the three dimensional form of your home.  Although your involvement will take time and numerous decisions must be made, working with your architect should be a fun and rewarding experience.  You are encouraged to review your plans—to virtually live in them—at different times of day (rings from your coffee mug or wine glass on the plans are welcome).

Spending considerable time contemplating your design now, during the earlier stages of the process, will save time and potential expensive changes later.  As a note of caution, significant changes made after approval of the DD’s, during the construction drawing phase, may warrant additional fees.  Once construction has commenced, changes made to the design (especially those involving structural components of the building), can be quite costly; so make sure to speak up and voice your mind before moving to the next phase of design. The process will continue after approval of progress to this point.

Colorado Contemporary Elevation


Continuing the design process, the architect prepares drawings suitable for permit submittal and construction which are referred to as construction drawings (CDs). These drawings are an instrument of communicating the project to those who will be involved in the construction of your home; the CDs set the parameters for the building process

CDs are produced on a larger scale and describe, in detail, the components of your home that need to be fabricated and assembled in order for it to be built. Tasks include developing the remaining elevations and beginning structural analysis as it relates to the architecture. During this phase the architect will interface with consultants (engineering, interior design, landscape, lighting, HVAC, etc.) ensuring a complete coordinated set for construction.


The design process is a creative problem solving endeavor that transforms ideas and visions into the 3 dimensional reality of your home; it is an exciting journey. Once the design process is complete, you are now ready to begin building (or remodeling) your home. At this point, the architect’s involvement will vary, depending on who you are working with and what you’ve previously agreed upon. At KGA for example, our policy is to remain available throughout the construction of your home to answer any questions you or your builder may have.

Hopefully this blog has helped you to better understand what you can expect during the architectural design process. Working with an architect—especially for the first time—can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Open communication and collaboration between you and your architect will help ensure a successful project.

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