EP 95: Schematic Design | Life of an Architect
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Whenever an architect sits down with a client on a new residential project, the first thing that happens is a conversation about project goals and requirements. It is during this initial conversation that everyone tries to figure out what exactly it is that this project is supposed to accomplish. This phase of the work is widely referred to as “Schematic Design”… and that will be the focus of our conversation today. Welcome to Episode 95: Schematic Design
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Today we are going to kick off a new, approximately quarterly series of residentially focused episodes.
What Exactly Is Schematic Design? jump to 1:03
Today we are going to start with Schematic Design and depending on whom you ask, this is the beginning of the design process in almost any project. So what exactly is schematic design? In short order, schematic design is the initial design phase in any project. The first step is called programming which is when the client and architect discuss the requirements of the project (how many rooms, the function of the phases, etc.), testing the fit between the owner’s needs, wants, and budget. This first phase is incredibly important but it is a fact-finding and data collection process, but the first time I get to put pen (or pencil) to paper is during the schematic design process.
In some circles, and commercial work is typically one of those circles, Programming is considered different than schematic design and is usually its own phase of work. Although I tend to consider programming as part of the schematic design phase rather than separate it out into its own special section, I still go through the steps to include programming but it is a data collection phase and I do not consider it part of the (air quotes) “architectural process”.
The deliverables in the Schematic Design phase when comparing commercial work and residential work are wildly different. Commercial work is far more developed mostly because pricing is more typically a part of the process during this phase than it is in residential work. The contractor is frequently brought in at an earlier stage of the process in commercial work. Having a contractor on board during the early stages of the process is incredibly valuable so that we can avoid redundant work and make sure that the initial “dream” priorities can remain a part of the final product.
What does Schematic Design look like in the residential process? jump to 9:25
I will prepare a series of rough sketches which show the general arrangement of rooms and their placement on the site. I generally like to assemble all the information I have collected during the programming phase and start blocking out initial diagrams that describe the physical parameters of the project. Normally this is in the form of quick sketches The homeowner approves these sketches before proceeding to the next phase which is Design Development. The goal of the schematic design phase is to get a viable definition of the spaces to be provided and considered, create an overall vision and feel for the project.
The fee for the schematic design phase can vary but typically ranges between 15% and 25% of the total. Andrew trends towards the higher end of this percentage because his commercial drawing sets and the introduction of BIM software created a situation where there is more work being developed during schematic design. I still keep my SD fees closer to the 15% mark because I still like producing some of this initial scope of work by hand. A major consideration for me doing this is because the clients I work with on residential work are fairly new to this process and I think that seeing a hand-produced drawing makes it easier to assume that this is a work in process and that it is okay to speak up and make modifications. Sometimes when we put highly articulated computer-generated drawings in front of people that we hear that they are slightly intimidated by what they are seeing and are less likely to feel like they can make modifications.
I will also confess that I do not work in BIM software and prefer to work through these initial concepts with simpler tools. I find it to be considerably faster and I can develop 5 or more concepts in the same time that it takes someone working on the computer to develop a single scheme.
What Does Schematic Design Get Me? jump to 15:14
So what does Schematic Design look like if you are the client? Are you getting a floorplan? Sorta yes, but sorta no. It’s more of a highly articulated bubble diagram. What about elevations? Nope – at least not with me. I would provide 3-dimensional concept design (which would include elevations) commercial projects, but given that this process is typically done with clients that have never gone through this process before, sometimes there are massive resets once you work through rooms, their sizes, and how they want the house to function and what the house looks like should not be the focus on these initial conversations.
It is during Schematic Design that I want people to understand that the focus of the designs being made is typically focused on room size and adjacency – along with the functional role those spaces have within the overall concept of the home. The preference is that the main attention of the conversation is not on what the elevations will look like, but to keep things more basic and fundamental to this stage of the process … simply “Do you want this room next to that room?”, “Does this size seem appropriate?”, and “Will this configuration provide you the lifestyle you wish to accomplish?”
Programming Questionnaire jump to 16:08
When we start the process of collecting information, we start by asking a lot of questions – and we use a questionnaire to jump-start this part of the process. The role that the programming questionnaire plays is significant and introduces the concept of skin in the game right from the beginning. I have a 10 page (or so) list of questions that goes all the sorts of things that a home might need to accomplish and I request that each client fill it out before we begin … and it’s not a little homework assignment. While each questionnaire is developed specifically for each client, there are a lot of similarities between them all. The role is to mostly capture information about how the client wants to use their house. This can be based on how they currently live and they want to maintain or recapture certain aspects, but it can also be new modifications that they want to improve upon. There is also the side benefit of allowing people to work through the differences in their ideas and how they want their house to function without me sitting at the table. Not all couples have the same vision for the final product and it just seems decent to give them a chance to work through those differences in a format that is most comfortable for them.
Room Matrix jump to 18:09
This is all the information I need to shine some light on the programming, the estimated square footage of that programming, and an extremely rough estimate on budgeting during one of the first few meetings. This room matrix usually shows up in meeting 2 or 3, a series of programming meetings that looks like this:
- meeting one – typically a conversation that explains how the process will work
- meeting two – a review of the programming questionnaire with several, several more questions as a result of the answers provided in the aforementioned questionnaire
- meeting three – presentation of the room matrix and preliminary budget conversations
All of these meetings take more time than most people realize – at least a few hours each – but this is possibly the most important time frame to discuss because it is so important to get to not only the desired rooms identified, but we really want to establish an expectation on how big the clients expect or desire those rooms to be when built. Let’s break down what information is being presented in each column –
I have written a post that is completely dedicated to the use of this room matrix – you can read more on that subject here: Residential Architecture 101 – Room Matrix.
What Should Schematic Design accomplish? jump to 26:27
The aspiration for a residential project schematic design phase is to get everyone on the same page related to the goals for the project. This involves the site issues, the regulatory issues, the programmatic issues, budgets, and the client’s desires for the project. Many clients are unaware of how much monetary variation there might be within the images that show their “likes.” An architect can help the client understand that certain finishes and looks might be in a price range that does not align with their budget. So a large part of this process is helping the clients understand all the issues involved and how we as architects attempt to resolve all of them in a way that yields the project they want. This beginning part of the overall path to a fully designed project mainly focuses on getting those expectations aligned between client and architect. While it becomes a point of choice among architects where this “schematic” phase actually ends, this should be part of every architect’s process. The line drawn between the SD and the DD phase can be located at different points along this design path, but the moving parts of that process will be very similar among most architects. A benefit of making this schematic phase a bit shorter allows for a less developed milestone. The possibility of repeating work due to a client changing their mind involves less completed work. There is also a smaller amount of fee dedicated to the project at this completion point. This phase aims to collect all of the data needed to set the project on the proper path. Also, Schematic Design ensures that everyone involved (all stakeholders) is on the same page about that data, and the direction the project is headed is correct.
If you are going to have a residential-centric conversation, I decided that we would stay on message and have the Would You Rather question would stay in that arena.
Would you rather? jump to 43:32
Would you rather live in a house with no windows or a house with dirty floors
Just let me say this right out of the gate … dirty floors mean really dirty floors, not just floors that aren’t clean. There are all sorts of loopholes built into the “house with no windows” but I think most people will get the point. No windows.
EP 95: Schematic Design
Schematic Design is an important part of any design process and no matter who the architect is, they are going to go through this process on every single job they do.
The schematic design (and programming) phase is one of my favorites because there is such a social aspect to the collection of the material needed to do a proper job. It’s important that I have a real working understanding of how the house will ultimately be used so that we can create a finished product that supports this family’s lifestyle. The thing that I really love about this phase of the project is that it is so exciting to present these plans to the clients. I typically expect there to be some pushback on something I’ve shown or some assumption that I’ve made as the programming relates spatially to the form of the house .. and that is how it should be. This is not a house for me so I am invested in making sure that the client gets what they want.
for additional resources, here are some other worthwhile articles that are specific to the schematic design process: