Government as 'smart client' - Chapter 3 The design process

Discover more about what the architectural design process means and recommendations to protect design quality at each stage.

You can download Government as 'Smart Client' Chapter 3 – The Design Process here or find the full text below.

Government as 'Smart Client' Chapter 3 - The Design Process
PDF 519.71 KB
(opens in a new window)

3.0 The Design Process

To ensure that terms referred to throughout the guidelines are clearly defined, it is worth describing the architectural design process and offering recommendations to protect design quality at each stage.

The architectural design process has traditionally been divided into four key stages, which are:

  • Schematic or Sketch Design
  • Design Development
  • Documentation
  • Construction Stage

These stages can also be understood as percentages of the design developed and completed. There are also other key stages that are integral to the design process which are critical to government procuring the best outcomes, inclusive of feasibility and the masterplan.

3.1 Masterplan

A first step to inform a project’s vision involves the development of a masterplan. A masterplan is a document that outlines the spatial ambition for the long-term development of a project, particular site, area or even city. Master planning is a service that a design team may provide, usually at the start of a project, to provide a coherent planning framework for the proposed project.

Ideally, a masterplan is a written document describing ambitious development goals for a site accompanied by a diagram or drawings which, in detail, defines matters such as development location, footprint, access and use.

Masterplans may:

  • be a strategic planning tool
  • address development staging
  • meet legislative requirements
  • demonstrate development capacity
  • be used for marketing purposes
  • provide a development vision
  • facilitate infrastructure and transport planning.

The purpose of a masterplan is to allow development to be undertaken progressively as needs or opportunities arise, to avoid compromising future development options, to minimise abortive work and therefore cost, and to accommodate future needs.

In most cases, while masterplans are flexible documents, they should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that they remain relevant and that they continue to have the capacity to respond to demands without compromising the overall vision.

3.2 Feasibility study

The feasibility study is the initial process where the client’s vision, objectives and outline brief can be developed and tested, and options explored against these to suggest how the project may best be delivered. The feasibility study will test the client vision and aspirations against the reality of delivering a built outcome. It is important that the feasibility stage is measured within a policy context and nominates design quality as a key component of the objectives.

The feasibility study should consider all aspects including technical, organisational and financial. Typically it will determine the present value or dollar worth of a project. However, it is most effective when allowed to explore a range of options for the same project. The options can then be evaluated against the project objectives, and assist in the determination of the most appropriate value for money outcome. A feasibility study may recommend that there is no need for the infrastructure and building; and an alternate solution may be uncovered.


  • Ensure the Vision and objectives of the project are understood and clear at the beginning.
  • Reference good design and architecture policy as key criteria.
  • Include architectural consultants in the development of the business case and feasibility stages to develop the vision into a spatial and conceptual ambition for the project, addressing immediate and future issues.
  • Ensure good holistic research and analysis.
  • Collaborate with stakeholders to support holistic approach.
  • Ensure the feasibility has been rigorous and addressed wider issues outside the project boundaries.
  • Establish an understanding of the greater urban context and undertake detailed site analysis of physical, social and cultural context.
  • Provide a value engineering/‘optioneering’ process to develop the feasibility.
  • Use realistic market benchmarks for quality and budget.
  • Allow time to fully develop the feasibility.

3.3 Concept design

The concept design phase, also known as the schematic design phase, is when the architect explores design ideas based on the project brief and related costs in consultation with the client. The architect produces a number of sketches and design possibilities that consider both the plan – the functional arrangement of spaces; and the form – height, width, and shape relative to constraints and opportunities that apply to the site - providing the client opportunity to comment. The option ultimately agreed upon forms the basis of the final design.

Depending on the scale of the project, generally plans, sections and elevations at 1:100 are produced. Component sheets that seek to set the standards for the building by reference to other buildings may also be produced at this stage.


  • Establish an understanding of the greater urban context and undertake detailed site analysis of physical, social and cultural context.
  • Establish a peer review process and undertake this early and regularly.
  • Allow further ‘optioneering’ and exploration of ideas in addition to those undertaken in feasibility.
  • Encourage and welcome innovative and creative thinking.
  • Establish reporting processes for stakeholder and end-user input and client sign-off to next stage.
  • Establish processes which identify issues to be addressed at the next design stage.

3.4 Design development

The design development stage is where the Concept Design is refined and fully detailed to meet project requirements. At this point, the ‘look’ of the building is finalised and the materials, fixtures and finishes to be used on both the inside and outside of the building are decided. During this phase, the architect will develop the approved design and provide documentation to explain it to the client, coordinate the work of specialist consultants, review the developed design against the budget and coordinate and assist in the preparation of an updated Opinion of Probable Cost.

The need for a design development phase is critical in order to refine the design and take it to a higher level of qualitative resolution. It provides time to rationalise and coordinate the interfaces between disciplines such as architectural, structural and services engineering. It allows the opportunity to fully develop and evaluate the sustainability and universal access outcomes and options in the detailed building fabric. It provides an opportunity to fully evaluate the life cycle costing of the building, exploring options in the building development that will meet current budget cost, but also reduce the on-going cost to client. In undertaking this development and evaluation process, it provides a critical stage to establish value for money benefit.


  • Refine the design and develop it to a higher level of qualitative resolution.
  • Establish a peer review process and undertake this early and regularly.
  • Establish reporting processes for stakeholder and end-user input, and client sign-off to next stage.
  • Allow further exploration of ideas for development in construction phase.
  • Allow rigorous life cycle analysis and costing of options.
  • Encourage collaborative and strategic thinking with entire consultant and design team.
  • Allow adequate time for design development to ensure all systems are well-considered and rationalized against budget allowances.
  • Evaluate the proposal against the vision and objectives of the project.

During the design-development phase the architect will develop the approved concept design and provide documentation to explain it to the client, coordinate the work of specialist consultants, provide a schedule of proposed finishes, review the developed design against the budget and coordinate, and prepare an updated estimate of the cost of the works.

Acumen AIA Practice Services

Paying the designer enough to get an excellent set of documents and giving them enough time to do so will return both cost and time savings.

Cutting design fees raises construction costs, Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA

3.5 Contract documentation

After approval of the design by all relevant authorities, stakeholders and end users, working drawings and specifications are prepared. Known collectively as the tender documentation, the information provided is used to call tenders, to negotiate prices with the builder and ultimately to build the project. Consequently they are detailed and complex, and comprise both large and small scale-dimensioned drawings.

Comprehensive, consistent and clearly legible working drawings, coordinated with a well-drafted specification, will:

  • limit the potential for errors from misinterpretation or ambiguity
  • minimise duplication of information by prudent cross-referencing
  • mitigate claims by subcontractors for additional costs associated with contradictory information between drawings and the specification
  • clearly define the work that is the responsibility of the head contractor, and that which will be carried out by others.

The specification is a written description of the work to be carried out. It supports the drawings and incorporates standards to be met and directions to be followed, including schedules of materials, fixtures and fittings. These documents are also used to obtain requisite building construction approval and form the basis of the building contract.


  • Allow adequate time to ensure comprehensive, consistent and clearly legible documentation.
  • Establish processes for inter-disciplinary coordination.
  • Ensure that the final brief is complete and signed off at 100% design development.

3.6 Contract administration and construction

At this stage of the design process, where the architect is engaged in the administration of the contract, the architect is responsible for providing the client with professional advice, evaluating work, assisting the cost planner with certifying payments and the Project Manager with time extensions/contractions.

The role of the architect varies in some of the more complex building procurement methods. However, having been responsible for project design and documentation, the architect has an intimate knowledge of the client needs and intentions and what is required of the contract, and will therefore be in the best position to manage the delivery of design quality.


  • Retain the architect as design champion for the project, both as manager of design quality and as client agent.
  • Collaborate with the architect in strategic decisions during construction.
  • Establish processes for inter-disciplinary coordination.

The following provides a summary of the design process and how it relates to authority approval and may contribute to the government delivery processes.

3.7 Procurement participants

Most building projects are implemented by a series of contracts, which commit the various participants in the process. The following table defines the categories of participants in the design and construction industry:

Owner/Principal (client/developer) In the case of Government, the client agency funding the project; or the developer/consortia financing the project.
Project Manager The person responsible for the management of the building delivery process. Traditionally, this role was performed by the architect, however, more recently consultant project management firms have been appointed to the roles.
Design team/Architect

Professional consultants who are engaged to produce building design and documentation. Depending on type of project this includes:

  • an architectural firm – generally lead consultant
  • quantity surveyor or cost consultants
  • engineering consultants (civil, mechanical, electrical, hydraulic)
  • planners
  • landscape architects
  • interior designers
  • heritage consultants
  • ESD consultants
  • building surveyor
  • fire services engineering
  • graphic designer.
Construction Contractor/Builder The person responsible for the management of the construction component of the building delivery process.
Subcontractor or Supplier Appointed by the construction manager, this term refers to trade contractors and material manufacturer and resellers.
Operator/Facility Manager An organisation that runs and maintains the facility – will sometimes be the same agency as the owner/principal.
Investment Owner An entity that is providing funds for the project.

These participants are connected in a project by a series of agreements, which specify the roles and obligations between the parties and allocate risk.