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The Five Phases of Designing and Building a House

California Licensed Architect with 14 years of experience with housing, mixed-use, and transit-oriented developments.

The five phases of designing and building a house.

The five phases of designing and building a house.

Project Phases

There are five typical stages of home-building, which are professionally known as "phases." You are not obligated to select one single designer/architect for the entire project. You may choose to authorize service incrementally to establish a comfort level between both parties. The first two stages are considered design phases, followed by two documentation/procurement phases, and finally the construction phase. The five phases of the projects are:

  1. Schematic Design (SD): During this phase, the designer/architect communicates his/her proposed design to you. Not all details will be worked out during this phase, but you should have a general idea of the design approach. If your project needs to go through a design review or planning commission hearing, it will take place around 75% to 90% of this phase. If your project includes major mechanical, electrical, or plumbing upgrades, discuss the general approach for each discipline, also known as “system approach” with your design professional.
  2. Design Development (DD): The designer/architect continues to develop the design. Typical design details will be developed during this time.
  3. Construction Documents (CD): The designer/architect works on documents that will eventually be submitted to the local jurisdiction for building permit, and can also be used to solicit construction proposal from contractors.
  4. Permit/Bid: Either the designer/architect or owner submits the documents to the local jurisdiction for building permit and waits for their comments. Meanwhile, the contractor can use the documents to provide a more accurate bid for the project.
  5. Contract Administration (CA): This is the construction phase. Often, you will hire the designer/architect to administer the contract between you and the contractor. Hence the name, Contract Administration. You are not obligated to retain the designer/architect for the service.

For larger projects such as multi-million homes, sometimes the designer will add a "Concept Design" phase prior to the Schematic Design phase to establish the overall aesthetics of the project. This is an optional phase and can be eliminated if you already have a clear idea of your ultimate house.

Phases 1-2: Design and Drawing Production

The schematic design (SD) through design development (DD) phases are also known as the “Design Phases.” The construction documents (CD) phase is also known as the drawing production phase because most of the design decisions would've been made prior to CD phase. For small residential projects, these phases, including CD phase can often be combined. If you already have a contractor selected prior to bringing on a designer/architect, engage him/her early on. Have the contractor input on the design and provide cost estimate on a regular basis. This will keep the construction budget in check as you go along. Remember, we always want more than what we can afford. I have also seen projects be put on-hold due to family disputes (or divorces) as well. The goal is to keep the project on time and on budget, and to maintain a certain level of sanity.

Deliverables are physical drawings or documents that your design professional will give you at previously agreed intervals. Drawing deliverables show the design intent and quantity of each object. For example, the contractor can use the drawings to count the number of windows and doors, etc. Specifications (a.k.a. “Spec” for short) is a set of documents that establishes the quality of the project. The drawings and specifications together form the Construction Documents.

The purpose of the construction documents is to communicate the design intent with the contractor. They are not intended to be used as a “step by step” construction manual. The Architect cannot dictate “means and methods” of construction. It is the sole responsibility of the Contractor. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect set of documents. There are bound to be discrepancies. The quality of the construction documents is judged by “standard of care,” i.e., what would other professionals have done in a similar situation.

Phases 3-4: Permit/Bid/Pricing

Often a project is submitted to the City for a permit at about 75% to 80% completion of the Construction Documents Phase, depending on project size and complexity. More and more jurisdictions are asking for 95% completion of Construction Documents. The benefit of submitting earlier is generally tied into the project schedule. If the Building Department has a long backlog, you want to get your project in the queue as soon as possible. Or if there is going to be a new code adoption, you may want to check if the new code would have a significant impact on your project. If so, you may want to submit under the old code, which will affect your project schedule.

For larger projects, the review process can take a few weeks for the Building Department to get the comments back to you. Often the Contractor will use this time to prepare more accurate pricing for your project and ask the designer/architect to clarify any questions or propose substitutions.

It is a good idea to have a few bid-alternates in the documents as cost control measures. For example, you can have tile kitchen countertop as a base material, and granite counter top as an upgrade add-alternate. If the price comes within your budget, you may choose to select one or two of the add-alternates to upgrade. Keep the alternates to a reasonable number. The more options you have, the more the contractor gets confused and scared of not knowing which way you're going to go. It also shows your indecisiveness, which is not a good way to run a project. As a result, they might add a premium to the price to cushion the unknown. Another way to control cost during the bid process is to ask for “unit price. ”This is more important for working on existing buildings. For examples, if you don't know the extent of the dry-rot or termite damage, you might ask for a “unit price” for replacing so many feet of dry-rot. That way, when demolition occurs, and the extent of the damage is reveals, you have a way to control to cost for repairing the damage.

Phase 5: Construction

How much do you want the architect/designer be involved during the Construction Phase? You are not obligated to retain the designer/architect for this phase. Or you may choose to retain him/her on a consulting basis if you feel comfortable working with the contractor directly. Services to expect from your designer/architect, should you decide to retain one, may include:

  • Number of field visits? At what interval?
  • Response to Contractor's Requests for Information (RFIs)
  • Issuance of revision drawings (bulletins, change directives, change orders, architect's supplemental instructions (ASIs), etc)
  • Review of shop drawings and submittals for aesthetic items that you really care about, such as wood floor finish or color brush-ups (a.k.a. draw-downs), ask to review those submittals personally as well.
  • Review of field/color mock-ups
  • Review of Contractor's payment requests
  • Final project close-out services


This outlines the standard five phases of a typical building project. There are flexibilities with these phases. The duration and complexity of each phase depend on the size and complexity of your project. The key is to establish clear expectations of each phase or the combination of them with your design professional ahead of time and outline them in your agreement to avoid future conflicts.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.