— The Building Design Process —

Building design is an important process that requires careful planning and consideration to create functional, safe, and aesthetically pleasing structures. The design process involves determining the building's layout, appearance, functionality, and compliance with regulations. This comprehensive guide provides an overview of key aspects of building design.

04, Jul
Benjamin Harris

Building design is an important process that requires careful planning and consideration to create functional, safe, and aesthetically pleasing structures. The design process involves determining the building's layout, appearance, functionality, and compliance with regulations. This comprehensive guide provides an overview of key aspects of building design.

The Building Design Process

The building design process typically involves these key steps:

  1. Determine building use and occupants
  2. Conduct site analysis
  3. Develop design program
  4. Create schematic design
  5. Prepare design development drawings
  6. Complete construction documents
  7. Apply for permits and approvals
  8. Tender and award construction contract
  9. Administer construction
  10. Occupy and maintain building

Determining the building's purpose and who will use it is the critical first step that informs decisions throughout the rest of the process.

Step 1: Determine Building Use and Occupants

The architect or designer must understand how the building will be used and who the occupants will be. This includes:

  • Building type - Residential, commercial, institutional, industrial, etc.
  • Specific building use - Apartments, offices, school, hospital, warehouse, etc.
  • Occupant characteristics - Age, ability, capacity, etc.

This information is used to make important decisions about layout, features, access, safety, systems, and aesthetics.

Step 2: Conduct Site Analysis

Thorough site analysis is crucial for optimizing building design. It involves investigating:

  • Location, orientation, and nearby landmarks
  • Dimensions, topography, and natural features
  • Access and transportation connections
  • Climate and solar patterns
  • Views and sightlines
  • Utilities and services
  • Environmental factors like soil, drainage, noise
  • Zoning and other regulations

This data informs the building footprint, access, circulation, landscaping, and passive design strategies.

Step 3: Develop Design Program

The design program outlines all the spaces and their requirements. This includes:

  • Spatial relationships and adjacencies
  • Occupancy numbers and space sizes
  • Specific features, finishes, and services for each space

The program ensures the building accommodates all the required functions and technical criteria.

Step 4: Create Schematic Design

Schematic design translates the program into building form. The architect develops study drawings showing:

  • General building size, shape, layout
  • Access and circulation
  • Preliminary selection of systems and materials

This stage establishes the overall concept and defining characteristics.

Step 5: Prepare Design Development Drawings

In design development, the schematic design is refined with more detail about:

  • Spatial relationships and dimensions
  • Design features and aesthetics
  • Technical systems selection
  • Materials and finishes
  • Custom furnishings and features
  • Sustainability strategies

These comprehensive drawings demonstrate the complete design intent.

Step 6: Complete Construction Documents

Construction documents provide the full specifications required to build the design. This includes:

  • Detailed architectural drawings
  • Structural, HVAC, plumbing, electrical drawings
  • Material, finish, and furnishings specifications
  • Technical specifications for all systems and components

The documents should contain all information needed for permitting, pricing, and construction.

Step 7: Apply for Permits and Approvals

The local authority must review the plans and issue permits before construction can proceed. Additional approvals may be needed for:

  • Zoning and land use
  • Environmental impact
  • Building safety and access
  • Historical preservation
  • Various specialized uses

Navigating the approval process requires coordination with governing agencies.

Step 8: Tender and Award Construction Contract

The construction documents are issued for bidding to general contractors. A contractor is selected based on:

  • Bid price
  • Experience with similar projects
  • Qualifications and resources
  • Proposed schedule
  • Quality assurance procedures

The contract specifies project scope, schedule, and financial terms.

Step 9: Administer Construction

During construction, the architect helps:

  • Ensure adherence to design
  • Review and approve shop drawings
  • Conduct site observations
  • Review payment applications
  • Issue supplemental instructions
  • Review and certify completion

Good construction administration ensures the design is executed as intended.

Step 10: Occupy and Maintain Building

Before occupancy, the building systems are tested and commissioned. The architect:

  • Inspects for defects and administers repairs
  • Obtains occupancy certificates
  • Assists with developing operating procedures
  • Provides record drawings for maintenance
  • Addresses warranty issues

The architect's involvement continues through occupancy and building maintenance.

Key Players in Building Design

Building design involves collaboration between many disciplines. The key team members include:

  • Architect - Leads overall building design and manages process from concept through construction.
  • Structural engineer - Designs structural framework and analyzes loads.
  • Mechanical engineer - Plans HVAC, plumbing, fire protection, and drainage systems.
  • Electrical engineer - Designs power distribution, lighting, communications, security, and electronics systems.
  • Civil engineer - Analyzes site conditions and plans site layout, grading, utilities.
  • Landscape architect - Designs exterior spaces, hardscapes, plantings.
  • Interior designer - Plans interior layouts, selects finishes, furnishes spaces.
  • Contractor - Constructs and manages project execution.
  • Specialty consultants - Acoustics, lighting, IT/AV, sustainability, etc.

Close coordination between the team is vital for successful building design and construction.

Factors Influencing Building Design

Many factors shape the building design process. The architect must balance and optimize these elements:

Functional Requirements

The building must serve its intended function and meet the needs of occupants. This influences layout, features, access, systems, etc.

Environmental Conditions

Local climate impacts strategies like solar control, ventilation, insulation, and landscaping. Geology affects the structural system.

Site Attributes

The building design responds to site factors like shape, topography, orientation, landmarks, and vistas.

Zoning and Building Codes

Design must comply with applicable zoning laws, building codes, accessibility standards, and regulations.

Budget and Costs

Project budget and operating costs impact decisions about size, construction, materials, systems, and lifecycle considerations.

Aesthetics and Visual Impact

Design choices related to style, proportions, materials, details, and finishes determine the building's visual character.

Sustainability Goals

Sustainable design aims to minimize environmental impact through energy and water efficiency, materials selection, and other strategies.

Cultural Factors

Design may reflect cultural values related to patterns of use, privacy, social interaction, symbolism, and expression.

Future Flexibility

Accommodating potential changes in use or capacity requires consideration of adaptability in layout and systems.

Weighing and resolving these often competing priorities is the crux of building design.

Basic Building Elements

While every building is unique, most share common structural and functional elements. Understanding these components provides a foundation for building design.


Foundations anchor the building and transfer structural loads through the soil. Foundation types include:

  • Spread footings (concrete pads)
  • Piers (columns extending into soil)
  • Piles (poles driven into soil)
  • Basement or crawlspace
  • Slab on grade

Soil conditions dictate the suitable foundation type.

Structural Frame

The structural frame carries gravity loads and resists lateral forces. Frame types include:

  • Concrete (columns and slabs)
  • Steel (beams and columns)
  • Wood frame
  • Masonry

The structural bay establishes dimensions for layouts.

Exterior Walls

Exterior walls enclose and protect the building. Typical wall assemblies include:

  • Masonry veneer over wood or steel studs
  • Stucco over sheathing
  • Metal panels or siding
  • Glass curtain walls or window walls

Walls must withstand weather and meet insulation values.


Roofs shield the interior from the elements. Roof types include:

  • Pitched (gable, hip, shed)
  • Flat (with internal drainage)
  • Curved
  • Hybrid combinations

Roof design impacts drainage, insulation, ventilation, daylighting, and aesthetics.

Doors and Windows

Doors allow access and egress while windows admit light and air. Components include:

  • Frames (wood, metal, vinyl, fiberglass)
  • Glazing (glass, plastic, multi-pane)
  • Hardware

These openings account for much of a building's character.


Interior elements include:

  • Partitions: frame walls dividing spaces
  • Finishes: materials on floors, walls, ceilings
  • Millwork: custom cabinetry, trims
  • Furnishings: lighting, furniture, fixtures

Interiors support building functions while creating desired spatial effects.

Mechanical and Electrical Systems

Building services like HVAC, plumbing, electric, lighting, fire protection, communications, security, and vertical circulation enable occupants to successfully use the building.

Architectural Design Principles and Strategies

Throughout history, architects have developed design philosophies and principles to create successful built environments. Understanding these concepts informs contemporary building design.

Design Principles from Vitruvius

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect writing in the 1st century BCE, established three firmitas, utilitas, venustas - meaning the building must be:

  1. Firm - Structurally sound
  2. Commodious - Functional and practical
  3. Delightful - Beautiful and aesthetic

This classic philosophy continues to shape architecture today.

Form Follows Function

A principle most associated with modernist architects like Louis Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe, "form follows function" asserts that a building's form and spatial arrangement should directly derive from and facilitate its function and use. This principle aims to strip away unnecessary ornamentation in favor of functional honesty.

Biophilic Design

Biophilic design connects building occupants more closely to nature through strategies like natural ventilation, daylighting, plants, natural materials, views of nature, and geometric patterns found in nature. Studies show this approach enhances wellbeing.

Active Design

Active design promotes occupant health through the built environment. Strategies include encouraging movement through building layouts, providing exercise facilities, using materials conducive to activity, and integrating amenities like showers and bike storage.

Universal Design

Universal design creates accessibility and usability for people of all abilities and ages through elements like step-free entries, wide corridors, lever handles, clear signage, and logical wayfinding. Accommodating a broad range of users enhances convenience and safety.

By thoughtfully incorporating proven design principles, architects can create buildings that beautifully serve user needs while providing delight.

Sustainability in Building Design

Sustainable architecture aims to minimize the harmful impacts of construction and building operations on the natural environment through smart design strategies.

Sustainable Building Strategies

  • Site - Orient for solar access, use native landscaping, manage stormwater
  • Water - Install low-flow fixtures, reuse graywater, harvest rainwater
  • Energy - Optimize insulation and air sealing, use high-efficiency systems, incorporate solar power
  • Materials - Choose local, non-toxic materials with recycled content
  • Air - Plan for excellent ventilation and indoor air quality
  • Operations - Design for efficient building systems and reduced waste

Getting green building certifications like LEED validates sustainability efforts.

Benefits of Green Building

Sustainable design provides many advantages:

  • Reduces energy and water consumption
  • Creates healthy indoor environments
  • Decreases carbon emissions
  • Lessens strain on local utilities
  • Lowers operating and maintenance costs
  • Extends building lifespan with durability
  • Demonstrates environmental stewardship

Green building is also commonly required for new construction. Sustainability has become an essential aspect of quality design.

Passive Design Strategies

Passive approaches optimize building performance through architectural elements like:

  • Window placement and glazing type
  • Awnings, overhangs, and shade structures
  • Courtyards and light wells
  • Thermal mass in floors and walls
  • Operable windows for cross ventilation
  • Skylights and clerestory windows

Passive techniques reduce reliance on mechanical systems for heating, cooling, and lighting.

Incorporating sustainability early in design allows these strategies to shape the form and function of the building.

Special Requirements for Building Types

The unique needs of different building types require specialized design solutions.

Multifamily Residential

Key considerations for apartments, condominiums, and cooperatives include:

  • Efficient unit layouts
  • Acoustic separation between units
  • Visual and physical privacy
  • Amenities like lobbies, recreation areas
  • Wayfinding and security
  • Accessibility for families and seniors
  • Outdoor community spaces

Group housing must meet both shared and private resident needs.

Educational Facilities

Schools and university buildings prioritize:

  • Adjacencies between different learning spaces like classrooms, labs, libraries, auditoriums
  • Flexibility to accommodate changing programs
  • Large, open gathering areas
  • Age-targeted amenities and scale
  • Technology infrastructure
  • Security, access control, and wayfinding

Design choices can encourage collaboration and different learning modes.

Healthcare Facilities

Hospitals and medical buildings require:

  • Clinical, diagnostic, treatment, and patient room spaces
  • Strict infection control
  • Accessible circulation
  • Specialized mechanical and electrical systems
  • Zoning based on public and staff areas
  • Soothing aesthetics

Healthcare design focuses on safety, clinical needs, and emotional wellbeing.

Tailoring form to specialized functions results in effective building design.

Architectural Styles, Materials, and Details

Creative selection of architectural styles and materials allows designers to achieve functional and aesthetic project goals.

Architectural Styles

Architectural styles reflect cultural values and design philosophies of their era through form, features, and materials. Popular styles include:

Style Key Features
Modern Simple geometric forms, open floorplans, large windows, minimal ornamentation
Contemporary Sleek, innovative forms and materials like glass and steel
Postmodern Eclectic mixing of decorative elements from various eras and cultures
Mediterranean Stucco walls, barrel tile roofs, arches, courtyards
Victorian Steeply pitched roofs, elaborate trim, bay windows, porches
Colonial Revival Symmetry, gabled roofs, multi-pane windows, classically-inspired details

Blending elements from different styles can produce unique design expressions.

Building Materials

Material selection impacts aesthetics, functionality, and sustainability. Common building materials include:

Material Uses Considerations
Concrete Foundations, structure, finishes Durable, fire resistant, thermal mass
Steel Structure, siding, framing High strength, recyclable, corrosion resistant coatings required
Wood Framing, siding, finishes Renewable, attractively textured, limit water exposure
Masonry Walls, surfaces Durable, fire resistant, can be load bearing
Glass Curtain Walls Windows, cladding Transparency, modulates light and heat gain
Stucco Wall finishes Weather and fire resistant, textured

Using materials creatively and appropriately creates visual interest while meeting functional needs.

Architectural Details

Thoughtful details refine the design. Well-executed details include:

  • Window and door surrounds
  • Eaves, parapets, trim
  • Railings, stairs, balconies
  • Ornamental features like tilework or metalwork
  • Light fixtures and hardware

Details infuse personality into design and reflect fine craftsmanship.

Studying architectural precedents helps generate creative solutions tailored to unique building needs.

Optimizing Building Performance

The built environment directly impacts human comfort, safety, productivity, and wellbeing. Excellent building design considers both functionality and occupant experience.

Lighting Design

Proper lighting enhances occupant comfort and productivity. Design considerations include:

  • Using sufficient daylighting to minimize electric lighting
  • Selecting appropriate light levels and color temperature for tasks
  • Minimizing glare through shielded fixtures and dimming controls
  • Accenting spaces with architectural lighting
  • Providing controls for personal adjustability

Balanced, high quality lighting creates inviting interior environments.

Acoustical Design

Managing acoustics is key for occupant comfort and productivity. Strategies involve:

  • Absorptive finishes to minimize excessive reverberation
  • Background white noise masking to cover distractions
  • Acoustic separation between spaces sharing walls
  • Isolating mechanical equipment vibration and noise
  • Limiting noise transmission from outside

Poor acoustics negatively impact concentration and communication.

Thermal Comfort

Maintaining comfortable temperatures enhances wellbeing. Relevant factors include:

  • Insulation to minimize heat loss/gain and reduce HVAC loads
  • Solar control through shading and high-performance glazing
  • Passive ventilation and air circulation
  • Individual controls like operable windows and thermostats
  • High-efficiency HVAC systems sized for peak loads
  • Radiant heating and cooling

An inability to adapt to thermal conditions causes discomfort.

By holistically addressing critical comfort and experiential factors, building design directly fosters occupant satisfaction and productivity.

Building Information Modeling for Design

Building information modeling (BIM) is transforming architectural design and construction. This technology provides many benefits:

Visualization and Coordination

BIM software generates detailed 3D models incorporating architecture, structure, and systems. This visualization enables early coordination, clash detection, and problem solving.

Simulation and Analysis

BIM supports sophisticated analysis of:

  • Structural integrity
  • Energy efficiency, lighting, and acoustics