A architectural design process should only be initiated after extensive research has been undertaken. While developing conceptual designs can be the most creative aspect of architecture, an ill-informed concept can end in disaster. The design process involves the collation of regulatory and environmental information, and the careful consideration of project brief and budget set against the potential site, scope & approval limitations that may impact the design. It is also essential to consider the building's entire life cycle, not only the current needs and wants of the client.

For more information on how to develop a design concept, check out the article I wrote on the topic. 

Building life cycles

A building life cycle refers to how a building performs over its lifetime and how it interacts with it's environmental context. The building life cycle takes into consideration the:

  1. Design - how is the building designed, materiality choice and sustainability for both short term benefits for construction ease and also have operational efficiencies over the long term.
  2. Construction - the process of manufacturing of materials through to installation and completion of the design.
  3. Operation/maintenance - how does the building perform in its operational use? How does the performance of the construction materials of the building measure, regarding energy efficiencies, maintenance and replacement/ renovation. 
  4. Demolition/deconstruction - When a building has exhausted the life span of its materiality and is no longer deemed safe for use, or no longer meets the needs of the users. Recycling and re-use is a key element to consider in this stage, as not all elements should be considered obsolete.

The design can directly impact upon the cost implications to each stage of the life cycle, based on the care taken to ensure sustainable solutions, quality materials and suitable construction methods are employed to increase the length of the building’s life cycle.

Environmental sustainability in design and construction has increased in importance in the past 20 years as architects are educated to consider the environmental impact of the design and construction. This in not only limited to on-site construction, but also the ethical specifying and sourcing of building materials.

For centuries architects have considered how to harness natural renewable resources such as sun, water and wind. Now with new technologies available, these resources can achieve an even higher level of sustainability when integrated with good design. Such elements to consider in order to increase the sustainability and passive design qualities include:

  • Thermal mass
  • Passive solar heating
  • Solar power generation
  • Insulation and sealing
  • Natural ventilation
  • Construction systems that reduce waste 
  • Material selection and associated maintenance requirements– recycled/re-used, low maintenance, increased life span, minimal additional finishes required, low embodied energy, zero off-gasing, and ethically sourced.

New Vs Alterations and Additions

It is an unfortunate reality that new builds (or knock-down rebuilds) are often simpler to design and construction, and generally more cost effective that alterations and additions. Where possible an architect should attempt to utilise and preserve existing architecture over agreeing to demolition. However, poor craftsmanship, deterioration, and uncertainty of structural adequacy often inevitably require existing buildings to be torn down and replaced with entirely new ones.

When designing a new building, an architect will often find less constraints. This can be both liberating and problematic. Ironically, the challenges of complex sites and integration often lead to the most unique and exquisite design solutions.

The Existing Building

When an architect is engaged to undertake an alteration and addition, the first step is to undertake detailed measurements of the existing building. This will commonly require the arrangement for a surveyor to produce a detailed site survey. As this detailed survey will normally not show any interior information, and the positioning of doors and windows, or smaller architectural features, the architect will be required to confirm and record the remainder of this information themselves. 

New technologies in 3D scanning and virtual building rendering are starting to change the way surveying is undertaken, and when combined with a BIM approach to architectural design and development, measuring up a site may soon take on a whole new meaning. Despite the value of reliable and accurate digital data, many architects find the process of hand-sketched plans or model making an invaluable process for analysing and conceptualising as existing site & structure.

Consideration must be given early in the design process to the implications removing or replacing existing structure. If structural alterations are required, a structural engineer will need to be engaged to propose an engineered solution to support the existing structure. When factoring the cost of remedial works, it may be more cost effective to limit alterations to cosmetic changes only where possible, and seperate new works from existing where possible.

Contextual and site constraints

When conducting your feasibility study, you must research the potential contextual and site constraints. A survey of the site will provide essential information about measurements of boundaries, land contours, any existing buildings, trees, placement of sewer easements, and other utility connections.

Visiting the site in person, can provide a rich understanding of the natural environment, neighbourhood, surrounding styles and what natural or existing elements could be featured or vistas to in-capture in your design.  Record your visit by taking photographs, measurements that may not be given on your survey (like any exisiting building internal measurements), notes and drawings. 

There may be existing Council reports or constraints on the property, so conducting thorough research into all of the council planning requirements and legislation and ensure that you understand the Development Approval process

There are numerous considerations that must be accounted for in your design. Determine any contextual and site constraints that may be applicable to the location, as they can present great design opportunities and/or have significant cost implications in addition to the cost of construction. These include:

  • Historic Value
  • Visual amenity
  • Light amenity – shadowing of neighbours, adequate shading for the western side, adequate opening or window to allow light, the use of ease to harness solar efficiencies (access or protection) in each season.
  • Noise
  • Land Direction – Solar access from North. Shading the afternoon westerly sun. What direction is the street facing? Are there any visual amenity and their direction?
  • Sewer easements
  • Setbacks – Front, back and sides
  • Building Heights / Height restrictions
  • Site accessibility
  • Soil type
  • Local infrastructure/ Utility connection – Is there power, water, gas, sewer and stormwater already available to the site. If no, then there is more to be investigated and expenses involved to provide the basic amenities to the site.
  • Planning and building regulations restrictions
  • Completion date
  • Local climatic conditions
  • Bushfire Prone Land - understand the BAL rating and their requirements
  • Neighbours, Neighbourhood covenants or style-continuity requirements
  • The budget

Local Councils regulate certain components of urban planning in order to control a building's scale, where it is situated on a site and the overall site usage. These quantitative and qualitative requirements may vary as per the classification of the land's zoning, and some may limit partial usage of a site. These common requirements are:

  • Setbacks – Front, back and sides
  • Floor Space Ratio (FSR)
  • Permeable Area/ Landscape Ratio 
  • Building Heights
  • Bushfire Prone Land 
  • Protections - e.g. Flora and Fauna, Scenic amenity, etc.

For projects located in NSW, using the NSW Government Planning Portal is a great tool to access and overview of all of the site specific requirements. 

Specialised Consultants

For any project, new or altered, There will be many specialised consultants who will assist the architect in the design and approval process. For example, a structural engineer is valuable to design and specify materials used in the structure of the building. In an alterations and additions project, you may need to consider engaging the services of a structural engineer during the design phase if there are concerns regarding the existing building’s foundations, structure and form. Similarly, if an interior designer is to be engaged, they should also be included in the internal layout and configuration to provide design clarification during the architectural design phase.

Other specialised consultants may need to be engaged in the earlier stages to assist with obtaining development approval, depending on site and legislative requirements. As it will often be the responsibility of the architect to advise on the engagement of consultants throughout at the various stages, a feasibility study is recommended as a precursor to commencing the concept design.

For example, if the building has heritage/historic value, or is at least located in a heritage area, engaging the expertise of a Heritage Consultant early to understand the Cultural Heritage Management or Conservation requirements is recommended. Under these circumstances, it is likely that a Heritage Report will be required for submission as part of development approval (DA) process. 

A design requires the involvement of many allied design/engineering professions, which all fall under the same duty of care for the safety of any part of the design.

Where the project requires additional specialist consultants to be engaged. The client may choose to engage these consultants personally or arrange for the architect or another consultant to engage them on behalf of the client.

Below is a list (not all inclusive) of specialised consultants that an may be required to consult in an architectural process:

  • Quantity surveyor/cost consultant
  • Structural engineer
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Electrical engineer
  • Hydraulic/ Civil engineer
  • Fire services engineer
  • Certification (building surveyor)
  • Land surveyor
  • Town planner
  • Geotechnical engineer
  • Landscape designer / architect
  • Interior designer / architect
  • BASIX/NatHERS Assessors
  • Environmental Consultant
  • Heritage consultant / cultural heritage consultants
  • Water servicing coordinators
  • Bushfire consultant