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Last edited 19 Jul 2017
Design methodology for building projects
Buildings first evolved from the basic human need for shelter, security, worship, protection from animals and other tribes and so on. The way that these needs were satisfied, using the available materials, space and skills gave rise to a wide range of building techniques.
Through the maintenance, improvement and personalisation of these early structures, decoration was first introduced, and buildings gradually became more than just functional shelters. This gave delight, showed power and exhibited wealth. Building design became more than a simple problem-solving exercise.
To this day however, it is remarkably difficult to describe what the building design process actually is. Whilst it is relatively easy to explain it from a contractual and technical perspective, as a series of stages through which the level of detail increases, and it is comparatively straight forward to describe the output of design in terms of drawings, styles, typologies, or components, the creative process itself remains elusive.
- How does the design itself emerge?
- What are the inspirations?
- What are the thought processes that move the design from a blank piece of paper or an empty a computer screen to a completed design that a contractor can build?
- To what extent is the process creative?
There is an underlying mistrust of theories that attempt to describe the creative process and practice rarely seems to reflect academic descriptions, which tend to explain what academics think should be happening rather than what designers are actually doing. Indeed the approach that designers say they take to design, is often very different from what they actually do.
Learning design is largely through crit-based (critical friend) studio practice, and similarly on projects, the focus tends to be on the product of design rather than the design process itself. Even where designs are complex and involve large numbers of consultants, specialists, suppliers and contractors, developing ideas collaboratively, meetings will still tend to focus on framing problems and assessing solutions, rather than the actual creative process.
 Art v science
Building design is pluralistic, a combination of practicality and aesthetic, of art and science.
Some aspects of the design process might be seen as being more creative than others. Whilst the early stages of design, when constraints are considered, options assessed and concepts developed might be considered creative, this can be a relatively small part of a project which is preceded by business planning and justification, brief development and feasibility studies and is followed by detailed and technical design, production information, procurement and construction.
Design is also a multi-disciplinary, with some roles being more creative than others:
- Architect - Overall aesthetics, project control and management
- Structural engineer - design that will stand up, strength and buildability
- Services engineer - interior comfort and efficient design
- Landscape architect - around the building
- Specialist designers such a; lighting designer, acoustic consultant and so on (See Design team for more information)
- Architectural Technologist - detail drawings and specification
- Quantity surveyor - how the design is influencing costs and budget control
- Suppliers and manufacturers
Designers are rarely in absolute creative control of the direction that is taken for the design of a building. Projects will usually involve multiple stakeholders, often with their own, often conflicting, and sometimes contradictory views about design and clients impose constraints such as budget, programme, brand and so on. Specialist stakeholder groups may be set up to ensure that all voices are heard.
The client's understandable attempts to define what they expect from the design team can actually stifle the creative process. It is natural for clients to try to express their requirements to a great level of detail in order to maximise the likelihood that designers will satisfy their needs. However, this can prejudice the outcome before the constraints and opportunities have been properly assessed, limiting creativity and preventing innovation. Defining the problem and developing the solution should go hand in hand.
For this reason, procurement processes have been developed, such as those recommended by government, that focus on defining required outputs, rather than required facilities. For example, a school might be procured in terms of a requirement to educate pupils, rather than a requirement to build classrooms.
 An iterative process
At its most basic level, design can be seen as an iterative process, where, at each iteration, there are inputs, there is a design process and then there are outputs. At the end of each iteration, the outputs are reviewed and then the process begins again.
Iterations take place at a number of different levels:
- As a personal process at the level of the individual designer.
- At a practice level.
- Amongst the full design team (or a sub group of it).
- Amongst the wider project team, including consideration of programme, cost, safety, risk, buildability and so on.
- At the level of the client (or a sub group of the client organisation).
At the client level, a series of gateways, or formal stages might be introduced, at each one of which, the design is reviewed by the client, comments made, and a decision taken about whether to proceed to the next stage. At some stages, certain aspects of the design might be frozen and change control procedures introduced. These stages have been formalised in a number of different ways, see Comparison of work stages for more information.
Wider reviews might also take place, for example during public consultations, as part of the planning process, or as an independent review commissioned by the client to give reassurance that the design is developing satisfactorily.
Finally, a post project review might be undertaken so that lessons can be learned and taken forward to future projects.
Inputs to the design process are many, varied, often competing and sometimes conflicting, extending well beyond the requirements set out in the client brief. They can range from fundamental constraints, such as the availability of materials, to more abstract philosophical considerations such as local fashion. They may also develop or change as the project develops.
Constraints and opportunities might include:
- Client brief and existing brand.
- Building type.
- Landscape, topology, ground conditions, ecology and access.
- Context, history and urban fabric.
- Existing accommodation.
- Adjacent land uses.
- Statutory requirements.
- Availability of resources such as labour, utilities, materials, plant, technology and so on.
- Buildability, and construction techniques.
- Manufacturing and prefabrication.
- The client's criteria for success.
Wider considerations might include:
- Personal preferences of the client and other stakeholders.
- Personal preferences and experiences of designers.
- Social and economic influences
- Art and culture.
- Social concerns.
- Philosophical approach.
- Symbolism and meaning.
- Other inspirations.
In the past, building design tended to be a more stable practice that evolved slowly, with each new building slightly modifying previous versions. The actual 'creative' element of the design process was considered by some to be one without methodology, but an intuitive process of 'learning by doing' that could not be described.
However, this has been criticised as being unsatisfactorily vague, particularly as buildings have become more complex, building types are evolving faster, larger numbers of people are involved, design managers have emerged and there is a requirement for greater accountability.
As a consequence, various attempts have been made to formally describe the process. Early suggestions proposed that the design methodology was one of decomposing a problem, solving the components of the problem and then composing these solutions back into a whole. More recently, the same essential analytical standpoint has described design as a process of; analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
A more detailed description might propose a process of:
Definition → Preparation → Incubation → Creation → Evaluation → Implementation
However, design is rarely carried out in such a conscious, systematic, discrete, linear way, and not all ideas emerge as a result of analysis. Design might be better described as a process of simultaneous assessment and interaction, where increasingly clear associations are formed as the designer moves continuously from one part of the process to another and back again.
 Thought process
Beyond this very simple analysis, design methodologies become more complex to rationalise and common patterns become more difficult to identify or follow.
Not all design problems are the same:
- They may be well defined problems or poorly defined.
- The design may be directed by the client or undirected.
- It may need to tackle a whole problem or a single component.
- It may require creativity, or it may not.
The method of assessment will also influence the approach. For example a design competition may produce a different result than a traditional appointment for the same brief. A client that adopts a quantitative approach to assessing design proposals may elicit a different solution from one that adopts a qualitative approach. Similarly, the level of detail required and the method of presentation adopted may influence the strategy that is followed.
Not all designs will be approached in the same way:
- From the inside out or the outside in.
- Holistic or serialistic.
- Collaborative or independent.
- Lateral or logical
- Rule / principle based
- Theory based.
- Style based.
- Form based.
- Spatial / zone based.
- Pattern based.
- Function based.
In addition, the cognitive approach of the designer will affect the approach:
- Original thinker or conformist.
- Analytical or free thinking.
- Single minded or anarchic.
- Rational or intuitive.
- Visual or linguistic.
- Literal or abstract.
- Autocratic or consensus building.
In addition, the level of pre-existing knowledge the designer brings to bear can greatly impact on the approach they take.
The tools used will also influence the process:
- Paper or computer.
- 2d or 3d.
- Building information modelling.
- Physical modelling.
- Sketching or writing.
As a consequence, the design methodology will emerge not only from the design problem itself and the way it is expressed, but also from the personal choices, characteristics and experiences of the individuals involved. It will be complex, uncertain, and unique to each combination of circumstances.
As Mike Davies from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners says 'It is one of life's rewarding activities, bringing together a wide range of personalities, skills and expertise. It is an adventure for the client, the architect and their team.' Ref Concept architectural design.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Comparison of work stages.
- Concept architectural design.
- Concept design.
- Design coordination.
- Design management.
- Design principles.
- Design team.
- Design team meeting.
- Detailed design
- Manual drafting techniques.
- Mood board.
- Truth to materials.
 External references
- The design process in architecture a pedagogic approach using interactive thinking. Amir Saeid M. Mahmoodi, The University of Leeds School of Civil Engineering. 2001.
- Cross, N. Developments in Design Methodology, Chichester, 1984.
- Dorst, C.H. Describing Design: A Comparison of Paradigms, PhD thesis, Delft: Delft University of Technology 1997.
- Gavin Tunstall's 2006 book "Managing the building design process" (Google preview) describes in detail a design processes for the design and construction of a car showroom.
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