Communicating the Value of Design Development

Jennifer Crawford , 27 October 2020

One of the most important stages of a building project is design development, a phase when problems are identified and resolved, priorities are defined, and many of the most valuable decisions are made.

Yet design development is coming under increasing pressure in a range of procurement contexts. This has the potential to create delays and stress once a project is onsite and to compromise the quality of the built outcome.

So, how do we advocate for the value of this critical part of the design process? Jennifer Crawford provides a clear, concise explainer on why DD matters.

Design development is a stage in the design process between concept design and construction documentation that can be a bit confusing. You’ve done the design, so why do you need to develop it?

When architects first start designing a project, they have all the background information such as surveys, sewer diagrams, Council requirements, measured drawings and the like. This is used as a base to start working over. Often when architects start to design something they don’t necessarily know precisely how big something is or exactly what it is made from. They have an overall idea given the constraints and all the dimensions, construction techniques and suitability of materials that are tattooed on their brain from years of practice. As an old boss of mine used to say, “if in doubt, use a fatter pen”. It is from this zoomed-out perspective that we can get a scheme to work.

Once it works at that scale, you zoom in to the next level to tweak it to make it work there too. Once it works at that level you keep zooming in and zooming in until you get to the point where you are designing to the millimetre to get things to truly work and be constructed in reality. This doesn’t happen at the concept plan stage.

On each of these “Zoomings” this may be where other consultants come on board such as structural engineers, hydraulic and mechanical engineers, electrical engineers plus a host of other consultants. These people are specialists in their fields. This is why we hire them.  However, they are not necessarily interested in how the overall project is working and very often will not compare their work with a related discipline, even though they may be sitting next to that person in the office.  So many times I have seen drawings of ducts going through critical structural beams or pipes and ducts colliding.

“But isn’t BIM supposed to sort all this out?” I hear you ask. Well maybe, but often it doesn’t. This bit is called “Services co-ordination” and is often a big part of design development. When this doesn’t happen, that’s when many projects on-site run into trouble. Other parts of design development may include finessing things like material selections, structural systems, stairs, handrails, accessibility requirements, precise window and door sizes, and locations or rainwater plumbing. These are all necessary things that nobody notices when done right, but when done incorrectly they can cause a whole world of pain.

All of this work forms part of the design development process. It involves zooming into the next level of detail after the design concept and schematic design is approved. The design is rigorously tested at this point, making sure that it works as intended. If it doesn’t work at this point, then it needs to be amended, allowing for all the competing interests on the project. That is not a simple process and needs a great design eye to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff and work out which takes the highest priority. When done well, the design looks effortless, like it could never have been done any other way. It’s a bit like a swan swimming – elegant above the water yet those legs are going hell for leather underneath.

On any project, there are so many competing interests in terms of the design, not least the budget. Spending some money on the design development process can significantly assist with the efficiency of building the project on-site. Think of all those disasters on The Block or on Grand Designs. Many of these can be averted or avoided altogether with effective Design Development.

So what does spending money on Design Development buy me? It buys me peace of mind and confidence knowing that this job will work on-site and be built the way that I have always wanted it to be. Bang for buck? Yes indeed.

Jennifer Crawford is a registered architect and founder of Our New Home Coach, a business that helps people build the right house. This article was originally published on LinkedIn and is republished here with permission.