Sketch of a conceptual design of a building with site analysis

How to Design Buildings?

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Designing a building can very complicated and long process. But it does not have to be. This article will teach you a process you can go thru to make designing a building more structured and simple, not just for the designers but for everyone working on a project. This is how to design buildings which is taken from Architect Russell’s online class on Skillshare

This article is aimed at anyone involved in the design or construction of a building. Could be anyone from a student to a construction professional. It will be broken down simply and teach you how to design buildings.

I get surprised all the time by clients, builders, designers, and many other people involved on a project who don’t quite grasp the designing stages and planning a project works.

No one really explained this to to me clearly. So I thought I’d write this article to reveal and breakdown simply, the process an architect goes about when designing a building Starting from:

  1. What exactly is an architect’s role is
  2. How you start a project
  3. The design stages you go through, before, during and after construction.

By the end of this article you will understand how the architectural design process in stages, and what are the core outcomes of each stage, so you can apply that knowledge on a design and construction project to ensure a project moves along fluidly and successfully. When you understand design stages, designing and constructing a building becomes more clear.

The Architects Role


The first topic I’d like to go over is the role of the architect to give you an understanding of what they do. You probably already know the word architect means ‘master building’ in greek. This was the traditional role of the architect and they pretty much did everything, design, engineering and actually build the thing as well. The role has developed over the years as buildings have got more complicated. This is due to all sort of things, from building regulations, cheaper way of building, new digital technology and construction contracts.

Lead Consultant

Traditionally architects are lead consultants. That means leading the project consultant team: the engineers, landscape designers, and so forth. This is to ensure the building is coordinated to overall design vision. That means things like ensuring the plant rooms have enough space or ensuring the floor to floor height and structure does not interfere with the mechanical services.

Nowadays even the lead consultant role can overlapped with project manager so the architect need to be careful exactly what their role is and specify exactly what they will be doing on a project. And that why a contract needs to be drawn up. Which we I’ll be talking about in the next video.

One thing you should note is generally, the more complicated a building or project, the more specialization is required.



The Appointment


The role of the architect needs to put down in an appointment document which is essentially a contract of what exactly you will be doing. It needs to be more specific. Without an appointment document signed and agreed before you start work it can become very difficult and exactly what you will be doing. There are standard documents out there you can use, the RIBA appointment document is one of them. This states all the roles and responsibility of the architects and you can tick which ones you will be doing. These roles are usually outlined in stages or design stages which will be discussed later.

RIBA Standard Appointment Document

RIBA Standard Appointment Document

Another important role that is mentioned here is lead consultant which I discussed previously. With all the specialization in construction, the lead consultant role can be confusing in a project team. For example some project managers do a similar job as lead consultants and you need to be aware of your roles overlapping with other consultants. Other roles like Interior designer or 3D imaging can also over overlap, so make it clear what you will do. This is the trouble with architects because they are trained to know a bit of everything so technically they are usually capable of doing most things. The contract will also state many other items like termination of the contract, dispute resolutions, and how long you will work on a project and what stage.

The key takeaway in this chapter is that to be a licensed architect, you must have an appointment in writing before you start work. This is part of professional obligations for professional architects. If an architect is not doing this, they are not being professional or they might not even be an architect.


Architects Fee


The appointment document will state how much an architect will get paid and also how. Basically, there are 3 ways architects charge a client.

  1. Times cost like per hour. This is why its important to keep a record like timesheets
  2. Percentage of the construction cost. Now this might adjust as the projects goes on. Some people like to work this out per square meter or foot of the projects. That can be worked out in Gross Floor Area.
  3. And the third way is ‘lump sum’. Which is pretty straightforward. I’d recommend this if you have a simple small job.


@architectrussell Percentage of construction cost could be around 8 to 13% for full architecture services on a project. #fees #money #charge #architect ♬ Rup Rup (Reggae Instrumental) – Trap Beats Pandits

Now obviously if you are charging by the percentage of the construction cost, you don’t want to charge everything right at the end because you might not get paid for a very long time. You might be spending months or even years working on a project. Even the most simple of project can go on for a long time with multiple revisions and changes. So its a good idea to charge in stages. These stages can be linked to design stages which we will talk about in the next videos.


Why stages?


Designing a building is a long and complicated process. You rarely simply design a building in a few weeks and that it.. The overall design process of a project goes on a long time. The design usually changes, develops and improves over time, taking in input not from solely from the architect but the client and anyone working with the architect.


Leonardo da Vinci said,

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”


That goes with anything in the creative industry including architecture. Therefore it is important to set deadlines and stages of design and stages of a project. Otherwise, you will you will never get anything done or it will be an extremely unorganized process. Even during construction, unforeseen circumstances happen and redesigning may be required.

So always think in stages when you are working on a project. You need to also bare in mind stages will overlap. For instance, a client might tell you to finish everything in one go. So its up to you to either break that up or manage the design process.

Design Stages Overview


Ok So Im going to simplify these as much as possible so you can understand it. Because this was one of the fundamental things I didn’t quite grasp early on in my career because it was laid out more complicated than it actually is. Once you understand stages, designing a building becomes clear. RIBA makes this so complicated with the RIBA Plan of Work. There used to be 11 work stages, for heaven’s sake. Nowadays RIBA have changed to 8. People also change their names everywhere you go.

RIBA Plan of Work

RIBA Plan of Work


For example, Schematic Design, Pre Concept, Design Development, and Tender Stage. You can simplify this and narrow it down to only 3 design stages not work stages, which architects are mostly involved in. There are: Concept, Spatial Coordination, and Technical design (which is construction drawings). The other stages, although important, do not involve much design. Which are redesign which is Preparation and Briefing. The construction usually starts and the remaining stages are Construction and Manufacturing, Handover, and Use. Bear in mind, these will overlap considerably depending on the construction contract. Hardly any project is the same. So let’s look at what’s involved in each one and go thru the process.


Stage 1: Preparation and Briefing


This is the stage before you actually start designing so you can say it’s predesign. You need to understand that the brief rarely comes from a single document from the client. The brief will likely Evolve from a series of meetings to get an idea of what the clients exactly want. This can easily overlap into later stages also.

Three important documents or tasks that are required at this stage are the site analysis a schedule of accommodation and Feasibility Study

Site Analysis

Is a study of the site, it’s the boundary and everything in and around the site. This will usually depend on the time available you and again this will likely go throughout the project as you realise more information about the site. At university, I remember we predicted a huge document showing everything about the site for sound readings t lo what future developments will happen. It will depend on the. Store of the project however generally the more you know about the site the better.

How to Design Buildings the brief

The Brief is rarely given to you on a plate

Schedule of Accommodation

The second critical document I wound at least have by the end of this stage is a Schedule of Accommodation. This lists every room and the size in square meter. This his essential to know before you start the design process.

Schedule of Accommodation

Schedule of Accommodation

Feasibility Study

Before you start designing a building A feasibility study shows a rough idea of size and massing of the building in total floor areas which will give an idea of how much it will cost and whether the schedule of accommodation will actually fit within the site boundary. It will also look at options on the rough arrangement around the site, whether it fits on the site and give approximately gross floor areas.

Gross Floro area

Feasibility Study can show Gross Floor Areas

Stage 2: Concept Design


What is a concept? Well, it starts with a core idea that is the driving point for the overall design of the building. It becomes the force or backbone of the whole design.

A lot of people think a concept design is an abstract area. It can include that, however, a proper full concept design should include a series of drawings for planning or building permit. These are typically called ‘General Arrangement Drawings’ which include plans, sections and elevations of the design of the building. It needs to show how the building functions. Also 3D images of the building externally is a must at this stage to show clearly what the building will look like in its environment.

A concept design is not a set of construction drawings. You can and should not build from a concept design. The concept design stage will be ready to move on to the next design stage, spatial coordination, whoever that will be.  Often, sometimes a concept design is often passed on to a builder or construction company to ‘finish the design’. This usually is done to reduce cost and time but design quality is compromised.

There are many examples of great Architecture Concept ideas explained simply online.


Concept Design Sketch

Concept Design Sketch

Stage 3: Spatial Coordination


Moving on the Spatial Coordination. Well its exactly what it says coordinating the spaces or rooms. This is where a high level of coordination work must be undertaken between other disciplines like Mechanical, plumbing, Eelctrican and structural engineers. The ideas is to lock in the plans as much as possible so the general arrangement drawings (that be plans, elevations, and sections) to change after this stage.

For me, the most important thing to do is to get a an Equipment and Riser Schedule.


Equipment and Riser Schedule

Equipment and Riser Schedule


This is the first thing I get when Working with MEP Engineers. It will give you all the Equipment sizes for rooms, and any equipment that needs to be accessed or even hidden like generator / electrical rooms and even AC condensers on the roof and water tanks. This will in turn give you all the penetration in the floor slabs, which will help you coordinate the structure with the structural engineers.

You have to think about what will affect the room sizes. Think of the airside a room from the ground to the ceiling. You don’t want any of this space changing because it can have drastic implications later on. You need to understand that one small change later on in the project, even lowering the ceiling by 200mm might open a can of worms.


Plant room configurations

Plant room configurations

Important considerations at this stage when designing buildings

So some of the things you need to think about is

  1. Development of risers, locations, dimensions, and access requirements
  2. Louvre requirements, flue locations, and other MEP elements that impact on external envelope
  3. How structural bracing be incorporated into the design or
  4. Strategies for all MEP services including access and considerations
  5. More detailed plantroom configurations, including escape provisions and maintenance access.

How big is the generator?

These are the kinds of things you need to put on the plan and close with the other consultants in order to lock in spacial coordination so you can move on to the next stage. Again asking for an Equipment and Riser Schedule from the engineer will help that considerably.

Architectural GA drawings should have been completed in sufficient detail to enable each designer to commence with production construction information.



Fixed Room sizes

Fixed Room sizes

Stage 4: Technical Design (Construction Drawings)


This stage got me a big confused because you think its a design stage but it can be referred to as construction drawings. But don’t be confused with actual construction. So details at large scale for the building envelopes.

So construction drawings basically means details – construction details. Now you can draw your construction details without worrying if the building changes so much. Because you have already locked in the GA plans so there should be and hopefully be minimal changes to room spaces which shouldn’t disrupt your construction details. Now you see that’s why working in stages in important.

This is not just your construction details but all the other consultant’s drawings. Exact plant room, structural details or reinforcement drawings, lighting design, full drainage design, sanitary schedule, and so on. Every consultant should be able to simply get on with their work when issued your Drawings for the previous stage.


Stage 5:Construction and Manufacturing


One of the things architects don’t realize is that its usually their role or their interest to check other consultants drawings. Depending on your contract of course. But architects should review all consultants drawings including MEP & Structures drawings before they are issued for construction. This is actually an obligation on a ‘lead designer’ who has, according to RIBA “Coordinating design of all constructional elements, including work by consultants specialists or suppliers” and “establishing a verification procedure”


Details and coordination

Information for site


Also now its construction the contractor will be getting lot sof specialists and more detailed drawings from other people. Like perhaps lift, door or window manufacters. Architects are not expected to design lift so you have to check that stuff is the correct size and fits in within your overall design of the buildings.

Generally depending on the type of contract, during construction an architect will supply information as required by the contractor. You may do this thru sketches or some like to add to the drawings package as you go. You have to be careful you don’t change the design and change control procedures should be in place. This even goes for previous stages.




If anything does come up at this stage Work should focus on their own design aspects during this stage. Coordination work should now concern detail and should not impact on GA drawings. Coordination issues will still arise but can be dealt with at workshops.


Stage 6 & 7: Building Handover and Use


After the building has been handed over you may have a mix of emotions after you have dedicated a large amount of your life to a project. Faculties management and asset management may take over and look after the building. You no double have to step back now that you are probably not involved in the project anymore now it’s finished.

Post Occupancy Evaluation of the building is important. You have to see what people like, and don’t like and if the spaces and building you design have actually been used as you intended. You can learn from that.

For instance, I designed an open space in an office intended for people to have their lunch and sit outside. Unfortunately, no one really used it, security guard hang out there instead. So you need to learn from these things and make sure they don’t happen again.

You can do a post-occupancy evaluation on a number of things from:

Evaluation of building performance, and Verify Project Outcomes to track the energy, water, and sustainability outcomes, to see if they have been met.

Don’t like pride or emotion get the better of you. It’s a building ok. It’s not the world.



So these are the stages of the design process when you are thinking of  designing buildings. You have to bare in mind these are never rigid and it will be difficult to actually draw a line under each stage so you have to be quite flexible. But you should try and get a sign-off procedure in place for each stage. For instance, each consultant checks and signs off the other’s drawings. This can be very difficult to do but having an engineer or even any on the construction team overlooking some drawings can help you pick up stuff you have never seen. The key is to work together as a team. The earlier the whole team is involved in the earliest stages the better the project outcome will be.


📐Russell M. Henderson is a practicing RIBA Chartered Architect based in Tanzania, East Africa.

🎥Russell (Architect Russell) also makes videos on YouTube , TikTok  Instagram & Skillshare  sharing thoughtful, honest and pragmatic knowledge while working and living abroad.

Architect Russell Uncensored is podcast talking about an architects life unfiltered. From the over long education of 7 years to controversial topics such as RIBA and ARB to unusual architect experience abroad like working in Bangkok and Tanzania. This is content never before released on any platform and you can only get it here first. The truth through the eyes of Architect Russell, unfiltered and uncensored.

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African Vernacular Architecture- Be Practical

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Architecture of Brazilia: Architect’s Trip of a Lifetime

Working In Africa: Learn Quicker Than The West

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