Build In Common

Defining and developing your design


Getting the most from the design process and maintaining your design intent

by Alison McKechnie, Senior Lecturer – Design Management, University of Melbourne.

Designing or renovating your home is a deeply personal endeavour that can, at times, be highly stressful and extremely challenging. It is important to understand that the design will go through a process that is a series of steps whereby you should start with a big picture and then gradually refine your ideas as you resolve the details.

‘There’s too many things to think about. How do I know what’s going to look right?’

I often hear this comment from people embarking on their home building extensions or renovations. There is no simple answer. However, by breaking the design process down into small and manageable steps, it does become easier to navigate through the various decisions that need to be made along the way as you gradually focus your ideas and finalise your design.

Architects and designers will usually progress a design through a series of stages (which will often link to their fee structure). This process can be applied to a project of any size or budget and is a good way for you to plan, develop and then detail the specifics of your project. It is highly recommended that you seek a cost check at the end of each stage so you also ensure the design is aligned to your budget.

The design stages are commonly referred to using terms noted below:

Concept or Schematic Design Stage

This is usually about the big picture. During this stage, the purpose is to identify the overall design intent and the key priorities of the project. A designer will often prepare a series of general images to illustrate their vision for the design as well as work through the planning and layout for overall concept and how it connects to the surrounding environment (either the existing building or property).

Design Development or Documentation Stage

As the design is developed, various arrangements should be tested and evaluated before deciding on a preferred option. Each option should get closer to an agreed outcome. Once the most appropriate option has been approved, a designer will then work through each space or room refining and resolving the various elements, such as the floor and ceiling layouts, elevations and sections, and then joinery, fittings and fixtures – again, starting with the macro and then concentrating on the micro.

You should expect this stage to take the most time and when you will be involved in several meetings to discuss ideas, ask questions and confirm the design is on the right track. Changing the design is part of this stage – although changes should be progressive and link back to your original design intent. Be mindful that significant change (such as changing the overall concept) will require additional time and possibly re-drawing so be considered with your changes and clear as to why you want to do it and what you want to achieve.

Construction Documentation or Tender Documentation Stage

Preparing a thorough set of drawings, specifications and schedules for tendering to a builder or a tradesperson should be where the detail happens. The design should be sufficiently documented in order for the person undertaking the work to be clear on what is required to be built. This is also the stage where you should finalise your selection of products and materials where possible. The better a set of documents, the more accurate the tender price for the work and the less potential for misunderstandings or disputes at a later date.

**Planning Approval Stage

In many cases, building projects will require planning approval. It is important to identify (at the very beginning of the project) if you are expected to have a planning permit for the work you intend to do. Contact your local authority and arrange a time to discuss the extent of the work and what documentation will be required to be submitted in order to receive a planning permit. If necessary, this stage should be undertaken after the schematic design stage and prior to design development in case the local authority requests changes to specific parts of the proposed design. Planning approval can be a lengthy process and will need to be factored into your program.

Understanding that there are a series of steps through which the design will evolve will help you to plan and order your decision making process as well. You don’t need to resolve everything at the same time or make decisions on materials and products immediately. The trick is to link your decisions to the level of detail being resolved at that stage of the work. Whilst there will be times that you will need to be clear on what you want and finalise your selections, a step by step approach, from macro to micro, will hopefully provide timely decision making and minimise the stress of getting it right!

So, where do you start?

Begin by answering the ‘6 Questions – To Start Your Project Brief’ from Build in Common’s April Edition of TILT.  These are great questions to establish your priorities for the concept stage and to enable you to have future conversations with designers, architects or tradespersons as you progress through the development stages.

1. Have I set a realistic timeframe for the design process?

Set up a weekly calendar for the desired timeframe for the project and breakdown each of the stages, this will be dependent on the extent of work. Allow yourself enough time for each stage so you can confidently refine your design ideas as you go and focus on resolving the key issues at the right times.

2. What drawings, schedules or information is required at each stage?

After establishing the weekly program, write a list of the information required and the drawings/documents you would expect to complete during that stage. The first stage will include general drawings with minimal detail whilst the later weeks of design development will include lists of materials and product selections, equipment and furniture etc.

3. How do I want each room or space to look and feel?

Gradually develop the detail for each of the spaces that you intend to have designed. Within a scrapbook or folder, create sections for each individual room or space. Collect images of similar spaces that you like and write notes identifying why you like the way the image makes you feel. These details should then be applied to each space and adapted to suit your project.

4. What do I want to do in each space?

As you develop the design intent for each room, also define what you want to do in that space in more detail as well. The way you want to use a room will influence the type, size and layout of furniture and fixtures (such as cabinetry) that you include in the space.

5. What do I have that is special to me or that I want to reuse?

Take photos or list the items in your current space that you want to include or provide a place for in the new project. Also consider where you want them located and mark them on the plans as you go.

6. Do I want to allow for any large or specific items?

Identify if you have, or intend to purchase as part of the project, specific items such as pieces of art or sculpture that will need to be considered and positioned in prominent locations in your new spaces. Equipment should be considered in the design development stages as well (i.e. if you love cooking and have a lot of appliances – you will need to design a layout that has enough space to display or store them!)

7. Have I asked, and taken into consideration, what the other household members want and expect from new project?

Communicating the design ideas and seeking feedback from people who will also spend significant time in the new spaces is a great way to test your thoughts as the design develops. After all, they know you best so may offer insight and provide good suggestions to improve your design ideas. It’s also important that the key people who will use the spaces are engaged in the process so they are happy with the results as well!

Our Guest Contributor: 

Alison McKechnie. Senior Lecturer – Design Management, University of Melbourne

Alison McKechnie is a registered Architect (in WA and Victoria) currently lecturing in Design Management, a Masters of Construction Management and Masters of Architecture elective at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne.

Alison has worked in the design and construction industry for over 30 years and continues to lead teams to deliver a range of government, community and development projects. To read more about Alison click here.

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