An Introduction to the Schematic Design Phase in Commercial Projects

TL;DR The schematic design phase serves as the initial step in the architectural design process. This phase involves the creation of primary design sketches, site plans, floor plans, building elevations, and system integrations that will later be used to create rough construction cost estimates. Partnering with experienced development teams like SCGWest ensures accurate cost estimates and expertise throughout the process, laying a solid foundation for the entire project.

A commercial construction project involves planning and designing to transform an idea into a realistic, workable product. At the heart of this multi-step journey is the schematic design phase which acts as the bridge between conceptual ideas and tangible plans.

Working closely with an architect, designers, and a development team, you will assess your goals and refine them to adapt to real-world constraints. In this article, we will discuss what schematic design is, the objectives of this phase, as well as the key elements addressed during the schematic design phase.

What is schematic design?

Schematic design is the first step in the architectural design process. It starts with an initial meeting between the client and the architect to align on the project’s vision and scope, as well as the business’s operational needs. Following this, the architect conducts a field survey and translates the gathered insights into a few primary design sketches, allowing clients to see and feel their ideas taking shape.

Once the schematic design is set, a professional construction management team will then be able to use the information to create an accurate, preliminary budget to pave the way for the project. This will help ensure the project is both viable and in line with the client’s vision, business needs, and budget.

The purpose of schematic design

At its core, the schematic design phase is about transforming abstract ideas into practical layouts while ensuring adherence to the client’s budget and the specificities of the site. The site is carefully analyzed, not just for its physical attributes but also for vital factors like local regulations, drainage, and climatic conditions.

The design produced during this phase is comprehensive. It encompasses structural elements, mechanical features, and systems such as HVAC, plumbing, and electrical components. The interiors and exteriors are sketched out, capturing the aesthetics and functionality of the envisioned space. Additionally, control strategies for essential building services, including security, fire alarms, and telecommunication needs, are integrated. The schematics further spotlight the spatial dynamics of the structure, detailing the relationship between different areas.

However, while these designs are detailed, they primarily serve to communicate the overall design scheme. By the end of this phase, stakeholders should have a clear picture of the project’s scope, the interplay of its spaces, and a roadmap for subsequent stages of development.

Key elements of this phase

The schematic design phase consists of various drawings that map out the exterior, interior and systems of the building:

  1. Site Plan: This provides a snapshot of the construction project’s location, showcasing the building’s orientation on the lot and highlighting site improvements like landscaping, roads, utilities, and other connections.
  2. Floor Plan: Essentially a bird’s-eye view of the building, this layout outlines the building’s internal structure, including dimensions, furnishings, and other details.
  3. Building Elevations: Offering a front-facing perspective, these drawings capture all the building’s exterior sides, with occasional interior elevations detailing specific vertical surfaces.
  4. Building Systems: Encompassing HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems, this illustrates the integration and placement of these systems within the building.

Bringing these drawings to life requires collaboration, where the project owner’s involvement is vital. While the architect brings expertise to the table, the owner’s feedback shapes the course of the design. Furthermore, the schematic designs are carefully reviewed for factors such as functionality, usability, aesthetics, and code compliance.

The importance of initial cost estimates

One crucial element that emerges from the schematic design phase is the initial cost estimate. This is essentially basic budgeting founded on the preliminary designs. Establishing an accurate initial cost estimate is important because it sets the financial framework and expectations for the entirety of the project. When stakeholders have a clear understanding of the expected costs early on in the project, it influences decision-making, ensures financial preparedness, and can prevent potential overspending or resource misallocation in subsequent phases.

Partnering with a well-qualified development team, such as SCGWest, offers you the expertise to assess every design detail, material, labor, and other project-specific factors to arrive at an accurate cost estimate. Our experience can help you anticipate and account for potential challenges or changes that might impact your budget. An accurate initial cost estimate not only provides clarity but also instills confidence among all project stakeholders.


Through a process of collaboration, exploration, and refinement, the schematic design phase shapes the foundation upon which the rest of the project will be built.

Recognizing the importance of this phase, SCGWest offers unparalleled expertise during the schematic design phase and beyond. We invite you to reach out to SCGWest today – where your vision is our focus!

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