An In-Depth Look at the Design Process

The design-build delivery method is on the rise but unfamiliar to many.  Clients often ask us how this works, and in some cases, they do not understand that we provide architectural design in-house.  We are a truly integrated firm in that we have architecture and construction professionals in the same office.  I want to take a moment to discuss the design process and how we communicate design within the design-build setting. 

Here we will specifically look at our architectural process and how we communicate in-house and with our clients. There are three steps to our process, Conceptual Design, Schematic Design, and Construction Documents. Each of these steps is executed based on feedback provided by the Owner, Architect, and Estimating. The illustrations provided in this blog are actual images from the design process of Lofton Staffing Services, a design-build project completed by Manuel Commercial.

Step 1 – Conceptual Design:

The intent is to get the basic needs and wants from the client at the initial kickoff meeting. We assess what is possible through basic code review, site evaluation, and programming.  Basic code review provides us with zoning information that controls the amount of parking and buildable area through setbacks, square footage restrictions, building height restrictions, and occupancy and construction types. Clients typically come to us after purchasing land or when they are looking to buy land.  If the client comes to us before buying land, we can help identify the lot size necessary for their desired project.

Once these basic codes are understood, we perform site evaluations and look for any restrictive covenants that control the types of materials allowed on the building or site. The plat of the property provides us with lot dimensions, flood zone, easement, and existing utility locations. This information informs the programming of the building and requires input from the client regarding spaces, square foot requirements, and adjacencies for access, visibility, and privacy.  While reviewing the programming needs, we look at any precedent designs or images provided by the client that show the desired aesthetics and functions of the building. 

We create a set of deliverable drawings from these processes that consist of a site plan, floor plan, and elevations.  Depending on the project, these drawings can be developed through hand sketches or developed in BIM (Building Information Modeling) software.  These drawings are informed by the estimation process and receive a high-level cost estimate.   Conceptual estimates are generally based on historical data. If adequate historical data doesn’t exist we then involve reliable and trusted subcontractors and suppliers to assist us in providing the client with a conceptual cost for their desired project.  Once the owner receives the conceptual estimate and drawings, there is a review and input phase to discuss any changes required to meet budget or design needs.  There is constant communication with the client throughout the conceptual design process and often high confidence in the direction of the project even before the deliverables are presented to them.

Conceptual South Elevation
Conceptual South Elevation
Conceptual East Elevation
Conceptual East Elevation
Conceptual Floor Plan
Conceptual Floor Plan

Step 2 – Schematic Design:

Building upon the previous decisions made in conceptual design, additional information is added to the BIM drawings.  The programming and code review informs decisions early in this process.  As the building takes shape, we begin to understand the conditions of the building and site, allowing us to conduct further code review to ensure we are meeting code requirements and life safety needs for the occupants. With continued communication with the client, specific interior and exterior materials are selected and documented.  There is a symbiotic relationship with our decisions related to cost and the design progression at the schematic level.  The client has a much greater understanding of the value they are receiving for their money, and they can see it in 3D.  Once there is agreement from the entire team that we have achieved a balance between cost and design needs, we provide a more detailed schematic estimate.  

Schematic design sets the framework for the project and fills in the necessary gaps to begin the details of the building. Our schematic phase is more thorough in a design-build setting because we are very collaborative early in the process and ask questions faster than the traditional design – bid – build method.  For this reason, we skip the design development phase used in the traditional method and go directly into construction documents.

Schematic South Elevation
Schematic South Elevation
Schematic East Elevation
Schematic East Elevation
Schematic Floor Plan
Schematic Floor Plan

Step 3 – Construction Documents:

The construction documents are designed for the right information to get to the right people.  We create a detailed set of drawings using the data previously gathered in conceptual and schematic Design. From these documents, we apply for and obtain permit from the authority having jurisdiction that allows us to begin construction.  The permit set and for construction set encompass life safety code information, architectural detailing, structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.  The permit set is reviewed by local code officials to be sure that the building is safe and occupiable.  The for construction set is used by our subs and vendors has the same information as the permit set, but it is the working set of drawings that has additional details and revisions that the permit set does not. Design-build allows us to be more adaptive in the field during construction with our in-house expertise.  Change orders, additional fees, and schedule issues that often come with design changes at this phase of the traditional method are significantly decreased.  Because our engineers, subs, and vendors have been on board from the beginning of conceptual design, the final estimate is accurate, and the risk of change orders is reduced.

In the design-build process, client involvement is encouraged and allows for open and frequent communication. Throughout the project, the budget and design become an agreement that is understood and executed from beginning to end.  In design-build, the idea of receiving the best value for your money is inherent throughout the process.

For Construction South Elevation
For Construction South Elevation
For Construction East Elevation
For Construction East Elevation
For Construction Floor Plan
For Construction Floor Plan
Design
Design
Complete
Complete

Making an Impact with Landscape Architecture

Spring is in the air: green is awakening in the trees from their winter slumber, flowers are blooming, and bird song fills the skies.  Do you remember planting a tree on Earth Day when you were in elementary school?  I sure do!  And with all the time we’re spending ‘socially distant’ in the current crisis, the outdoors has become my favorite respite. 

The environment around us plays such an important role in the design of buildings.  But did you know the ‘landscaping’ portion of a project doesn’t need to be limited to planting trees, shrubs, and turf?  This month, we turn our attention to a lesser-known profession in the design world: landscape architecture.  The following interview is between me and local landscape architect, Michael Cullen, with LAND Architecture.  Enjoy!

Q.  Michael, I know that design can have a huge impact on our daily lives: the cars we drive, the devices we hold, the clothes we wear, the buildings we live and work in.  Tell us a little about landscape architecture.  What impact can good landscape design have on us?    

A:  Landscape Architecture is a relatively new profession dating to the 1800s, though many designers have performed similar duties throughout recorded history.  Fredrick Law Olmstead is widely regarded as the “father” of Landscape Architecture with many projects to his credit, including Central Park in New York City.

A well-planned landscape will increase a building’s energy efficiency, improve a property’s value through curb appeal, improve the water quality of runoff leaving a site, and above all, create comfortable outdoor spaces for people to enjoy.

Q.  So, what do you mean when you say, ‘holistic approach’ to landscape architecture?  Why is this approach so important to good design?

A: Our design approach considers many factors; a client’s specific needs, the project’s budget, local regulations, environmental conditions, and maintenance.  We accentuate existing site attributes such as pleasant views, mature trees, prevailing breezes, and topographic features while minimizing the impact of less desirable conditions like intense solar exposure, offsite noises, or poor drainage.

A well-crafted plan not only accounts for the maturation process of plants in a landscape, it too, will seamlessly blend systems like drainage, lighting, audio, electrical distribution, insect control, and irrigation into an outdoor space.  Designs are most successful when these components are out of sight and organized in a manner that is straightforward to maintain.

Q.  Michael, we have come to appreciate firsthand the impact of a well-conceived master plan.  Our Iberville Grove office park has been a joy to watch.  Before you joined the project team, Greg Manuel and I were just going to place the building on the corner to preserve as many trees as possible; we could not have conceived of sculpting the site like you did.  You literally changed the direction the hills sloped, while preserving the gorgeous live oaks, and placed the building as the focal point behind layers of landscape elements like the pond, fountain, and brick retaining wall.  How do you do it?  Maybe give us a small window into your creative process…

A: We relied on the experience of our entire design team to know what was possible for this challenging site.  All too often, developers rush into a project by clear-cutting and leveling land rather than follow a tried and true design process that evaluates the attributes of a site before committing to a plan. 

LAND Architecture’s vision for the project was an extension of that shared by the Manuel Team.  We first took inventory of the site to know what existed on the property.  We then assigned value to each element, whether positive or negative.  A few positives found on the site include the beautiful grove of live oaks, the topographic relief that is uncommon to many south Louisiana sites, and the pleasing offsite views.  Negatives that we found included trees that were in poor health, drainage structures that crossed the site, and utility infrastructure that encumbered the perimeter of the property.  We combined what the site told us with our knowledge of building placement, tree preservation, grading and drainage, and the local development code to formulate the master plan that was presented to the Manuel Team.

A view of the Iberville Grove project site before work began. Here you see the dense tree coverage and the topographic relief of the site.
A view of the Iberville Grove project site before work began. Here you see the dense tree coverage and the topographic relief of the site.
This is the current master plan for the Iberville Grove project site, prepared by LAND Architecture. This project is currently under construction by Manuel Commercial and will house the new home office and design studio of our sister company, Manuel Builders.
This is the current master plan for the Iberville Grove project site, prepared by LAND Architecture. This project is currently under construction by Manuel Commercial and will house the new home office and design studio of our sister company, Manuel Builders.
This Iberville Grove progress photo was taken on April 1, 2020. Here you see the pond, eye-catching retaining walls, and the beautiful oak trees that frame the building.
This Iberville Grove progress photo was taken on April 1, 2020. Here you see the pond, eye-catching retaining walls, and the beautiful oak trees that frame the building.

Q. Any advice for the person out there who’s interested in landscape architecture as a potential career path? 

A:  The American Society of Landscape Architects is one of the professional associations to which many Landscape Architects belong.  Their website, ASLA.org, is a wonderful resource for individuals interested in the profession.  Louisiana State University’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture is one of the best schools in the world and regularly ranks as the highest accredited school in the country.  This school is the only accredited Landscape Architecture program in Louisiana.

Q. Michael, I know you lead a talented team.  Have you found something you’d like to share that inspires you to wake up every day and keeps you going?

A:  My path to the profession quite literally was formed through play.  Unbeknownst to me, I was training for the future whether moving plants to camouflage a clubhouse, redirecting water flowing through a ditch by placing sticks or dirt to force a specific path, or shaping soil into a network of roads to accommodate a toy.  I approach work today with the same enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge; I derive joy from improving the quality of life for others.

Interested in participating in World Landscape Architecture Month? Click here to find out how: asla.org/wlam 

Written by our in-house Architect, Kevin Stewart, with answers from Michael Cullen of LAND Architecture