Much before the ideas around a structure materialize in bricks and mortar, the groundwork is the first step towards its foundation. The beauty of a project, be it residential or commercial, truly lies in the details. However, the first phase of design construction and the layout doesn’t just emerge out of thin air. It takes a systematic process — a highly detailed one at that — to bring to life the most abstract of designs.

Typically called schematic design, this part of the construction is the first step that brings together all the philosophies that the project represents — right from the spatial cues to the functionality of the complex, to the organization of the layout. The main purpose of this process is to ideate the essence of the structure, so to speak, one that extinguishes the fine line between the utilitarian purpose of the structure and its aesthetics.

It should be noted that schematic design is not restricted to the construction of a new project. This is also applied to a renovation or restoration, or even adding a new extension to an existing project.

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Let’s look at the various phases of schematic design:

​The First Conversation

It all starts with a conversation. This is an essential part of the process, which entails the architect or the designer sitting down with a client and deconstructing the idea of the project. This is an imperative phase, in which the first understanding of the space is established and both the parties understand how to approach the design and other functional aspects of the space.

Apart from the project goals, the two parties also establish the various grounds to approach the requirements of the construction. ‘What is the project trying to accomplish?’ is the first question that is asked and the rest of the process revolves around answering that query.

Most architects or designers take this conversation to a casual setting — be it in a restaurant or the client’s house or office. The more at ease the participants are, the better the prospects of a project!

​Creation of a Mood Board

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Like every part of the design process, the schematic design moves very swiftly to what is traditionally called a mood board. This includes hunting down reference images from across the world — thanks to the internet and Pinterest — to apply to a particular palette. This is a process that involves both the architect and the designer. Both the parties work towards a prospective structural and aesthetic palette that sets the first tone of the space.

The images are often evocative of every aspect of the construction: right from the texture of the wall and the materials to be used, to the spatial alignments. The research is extensive and requires all sorts of references to be looked at. A residential project in, say, Dubai — a desert city that exudes immense opulence — would ideally want to steer clear of the sandy color palette. To set a stark contrast to the surroundings, the architect or the designer may choose to go with, for instance, the crushed stone effect done in white, a la Santorini. This will bring out references from the Greek city and be implemented in a befitting context, no matter how varied the setting really is.

The mood board also establishes the expertise of the architect or the designer to ascertain the initial layout, which is a very crucial juncture. To be able to bring forth their knowledge of contexts and the different ways materiality can affect a space — the architects can experiment with those notions right at this stage.

​Building up with Floor Plans

This is a significant part of the schematic design process. After the first round of visualizations, the floor plans establish the real groundwork of the project. Again, this phase is not a one-off instance. The floor plan goes through several layers of iterations. After the constant back and forth with their own team, along with some more after consulting with the client, the floor plans are a laborious concept that forms the very basis of the construction.

This phase, additionally, comes with a time restriction. No floor plan must take too long, which is why deadlines are imposed and iterations are added according to the varying time frames. Not only must a floor plan adhere to the pictorial and philosophical references, but it should also allow space of practicality.

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While it puts into perspective the scale and structure of the project, this stage also allows for the architects, designers or the owners to adhere to land-related regulations. The parties also pen down the initial set of the costs that come with the size and nature of the structure.

It’s an old custom among the architects and designers to keep working on the layouts until the very last minute, allowing leeways for only minor corrections or alterations. The floor plans give both the parties a substantial idea about how the functionality of the structure can be merged with the aesthetics. Imagination truly comes to fruition at this stage.

​The First Set of Sketches: Concept

This stage brings forth a three-dimensional realization of the project from the previous two-dimensional floor plan. Executed mostly freehand, the concept drawings are simple, yet definitive, iterations of the layout. This helps in not only getting into the details of the design but also helps the designers, architects and architects to delve into the various principles of the design as well as conceptual aesthetics.

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This phase is important because it takes the previous process one step further and helps resolve various issues such as the various modes and methods of construction, the kind of materials to be used, the spatial relationship, along with the several service-related utilities that need to be considered much before the construction begins.

Many architects have been known to have executed this phase on an even more casual surface — the late architect Zaha Hadid famously drew the conceptual sketch for a private residence for a Russian magnate on a piece of napkin just as the client was explaining his idea of a perfect house to her.

The concept sketch breaks down the essence of the project and even infuses it with embellishments that later materialize into full-blown expressions that take the form of various materials.

​The Second Set of Sketches: Interiors

This phase really brings in a sense of brevity and depth in the spatial formation of the project. By allowing the architect, designer or the engineer to figure out the pertinent issues of scale, heft and form within the context of the setting it has been placed in, the stage of interior sketches is a further development into adding perspectives.

The architect or the designer ideally draw out an elaborate setting, mostly wherein they imagine the space to be used by the residents. They add various perspectives to the same space, just to ascertain that the structure justifies elements that are being added in.

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The idea to integrate the visualization of the interiors also brings with it advantages of imbuing the space with aesthetics in a more tangible sense. The idea is also to avoid washing out the original ideas in a sea of technicalities such as cost budgets, services and time limitations. The stage also brings with it the first sense of orienting the interiors according to the exterior facade along with the surrounding environment.

In the case of renovations or restorations, the interior sketches come in very handy, especially if, for instance, during a restoration, those are required to reference in order to recreate the old design. In case of renovations, on the other hand, original designs become a departure point for the architect or designer to reconstruct the essence of the original structure.

Additionally, ideas around the lifestyle of the resident of the project also become more prominent and stylized, adding further to the “essence” that is so crucial to the soul of the project.

​Finding Final Design Solutions

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Taking off from its very name, the final stage of schematic design is to arrive at the final scheme of the project. All the problems and questions that have stared the architect, designer or the engineer in their faces, are finally resolved in this final stage. This is when the design and structure are finally at its coherent best and requires minimal to no resolves.

The main challenge at this stage is to ensure that the solutions to the design are specific to the project. By now, the project has taken a life of its own, taking off from the first visual references, to become a unit of integrity and originality. Which means that the final solutions to the project need to be customized according to its particular needs and demands.

Some of the architects or designers create origami pop-up models in order to ascertain the structural form of their projects. This puts into perspective not just the design aspects, but also the becomes an experimental medium to convey and express a project. Additionally, it helps give the participants an added advantage of adding or subtracting from the original design.

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