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Understanding Design Basics:
Unveiling the Design Process

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

After years of saving magazine articles to inspire ideas for a bathroom remodel, my financial partner (aka spouse) gave me the go-ahead to take the project from dream to reality.  It became apparent through comments from friends that, in their view, this process was somewhat mysterious.  For a residential project, the process is usually five logical steps after the scope of services is established: gather information, develop schematic concepts, refine a concept into a realistic design, prepare construction documents and construct the project.  Why is each step important and how does it apply to a real project?

Unveiling the design mystique begins with trying to find out what makes the owner of the project happy.  How might it look? What are the functions? What is the inspiration?  What is the scope of design services required?  A project is as successful as the amount and quality of information provided at the project’s onset.  It is important to convey adequate information prior to beginning the project to establish an appropriate scope of services.  The designer’s fees are based upon these services.

Short of a mind meld or a psychic reading, the information gathering phase (also known as ‘programming’) can feel either like a huge relief to dump everything that’s been on a client’s mind onto the designer or like a tooth extraction.  It is helpful if the designer uses a questionnaire.  A questionnaire reminds us of many issues that need to be considered.  In the case of our bathroom remodel, we identified functions, users, adjacencies, and calculated space requirements.  Then we perused the abundant file of photos that provided us with product, color and layout ideas, and design inspiration.  

Gathering information includes preparing a project budget, determining applicable building codes, and reviewing existing conditions, (e.g. mechanical, electrical, and plumbing). During a remodel, deciding what to keep and what to remove affects the entire project.  Record what to do with equipment (e.g. antique fixtures) and furniture (donate, keep, refurbish, recycle, or trash). Set clear goals of your expectations.  If an accurate existing floor plan is not available, thorough measurements should be taken to document existing conditions.  Measurements are used to draw base plans that show the current floor, ceiling and wall arrangements.   The base plans are used for various studies (i.e. code issues like accessibility and exiting) and are the basis of the final design. 

The schematic design phase follows information gathering.  This means that the base plans are used to develop concepts – or what I occasionally like to call the “What If” plans.  Creativity should flow unimpeded and unbiased – the more ideas the better.  They will be scrutinized soon enough for how they meet the programming criteria.   Quantity, relationship and configuration of space are the initial focus.  During programming, we knew we wanted adequate space for wheelchair accessibility. Although it wasn’t mandated by code, we considered the prospect of ‘aging in place’.  During this phase we discovered we had adequate space to do so.  Existing plumbing locations were considered in determining where to place sinks and whether to relocate the existing toilet.  We kept the sinks and toilet in the same location, but added a new drain for a combined soaking tub and shower.  Re-use of existing utilities saved time and money; although, I did find some terrific tile to put that saved money to use.

The project then emerges from its two-dimensional cocoon (the schematic floor plan), into a three-dimensional butterfly (fully-developed design).  Colors, materials, fixtures, furnishings, architectural detail - finesse here and panache there - begin to define the final style and design.  Colored elevations and perspectives might be used to illustrate the new space and the relationship of different materials.  Minor changes (e.g. tweaking colors, changing from one faucet type to another, relocating the mirror, revising cabinetry styles, etc.) are more easily done on paper before construction begins.  This is not a good time to surprise your design professional with new information that will alter the entire design.  You might get a surprise in return: more design equals more expense.  Even with doing my own design I was keenly aware of the setback of major redesign.  We forged ahead into construction documents.

Design drawings are used primarily to help the client understand and approve the design.   Construction or contract documents are generated to help the contractor construct the space.  Construction documents consist of two items: the drawings and the specifications.  The drawings should clearly detail (with dimensions, notations, legends, etc.) how the space will be assembled.  The specifications are usually formatted in sections by the type of work (concrete work, wood, tile, fixtures, etc.).  They state the conditions to which the materials must comply, specify the actual materials or the standards to which the materials must either meet or exceed and finally, they provide information regarding the execution and assembly of the work.  This includes clean-up when the work is done.  When the construction documents are complete they usually go to the code authority for permit and to contractors for bid (unless a contractor has been pre-selected, which has its own set of ‘pros and cons’).  The construction documents are also included as part of the contract with the general contractor. They should dictate your expectations and requirements as clearly as possible.  Clear, concise documents help the contractor construct your space the way it was designed and protect the owner from poor construction.  It’s easier to point to contractual details and specifications to encourage the contractor to perform the work correctly rather than face legal consequences. 

Even with the best documents, there are often questions ‘in the field’ during construction.  Hiring your design professional to keep a watchful eye on the progress could save money.  Fewer errors mean less cost – possibly less than you would spend on observation costs.  This phase of work is usually called Construction Administration or Construction Observation.  There are a plethora of services including managing the payment of the contractor that might be included in this phase.  The services should be reviewed carefully to assure that you only hire what you really need.  When your space is complete you may want to evaluate all of the things that worked or didn’t work and why.  Writing your comments down now will make a handy reference for your next project.

At the end of a bathroom remodel, you will deserve that long soak in the big tub.  Add candles, bubble bath, wine and music.  The stress and memory of hammers will soon dissipate with the bubbles. 

Unveiling Design-1 Detail showing one of the 'critter tiles' at one of the counter backsplashes.

 

 

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