The Process of Residential Architecture

Starting a new home or renovation for most people is a unique combination of excitement and uncertainty. Most concerns are informed and resolved through a clear design and construction process that is both productive and rewarding.

I call this process 4D»2B ("forty-to-be"), short for:

Dream › Define › Design › Document   »   Bid › Build

This is shorthand for the six phases to establish goals, gather information, begin design, develop details, select a contractor, and follow construction. Being methodical ensures a satisfying end.

Dream First!

D1 Vision drives every project from beginning to end. I refer to it as the Dream which connotes a bit of open-ended exploration. With sketches, surveys, and questionnaire, we explore central questions to the project. Is the home to satisfy a particular lifestyle? Is it in reaction to a current space need? Is there a passion that the home be a quiet sanctuary or a welcome social gathering place? Are there specific stylistic preferences that would be ruled out or preferred? What are the priorities for resale or investment?

Others questions touch on recent changes or expected ones to come, such as a growing family or aging in place. Both technical and intuitive responses are useful here, but it is necessary that the direction eventually condenses into a single clear vision on which to build the remainder of the process.

The site of land or existing building for a renovation is the other aspect of the Dream to be decided before anything else. Many beginnings have a specific place already selected. But not always. Sometimes a search for property to match the vision comes second.

A site can guide a specific place for the design that guides orientation to the sun, wind, topography, neighbors, views, open spaces, detractions, and general orientation for passive energy considerations. A land survey will be required for any new construction and an architectural field survey needed for any work in an existing home or structure.

Defining the Project

D2 Upon the vision, a foundation of more concrete measures is established to Define the project. The industry uses the terms scope, schedule, and budget for the three general parameters of size, time, and money.

In reality, the scope of a project is more than a measurement of scale. The expected level of quality will have a larger impact on cost than size. Other important qualitative, material, and character distinctions will define the way spaces are used and arranged. Again, sketching and survey conversation tools help define the project against more technical metrics for scale, cost, energy performance, and site organization.

The project definition will also determine how to select who will construct the home. This is known as delivery, and the method may vary widely depending on the quality, budget, construction technology, materials, site, and scale determined. The delivery method will dictate the form of the construction documents, the contract, the pricing method, and the review process by the local authorities.


D3 The Design phase is exciting because it is the first time the idea takes form. Architects spend more time in school focused on design than anything else, but it is at this point that the earlier homework to define the project matters most. If done well, analysis of the site and project definition will have already begun to shape design ideas.

As the design takes shape, it begins to take on a life of its own. Influences will be as varied as clients and might lead the design into priorities for a particular material, shape, space, or character. As the relationship of space and materials becomes clearer, still more questions will arise about how they interact and relate to the site. Architects use an iterative process in design to explore possibilities, visualize alternative solutions, and evaluate trade-offs between the options. Sketches, drawings, renderings, materials, and models are common design tools.

Documenting the Design

D4 Completion of design begins the final stage to Document it. Details and specifications stipulate clear requirements for a contractor to build. The method for selecting a contractor will determine just how these details are documented. Decisions and responsibilities between the owner and contractor are important to clarify for both parties. Properly done, this phase ensures that pricing is a reasonable reflection of the work being required of the contractor but without any loopholes for quality or features that the home owner expects.

This phase includes a myriad technical decisions, seemingly overwhelming. But the 4D»2B process clarifies these into logical steps with a series of tools to coordinate decision making along a timeline that keeps all the dependent activities organized along the way.


B1 Through a Bidding process, good documents allow competitive pricing when contractors compete against each other. This isn't always necessary or common practice, especially in residential construction, where the contractor might be directly selected from several known. However, strong documentation of the design forms a strong foundation for the expected work and prevents increases in pricing during construction.

Typical tract homes (also often labeled builder, developer, merchant, and, ironically, custom homes) use a very different pricing and construction process that frustrates most home buyers. A vague approach to what is and is not included in the contract price is sometimes unclear until the very completion of the project. It's an incredibly unfair situation purposely created by the experienced seller against the expectedly inexperienced homebuyer. This is why architects advocate detailed and thorough construction documents, even for seemingly small projects. (Not surprisingly, the most experienced people in the construction industry, like professional project managers and developers, expect the highest quality drawings!)

Unambiguous documents legally obligate the contractor and his subcontractors to provide quality materials, products, and craftsmanship. In fact, you'll find that most good builders actually want this. Reputable contractors often refuse to work in the residential construction market because it is too dangerous for them to safely cover expectations while being undercut by lowball competitors. While a good contractor typically incorporates typical expectations, even if it is not perfectly called out, the less ethically inclined will omit unclear scope to reduce their initial price. (For example, picking up trash during construction or protection from the weather.) This both wins them the job and creates the opportunity to add lucrative change orders during construction. Complete and accurate documents avoid this problem in both competitive and non-competitive pricing schemes.


B2 The final step is for the contractor to Build the project. After selecting a contractor and agreeing to the price in a signed, legal contract, construction begins according to all the requirements in the drawings and specifications.

The architect administers this entire process. The contractor submits confirming shop drawings, product information, schedules, coordination drawings, and other information for the architect to review. This assures quality throughout the process. Regular meetings are also scheduled to observe, answer questions, decide minor product options, and confirm progress against requests for pay. Final inspections ensure the entirety of the contract is complete and in working order prior to moving in and making the final payment. Sometimes, eleven-month inspections are scheduled prior to the first year of ownership to resolve any outstanding issues covered under the warranty period.


See Hiring an Architect for more details, and reach out to me at any of these contacts with questions about how this process might apply to a project you are considering. I'm always open to an email exchange or telephone conversation to discuss details particular to your situation.

Residential Background

My first experiences in construction were more than 30 years ago in 18th century crafts. White oak shingle splitting, tinsmithing sheet metal, timber framing structures, furniture joinery, and blacksmithing nails and door hardware were unusual but advantageous introductions to design and materials related to architecture and construction.

Since then, I've worked in residential framing, HVAC installation, plumbing, electrical and lighting, tile, windows and doors, deck building, insulation, painting, drywall, and roofing. I have designed and built quite a few projects serving the community and have worked under an established architect on residential projects for some notable Triangle residents as well as the famous 1870's Dodd-Hinsdale house, now the Second Empire Restaurant in downtown Raleigh. More than 20 years of architectural firm experience on commercial projects range from tiny to huge, local and around the world.

These days, SteveHallArchitecture has become the logical path of this passion. The practice uses a combination of software tools, manual art, and physical models to analyze, model, and render designs. Mock-ups and prototypes of details, furnishings, or special conditions are occasionally useful, which is why I maintain a woodworking and materials shop. Since 2013, the firm has served dozens of clients with projects. Feel free to call or email me if you need some help or advice about a project you are contemplating.