Design Now, Save Later

Matthew Griffiths

December 3rd, 2021
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You feel uneasy. Your innate ability to sense danger has your senses on high alert. A little voice in your head is telling you that something is not quite right. What you’ve just heard doesn’t sound sensible or entirely professional. Your wallet is itching, anticipating a blown budget, extra costs, delays – problems.

“We’re builders, and we’ll figure it out as we go.”

Whilst the back of a cigarette packet pricing approach may be more regularly consigned to the past these days, as the presentation of quotes and sales literature become more professional, there is still, often, a reluctance to commit to design fees for projects.

Why should you spend money on design fees, adding costs to the project and reducing profits?

Aren’t planning drawings enough to build from, or should construction designs be taken further, and why? But how far do you need to design? Are there implications of under designing? Let’s take a look.

Design Stages

The most common blueprint for construction design in the UK are stages set out by The Royal Institute of British Architects, more widely known as RIBA.

Its Plan of Work, or template, details each stage design, aiding architects in the design process and covers: project briefing, design, construction, maintenance, operation and use of building projects.

The plan consists of eight defined stages:

  • Stage 0 – Strategic Definition
  • Stage 1 – Preparation and Briefing
  • Stage 2 – Concept Design
  • Stage 3 – Developed Design
  • Stage 4 – Technical Design
  • Stage 5 – Construction
  • Stage 6 – Handover and Close Out
  • Stage 7 – In Use

Stages In summary:

Stage 0 – Strategic Definition – identify and review the client’s business case for the project, along with a strategic project brief. Create a Strategic Brief.

Stage 1 –  Preparation and Briefing – developing project objectives. Risk assessments will be carried out at this stage. Pre-application planning advice and discussions can take place with the local planning authority. Create Initial Project Brief.

Stage 2 – Concept Design – prepare concept designs. This will include outline proposals for structural services, outline specifications and services. Project viability can be reviewed and refined with the issuing of outline Cost Information. Final Project Brief to be confirmed to enable progression to more detailed design for planning.

Stage 3 – Developed Design – The design stage that will take the scheme through to a planning application. A site plan will be firmed up along with building designs and layouts. Sustainability, Maintenance and Operations, Handover Strategies are advanced. Structural input should be sought to ensure that what is submitted for planning consent is buildable.

Stage 4 – Technical Design – Technical designs will generally be progressed once planning consent has been secured. Designs are progressed to include all architectural, structural and building service information. Specialist subcontractor designs and specifications are added. Landscape architects will refine and detail the landscaping. Mechanical & Electrical designers will be engaged and appointed. Details for any planning conditions will be developed and submitted for approval. Building Control is involved with building warranty providers for design reviews to ensure their needs and requirements are met. Environmental performance and noise standards need to be met and are likely to require specialist design input.

Stage 5 – Construction – Construction details advanced by the design team alongside any input and review of specialist manufacturer designs, plus the resolutions of any design queries that may arise from the site.

Stage 6 – Handover and Close Out – Providing a set of ‘As-built’ or ‘As-Constructed’ plans for the record and future maintenance and operation.

Stage 7 – In Use – An update of the As-Built plans following feedback from the end-users.

Why Design First

It would be easy to think that perhaps getting a planning ticket is all you need to get building.

RIBA Stage 3 design will provide a layout of a site, the general floor plan of a building, and elevation details showing what it will look like. However, it doesn’t give you the details required to build, such as a cavity walls cross-section, size of windows, insulation requirement, electrical layouts, foundation designs, location, and size of structural steels.

There’s unlikely to be enough information at Stage 3 designs to satisfy Building Control and your Building Warranty provider. With these two, it’s critical to have their signoff and approval, preferably with a good working relationship along the way. Should there be a lack of trust of the builder, on their part, they may wish to oversee more of the construction works than usual, causing possible delays on site due to when they can get to the site for inspections and signoff.

So, Stage 4 then comes into focus. Stage 4 gives you a significant amount of information that will enable the main contractor to tender the project and procure the subcontractor, materials, and specialists required.

However, what about the specialist trades’ input that needs to be integrated into the overall designs? Whether this is a steel design, angle brackets, wind posts, waterproofing, lift shaft requirements, pump room specifications, plant room sizing.

The worst and most expensive position to be exposed to is the requirement for changes to the design:

  • when a consultant isn’t appointed
  • is instructed to carry out a single piece of work
  • the works have already been carried out
  • or an order placed.

It is difficult to achieve the best value for extra work or smaller appointments.

Imagine gigging a basement, using waterproof concrete for your basement walls, only to discover that a secondary waterproofing system is required on the outer face of the wall that has already been backfilled, along with its own drainage and pump system.

Or, late in the day, it’s realised that non-standard ancon brackets are required to take the upper levels of brickwork. There would be a delay in designing these, getting them approved by the engineer, and then manufacturing and delivering them to the site.

Fenestrated Approach

Bringing together your design team in a collaborative, structured and harmonious manner will help ensure that each design accords with one another.

The engineer’s setting out plans need to match with the architect’s layouts. For example, positions of structural steels need to avoid clashing with soil vent pipes. Likewise, extractor fan outlets don’t sit where a window is intended to be.

Getting this right early will prevent delays, redesigns or possible alterations further down the line.

Cost Certainty

Unless you’re value engineering, changes to designs and specifications will usually result in additional costs.

By ensuring that a scheme is fully designed at the procurement stage, there is a greater chance that your Commercial team will be able to present subcontractors and suppliers with the details of precisely what is required, nothing more and nothing less. Anything missed is then their issue and not yours – “well, it’s on the drawing you priced.”


Getting a project thoroughly designed before a spade goes in the ground will de-risk the project as much as possible.

It will allow for a smoother build process, keeping to budget and on programme.

Additional costs will be avoided for Adhoc consultant input or changes to the scope of works or works that have already been carried out.

Your forecast profit margin has the best opportunity to be realised.

Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

About Matthew Griffiths

Matthew takes great pleasure in combining his two professions. One has seen him give two decades of service to the construction industry, from roles as an Estimator through to sitting on Boards. The second is his passion for the written word. He now has the best of both worlds, building homes and constructing written content.

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