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Mastering Project Development & Documentation: The Art of Appropriate Documentation

Sep 22, 2023

Once an architectural design begins to be developed, an important aspect of an architect's work is understanding how to properly create the necessary documentation for constructing that design. For those studying for the ARE exam, this topic is covered in the Project Development and Documentation portion of the exam. The ARE guidelines state that this topic is worth 7-11% of the points on the exam. The specific documentation approach for a given project must be understood, and this may vary depending on the project's complexity, as well as building assemblies and materials being used. In addition, consideration must be given to the project delivery method being employed for the project. As design and documentation progress, an architect must understand how to appropriate level of documentation of the design for each given stage of development. This may include the refinements, updates, or adjustments that may occur due to changing project requirements or a more in-depth understanding of design issues as the design and documentation process advances. The architect must also ensure that materials, assemblies, and finishes are appropriately indicated and specified.

Mastering Project Development & Documentation: The Art of Appropriate Documentation

Appropriate Levels of Documentation

While every project varies in terms of size, complexity, location, and requirements, a common goal for all architectural projects is for an appropriate level of documentation of the design to be provided so that the project can ultimately be realized. Complexity often dictates the amount of documentation required and the level of detail that must be shown. For example, the design for a large hospital built from the ground up will typically require much more documentation than an office building, given the intricacies of their building systems and the detailed requirements of their many operations. This increased level of documentation involves not only additional drawings, but often also an increased number of specifications, which must be carefully written and checked. In any case, it is ultimately the contract that forms the agreement between the owner and architect, which sets the expectations and legal requirements for what is to be provided in the construction documents.

Which Documents are Required?

Depending on the types of materials and building assemblies selected during the design process, different types of documentation may be required. If a specific product is being specified for a building envelope, for example, then details in the drawing set may be provided which are based closely on the manufacturer's provided details. If there are multiple possible products which are stated to be acceptable by the spec (such as for public projects where this is often a requirement), then the details may need to be more generic, and the architect must ensure that they are appropriate regardless of which specific product is ultimately selected. Bespoke items or custom features will require more detailing than standardized products.

Communicating Expectations

In terms of specification, the appropriate documentation for specific parts of the design may depend on the architect's intent or the owner's requirements. For example, rather than specifying a particular product, it may be desirable to use a performance-based specification, so that a range of solutions for a given item are possible so long as they meet stated requirements of performance. In such cases, the particulars of detailing may be less important than the proper communication of the expectations of the performance, which must be ensured by a contractor in their selection of the material or assembly under consideration.

Defining the Details

The approach to documentation may also vary with the design delivery method that is being employed for the project. In a typical Design-Bid-Build type project, a sufficient level of detail and description must be provided for a contractor to bid on the job during the bidding stage. Although there is the opportunity for a contractor to seek clarifications on design during the bidding stage with Requests for Information (RFI), it is preferable that the project documentation is thorough enough to minimize such requests. With a document set that is well-developed with clear and precise notes and specifications, bidding contractors will have the best understanding of the project work and be able to provide bids based on this understanding. In contrast to Design-Bid-Build, a Design-Build project, where the design and construction teams form a single entity, may involve a different approach. In such projects, there is sometimes less need for well-defined details because there may be opportunities for working them out with the contractor as the design and construction process continues. Architects seek to avoid the potential for change orders from a contractor in the Design-Bid-Build project delivery method by providing the most complete documentation necessary for the project, but this type of risk is mitigated in the Design-Build project delivery method since the designer and contractor are part of the same entity. The designer must still provide the level of documentation necessary to satisfactorily complete the work, but with changing types of risk come different approaches to documentation.

Design Phase Goals

The level of documentation changes throughout the design process as well since the overall goals for each design phase vary. In the Schematic Design phase, the main objectives are typically to work out a design concept, communicate the design intent to the client, and to ensure that the design concept will be feasible and appropriate for further development. As such, details, if they are provided, are of a schematic nature, and intended to communicate a basic approach to materials and assemblies. Specifications are often omitted at this stage, and basic indications of materials on drawings may suffice to communicate intent to the owner. It is not advisable to develop in-depth details or specifications at an early stage since final decisions about building elements have not yet been determined. Once the basic approach has been confirmed and the Design Development stage begins, more developed details and drawings can be added to the document set. Schedules, such as door and window schedules, are often included at this stage, though all relevant information for construction may yet to be determined. In the Construction Documents stage, all remaining design decisions will have been made, and the design team seeks to provide the documentation which will be necessary for the contractor to bid and construct the project. The architect should have knowledge of which documentation is best provided within specifications versus drawings. Product information or performance requirements, for example, are typically best left to the specifications rather than the drawing package.

Limits to Documentation

It should be noted that there is a limit to the amount of documentation which should be provided by the design team. For example, detailed information for some items is best left for the contractor to provide for the architect's (or engineer's) approval via submittals during the construction administration phase. However, the particular requirements of the submittals to be provided should be indicated in the specifications of the construction documents. Additionally, the architect must avoid dictating the means and methods of construction which the contractor is to determine and employ.

Anticipating Roadblocks

The architect cannot anticipate every situation which will arise when the contractor takes the construction documents into the field to construct a building. It is necessary, however, for the professional to practice a standard of care which is expected in the industry. By setting up quality control measures and procedures within a practice, however, the risk of errors and omissions within construction documents (and resulting change orders) can be reduced, thereby allowing for a more successful project and architectural practice.


In summary, an architect's knowledge of appropriate documentation is essential in the successful realization of a project. While the approach to documentation may vary depending on project type, complexity, project delivery method, and other factors, in all cases, the architect should strive for clarity in the communication of design intent and be well-versed in the contractual conditions that define the expectations for the construction documentation.

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About the Author: Adam Castelli

Adam Castelli is a licensed architect and engineer currently practicing in the Pittsburgh area. He holds a master's degree in architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Villanova University.

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