Engage the Integrated Design Process  

the WBDG Aesthetics Subcommittee



The design of buildings requires the integration of many kinds of information into an elegant, useful, and durable whole. An integrated design process includes the active and continuing participation of users and community members, code officials, building technologists, contractors, cost consultants, civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, structural engineers, specifications specialists, and consultants from many specialized fields. The best buildings result from continual, organized collaboration among all players throughout the building's life cycle. (See the Design Disciplines branch of the WBDG to learn more about the role of design disciplines in the whole building process.)

Photo of project team members sitting
Photo of project team members standing

The integrated design process enables project team members to work together from the project outset to develop solutions that have multiple benefits.

The Integrated Design Process

This summary describes the standard operation of the integrated project team. To assure the best result, all parties must adhere to the following principles:

  1. clear and continuous communication
  2. rigorous attention to detail
  3. active collaboration among all team members throughout all phases of the project
Elements of integrated design: Enphasize the integrated process, Ensure requirements and goals are met, Evaluate solutions, Develop tailored solutions that yield multiple benefits while meeting requirements and goals, Conduct assessments to help identify requirements and set goals, Work together as a team from the beginning, Focus on life cycle design, Think of the building as a whole.

Planning and programming for the project can be led by many players, but generally the client first identifies the need for building on the basis of quantifiable requirements for space and budgetary capacity to meet them. This earliest phase often includes a needs assessment: It can describe existing space use, estimate realistic spatial and technical requirements, and arrive at a program around which a design process can be started. For significant projects, a construction manager and an architect should be engaged to conduct the needs assessment; it may also be appropriate for this team to produce a master plan that places individual design activities in context and sequence of delivery. (See also WBDG Commissioning, Project Management, Programming, and Planning and Conducting Integrated Design (ID) Charrettes.) Regardless of a project's scope, research and programming is a crucial first step in developing a successful design.

No later than the completion of these tasks should the client engage the architect or other prime consultant who will oversee the design process and its final implementation. Criteria for selection may include the client's affinity for a specific architectural language, the provider's experience with the building type, or, with sustainability requirements, a candidate's ability to achieve high environmental performance in historic or new buildings.

In consultation with a team that includes a contractor, engineers, landscape architect, environmental graphic designer, artist, sustainability consultant, and other specialists, the architect or prime consultant establishes core design goals. The design team also may produce alternative conceptual approaches to the client's needs, and graphics to visualize the discussion. Such suggestions are meant to stimulate thought, not necessarily to describe the final outcome. Note the importance of the team format at this stage: full involvement of team members is critical, as individual insights can prevent costly changes down the road. Continual collaboration between stakeholders also helps prevent expensive mistakes.

Schematic Design: Gradually a design emerges that embodies the interests and requirements of all participants, while also meeting overall area requirements and budgetary parameters. At this stage, schematic designs are produced. They show site location and organization, general building shape, distribution of program, and an outline of components and systems to be designed and/or specified for the final result. Depending on the size of the project, it is often useful to have a cost estimate performed at this point.

Design Development enlarges the scale of consideration. Greater detail is developed for all aspects of the building, and the collaborative process continues with the architect or prime consultant facilitating the various contributors. The conclusion of this phase is a detailed design on which all players agree and may be asked to sign off. Additionally careful proofing and identifying of items such as building systems and cost implications should be done before proceeding with final materials, colors, and finishes.

The development of Contract Documents involves translating the Design Development information into formats suitable for pricing, permitting, and construction. No set of contract documents can ever be perfect, but high quality can be achieved by scrutiny, accountability to the initial program needs, and careful coordination among the technical consultants on the design team. Decisions continue to be made at this stage, but changes in scope will become more expensive once pricing has begun; changes to the contract documents also invite confusion, errors, and added costs, although new technology like Building Information Modeling is beginning to synchronize references for all design team members. Cost estimates by an estimator may be made at this point, prior to or simultaneous with bidding, in order to assure compliance with the budget and to check the bids. Bids taken at this point may be used as a basis for selecting a builder.

After the general contractor has begun physical work on the project, the Construction Phase begins. Designers and other members of the team must remain fully involved. Decisions previously made may require clarification, suppliers' information must be reviewed for compliance with the Contract Documents, and substitutions must be evaluated. If changes affect the operation of the building, it is especially important to involve the user/client in their review. User requirements may change, too, and enacting those alterations require broad consultation among the consultants and sub-consultants, new pricing, and incorporation into the Contract Documents and the building.

The design team is responsible for assuring the building meets the requirements of the Contract Documents. Meanwhile, success at meeting the requirements of the original program can be assessed by the construction management team or third parties in a process known as Commissioning. Here the full range of functions in the building is evaluated and the design and construction team can be called upon to make changes and adjustments as needed.

Operations and Maintenance: After the building is fully operational, it is often useful to conduct a Facility Performance Evaluation (FPE) to assess how the building meets the original and emerging requirements for its use. (This may be known as a post-occupancy study, although FPEs are considered to be more rigorous.) Such information is especially useful when further construction of the same type is contemplated by the same user. Mistakes can be prevented and successes repeated.

The Integrated, Multidisciplinary Project Team

Team Members in a process like this may include the following:

The Owner's Representative must speak for the owner and be prepared to devote the time to fully advocate, defend, clarify, and develop the owner's interests. This person may come from within the organization commissioning the project or may be hired as a consultant.

The Construction Manager is hired on a fee basis to determine the logistics and costs of the construction process. This person can be an architect, a general contractor, or a consulting Construction Manager. It is beneficial for this person to be involved from the beginning of the project.

The Architect acts as the lead in most building projects—coordinating sub-consultants, soliciting and championing the program, inviting community input at pertinent moments, and assuring compliance with the budget. To that effect, in some cases the architect hires some or all of the sub-consultants. Thereafter, he or she provides progressively more precise and detailed suggestions for the form of the solution and manages the production of the contract documents. The architect usually participates in the construction phase of the project, assessing compliance with the contract documents via inspections, submissions approvals, and evaluations by the sub-consultants. The architect assists in the evaluation of requests for payment by the builder and other professionals.

The Civil Engineer is essential for understanding the land, soil, and regulatory aspects of any construction project; early involvement is essential and the civil engineer is frequently hired directly by the owner in advance of the design team. The civil engineer prepares his or her own contract documents and assesses work compliance with the contract documents.

The Landscape Architect is often part of the civil engineer's resources, but can also be involved as an independent consultant. In either case, the landscape architect should be involved early in the project to assess natural systems, how they will be affected by the project and the best ways to accommodate the project to those systems.

Consulting Structural, Mechanical, and Electrical Engineers can be engaged by the architect or they may be engaged separately by the owner. They are responsible for a building's structural, heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, as well as the power, signal, and illumination aspects of the project. Each produces his or her own portions of the contract documents and should be involved in assessing the respective part of the work for compliance with those documents.

Specialized Consultants should be involved as needed by the special requirements of the project. These may include specifications writers, materials and component specialists, sustainability consultants, artists, environmental graphic designer, and technical experts in specialties like kitchens, audio-visual systems, materials handling, and parking. The size, complexity, and specialization of the project will suggest the kinds of additional experts who will be needed. Like all contributors to the integrated design process, their suggestions and requirements should be incorporated at the earliest phases of design.


The best buildings in history are the result of high degrees of consistency at all levels of their realization and have stood the test of time. The simplicity in massing of the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe, for example, is supported by the building's subtle and spare details at every level. Meticulous attention is applied equally to the massing and the drinking fountains, the site plan and the door hinges.

Photo of the Seagram Building in New York

The Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, New York, in 1950s.

Photo of U.S. Courthouse in Seattle which won a GSA 2004 Citation Award

This U.S. Courthouse in Seattle was designed by NBBJ and won a 2004 GSA Citation Award for architecture and interior design and an honor award for construction excellence.

Frank Lloyd Wright referred to this process as "organic design"—he used the phrase to refer to the integral relationship in good architecture between the parts and the whole—and declared it the architect's obligation to assure consistency at every level of detail. Yet consistency is predicated on collaboration: Good buildings when all members of the design team are working toward the same ambitions.

The WBDG features successful projects that have engaged the integrated design process in the Case Studies section.

You are encouraged to share your project successes and challenges by submitting a case study write-up. Click here to download the WBDG Case Study Template .

Additional Resources


Design Objectives

Aesthetics, Accessible, Cost-Effective, Functional / Operational, Historic Preservation, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable

Project Management

Project Planning, Delivery and Controls, Select Appropriate Design Professionals, Project Delivery Teams, Building Commissioning


The "Whole Building" Design Approach