Exploring The Phases of Design: How We Turned a Dream into a Home with Katie Peterson / by Katelyn Remington-Arata

 Project manager  Katie Peterson . Photo by  Charles-Ryan Barber .

Project manager Katie Peterson. Photo by Charles-Ryan Barber.

Whether imagining a new house from the ground up or a major home renovation, our clients typically have one goal in mind: 

“We want a home that is uniquely ours.” 

As custom residential architects, we know how to provide just that. However, we understand that many people embarking on home design projects don’t know what to expect or where to begin, which can make the dream of designing their home seem like a nightmare.

Custom-designing a home should be exciting — not scary! — which is why we want to shed a little light on our design process. 

What exactly should you anticipate when embarking on the design of a custom home? 

Our architectural design process is ordered into three basic phases, each of which accomplish a specific goal: 

  • Schematic Design, the exploration and synthesizing of multiple concepts into a singular, selected design;

  • Design Development, the refinement of the selected design and finalization of its floor plans, exterior elevations, and aesthetic; and 

  • Construction Documents, the completion and compilation of all information needed by a contractor to build your home as designed. 

In our 24+ years, we’ve found that these basic steps meet some — but not all clients’ needs. To supplement these standard design phases, our studio also offers three optional, additional services: 

  • Preliminary Design, the exploration and determination of project goals, city constraints, and budget preceding Schematic Design; 

  • Construction Contract Negotiation, seeking and evaluating bids, interviewing contractors, and helping our clients make the right choice; and

  • Construction Administration, the observation of construction to ensure consistency with the Construction Documents. 

Together, these basic and additional phases form a six-step, “full service” design package. To illustrate how this works in action, principal architect Tim Barber and project manager Katie Peterson discuss the recent design of a custom new home in Beverly Hills, now in construction.


I. PRELIMINARY DESIGN

“When our clients first approached us to work on their home, they were unsure if they should renovate the house already on the lot or start fresh, so we explored both options,” recalls Tim. 

To help the clients determine which choice made the most sense for them, Tim first explored their objectives: How do they like to live? What rooms did they want? How much space did they need? How did the home need to function? How much were the clients willing to invest time-wise, financially, and emotionally? 

“The front yard was mostly asphalt and radically underutilized by the shape of the house, and the house itself was too small and had very strange ceiling heights and transitions,” Tim recounts his and the clients’ concerns about renovating the existing home. “We quickly agreed to make a ground-up house so that they could have exactly what they wanted, which we couldn’t easily achieve through renovation. That’s where Katie joined the conversation.” 

While getting to know the clients and helping them make their first big decision, Tim also made his own important selection: which of our studio’s project managers would lead the clients’ dedicated design team. To Tim, Katie was a perfect fit. “Katie is very thorough, detailed, and also a really good listener. When a client brings Katie new ideas, surprise requests, or priorities, she thoughtfully considers that information and responds to it.” 

In the Preliminary Design phase, our clients had many thoughts about their prospective home, which Katie compiled into a general program list. Using that program, she and Tim created several “bubble diagrams”, or rough plans that indicate the possible adjacencies of spaces in a home. 


 In a project’s Preliminary Design phase, our project managers create up to three bubble diagrams that suggest a home’s possible rooms and their sizes, basic orientations, and adjacencies. The above animation shows threediagrams for the same custom new home in Beverly Hills, drawn by project manager  Katie Peterson , 2016.

In a project’s Preliminary Design phase, our project managers create up to three bubble diagrams that suggest a home’s possible rooms and their sizes, basic orientations, and adjacencies. The above animation shows threediagrams for the same custom new home in Beverly Hills, drawn by project manager Katie Peterson, 2016.


II. SCHEMATIC DESIGN

With three promising bubble diagrams in hand and a broad sense of what their home might be, “The clients were very enthusiastic about the design process,” Katie fondly remembers. 

The next step: synthesizing all the clients’ ideas into a singular, prevailing design. 

While Katie and the clients revisited the bubble diagrams to flesh out the home’s shape and program, they also began to consider its appearance. 

“The clients brought references to traditional exteriors and Art Deco style interiors, so I knew that they didn’t intend for the house to be a singular style throughout,” describes Katie. “But based on their image choices, I knew we wanted clean lines, and I used that as my design direction.”

To begin her concept image research, Katie turned to her favorite source for design inspiration, Pinterest. “I start by searching keywords — maybe things the clients have said before — and as I find images that speak to that keyword concept, I save them. With Pinterest, it’s very easy to quickly go down a rabbit hole, so I constantly refine my search and curate my project boards to ensure that I’m showing our clients only the most relevant imagery.” 

Pinterest can also offer other important client insights: “Many of our clients have their own boards that can offer a glimpse into not only the design they like, but also, how they live and want to live.”  That helps us customize the research we present to the clients.

“That’s just a starting point”, Tim adds. “Our best images and resources come from years of research, travel and exploring the best work we can find. Our own large library holds ideas and photos you won’t find on Pinterest”.

“Part of my role in the design process is bridging the gap between the visuals our clients enjoy, the things they say or suggest that they want, and how they need their space to function,” Katie explains. “I seek and show clients concepts that they might not have thought of for themselves, but that resonate strongly with their project goals. It’s exciting when we come into the design process with many strong ideas, but suddenly, something unexpected clicks, and we have our Schematic Design.” 


 Our studio is renowned for designing custom “new-old” homes: brand new houses (or significant renovations) that make use of historical precedents but function for modern needs. To achieve the right aesthetic, we sometimes use images of older structures to help shape the concepts for our new designs.  Left:  Concept image of a brick Georgian Revival residence designed by Henry Frost and Eleanor Raymond, as featured in  The House Beautiful Building Annual 1926  (  the APT Building Technology Heritage Library online ).  Right:  A Schematic Design exterior elevation, showing the front facade of the custom new home in Beverly Hills designed by project manager  Katie Peterson .

Our studio is renowned for designing custom “new-old” homes: brand new houses (or significant renovations) that make use of historical precedents but function for modern needs. To achieve the right aesthetic, we sometimes use images of older structures to help shape the concepts for our new designs. Left: Concept image of a brick Georgian Revival residence designed by Henry Frost and Eleanor Raymond, as featured in The House Beautiful Building Annual 1926 ( the APT Building Technology Heritage Library online). Right: A Schematic Design exterior elevation, showing the front facade of the custom new home in Beverly Hills designed by project manager Katie Peterson.


III. DESIGN DEVELOPMENT

“From the front, it’s a classic California house,” Tim describes Katie’s fusion of architectural vernacular from multiple periods and regions, which — despite its generally traditional appearance, is the result of a decidedly modern and innovative approach.  “Inside, it’s very urbane. The back is more relaxed, with panoramic French doors that open onto an expansive porch and the rear yard,” Tim continues. “In the sense that it integrates more than one particular style, it is quintessential Southern California. But more than that, it’s unique to the clients and their lifestyle. It’s the very definition of custom.”

Even as this personalized design took shape on paper, it wasn’t until Katie, Tim, and the clients began identifying possible exterior materials in Design Development that the house began to look and feel as though it were uniquely theirs.  

“In Schematic Design, clients typically see their house only in two-dimensional, technical line-work, which doesn’t fully define a home’s warmth or its livable qualities,” Katie empathizes. 

To help our clients understand how it would be to live in their proposed home, Katie introduced Revit 3D modeling to the design process.  The application allows Katie to produce photorealistic images of the house in several different color palettes and materials, at varying times of day, and in the context of its neighborhood.  

“The Revit model helped sell the clients on our vision.  Once they saw all of our decisions in action, they really felt that, ‘This is our home.’”


 A three-dimensional Revit model of a custom new home in Beverly Hills, designed by project manager  Katie Peterson , 2017.

A three-dimensional Revit model of a custom new home in Beverly Hills, designed by project manager Katie Peterson, 2017.


IV. CONSTRUCTION DOCUMENTS

By the end of Design Development, the clients knew that they wanted a painted brick home; however, a “painted brick façade” can mean many different things to different people. 

In the Construction Documents phase, we help our clients vet, select, and document the specific features, finishes, fixtures, materials, and products that collectively comprise their dream home. By calling out even the smallest details, we do our due diligence to ensure that when we pass the project onto a contractor to build, they won’t have to speculate over anything, be it the particular hue of the paint or the size, shape, and make of the bricks. 

“It’s essentially quality assurance,” Tim says.  “We work very hard with our clients to design homes that are custom to them.  Construction Documents ensure that the integrity of the design remains intact throughout the building process so that when our clients move in, the house is exactly as we envisioned.”

Construction Documents come in various forms: drawings of plans, elevations, and sections; Interior elevations showing cabinetry, paneling and “wet areas”; specifications of doors, windows, finishes, hardware, plumbing, stone and tile that define the materials to be used and pinpoint their locations within/on the house; details and dimensions indicating how materials should be installed to achieve their desired function and appearance; and in our studio, also our “project sample boxes”. 

“There’s a slight chance that something the clients select may be discontinued – or if it’s custom, need to be fabricated, by the time the house is in construction and that item needs to be installed,” explains interior architecture designer Patrick Tennant. “So for every project, the project managers and I create a ‘project box’, which is a physical box containing the client-approved samples of every surface in a home. That way, if we have to match to a tile’s glaze, or substitute a product that’s unavailable, we have a basis to work from. Designing and building a home can have so many surprises, good and bad, and we prepare as best we can for all of them.”


 While the Revit model we created in the Design Development phase conveys the overall appearance and feeling of the house, Construction Documents detail each of the specific features, finishes, fixtures, materials, and products that guarantee that appearance and feeling. This materials board by project manager  Katie Peterson  (2017) was created for Beverly Hills municipal review. The least glamorous, but most important work we do in the Construction Documents Phase is to get permit approval. In-depth city reviews, coordinating our engineers and collaborators to get every last detail right and signed off is often an intricate, time-consuming responsibility. Having the Construction Documents absolutely complete, accurate and consistent makes it “all in a day’s work”.

While the Revit model we created in the Design Development phase conveys the overall appearance and feeling of the house, Construction Documents detail each of the specific features, finishes, fixtures, materials, and products that guarantee that appearance and feeling. This materials board by project manager Katie Peterson (2017) was created for Beverly Hills municipal review. The least glamorous, but most important work we do in the Construction Documents Phase is to get permit approval. In-depth city reviews, coordinating our engineers and collaborators to get every last detail right and signed off is often an intricate, time-consuming responsibility. Having the Construction Documents absolutely complete, accurate and consistent makes it “all in a day’s work”.


V. CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT NEGOTIATION

In this optional phase, we prepare a “bid package”, respond to all contractor questions and assist our clients in understanding and comparing the submitted bids and evaluating the project construction cost. We also help consider any contractor proposed alternates.  


VI. CONSTRUCTION ADMINISTRATION

“Right now, the project is just a hole in the ground,” Katie notes, “But as the builders begin to construct things into and from that hole, I’ll periodically check in to confirm that the home we designed is what’s actually coming to fruition, as part of Construction Administration.” 

While this is an optional, post-design service, we find it very valuable. As construction progresses, Katie and Tim answer questions, make suggestions, or make minor design refinements.

But for now, Katie says, “It’s just so exciting to see all of the ideas and plans that the clients and I put to paper be realized before our eyes. The best part of this process is, in a year or so from now, when our clients will finally be able to move into and live in their home.” 


Do you have questions about our design process, the featured project, or how we might be able to help on your project? Leave us a message in the comments below or contact us!