What are the phases of work of a typical project?

No matter how big or small, all construction projects follow the same basic phases of work. Spending an appropriate amount of time (relative to project complexity) at each phase can mean the difference between the success or failure of your project.  If you try to skip a phase or fail to perform the proper due diligence, you could loose time and money in a latter phase.

Below are the phases of work every project should follow.  Each phase should have it’s own milestones or sub-phases as well.

Phase Number One:  Pre-design

The first phase of a construction project is called the Pre-design phase.  This phase of work is meant to answer the question, “Can you build?”  During this phase, you need to perform some due diligence to avoid committing to work you are unable to complete.

During pre-design, you should be evaluating your job site to validate your buildable area.  Your buildable area will be dictated by your local zoning regulations.  Zoning regulations are different than building codes.  Zoning regulations limit the buildable area of a lot by requiring set-back from front, side, and rear yards.  These regulations also limit the height of a building and the amount of land you can cover with impervious surfaces.

During pre-design phase you also need to define what you want to build.  Some people refer to this as the Programming Phase.  Your project program should answer the following questions:

  1. how many rooms do you need?
  2. how many people are you trying to accommodate?
  3. what amenities do you want to have?
  4. What are your storage needs?
  5. What size rooms do I need?


Once you have documented the program you have in mind, and you have a handle on the approximate square footage of what you want to build, do a test fit on your buildable area to confirm that you can fit your program in the space you have.  If it doesn’t fit, you’ll have to reconsider your program.

Pre-Design is also the time for budgeting.  Once you have the approximate square footage you need, find out what the cost per square foot for construction is in your area and do the math.  Multiply the square footage of your program by the cost per square foot to build.  This will give you a ball-park idea of what your construction cost might be.  Remember to add costs for design services and please make sure to include at least 20% in contingency.

Phase Number Two:  Conceptual Design

After you have validated that you can fit your program on the project site and that you have the funds to build, it’s time to develop a concept plan.

A concept plan is a basic design of what you want to build.  Concept plans should include very few details.  You can add notes to cover details that are intended in certain areas, but don’t spend time designing details.  Focus on big picture items like function, flow, and form of the space.  This is not the time to choose tile or select paint colors, that will happen later.

Spend as much time in this phase as possible to ensure you have a design that you are happy with.  This is the time to explore ideas and consider options.  It will be far more cost effective to make changes to your design in the conceptual design phase than in any future phase of work.

It is especially important not to skip this phase before jumping into Detailed Design because you will need a concept plan to solicit pricing for the detailed design phase.

Phase Number Three:  Detailed Design

This phase of work is where the Architect will spend the majority of their time.  During detailed design the concept plan will get refined and the details of the project will get fleshed out.  During this phase you will identify the types of building systems your project needs and identify the finishes for each room.
It’s best to break up this phase into multiple milestones of design.  Typically these milestones are broken down by level of completion.  You should make sure to review the drawings at each milestone to make sure that the design is developing the way you want.  Typical milestones are;

  1. Schematic Design 30% complete,
  2. Design Development 60% complete,
  3. Construction Documents 80% complete,
  4. Final Construction Documents.


The final construction documents should include sufficient information for bidding, construction, and plan approvals.

Phase Number Four:  Pre-construction

Just as there is a need to prepare for design we also need a phase to prepare for construction.
During pre-construction you need to plan the construction work.  No, you are not planning the means and methods of the work.  This is the contractor’s job.  Your planning should focus on phasing, financing, and site logistics.

Look at the project and think through any phasing you might have for the work.  Project phasing can be driven by any number of considerations including cash flow, logistics, or permitting.
Refine your construction budget.  At this stage you will have the final square footage of your building and you may even have certain finishes or specialty items selected.  Use this information to refine your budget and confirm that you can commit to the funding needed for construction.

Plan your cash flow.  If you have all of the money for your project in the bank, all you need to consider is how much cash will you need at each payment milestone.  If you are using some form of financing or you have a bonding company, you should sit down with them to talk through cash flow and make sure you know what documentation you need in order to make a payment to the contractor.

It’s important to know these things ahead of construction so you can communicate clear payment terms (in your contract) to your contractor.  Don’t wait until after the work begins to discuss payment terms.  Nothing creates greater tension between an Owner and a contractor than unmet payment expectations.

Logistics of construction means a lot of things, but primarily you need to consider whether you can still live in the home while work is ongoing.  You may be able to phase the work so you can continue to live around the area of work.  Let the GC’s know your plans so they can plan to work around you.  Phasing does impact cost, so be careful not to create a very complex plan.  You may find that paying for temporary housing may be more cost effective.  You also wont have to tolerate the noise and mess of a construction site.

When you consider logistics also think about where the GC can store materials, how deliveries will work, and where construction vehicles and dumpsters can go.  The best case scenario is that your property is large enough to accommodate these things, but if you plan to use the street for such purposes your town may require you to have a special permit.  The GC should have the responsibility to pull all permits, but you need to be aware of local requirements so you can communicate them to all of your bidders.
Finally, this is the phase for you to solicit quotes from General Contractors.

Construction Phase 

This is the phase where all the construction work gets done.  Typically, this is also the longest phase of all.  This is also the phase of work that costs the most money.

Everything we have done in the previous phases is meant to reduce risk in this phase.  That is why it is important not to skip any of the previous phases.

Skip (or hurry through) any of the previous phases of work and you are likely to overpay for this phase.

Mistakes during construction cost a whole lot more than mistakes in any previous phase.

You will play a key role in this phase of work.  Plan to meet with your GC regularly (typically once a week).  You may be asked to approve materials and finishes, and you should be receiving payment applications for review prior to receipt of an invoice.  There will also be change orders to review.

This phase is not over until the project close out.  Project Close out is a milestone in construction which signals that the work is complete.  During project close out your contractor should provide you with any warranties for equipment and materials installed in the house.  There may also need to be a formal close out with the bonding company (if you required a bond).  You also should do a final inspection before you accept the GC’s final payment application and make sure he corrects everything on your list and hands you all of the documents before you release the final payment.

When I run a project, I include a separate phase of work for procurement of design and another phase for procurement of construction.  This isn’t essential just as long as you take the proper time to have a proper bid period.

Construction projects can be very risky, but if you organize the project using these phase of work and you spend the time to do the proper due diligence at each phase, the risk can be greatly reduced.
Keep in mind that for each phase of work will have sub-phases or milestones inside them.  Some will be longer, some will be shorter, but none should ever be skipped.

I hope you found this topic useful.  Tell me about your construction project.  How did you split up the work? Did you skip any steps and realize your mistake later on?  Tell me your experiences.

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