Pre Design Architecture

by | Last updated Jun 3, 2020 | Architects, General Architecture, Property Development

Pre-design is the first steps to a property development. In this phase the owner and architect establish and analyze a set of conditions and research that will establish the framework and requirements for the building development. This includes site analysis, zoning, budgeting, and programming use requirements. Clients often seek Pre design services of an architect to assist in the preliminary stages of their project before proceeding with full architectural services.

At our architecture firm we often provide Pre Design Architectural Services. I cannot emphasize the importance of pre-design planning as it will set the path for the entire project. This post will focus on some of the issues one may want to investigate in pre-design.


Pre Design Architecture

There are multiple considerations to investigate before embarking on a development and hiring an architect to perform design services. Check out another post we wrote to learn about the 5 Phases of Architectural Design. Here is a list of some typical pre design considerations, but certainly not all.

Pre Design Phase Architecture

  1. Project Goals
  2. Site Selection
  3. Site Analysis
  4. Title Search
  5. Zoning Analysis
  6. Existing Building Assessment
  7. Programming
  8. Budgeting
  9. Pro Forma
  10. Project Team Selection


Pre Design Architectural Services

Pre design architectural services are often called feasibility study or pre design studies. People sometimes do not understand the importance of pre-design planning and want to jump right into design. It is often more prudent to start with analysis and planning before architectural design. The pre design services can begin at any point in the process Typically the earlier you bring on a team of professionals the better the project will go. Even if you are not ready to hire an architect it may be a good idea to begin interviewing and possibly getting preliminary consultations early on in the process. You can also hire them to work on a phase by phase basis if you are not ready to make a commitment to one firm.

At our New York Architecture Firm: Fontan Architecture we are often contracted to assess the zoning and feasibility of a development in the early steps of a property development. Including clients hiring us even before the purchase a property.

Pre Design Services Of An Architect

I sometimes recommend new clients with  development projects to hire us for minimal preliminary services separately from the entire project scope. That way we can feel each other out but more importantly we can establish the entire project scope first without major commitments.

Experienced developers often do most of the pre-design in house but still hire architects for the complicated or more technical aspects especially on zoning. Zoning analysis is by far the most common Pre Design Service we are hired to perform for our clients. Pre design services of an architect go beyond zoning but that often tends to be a major focus of this design phase, especially in a city like NYC where we have incredibly complicated zoning codes.


Pre Design Architecture Considerations


Project Goals

The first step the developer / property owner needs to do is establish their project goals. This includes what type of building you are planning to develop. What is it’s purpose, desired size (generally), and desired site (type or location). Once the developer has a set of goals and a solid intention they can actually begin pre-design and potentially find an architect to assist in pre design architectural services.

Example A: Residential Development

The owner will want to figure out generally what neighborhood they want to be in especially considering the varying rates for residential sales and rents. They will want to have a target goal building type are we talking a high rise building for rentals or making townhouses to sell. Is the owner looking to flip the property or keep it. Generally how many units are you hoping to get? These are the general considerations to start the process.

Example B: Commercial Development

Maybe the owner is developing a shopping center. They will want to consider location very much here especially with regards to driving routes and public transportation. You also will want to consider where the competition is. Have a general idea of how many square feet you will want. How much parking will you need. How many square feet or acres of land will this require.


Site Selection

Once the client knows what they are planning to do it’s time to find a property. Often times the developer has the property early on in the process. In fact I am always surprised by how many calls I get from people who own empty properties for years, and then call to ask what they can do with the empty lot. In this instance we would start with the property and work backwards trying to project goals. We would try to figure out what is the best use of this site.

We have often helped our clients in the selection process before they purchase a property. One very important aspect is knowing if the property will be able to fulfill the potential owners needs. As architects we help the client determine if their choice to purchase is viable to their goals. Zoning and site analysis will come into play here.


Site Analysis

Land Survey

The client will need to hire a licensed land surveyor to perform a survey of the property. If there is an architect on board they can advise as to what specific information they may need on the survey, but the architect does not do the land survey.

Geotechnical Analysis

A licensed geotechnical engineer will perform the geotechnical analysis. This could include soil borings to determine if the property is sitting on solid rock or on sand for example. This will also determine if we have ground water or other unforeseen conditions, but mostly it is used to design the foundation.

Utility Access

We will want to know what type of access we have to utilities. electrical, plumbing, sewer, etc…  Will the building have to be off the grid if there is no access? Do you need to extend a sewer to reach the building? Will the property have access to good quality water? Utility access will greatly affect the project cost. We worked on a small building once that was about 2 million for the building construction but there was no immediate sewer access. Extending the sewer cost an additional half a million dollars.

High Risk Sites

Knowing if there are any risks as per weather, flooding, earthquake, and other considerations is imperative. We know climate change is increasing the intensity of extreme weather conditions, therefore a proper analysis of climate and other natural events is critical. We have seen super storms over and over devastating communities. Knowing if you are in a  flood zone (or some other high risk site) is of great importance. Look at another post we wrote about houses in the flood zone if you want to read more about flood zones design.

Natural Areas

You will want to know if you have any natural considerations. Are you in a “natural area district“? Or perhaps in wetlands. Are there endangered species living on your property? These are a few examples of natural area considerations but there are many different possibilities.


Access to the site may be critical for the success of the development. Is there public transportation? Where is the closest highway? What is the condition of the roads?


Property Title Search

Hire a title company to perform a title search on the property. The tile search will dig up the legal records on the property. There may be restrictions based on previous deals that you will inherit. Here is a list of some things a title search can turn up:

  • Previous Air Rights Transfers / Deals (Read more about Air Rights)
  • Covenants / Deed Restriction
    • The property may come with restrictions from previous owners or deals.
      • I had a client who wanted to purchase a property to develop a small apartment building. This was allowed by zoning but there was a deed restriction stating any person purchasing the property can only develop single family houses.
  • Easements
    • Easements are the right for another party to use or have access to your property. Make sure to understand any easements in my experience these are more common than one would think.
  • Property Liens
    • Make sure any liens on the property are cleared. Liens are legal claims to land by another party.


Zoning Analysis

When it comes to Pre Design Architectural Services Zoning is usually the one area we are most commonly hired to consult on.  Zoning will affect what type of building you are allowed to build as for use and occupancy. As well zoning will regulate building size. You can see another post we wrote if you want to learn more about Zoning Analysis Services. Here is a small list of some of the many issues zoning will affect:

  • Building Use
    • Use of the building: commercial, residential, etc…
    • How many occupants
  • Building Location
    • Distance from street
    • Yard requirements
    • What percentage of land it can occupy
  • Building Size
    • How many square feet can this be
    • How many stories, how tall, does it require setbacks
  • Parking
    • How much parking is required as a minimum
    • What is the maximum parking allowed
  • Special Considerations
    • Landmark or Historic District
    • Special Districts
    • Community Board Special Requirements
      • Example: In New York City there is a street called “Restaurant Row” were on the entire block you can only put a restaurant on the ground floor of the buildings. No other use is allowed on the ground floor.


Existing Building Assessment

This is going to be very broad so we won’t get into too much detail here. If you have an existing building it will need to be assessed. An architect can be essential in this area. Here are some of many concerns:

  • Existing Conditions Plans:
    • If there are no existing plans an architect can go to the building and take measurements to produce a set of existing conditions drawings AKA “As Built Plans”
    • If the original plans of the building are available the architect can verify the accuracy of the plans.
  • Hazardous Material Testing
    • Asbestos Testing will need to be done.
    • Lead testing can be done.
    • Mold testing.
  • Structural Assessment
  • Building Systems Assessment
    • Heating, Air conditioning, Ventilation
    • Electrical services
    • Sanitary Waste Services (Sewers)
      • A building we enlarged for a client had a clay sewer line connection that was collapsed. All the toilets we flushing into a broken clay pipe and going right into the ground.
  • Energy Efficiency / Energy Code
  • Special Requirements
    • Landmark / Historic Status for example



Programming is a term architects like to use for what goes into a building. Architectural Pre Design Services will often include programming, although the client sets the program the architect can assist and advise. The program is a list of all the spaces to go into the building and there general size or occupancy.

A simple example program for a movie theater could be as follows:

  • Number Of Cinema Rooms
    • size can be determined on Square footage or on seat count
  • Number Of Accessory Rooms
    • Projection Rooms
    • Office
    • Miscellaneous back of house spaces
  • Size and number of ticket booths
  • Lobby size and quantity
    • In New York City many zoning districts have a requirement for lobby / waiting room size to avoid sidewalk congestion.
  • Concession Stand size and quantity
  • Number Of Bathrooms
    • How many men’s and women’s rooms
      • How many fixtures per room (often dictated by code)
      • ADA Fixture (people with disabilities)
  • Parking
    • How many spaces
    • How many ADA spaces
  • Utility Spaces
  • Storage
  • Janitorial Space



There are 2 budgets to consider on a building development: Time and Cost. Sometimes early on these are difficult to determine. Typically you will look at similar projects or past projects. This is easier for experienced developers and of course difficult for new property developers. Often you can bring a contractor or construction manager in early on to begin discussing these issues. Of course they will be hypothetical without a full architectural design. A more detailed Pre Design Architecture Phase can assist in determining the preliminary budgets.


Pro Forma

The Pro Forma is the financial assessment and projections for the development. This is based on the findings and due diligence of the Pre Design architecture phase. Although I think some architects assist in this aspect it may be rare that they do. Essentially the Pro Forma will assess the financial and profitability projections of the development. It will be based on the architects assessment especially the zoning analysis and report which determines what can be built legally on the property.


Project Team Selection

Eventually you will need to put together the entire project team. This can be done little by little. Find the architect first and take it from there. Often your architectural consultant for the pre design architectural services can become the architect for the whole job. Or that architect can help you select an architect for your project.


Pre Design Services and Architecture

As an architect I study the design process, but these are deep and complicated issues. In this post we covered the basics of pre design services. This post is meant to be a general overview and does not assume to cover every possible issue.


Thank You for reading our blog post on Pre Design Services of an Architect.

Please feel free to post comments and questions. If you want to discuss a project with an architect you can contact us directly.


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Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.