Have you found yourself immersed in a confusing landscape of codes and permits, of construction schematics and environmental analyses?  The planning and construction of a commercial building may seem like a daunting process, but it doesn’t have to be if you familiarize yourself with the basic steps and look for a reputable, experienced design firm to guide you along the way.

Initial Preparation

You will probably want to begin your process by researching commercial design firms and setting up interviews to ensure you have a good match.  This is also a good time to either begin your search for general contractors or to discuss with the design firm you chose about their process for selecting contractors.

After you’ve chosen a design firm, you will want to discuss options such as whether to renovate an existing structure or to build from the ground up.  Your firm will want to discuss with you various remodel possibilities.  This is also the time to negotiate each party’s responsibilities, the project milestones and expected results, the legal obligations for each party, and to hammer out a work plan.

Research, Surveys, and Sketches

Your chosen design firm should immediately begin the research process into zoning maps, property liens, past permits on file, parcel data, and other pertinent information. They should also start gathering requirements pertaining to pre-permit and permit submission requirements.

If you are working with an existing structure, your design firm should produce documents providing all specifications on the structure as is.  Don’t hesitate to provide your own sketches, photos, or examples to your designers to indicate the visions you have for the project.

Where necessary, this would also be the stage to conduct site surveys and to hold discussions with feasibility consultants and environmental specialists who can confirm the viability of your projected designs.

Coordination and Interpretation

You should be sure by this point in the process that you have designated an internal project coordinator who will be your point of contact with the design firm.  The designee should schedule a meeting, following the research phase, to hash out understanding of the codes, permits, and timelines; to hold a Q and A about their impact, and to come to an agreement on translating codes into a physical design that meets your project goals.

Initial Diagram

The first element of the actual design process will be a diagram that considers codes in a visual format.  It will consider “large picture” requirements, such as proximity to other buildings, height restrictions, and egress requirements.

Design Details and Full Feasibility Study

A full feasibility study of the large-scale design should be conducted at this point to understand how access to the site, the orientation of the building, availability of existing utilities, and other factors influence and limit design.

Your design firm will discuss with you how feasibility limitations alter the schematic design and may provide various alternatives to the initial proposal.  They can then begin to diagram a more detailed schematic that incorporates lifestyle components, such as door and window choices, natural lighting, common areas, and public and private spaces.

You will also want to spend time at this phase discussing your target budget, analyzing projected construction costs, and making adjustments based on priorities.

Predicting Impediments

You and your design firm should meet to understand the pre-submission requirements for some permits, such as special easements or covenants.  Discovering and dealing with such impediments early in the process will clear the path to permit and avoid unnecessary time delays.

Incorporation of Permits into Design

A full understanding of the permitting process will lead to the most detailed version of design plans to date that incorporates the restrictions of permits into the design process.  At this stage, you can expect to begin making more intricate design decisions, such as whether to use wrought iron exterior doors or where to incorporate tile and wood flooring.

You can expect to review and finalize material palettes, and, should the scale of the project calls for it, to consult with mechanical, structural, and civil engineers so as to incorporate their recommendations.

Permit Submission Process

The time has come to write your checks for permit fees, to fill out all forms, and to submit to the proper departments.  It will probably take the agencies several weeks to review the documentation at which point they will submit corrections and ask for clarifications.  Once your design firm has revised design plans based on agency recommendations and the agency has approved the final design, your permits will be issued.

Construction Design

What has been essentially architectural designs are now translated into a series of detailed construction schematics (in some instances this may already have been required as part of the permitting process).  These schematics will take into consideration all design details from the door and window operating function, to light fixtures and appliances and will incorporate the recommendations of suppliers and manufacturers.

Choosing a General Contractor and Construction Administrator

Now is the time to compare construction estimates and interview general contractors.  You should consider their track records on previous contracts, contact referrals, compare pricing, and evaluate how their personality meshes with yours.

Once you have hired a contractor, you will probably also keep the architect on retainer to assure that the integrity of the design plan is maintained.  Finally, you will want to hire or appoint a construction manager to keep the project on schedule and inside the budget.  This can be (and often is) the design firm you have worked within the process.


The construction manager will coordinate the purchase of all construction materials, equipment, and the necessary labor for the project at which point the building will begin.  The process usually starts with grading, excavation, or site conditioning followed by concrete pouring and steel structure erection.  From there, framing, roofing, interior, and exterior development will be monitored by the construction manager and individual inspectors for quality control.

Post Construction

The project will reach an informal conclusion, at which point analysis will be performed to create a “punch list” of needed revisions to meet specifications and to prepare the building for occupancy.  The final step is for the architect to issue a certificate of completion and for a building representative to conduct a final inspection of the premises.