What to Expect from a Commercial Architect

What to Expect from a Commercial Architect

The process of working with a commercial architect is not too different from what clients can expect from a residential architect, but it’s a practice that plays out on a much larger and more complex scale. After all, architects design and prep specifications for commercial buildings– offices and factories, hospitals, hotels, retail outlets, and shopping malls, sports facilities and rail and air terminals–with the same degree of structural integrity and attention to detail, with a greater emphasis on public safety, as they do residential projects.

 Just like homeowners looking to renovate, developers tasked with materializing a mall or other commercial building must do their research when selecting a commercial architect to design a project. The American Institute of Architects’ “Find an Architect” tool can help narrow the search for a licensed commercial architect in the area. Once the search is complete and the finalists were chosen, find out what to expect when working with a commercial architect.

Initial Consultation

Having an initial consultation with a commercial architect is necessary to ensure the architect is a good fit for the project. The image above represents a project that required a unique collaboration between Cardello Architects and the client, a well-known sculptor The result was an artist’s studio re-developed into a turn-of-the-century modern style structure featuring harnesses and pulleys to assist in the client’s artwork. Such a project could only become a reality with a strong relationship between architect and client.

Additionally, the client and commercial architect discuss the requirements of the project during the initial consultation. The needs for a commercial building may include such structural elements as elevators, cafeterias, bathrooms for employees and visitors, and parking areas.

If the plan involves an existing building, the commercial architect may require a site visit to evaluate the integrity of the structure to determine if a renovation or remodel is possible, or if the project will require the construction of a new building.

Once the project is deemed feasible, personalities click and the planning and proposal methodologies are agreed upon, then it’s onto the next phase.

Documentation and Design Development

Once hired, a good commercial architect gathers all information relating to the project site (and existing building, if applicable) that impacts the planning process. This information includes zoning maps, past parcel data, past permits on file, permit submittal requirements, and more.

With this information in mind, a commercial architect reviews the project plans and makes adjustments as necessary, as well as determines the timeline, budget, and general aesthetics. The architect produces initial proposals and sketch designs for the client’s review and may incorporate site reports or feasibility studies. Sketch designs may be further developed into detailed drawings and scale models.

A commercial architect may also seek design input from specialists like structural and electrical engineers, heating and ventilating experts, and lighting and interior designers to ensure all elements comply with building, fire and safety codes, as well as with the design itself.

Yet commercial projects often represent unique design challenges. For example, Cardello Architects was tasked with turning a long, narrow, and uninteresting second-floor commercial space into a dynamic hair salon in Fairfield, CT (pictured above). To inject some glamour into space, Cardello Architects broke up the long linear space with a large, sweeping curve that arcs its way through the entire room. The curve is reflected in many of the elements of the plan: the stair, the custom millwork, and the ceiling detail, resulting in a sensuous, sophisticated look.

After the client agrees to the proposed design, the architect draws up detailed specifications and contract documents that form the basis of agreements and estimates for general contractors responsible for construction. These specifications, along with design proposals, are often necessary for the commercial architect to begin the permitting process.

Permitting Process, Diagramming, and Schematics

A commercial architect will meet with the municipality’s building department to confirm building and zoning codes, jumpstarting the permitting process required to begin construction. From there, the architect can produce a diagram that showcases all the elements of the project, as well as zoning and building codes, in one graphic representation. The diagram reveals all the drivers that will affect the project’s physical form and appearance, including the building’s various uses, height limits, egress requirements, etc.

The project diagram also creates opportunities for different solutions to address potential constraints of the project. These solutions are developed into schematic design. (Schematics detail design concepts, experiential and lifestyle components like large windows and common areas.) The schematic design may also incorporate narratives inspired by the site’s history into the architecture.

As the design process moves forward, schematics are developed into permit documents and, depending on the scope of the project, maybe distributed to consultants like mechanical engineers who add their input prior to submitting permits. At this point in the process, a commercial architect will act as a contact to the building department, answering questions and modifying plans as necessary.

The building pictured above showcases a project that was very complicated from a zoning perspective, as the structure was larger than what the Darien, CT code would normally allow. The shape of the building was dictated by its position on the main road and its approach from different angles. The building is clearly visible by local north and southbound traffic, so Cardello Architects developed a classic and impressive roof-line indicative of the charm of the area.

Once permits are filed, reviewed and approved by the zoning and building officials, the project moves into the construction phase.

Construction Administration and Project Management

A commercial architect will help a client choose a general contractor to oversee construction of the project. This may include assisting the client with a bidding process to hire a general contractor that is a good fit for the project and can deliver at the right price.

As construction commences, the commercial architect is usually retained to answer questions, clarify details and revise plans if necessary to ensure the integrity of the project. Responsibilities at this point may also include reviewing overall costs, invoices, and scheduling.

Finally, the commercial architect may also stay on to coordinate with interior designers to make certain the building’s interior meets the client’s expectations and melds with the project’s exterior design.


From the initial consultation through schematic design and the permitting process and beyond, a good commercial architect is one who sees the project through from beginning to end. This consistency ensures the final product complies with building and zoning codes, maintains structural integrity and, most of all, turns the client’s vision into reality.

Cardello Architects is a full-service architecture firm that combines extensive experience, a strong creative spirit and comprehensive knowledge with an efficient process to provide all of our clients – commercial and residential – with the perfect architectural design to meet your needs and suit your tastes. Services range from consultation and design development to bidding and construction administration.

If you’d like to learn more about Cardello Architects, contact us to discuss your project today.

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