How a design comes to be a building

by | April 28, 2016 3 Architecture

Despite what Howard Roark and Ted Mosby imply, most buildings are not the product of a sole architect’s vision at the drawing board. Rather, a design is created by the architectural team and engineers, who hand over the permitted documents to the contractor to build.

This is how it’s planned, but what really goes on? Is the process progressive and linear? Using a project I worked on extensively, the Pearl District Residence Inn, we’ll look at how the path from concept design to building opening is a bit more circuitous.


At the start, a client will typically engage an architect with a site, program, square footage and height. In a hospitality project like the Pearl District Residence Inn, we began with those elements plus a brand prototype to design within.

The Residence Inn brand of Marriott has a suburban prototype of a four-story, 127-room building with surface parking. With the selected site at the vacant block of NW 9th and Marshall in the Pearl District, our design eliminated surface parking, increased the height to 6 stories, and bumped the room count to +/- 220 rooms.

An early site plan shows the planned porte cochere at the center of the hotel.

An early site plan shows the planned porte cochere at the center of the hotel.

The pentagon block shape led to a C-shaped building form and a large semi-enclosed outside space, ideal for the porte cochere valet drop-off the brand required.


With a rough form, square footage and height created, we began developing the exterior and interior more fully. We wanted a design that melded into the neighborhood of mostly midrise residential buildings, and selected a dark brick with a secondary cladding of bright yellow metal paneling.

Originally, the hotel had a dark brick facade.

Originally, the hotel had a dark brick facade.

In certain areas of the Portland, including the Pearl District, buildings must be presented to and approved by the Design Commission through a process called Design Review, or DR. DR approval is just as necessary as receiving a building permit; construction cannot begin until then.

There is also an opportunity to present to the Commission prior to the formal DR hearing through a Design Advice Request, or DAR, which we opted for. At the DAR hearing, the Commission’s main suggestion was to change the brick from dark to light colored. We took that advice and adjusted our renderings as we moved into Design Development and prepped for our DR hearing.


During Design Development, the exterior forms, building materials and interior layouts become mostly finalized; detailed drawings are begun, and specifications become more fully developed. The engineering teams (structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and possibly others) also move their designs forward. We also focus on our Design Review package and presentation.

Around the midpoint of Design Development we submitted our DR package and presented before the Design Commission.

Our design now had a mostly white brick exterior with a mix of yellow and multi-colored brown/gray metal panels. The inner porte cochere drop off had an exterior canopy, and the main pedestrian entry on the west side featured a full height yellow colored perforated metal screen, meant to serve as a beacon to hotel guests.

With advice from the city, the facade changed from dark to light brick.

With advice from the city, the facade changed from dark to light brick.

Again, the Design Commission mostly enjoyed the design with one big exception: the porte cochere drop off was viewed as a major detriment. Their proposed solution? Eliminate the porte cochere and make the inner open space for pedestrians.


At the start of Construction Documents, design moves from preliminary to finalized. The drawings and specifications become construction documents, i.e., the documents the city permits and the contractor prices and builds. Dimensions are drawn to denote the size and location of the building elements, and the exact materials for the building are chosen.

Just prior to Design Development ending, the client gave us the go ahead to remove the porte cochere, and by working collaboratively with our landscape architect, it was transformed into a pedestrian focused hardscaped plaza.

The Pearl District Residence in with a new pedestrian courtyard.

A rendering of the Pearl District Residence Inn with a new pedestrian courtyard.

With the design finalized, we presented the Design Commission once more. It’s a bit of an educated guess on what they’ll enjoy, especially on something like the courtyard that changed so dramatically. To our relief, their response was overwhelmingly positive. We got approval and moved on to permitting!


To obtain a permit (and start construction), designs must adhere to jurisdictional building and engineering codes to ensure the building will be safe.

Our project had a foundation and building permit. We received the foundation permit first, which allowed below grade work prior to receiving a full building permit. As the foundation permit work neared completion, the building permit was approved, allowing the contractor to continue on with the full building construction.


During construction, the design team ensures the building is built as designed by reviewing and approving ‘submittals,’ which are documents from the contractor detailing the exact products/elements installed. Since a design is never perfect, questions are answered via a ‘request for information’ or RFI to clarify the design intent. An on-site review by the design team prior to opening, called a punchlist is performed to verify that a certain level of performance has been met.

For the Pearl District Residence Inn, the most complex submittals were around the unique yellow color on the building’s facade.


A mockup of the building materials allowed the team to match the unique yellow color in all uses.

As any designer knows, color matching is very difficult, and trying to match across different materials is even harder. On this project, there were four: the perforated aluminum screen, the fiberglass window frames, the composite metal panel between fiberglass windows, and the vertical seam metal panel on the inner courtyard elevation.

During construction, the contractor had a mockup built of the four materials. This allowed for a trial and error process, whereby we reviewed the colors at the building scale prior to building installation to ensure the design intent was met.


While Howie and Teddy are pretty much wrong about a single architect making a building, they are correct about one thing: the vision. The architectural team must maintain that vision from the earliest stages of design through the day the building opens. It’s there when drawing window flashing details, while reviewing submittals and answering RFIs, and when performing the punchlist.

So if you get a chance to enjoy the public courtyard at the Pearl Marriott Residence Inn, take pleasure in the seamlessly yellow pop of color, and the fact that you’re sitting on a bench and not a curb!


The final hotel, completed in 2014.


  1. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Nice work, Kyle! It’s testament to our talent that we were handed challenge after challenge and the end result came out even better!

  2. A good overview of what goes on to bring a design to life. And what an amazing design to use as an example! It’s great to see what changes are made as the project goes forward too.

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