How long does a commercial project take? – Board & Vellum

Ask an Architect, Commercial Office, Retail

How Long Does a Commercial Project Take?

By Sandy Wolf
April 25, 2018

One of the most frequent questions we get from business owners reaching out to us about commercial projects is, “How long will my project take?” Now obviously, this answer will be different depending on if you are looking for an office for twelve people or a 150-seat restaurant, but we will try to map out the phases that Board & Vellum uses here.

Typical phases your commercial project will go through at Board & Vellum.

Pre-Design / As-Built Drawings

The first step in our commercial projects is what we refer to as Pre-Design. This, as you might have guessed from the name, is the step that sets us up for the design process.

In Seattle, nearly all commercial spaces are located in existing buildings, so it is important for the design team to go check out the existing conditions of the building and then draw them up to give us the parameters in which to design. (We call this set of drawings the ”As-Built Drawings” or “As-Builts,” for short.)

This phase is also when we review the building and zoning codes and look for red flags that could kill the design. If your dream is a 150-seat restaurant, but the space you have only has one exit (a problem for that many occupants), Pre-Design is the time to identify those issues. This is one more reason to bring an architect on early in the process as we can help spot these red flags.

This phase typically takes about two weeks to a month.

Schematic Design

We tend to think of this as the most fun phase of the project. This is when we really get into the meat of the design and start working with you to develop concepts and space plans that work for you. We’ll have multiple design meetings to collaborate with you and make sure we grasp your vision for the space. Each meeting features a design presentation that allows you to see the evolution of the space.

It is important to build in plenty of time for this step. While this can be an easy phase to want to shorten, it is also the phase where you really nail down the look and feel of the space. Compromising on the time you allow for it can compromise the end result.

This phase is also when we start discussing who will actually build your project. At Board & Vellum, we are firm believers in bringing a general contractor on board early in the process. We believe that early involvement makes the design better, and a contractor is your best resource for determining how much your project will really cost. If you don’t already have a contractor selected, we recommend interviewing multiple contractors and selecting one during schematic design. (And we can provide you with a list of contractors we think may be a good fit for you and your project.)

The schematic design and contractor selection phase typically takes three to four months.


After the schematic design phase is complete, we work with your selected contractor to price your project. While we help you estimate costs during Schematic Design, this is when we have the contractor break it down in detail. We believe that it is important that you have a clear understanding of the project cost before we move into permitting. After pricing, we also have time to review options for cost savings with the contractor.

It’s important to allow about a month for this phase to make sure the budget works.

Design Development / Permitting

With the design in place and the price determined, we dive into permitting and design development. This timeline varies greatly depending on what type of permit your project requires.

For detailed information on permit timelines check out:

Your architect can work with you to determine how long your permit will take, but generally, plan that you will need a minimum of two weeks of production time for very simple over-the-counter permit drawings, and two months of production time for full permit drawings. Then, you need to add permit review time, so this phase could take about three weeks, or it could take multiple months if you need a full building permit review. The good news is that during permit processing, we can work on further design development tasks. So, for larger projects that require permit review this is a great time to work on interior design. Which leads us to…

Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment (FF&E) & Construction Documents (CDs)

While the building permit is churning away at the city, this is the perfect time to tackle these two detail-focused phases. Our talented interior designers help select the touches that will really shine and our architecture team crafts more detailed Construction Drawings.

While, officially, FF&E is called Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment, what it actually means, or can convey, is a design project that leaves the architecture alone. When we refer to the “FF&E scope of work,” our interior design team is thinking of everything in the room that isn’t bolted to the structure of the building: the café seating, the retail displays, the desks, the art on the walls — you get the idea. (There are obvious exceptions to that rule, of course.) Doing this during permit review is ideal, and it gives us lead time to order products so they arrive in time for installation.

This is also the perfect time in the project for us to work with you and your contractor to create more detailed drawings, what we refer to as Construction Documents, or CDs. Our architects work with your project team to identify areas that need more detail and create drawings to help your contractor deliver what we designed. Just like FF&E, this is the ideal time to create construction drawings so that your contractor has everything they need to get started when the building permit is issued.

Construction Time

This is the phase you’ve been waiting for. It means you’re almost ready to open your doors and let the customers flow in. As with everything, the duration of this phase depends on your tenant space and your project scope. The shortest construction timeline we recommend business owners build into their schedule is eight weeks. It is hard to build out a commercial space in Seattle any faster than that. On the other side, a more complicated build-out may take six months. This is one more place that having a great architect-contractor team on board can help you understand the realities of your particular project.

We hope that mapping out these phases has helped you to understand about how long it takes to get from the beginning of the design process to your doors opening for business. It can be a daunting process but it is also an exciting and collaborative time and can result in a big step forward for your business!

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