At Interior Alchemy, our second phase requires stepping back and defining the total problem that we will need to solve.  We gather all of the information we gleaned from the DISCOVER phase and begin analyzing your needs and wish lists.  We review everything you want and need, and overlay that with the existing conditions of the project.

The goal of the DEFINE phase is to synthesize all of the information, and adequately define and articulate the problems, so that we can and begin solving them during the next DREAM phase.

Define Phase Steps

Existing Conditions Floor Plan

With the Discovery Session complete, we will take all of the elements we learned about your project back to the design studio so that we can begin to prepare, organize, and analyze what was been learned about your project.  The first thing we will do is to draw out a digital floor plan of your as-built space using the measurements we took. This will be the base floor plan for everything we design.

Blank floor plan

Image Credit: Interior Alchemy – during the DEFINE phase of The Libertine restaurant project. Copyright 2019

Project Feasibility Research Satisfied

Taking into consideration all of the information and objectives we learned about during the DISCOVER phase, we will think through what research needs to be done in order to complete this project.  For the majority of the interior design projects we do, we rely on our own expertise and knowledge to take a project over the finish line. However, more complex projects requiring permits or major construction will require some research into the feasibility of the project.

For example, during the Libertine restaurant project Discovery Session, we learned that one of the goals our client was interested in pursuing was the creation of an outdoor sidewalk dining space. So, during the DEFINE phase, we developed a list of research areas to explore to help us determine if it would be feasible to install patio dining in that location.  Not only do we look at feasibility from a city permitting perspective (exactly what it would entail to seek permission from the city to offer sidewalk dining?), but we also work with the client to determine if the costs associated with building out patio dining would be within client budget as well as make sense for the client to undertake from a profitability perspective.

We researched zoning requirements, the process and costs involved in pursuing sidewalk dining permits, as well as outdoor signage codes and restrictions.  So, before we start designing the layout of the patio or selecting tables and chairs, we determine that this project objective should be pursued.

List of items to research before beginning design

Image Credit: Interior Alchemy – Research areas to be explored during the DEFINE phase of The Libertine restaurant project. Copyright 2019

For your project, we may need to conduct some preliminary compliance research and answer feasibility questions regarding the scope of the project before we can start designing, such as:

  • Does enough space exist to add the code-compliant half-bathroom you dream about?
  • Are there any historical preservation restrictions in play?
  • Will municipal codes allow an ADU at your property?
  • Will our design need to be in compliance with the architectural review board standards of your condominium building?
  • If you wish to pursue any green building certifications, could this project qualify?

Once you and the project team are satisfied that we have addressed the relevant potential codes, neighborhood restrictions, HOA covenants, zoning compliance issues and green certification protocols (if the client wishes to pursue them), we will ask you to sign off on an approval of your Satisfaction of Project Feasibility Research in order for us to continue forward with the next steps in this phase. This is an important step in order for us to proceed because it indicates that you agree that you have shared with us any restrictive covenants or relevant information (beyond basic building codes) that you would have needed to provide to us in order for us to verify that your project can be built.

For example, if you live in a condominium, there are typically restrictions on what you can and cannot do during a remodel of your unit.  It is critical to our pricing, the project scope, and success of the project to understand any restrictions placed on your project by the building’s architectural review committee or which elevators can be used.  It is not uncommon for design decisions to be limited by the size of the freight elevator which a contractor is allowed to use to haul construction materials.  We will need to know everything up front which may impose a limitation on the design so that we can verify and perform the necessary research to feel comfortable that we can design something that will be approved to be built.

Also if the client is interested in pursuing LEED or other green-building certifications, we will research those protocols before design begins because environmentally sustainable design can easily be integrated into the project at this point before the design begins to takes shape.

Synthesize the Body of Information

This step involves organizing and analyzing your goals, the functional needs of the space, how you behave in the space, the budget, the existing structure, codes and other factors.

We may explore activity mapping to try to improve the flow of traffic or circulation within a space.  In a restaurant, we will create a map of all the competing uses for the same space and analyze how traffic paths cross and interact.

Image Credit: Interior Alchemy – during the DEFINE phase of The Libertine restaurant project. Copyright 2019

In a residential project, we may be exploring how the space is used when everyone in the household is getting ready for school and work, preparing lunches for later, cooking and eating breakfast, as well as gathering belongings and outerwear for the day.  We may be looking at ways to improve the layout in order to minimize congestion in certain areas.

First and foremost, it is our objective to give you everything you desire.  However, sometimes, due to budget, code or conflicting client goals, we will have to begin making decisions together about which goals are most important to achieve for your project.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, this is typically where we find out that certain items on the wish list list may not be possible to grant.  For example, it is common for a client to come to us with inspiring photos of indoor/outdoor spaces with a wall of doors that accordion fold out of the way to extend the usable living space.  While these doors are breathtaking, increase the size of your functional space, and add value to a home, they typically come with a hefty price tag, starting at about $15,000, not including the engineering required to make the necessary structural changes to support the doors and the labor and installation costs.

This step is about defining exactly what you want.  It may be clear that the client has not budgeted for these doors, but what it says is that the client has a desire to create an indoor/outdoor living space, and to bring more light into the interior of the home, or that they want unobstructed access to the exterior views on the other side of the wall.  It is important that we, as your designer, ask the right questions.  Just because something is out of your budget does not necessarily mean that we cannot try to deliver what you need in a different way.

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.

– Charles Eames

Additionally, sometimes, clients come to us with conflicting goals for a project and it is during the step that we explore, uncover and define precisely which goals are the most important to a client.  For example, If you want to carve out a half-bath and a laundry room from a hall closet and unused pantry, we may discover that there is no way to fit a code-compliance bathroom AND laundry room into that space without building on an addition to the home, which may not be in the budget.  This may be a time where you would need to decide if it was more important to you to have a laundry room in that space or a half-bath.

But, if we also ask the right questions, we may be able to find out that you don’t actually want a laundry room, but perhaps what is most important is that you want a space in which to do laundry which is near the kitchen and bedroom but can be closed off so it isn’t visible from the living room.  A separate and easily-accessible space does not alway translate to a separate room with a door.  Perhaps, the right decision when you have limited space to work within, is to create a hallway, closet-style laundry space, which could save enough square footage to then also create the half-bath that you also need.

In the previous  DISCOVER phase, we asked, “What do you want and why?”  Understanding not just what you want but why you want it, helps us prioritize your wish list so that we can make the best decisions to reach the intended outcome of the project.

Depending on the the scope, we may consult with the entire project team to ensure that the elements we believe will be included are possible and we may also begin developing ideas for how to organize the project to accomplish your goals.

Document the Solution – The Program

During the previous information synthesis step, we will begin drafting The Program which is a written document which will describe all of the realistic objectives we hope to achieve in the project.  It defines the design problems and take a high level look at how we will solve them.

Using the kitchen window-to-french-doors example from the DISCOVER phase Interview, uncovering the true desire behind the client’s request for a kitchen window solved a number of critical problems the client hadn’t even mentioned during the interview.  After we asked the right questions and the client was able to answer the ‘why’, the way this directive translated to items in The Program follows:

  • Increase the lighting in the kitchen
  • Ensure that range hood ventilation is not only adequate, but has the capacity to quickly move burnt smells out of the space
  • Increase access to fresh air source
  • Create an opening in the south wall located such that the children can be observed while playing in the backyard while someone is cooking, preparing meals, and washing dishes

It is important to note that The Program does not limit only one solution to this design problem – a window.  The design solution could be a door, or set of doors.  It is important to us, as your designer, to deliver design solutions which meet and oftentimes exceed your wishes, but perhaps you just hadn’t thought of it on your own.  We work in space every day.  It is our job to analyze the space and creatively think through the best solutions for you, given the project parameters.

Depending on the scope, difficulty, and budget for your project, writing The Program could take a couple of days or a couple of weeks to complete.

Once finalized, you will review The Program and if we have misunderstood anything, or if you have something else to add, we will make revisions until we gain your approval and satisfaction that we will be addressing all of your project goals when we start designing.

Preliminary Estimated Project Investment Range

We will create a preliminary estimated investment range that will be a wide spread of where will think the project costs could land.  This is not intended as a promise or expectation that the final design you choose will not exceed this range.  It is too early in the process to devise an accurate budget because everything is possible and there are too many unknown variables to predict how your decision process will proceed.  For example, we do not know if you will decide to purchase a $30,000 La Cornue showpiece range for the kitchen, when an $3,000 range would have been sufficient to meet your needs.  This preliminary estimated budget range is simply a guide, based on our experience, so that you begin to understand how each of your choices will affect the total project costs.  This is a tool for all of us to use when making decisions about which parts of the projects are feasible and worth doing now and which parts may be delayed for a later date or removed altogether due to budget concerns.

Rough Estimated Timeline

After we have your approval of The Program and the Preliminary Estimated Project Budget Range, we will also put together a rough timeline.  Because actual labor availability and specific product lead times are not taken into consideration at this time, this is only a very loose timeline, based on our experience, of how long it could take to complete the project.  At this early stage, we cannot determine precise availability of contractors, control how long it takes to have permits issued, or know if the client is choosing ready-made millwork or custom fabricating millwork from overseas.  But the idea at this stage is to create a base realistic timeframe to consider if every step goes smoothly (which it won’t) and if you are relatively quick in providing feedback, revisions and making decisions.  This way, every time you or the team consider a decision which may affect the timeline to completion, that decision can be fully evaluated and charted so that you remain informed about the impacts of those decisions and how they change the targeted project completion date.

Design Services Agreement for the Project

After you have affirmed that we have thoroughly understood the project goals, you have had a chance to consider the budget range and the rough timeline, you will have the full freedom to decide if you would like to continue with the design process. Sometimes, a client decides that they need to pause and budget more money, or sometimes, they do not realize how long a major construction project takes and had planned to host a wedding at their home during the renovation timeline.

Most of the time, the client moves forward, excited to finally let their space become the space they have always dreamed of!

We will draft a written understanding of the scope of your project, the scope of our services, our design services fees, what we will deliver, and how we will deliver it to you, in order to meet your design objectives. If there is anything you do not understand in the contract, or feel that we have misunderstood, we welcome and encourage revisions to add clarity.  It is important to keep in mind that, depending on the scope of the project, it is possible that we could be working together for 6 months or more, so it is so critical that we all clearly understand the expectations you have of Interior Alchemy, and that we have of you.

This document, when approved, will become the official launch of your design project!

At the conclusion of this step, we will sign written contracts for the design of your project, so that you and Interior Alchemy can begin to DREAM and design your new space together.


Percentage of Designer’s Total Project Work

The Define phase typically comprises approximately 8% of the designer’s total project work and, at the completion of this phase, the designer’s role in the project will be approximately 10% complete.


Percentage of Design Work Completion