Anatomy of Architectural Drawings

As you are dealing with your architect, you will be presented with sets of drawings that may seem a bit confusing if you are unfamiliar with their presentation. Three-dimensional full color renderings can help you to visualize a space, but contractors cannot really build from them. Construction Documents are designed for the use of the contractor(s); here is a brief guide on how to understand them for yourself.

Often you may hear architectural drawings referred to as “plans” generally, but in truth a plan drawing is just one of several types of drawings. Imagine slicing your building horizontally at about waist height (using some kind of high-powered laser perhaps), then laying a sheet of paper over all the cut walls and tracing them out. A Floor Plan will do this and then show everything as though looking down towards the floor, while a Reflected Ceiling Plan will look up towards the ceiling, as though the sheet of paper was a mirror.


Other common types of plans include Site Plans, which show the property and exterior features; these may include contour lines which can be imagined as horizontal slices of the terrain, taken at some regular vertical spacing. A Roof Plan describes the slopes and usually the framing of the roof, from a top-down vantage point. A Demolition Plan is a kind of Floor Plan, but only shows the existing walls, doors, etc. and notes where things have to be removed or changed in order to make room for the new conditions.

Drawings are done to a declared scale, which is just the ratio of the printed size to its real-world built dimension. For instance, a drawing marked “Scale: 1/4” = 1’=0”” means that something printed as one-quarter of an inch in length will represent a real-world length of twelve inches.

Aside from Plans, the next most common drawing types are Elevations and Sections. An Elevation drawing looks at a building’s vertical side, rather than looking up or down as in a Plan. These drawings are close to how we will physically encounter a building as we walk through it, though they make no accounting for the viewer’s perspective. They show the shingles on a roof as readily as they do the bricks in the wall, when in reality the roof slope might be so shallow that from a normal vantage point, the singles aren’t actually visible.

A Section differs from an Elevation in that it presumes an imaginary vertical slice through the building at some particular point, with the purpose of describing the things that it is cutting through. A Wall Section shows the various layers of materials that make up the wall, for instance. A Building Section might graphically show how the whole building comes together at that particular slice location, but then feature numerous references to other drawings, called Details.

Details can be Sections, Plans, or Elevations, depending on which kind of view is best to describe the component. These are drawn at larger scales and tend to isolate a certain component in order to show it more clearly and note it fully.

One last element common to drawing sets worth mentioning is the Schedule. In a drawing context, this does not refer to a timeline, but rather to a list of similar items. For instance, a Door Schedule lists all of the doors in the project, usually referenced by a number that is tagged on the floor plan. The Door Schedule is a way to provide lots of specific information about each door without having to cram all that information onto the Floor Plan. Similarly, a Room Finish Schedule provides instructions for the various finish materials, like carpet or paint, to use on all the surfaces in that room.

Drawing sets can be developed in color as an aid to reading them, though this practice is not yet common. Ultimately, a drawing set is a tool for communication, so that everybody understands the design. Your architect should strive to ensure that you can read and understand the drawings they produce for you.

-Michael Rountree