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What are Architectural Drawings For

An example of an elevation.  They can be very pretty or very basic, and always innacurate.

An example of an elevation. They can be very pretty or very basic, and always innacurate.

This week, I ran into a couple of new problems that comes from a misunderstanding of the limits of architectural drawings, so I thought I’d spend a little time discussing what they are, what they’re meant to do, and how to make sure your drawings reflect your goals.  Architectural drawings are living documents that reflect a graphical representation of the intent of the design.  They aren’t a perfect rendition of the final look, and it’s vitally important for everyone to know what stage the drawings are in and that the vital design details are properly specified to ensure the final product meets owner desires.

The first problem came with a couple we were working on schematic

A perspective sketch can give you a feel for a space, but is not usually included on the contract documents

A perspective sketch can give you a feel for a space, but is not usually included on the contract documents

drawings for.  This client drew up exactly what they wanted, and did a decent job of hand drafting it up.  We copied the drawings into our systems and presented them to the owner.  Then we ended up spending a lot of time talking about the rafter tale detail.  I hate elevations, for a few reasons, one of them being they are far less accurate than any other drawing, but they’re also the ones non-professionals take most seriously.  They are also not realistic, you will never see a building that looks much like it’s elevations.  You don’t generally look at a building directly face on and never without perspective.  These two issues can dramatically affect the final look of the building and sometimes elevations are very deceptive. More than once, I’ve had to do a perspective drawing or renderings to convince a client their house was actually quite ugly (don’t worry, they almost always agreed when they saw the more realistic angle.)  But back to the case in question, the drawings we were working with involved a fair amount of guessing as to the final structure.  The final look would be heavily influenced by the size of the structural members (rafters and headers) that had not been designed yet.  It’s important that we had this discussion so we can be sure to be very careful to draw up detailed sections of that area to be sure we achieve the look the client wants as we nail down more details, but it can lead to frustration on both ends during that conversation if owners take the drawings too literally or architects don’t appear to be listening to their concerns.

That was a case of a drawing that wasn’t finished yet being taken as the final word, the next is a case of a set of drawings that wasn’t explicit enough to communicate design requirements.

An exterior rendering, great for getting a feel for a space, but usually not included in the documents.  Make sure the contractor sees any renderings that are done, it might help them understand issues that have already been discussed

An exterior rendering, great for getting a feel for a space, but usually not included in the documents. Make sure the contractor sees any renderings that are done, it might help them understand issues that have already been discussed

This is a case of window grill patterns as drawn on the elevations and window schedule that ended up not matching the installed windows.  Often, window grill patterns vary by manufacturer for different sizes and specifying a colonial style grill gives you different looks for the same basic pattern.  Although the drawings clearly showed the correct number of bars that the owner wanted, the contractor ordered the standard colonial grills rather than a specific number, which didn’t match.  Once the windows were installed, the owners felt that the the ordered bars were too busy and wanted to make a change.  One way to avoid this problem would have been to make the drawings clearly state the number of grills was to be as drawn, not colonial style.  Another, and more legally binding way, would be the review the actual shop drawings/order forms.  These are drawings provided by the subcontractor or manufacturer that detail exactly what they plan to provide.  These are the first drawings that are (per the courts) legally binding as to what will be installed.  For critical details, requiring shop drawing approval is a great way to make sure it will be the way you want it and to push the liability for such to your licensed design professional so there is a recourse to get any mistakes fixed.  The other key is to make sure your architect knows which details are key so they can be stressed properly in the drawings, lessening the chance the general or sub contractor misunderstands the design intent implied by the drawings.

What I’m hoping you’re getting from this is that architectural drawings are never perfect representations of a design.  There will always be issues that don’t match whether by mistake, or by the nature of the drawings, or the misinterpretation of a stake holder.  As always, keeping lines of communication open is the best way to make sure what is drawn is what you want and what you end up getting.