A Primer on Architectural Documentation
by Don Leighton-Burwell, AIA/Tenth Times July 1997
The quantity and quality of documentation that is produced for architectural
projects varies widely, as do the corresponding costs. There are "plan
factories" that produce drawings for a nominal fee with little attention
to detail and even less protection for the Owner during the construction
process. By the same token, a project can be "over-documented" relative
to the project budget, and thusly inflating the cost of building. I will
attempt to define what I believe is the minimum required to document a
project, obtain building permits, and above all, ensure that the Owner
gets the quality of project that he/she is paying for.
There are two principle parts to an Architect's construction documentation:
the Drawings and the Project Manual. The drawings (often referred to as
"Plans" or "Blueprints") represent the graphic information required to
describe and construct the project. Most projects require three (3) basic
types of drawings; plans, sections and elevations. Plans are two-dimensional
representations of a horizontal "cut" though the building or space viewed
from above. We most commonly know these types of drawings as "floor plans";
however, most projects will also require site/location plans, reflected
ceiling plans, lighting plans, power plans, plumbing plans, equipment
plans and detail plans.
The second type of drawing is the section which is similar to a plan.
In this case, the cut is made vertically (z-axis) thru the space resulting
in what is commonly known as the "cross-section". This is an important
drawing that defines spatial qualities (changing ceiling heights, light
coves, etc.) in the vertical dimension. Since architecture is a three-dimensional
art, the adequate investigation of this element of design is of equal
importance to the plan in defining the quality of the space. With the
advent of computer modelling, the public's sophistication of what can
be expected in this "third-dimension" reflects the importance of this
aspect of design.
The third most commonly used drawing is the elevation. We know this drawing
in seeing "facades" of buildings represented in the newspaper. This drawing
simply represents the view of a vertical element within a space and is
regularly used to describe cabinet design (ie. door and drawer configurations).
Elevations are often projected into three-dimensional space to produce
perspective sketches or renderings.
All of the above drawing types are used to document the various aspects
of architectural design in producing plans, sections, elevations and details
of a wide variety. In addition, drawings commonly have notes and dimensions
that verbally describe what is intended in greater detail. Another drawing
convention, the Schedule, is used to give specific detailed information
on a wide selection of specific project parts including doors and windows,
lighting and plumbing fixtures, and room finishes.
The other "half" of the Architect's documentation is the Project Manual,
often referred to as the "specifications". In actuality, the specifications
are just a part of the whole manual with other parts being contracts for
construction, general conditions of the construction contract, supplementary
conditions, and other legally binding documents. The specifications themselves
are broken into sixteen divisions reflecting different disciplines within
the construction process such as concrete, wood and plastics, electrical,
etc. The specifications or "specs" deal with information that cannot be
addressed graphically such as performance and installation standards,
materials to be used, sample submittal and approval processes, etc. This
information supplements the drawings and is an integral part of the contract
The Drawings and Project Manual, as described above, are the tangible
result of the Architect's services, but typically only represents about
40% of their entire service. When comparing fees, be sure to know what
level of service you are agreeing to, and the amount of detail that the
Architect customarily provides. Lower fees often mean abbreviated services
that can lead to necessary change orders and other cost overruns.