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 for construction.

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.