House Plans 101

Ex­pert tips for read­ing blue­prints like a pro

Timber Home Living - - Contents -

Ex­pert tips for read­ing blue­prints like a pro

Th­ese days, you’re able to re­view more than just the blue­prints be­fore con­struc­tion be­gins. You’ll likely get a com­plete pack­age of con­struc­tion doc­u­ments show­ing your fu­ture home from al­most ev­ery an­gle imag­in­able. To the layper­son with no train­ing in ar­chi­tec­ture or en­gi­neer­ing, all the in­for­ma­tion can be over­whelm­ing.


The term “blue­prints” is a lit­tle out of date: Pre-com­put­ers, ar­chi­tects cre­ated hand draw­ings on vel­lum pa­per, then laid vel­lum over blue­print

pa­per, which had a blue tint to it, and pro­cessed the doc­u­ments in am­mo­nia through a blue­print ma­chine in a man­ner sim­i­lar to film de­vel­op­ing. Now, they’re mostly dig­i­tal ver­sions or pho­to­copies of com­puter-aided de­sign (CAD) draw­ings, which in­stead fea­ture black and white lines that are much eas­ier to read.

The re­sults are usu­ally printed on 18-by-24-inch or 24-by-36-inch pa­per, also aid­ing in read­abil­ity. An­other bonus to this new method: Home­own­ers can have their com­plete house plans stored on­line to be down­loaded or on a zip drive to be saved to their com­puter’s desk­top.


When you re­ceive your con­struc­tion doc­u­ments, your ar­chi­tect or builder will prob­a­bly re­view them with you. Still, it can be dif­fi­cult to vi­su­al­ize your fin­ished project from blue­prints. To get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what you see on pa­per, ask your ar­chi­tect or de­signer any ques­tions that come to mind. And be sure to spend a good deal of time look­ing through the plans. To nav­i­gate your way through them, re­fer of­ten to the leg­ends page shown on page 22.


Your next step is to fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with ba­sic con­struc­tion doc­u­ment el­e­ments. You will need to un­der­stand or rec­og­nize the fol­low­ing:


The main floor plans are usu­ally drawn to ¼ scale. In prac­ti­cal terms, this means that ev­ery ¼ inch on the plan equals 1 foot in ac­tual length. Dif­fer­ent parts of the plan, such as fram­ing lay­outs or built-in de­tails, may be drawn to 1/8 or 3/4 scale. From this, the builder scales the home to cal­cu­late the cor­rect mea­sure­ments for walls, open­ings, etc.

Base­ment or foun­da­tion floor plan:

Show­ing the lo­ca­tion of the load­bear­ing walls, foot­ings, re­bar con­crete re­in­force­ments and other struc­tural com­po­nents, th­ese plans out­line the struc­tural in­tegrity of the home and what sup­ports its roof and walls.


Th­ese draw­ings show the home from the front, rear and side per­spec­tives. El­e­va­tions are de­signed to give you an idea of what the fin­ished home will look like, as well as its mass, height and width. You’ll see the lo­ca­tion of the win­dow open­ings,

ex­te­rior fin­ish treat­ments, roof pitches, ridge heights and other ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails.

Floor plans:

The eas­i­est to un­der­stand of all the con­struc­tion doc­u­ments, floor plans pro­vide a bird’s-eye view of the com­pleted house. They show the home’s lay­out and in­clude room di­men­sions as well as the lo­ca­tion of bath­room and kitchen fix­tures, stairs and wa­ter heaters, among other things. Deno­ta­tion of in­te­rior fin­ishes, con­struc­tion meth­ods and sym­bols for elec­tri­cal and plumb­ing des­ig­na­tions are of­ten in­cluded.

Elec­tri­cal lay­out:

Elec­tri­cal lay­outs show the lo­ca­tion of light fix­tures, fans, out­lets, light switches and more, and they come with a leg­end that ex­plains each sym­bol. Th­ese doc­u­ments are usu­ally sep­a­rate draw­ings elec­tri­cians use to wire the home.

Fram­ing draw­ings:

Drawn to scale, fram­ing plans show the ba­sic skele­ton of a house from the floor joists to trusses to beam lo­ca­tions to the walls. Of­ten, they in­clude in­struc­tions for wall con­struc­tion.

Cross sec­tions and de­tails:

Cross sec­tions — draw­ings of the com­pleted home cut in half — are in­cluded in the con­struc­tion doc­u­ments be­cause floor plans don’t al­ways pro­vide enough in­for­ma­tion on how the home will be built. Th­ese plans are gen­er­ally more help­ful to home­own­ers to re­late to the size of their spa­ces than in the ac­tual con­struc­tion of the project. For in­stance, a great room might have 20-foot vaulted ceil­ings. An ar­chi­tect or de­signer might insert a graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a 6-foot hu­man to show how a per­son of that height would re­late to the height of the ceil­ing.

Plumb­ing and me­chan­i­cal system lay­outs:

Plumb­ing and me­chan­i­cal system lay­outs show the lo­ca­tion of fix­tures and main wa­ter lines. More de­tailed plans are drawn up by heat­ing or plumb­ing spe­cial­ists for com­plex heat­ing sys­tems such as ra­di­ant heat or en­gi­neered forced-air sys­tems.

Plot (or site) plan:

A plot (or site) plan is a draw­ing of the site where the home is go­ing to be built. In ad­di­tion to the place­ment of the home on the parcel, it shows the lo­ca­tion of util­ity ser­vices, set­back re­quire­ments, ease­ments, drive­ways and walk­ways.

You don’t need a de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture to read and un­der­stand con­struc­tion doc­u­ments. We’ll show you what to look for so your project turns out just the way you planned.

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