Art of Construction Documents

Many designers are capable of truly artful approaches to their design work. Often times this is to gain buy-in from clients, to win competitions, and to inspire communities regarding future development in their neighborhoods. However, an artful approach can also be important regarding the more technical side of architecture – construction documents.

In bygone eras (read:before computers), construction documents were already quite artful. Hand drawing allowed a certain real-time intuitive flexibility in the approach of drafting and laying out details. Especially given project type and style (i.e. much more “decorative” approach to architecture), hand drawn details could easily be framed as real works of art.

Door elevation and detail of Borgund Kirke used as reference for Chapel in the Hills, Rapid City, SD.

However, in regards to construction documents, the function of art isn’t just beauty. Sure, automated details taken from a digital drawing can be made beautiful for sure, but the other function of art is often to, as noted in the opening paragraph, communicate. In art this is often to communicate (or create) an experience, a deeper meaning or idea, and sometimes even convey a political point. The artful purpose construction documents, likewise, is to communicate intent to the contractor and laborers putting together the building and its myriad components.

A clear example of this is the use of “line-weights” on elevations. Unfortunately, being intentional with line-weights is often lacking in many drawings created since the advent of Revit, which often doesn’t recognize profiles well and ends up flattening things. The artful work of elevations themselves has really been lost because of such automation, but being meticulous about line-weight can help areas of the building that are more proud or forward from others read as such intuitively, without the viewer having to reference a floor plan to understand an element. Similarly, just adding a bit of shadow can help relay this depth and intent as well (though of course one has to be careful that this shadow is not interpreted as a different finish!)

Automatic Revit generated building elevation. This complex elevation is at best, confusing without knowing what is closer to the viewer, or further away.
Same elevation as above, but with minimal investment into line-weights and shadow. Already easier to understand what is going on with this complex building.

By being artful in the approach of construction documents and details, you can quickly relate information much more intuitively to a contractor than might otherwise be done by providing a written description. Most people who work with their hands are good visual thinkers, so providing an accurate and well rendered visual of something can go a lot further than citing ANSI standard blah blah blah (though industry standards and requirements are important to document and enforce). Even including a simple isometric of a complicated assembly (along with the requisite details) can go help a contractor and fabricator wrap their mind around the intent of an element like a stair, custom desk, etc.

3D view of a stair at the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, indicating a built-in bench below an open stair and atrium.

Even the additional written information in our drawings can be graphically organized in an intentional, artful manner so that it is easy to read and coordinate. Many architects love to use a CAD standard of adding numerical keynotes to details that reference back to the specification manual. However, this often results in a non-intuitive engineering like diagram, and causes major headaches for a contractor, constantly having to change focus from the graphic of a specific detail to a keynote legend on the side of the drawing, and back again. Instead, integrating the text can make for a much more intuitive approach and allow for easier translation of the detail.

So many different specification sections, so little time… And what are the circled keynotes about? Not very intuitive…
Having a written description of the components right within the detail allows for less being lost in translation with a keynote legend.

In summary, construction documents should not necessarily be considered simply a technical task. Ensuring that details and drawings can quickly, visually, and intuitively communicate intent can assist contractors in their work and result in less questions and errors in the field. An intentional artful approach can pay dividends in an architect’s time as well – not having to explain a complicated system to a contractor during construction or having to spend time designing quick fixes to modify errors the contractor made when intent wasn’t clear in the construction documents. An artful approach might even garner you some admirers out of the contractors if your details are really clear and easy to intuit – makes their life easier as well.

One Reply to “Art of Construction Documents”

  1. Great article Chase. The art of communication to contractors, owners, suppliers and the like is critical to a final product that is responsive to the client’s wishes and usually results in more value for the owner.

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