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What You Need to Know About Codes

Your guide to understanding construction docs like a professional.


 Photo: Daniel McCullough / Unsplash


You’ve looked at dozens–maybe hundreds–of plans and found “the one.” Congrats! That’s quite the feat. But you’re not quite ready to build just yet. The types of layouts you see in our issues are carefully crafted to give you the general size, room configuration and flow of the home, but they will still need to be tailored to suit your site, as well as any tweaks you’ll want to make. The next step is to work with the company who created the plan to customize the design and draft 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, the information on these construction docs can feel overwhelming. (What do all these symbols mean?) Don’t fret. We’ve organized a simple guide to help you understand your plan.


Blueprints 101

While still an often used term, the word “blueprints” is a bit of a misnomer: Pre computers, architects created hand drawings on vellum laid over blueprint paper and processed in ammonia through a blueprint machine in a manner similar to film developing. Now, they’re digital computer-aided design (CAD) drawings, which feature black and white lines that are much easier to read. Another bonus to the modern method: Homeowners can have their complete house plans stored online to be downloaded and saved to their computer’s desktop.


Getting Your Documents

When you receive your construction documents, your architect or builder will review them with you. Still, it can be difficult to visualize your finished project from these renderings. 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.


The Elements

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 plan

Showing the location of the load-bearing 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 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 separate drawings electricians use to wire the home. 


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 for homeowners to relate to the size of their spaces than for 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 HVAC 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 on the parcel, it shows the location of utility services, setback requirements, easements, driveways and walkways.


Construction Doc Codes

This legend shows the symbols you can expect to find on the detailed plans you receive from your architect or designer. Note specifics like electrical symbols for switches, smoke detectors, fixtures and outlets on your plan. You’ll want to make sure these fit your intended furniture arrangement before construction begins. Refer to this legend often when reviewing your construction documents to make sure you’re interpreting your design correctly.

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