Graphic Standards

October 21, 2013 — 129 Comments

How an architect draws is a reflection of many things – you can frequently tell the priorities of a firm just by looking at the quality of their drawings. I didn’t say the content of their drawings – and this isn’t just semantics – it speaks to the culture of the firm. For the purposes of today’s article, I am going to assume that all architectural drawings are correct and serve their purpose of conveying intent, scope and quantity.

But that’s not really the entire story is it?

modern stair construction drawing and detail

When I graduated from architecture school in 199[mumble-mumble], computers were not that prevalent. Some of the larger production commercial firms had the resources to buy “CAD Stations” and dedicate substantial office space to server rooms complete with NASA-looking tape storage systems, but most firms were still drawing things by hand. This was where I really learned how to draw but before you old folks say “that’s right!” and you younger folks look at this as old-timers syndrome, I’m not saying that we drew better, I’m just saying it was different. I used 3 or 4  different lead holders with leads of varying degrees of hard/soft to them. I consciously endeavored to add profile lines, hatching, foreground and background indicators in place. You could look at the hand drawn construction drawings and frequently tell who had drawn what sheets and what details. It was art to me … I thought these drawings were beautiful and I didn’t want other people working on my sheets, adding their sloppy pencil work to the magic I had created. It was a big deal to me 20 years ago and even though we don’t draw by hand any more, it’s still a big deal to me.

Bridge Wall Section - construction drawing

Ever since I left the last big firm I worked for (RTKL 97-98), every office I have worked for, I’ve changed the graphic standards in that office. Every. Single. One. May not seem like a big deal to you but I’m in my 5th office since that time. In fact, the firm where I currently work as a principal is one of those 5 offices (I worked there 2001 – 2003) and I put the drafting standards in place then … and now that we are in Revit, I am once again making changes. Your first assumption might be that I can’t hold down a job – observant but not true. Your second assumption might be that I am some technically minded CAD jockey … zzzzzzttt!! Wrong again. I make the changes where I go because I make it a point to care about how our drawings are perceived by the people who read them. Not only do properly delineated drawings read better, they convey a sense of what it took to create them.

KHouse Modern Graphic Standards Starting Point

Click to Enlarge

Since moving over to my “new” old firm, we have started to make adjustments to the standards that they were using in Revit. As I asked more and more questions, I discovered that most of what was in place was simply the standards that came out of the box as provided by Revit. As a result, we have been going piece by piece (at times) through the drawings and evaluating how the drawings look and if they convey the information we are striving for … do they look hand drawn?

Of course not, but that’s the graphic bar we are reaching for. This is all about the pen weight and graphic semantics –

Does it make sense?

Is it intuitive?

Can you tell what is being cut through?

What’s closer and what’s further away?

Can you tell a center line from a section line?

Is this a setback line or a property line?

The list goes on and on and if you used what came right out of the box, you might be factually correct but there’s no office culture conveyed in the drawings. This means making custom graphic keys … it might be a giant pain but it’s worth the time and energy.

The drawing shown in the image above was slightly beyond out of the box – I didn’t decide to document this process until we had already made some changes. You can see that the pen weight isn’t very good, the graphic drawing keys are too light and in some cases, it’s almost like they don’t exist.

KHouse Modern Graphic Standards Floor Plan

click to enlarge

The above graphic is the next iteration of standards – not quite there but significantly further along in its development. Pen weights are falling into place, fonts sizes are hierarchically appropriate, the balance of light and dark coming into balance. One side effect to having the graphics and pen weights in balance, is that you can incorporate more information into a single drawing and still have the document be legible

KHouse Modern Graphic Standards Reflected Ceiling Plan

click to enlarge

We are still working on designing the symbols we are using in our reflected ceiling plans. Wherever possible, we use a symbol that is the actual light fixture being used (although there is a down side to doing that should the fixture type get changed). The logic behind showing the actual fixture is to coordinate the other items that might be in close proximity – particularly useful when there are fans and sconces involved.

Sometimes people get moving so fast that they fail to think about which way the doors is swinging and as a result, we like to show doors swings in our reflected ceiling plans. This is another level of coordination to doors don’t cover light switches or hit wall sconces.

There is also the matter of how we draw our walls. New construction – which is the entirety of the images I have shown today – are shown hatched and shaded. For exterior walls, we shade the interior stud cavity, leave the air space empty, and hatch the exterior masonry.

We also like to dimension to the finished face of the walls rather than the face of the stud or the centerline of the stud. I have seen all three at various stages of my career but everywhere I’ve ever worked has dimensioned to the finished face. I can understand that you would dimension to the face or centerline of the stud for the benefit of the framers, but since so much of what we design to is the interior face clear dimension, we don’t dimension to the stud.

FInally – because I get asked about it ALL THE TIME … the fonts we use for our drawings are architect.shx for the majority of our text and archititl.shx for our drawing titles. All of our text is generally scaled so that it plots out at 3/32″ tall – the only exception is equipment labels (sized slightly smaller) and room names (sized slightly larger).

Working on the graphic standards is always a lengthy process of trial and error. In most cases it not’s just about the output of the drafting software, it’s also about how you draw the things that convey the information. Depending on how this post is received, I might prepare some follow up posts where I’ll focus in on some specific items (symbols, legends, title sheets, etc.). If this is of some interest, please let me know what sort of information you might like me to show.


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  • Pascal

    Change to Archicad.. Much better than Revit :).

  • sherill

    the stair are very unqnie beautiful

  • Kelsey Kruse

    Just curious if the folks from Wiley have ever objected to your use of the term “Graphic Standards”?

  • Ramon Pérez Gatell

    Very much in agreement, but what about the drawings themselves? Is that really Revit? The kitchen seems to have a portion with no roof and the stair section has no members actually sectioned?

    • All of the plan drawings were done in Revit – the building sections were not (read the article a bit more closely and I think you’ll understand where the shift occurs.) The kitchen you reference isn’t a kitchen but an outdoor grilling area which probably accounts for your confusion as to where the roof went.

  • Tom S.

    This speaks to me on so many levels.

  • Michele Grace Hottel

    I like your “serious disclaimer”; nice drawings Bob!

  • Jessica King

    I love this post. I’ve been working as an architect for 7 years and would really love to spend some additional time crafting the process of drawings into something more valuable. I want to be proud of the drawings I put out. Keep the posts coming on this topic. Thanks

  • Leslie Reed

    I love this page. I hate reading drawings that, well, I can’t read. And I’m just a lowly real-estate attorney, not an architect. Frankly, I was searching the ‘net for font-production graphics I can frame in my house and found your site – and was struck by the topic that popped up. BTW, I also love that you pointed out that your drawings should convey the amount of work/time that went into creating them. Great point about not just value-add, but value-perception. The point resonated.

    • Thanks – I’m glad to know that some of the important – but peripheral – points came across.


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  • Rick

    I have been practicing the profession of architecture since 1966. At that time, if a person could not draft or letter well, then they stood little to no chance of entering the profession, because the art of hand drafting and lettering was the only medium that was used. Drafting and lettering was considered an art and talent that was required to produce the construction documents the contractors would use to construct the building. I was taught from day one that as architects, it was our responsibility to the client, to provide the contractor with the most professional documents, that clearly, concisely, correctly, and graphically depicted all of the information the contractor would need to perform his work. We were not creating the construction documents for our own use, but providing people who have no prior knowledge of the project, with all of the information that would be needed to construct the project. No matter how great the design of the project may be, if we can’t graphically instruct the contractor on how to construct it, then we have failed in our responsibility to the client. How we presented the graphic information was our canvas, and we took great pride and personal satisfaction in creating drawings that the contractor could easily understand and utilize in the construction process. How we graphically presented the construction information was vital in the success of the project. The computers of today have killed that aspect of the profession, and allowed anyone who can use a computer to enter the profession. But, no matter how well a person can use the computer, if the drawings are not prepared in a manner that provides the contractor with clear, concise, correct, and easily understandable graphic information, then the architect has failed in his responsibility to the contractor and the client. The modern day computer is a tool, just like the lead holder, or technical pen. It can only do what it is directed to do. In my opinion. the authors of the CAD software, have failed to provide the architects with a software system that can easily be modified to allow for its efficient use by the architect. The ‘out-of-the-box’, systems that I have experienced do not provide the architect with the ability or software components to easily and efficiently modify or revise the system to create graphic drawings that best present the information. We have been using the REVIT software for over two years now, and we seem to spend more time trying to determine how, best, to input the information into the program to create the graphics, than we do to actually produce the drawings. I see two major issues with our companies processes. First, they trying to use only ‘out-of-the-box’ systems, and they have hired staff who not understand the role or importance of the construction drawings in the construction process. In my opinion, our documents are graphically poor in clarity, presentation, and legibility. We must modify, revise, and utilize the REVIT software so that it works to provide the quality of documents that are necessary to provide a successful project for the client. No matter how advanced the technology may be, if it isn’t used properly, then failure is certain.

  • jch

    Hi, where can i get the font you are using?


  • Simon Barrow

    Maybe you’ve already said this but I haven’t seen it for sure…If you had to pick one book about architectural graphic/drafting standards for reference, which would it be?

  • A hartke

    Coming from the contractor’s side, I will admit that I can appreciate a well-put together set of drawings. However, the one part of the article that I have to take exception to is your decision to use SHX fonts. While they may give the hand-drawn effect you are going for, they are a major pain when working in a digital document environment (i.e. PDF). SHX fonts 90% of the time end up non-searchable in PDF documents.

    With only a few drawing sheets, it is no problem, but on a large set of drawings, the time wasted looking for the stray note, is a real time-suck. Having the ability to run a search for the text and identifying all the locations in the drawing set where it occurs is a great feature.

    There are workarounds, but they have not become standard as of yet.

    • excellent point – something that I had not considered. This is the first convincing argument I’ve heard for changing my font. Thanks … I suppose 🙂

      • claas kuhnen

        Actually as an industrial/graphic designer I always felt that using such old school emulating hand lettering fonts were just bad visual design decisions anyway because they are actually hard to real while everybody in the drafting world is used to use them because everybody just uses them since ever.

    • claas kuhnen

      I think the main reason is because Autocad is such a terrible software it runs faster with the SHX fonts. I feel the look dated but well Autocad is dated.