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Architecture Documents and Building Systems

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Posted By Matthew Von Dohre

As you may remember we discussed that architects create more than just floor plans, architects are responsible for having a basic understanding of all systems that are to be used within a building.

We do not need to have extensive knowledge on every aspect of a system but understanding how the systems work, how they affect  the design of a building project, required clearances for systems and the number of each system required for a project are the basic things we have to understand as architects.

Reviewing Documents and Systems

Let’s take a moment and walk thru a conceptual project that I developed for a class and one that I share with my students that provides an insight into some of the drawings that we need to create and the basic systems that are needed within a project.

Architecture Building Model

This was a conceptual project for an art gallery in a historic area of town where many of the early brick buildings still remain and are now governed by a historic preservation committee.

The concept on this building façade has it steps in and out breaking the front façade into the module widths of the surrounding homes so it will provide a better presence in the neighborhood.

The images above are the physical models that were built to help explain the project to both me as the designer and the students that I share this with.

Below we will review some of the various plan and information that we use to create blueprints and construction documents for a building project.

The drawings are created with an ascending size or scale to them and amount of information increases to finer details as the scale of the drawings increase. We start with the site plan showing the overall building then enlarge the size of the drawings to get finer and finer details of the building assemblies as you will see below.

The Site Plan

An architectural site plan

The site plan for a project should show the relationship of the building being designed to the surrounding context of buildings, streets and existing landscape.

We indicate where the utilities are on the site that the building will connect to, show the cardinal direction, more specifically where North is to help us understand the sun effects on the building.

We also outline the legal description, the site address, height restrictions, setbacks and proposed square footage of the building, some of which is restricted by the building codes.

Building Floor Plans

Building Floor Plans

When creating construction documents for a project we create floor plans, or horizontal slices of the building that represent the building as if we are looking down on it from above.

Architects are trained to represent the building as if we sliced thru it at 4’-0” above the floor and indicate all of the elements that touch that cut plane on the floor plan.

Above we show three floor plans which would indicate that this is a three story building. Typically we would also include a roof plan but we did not include one in this example. Each floor is shown by two different plans, the top has dimensions to indicate the overall size and main features of the project while the lower plan is without dimensions to show the overall design more clearly.

One plan that typically accompanies the floor plan is a reflected ceiling plan that would be in the same orientation as the floor plan but it would show all of the information on the ceiling. On the reflected ceiling we would show the different ceiling finishes, lighting, HVAC and fire safety equipment but since this project was in an early concept phase we did not have one designed yet.

Building Sections and Details

Building Sections and Details 1

As we further develop the construction documents for a project we will draw sections thru the building to indicate the relationship of spaces, the height of the overall building as well as the heights of the individual spaces within the building.

Generally we also indicate where the building section cuts are taken from but for these sections the floor plans do not indicate them. In this section we represent intermediate items such as stair landings between floors and the foundation system for the building project.

At the top of this sheet we show enlarged details of smaller pieces of the building to further explain the components of the building and what the finished project should be. We see a railing detail that shows how we want the railing to connect, a floor to wall detail that shows the building’s floor and wall structure relationship. Finally we have a window head detail that indicated the where the window is it align in the opening, flashing and waterproofing  along with ceiling alignment information.

Building Section and Details 2

Within each section you will see small rectangles that represent where the area that the enlarged details are being drawn for. Here we show another detail of the exterior wall structure and waterproofing.

The second is where the exterior wall meets the underside of the cantilevered floor above, indicating finish materials. The third detail is a further enlargement of the wall to floor detail that clearly shows all of the materials, connections and sealants.

Building Section and Details 3

The third section thru the buildings is indicating that we have an elevator in the building and is the multistory shaft in the middle.

The details here indicate the wall to ground connection and how the exterior masonry wall is to terminate below the main floor for waterproofing. The second detail is another condition where a window meets the underside of the structure and provides finishing materials. The third detail notes the wall to ground connection but it really shows how the storefront window meets the floor and how to seal it for waterproofing.

Building Detail and Axonometrics

Other details that we may create are called Axonometric which is a 3-dimension representation drawings but without it being a perspective. They are scalable drawings which make them faster and easier and more accurate to draw.

This detail is indicating the intersection of several building systems such as the skylights, building edge and roofing system. This type of 3D detail can help to explain complicated pieces of a project and reduce the number of details needed.

The other two axonometric drawings are 3D representations of the overall building showing the finishes that were selected for this building project.

Beyond the Architect

As we discussed the architect are responsible for having a basic understanding of all systems that are to be used within a building or structure.

Below we will discuss many of the systems that an architect will need to have a basic understanding of and with the help of engineers with use to complete a set of construction documents for building a project.

Building Structural Systems

Building Structural Systems

Early on the architect needs to select a structural system that could be used for their building project. Several conditions that have to be understood in selecting a structural system include the availability of materials, the accessibility to the site, the type of occupancy , how the selected system effects the overall height of the building and what the estimated cost of the system is. All of these factors affect the structural system being used.

One other effect on a building due to the structural system is how it affects the interior of the spaces. Some structural systems can take up large portions of the building which may require a taller building to make all of the systems work and the occupants not feel cramped or confined.

Building Mechanical Systems

Building Mechanical Systems

The mechanical system is the next item an architect needs to consider for a building design.  How the systems work, where the might be located at, the space needed for all of the system components and how many systems may be needed for the building.

A few additional factors that also need to be considered are the type of occupancies within the building which can have an effect on the number of systems in addition to the weight and clearances required around each system for maintenance and repair of systems.

Building codes will also have affect the selection of systems by requiring energy code calculations and computer generated comparisons on how much energy the systems will use.

Building Plumbing Systems

Building Plumbing Systems

When designing the building plumbing systems the building codes will dictate the minimum number of fixtures required in a building based on the occupancies or use of the building.

As the architect we have to understand some if the efficiencies when laying out the plumbing systems, understand that plumbing requires, ventilation, water supply and waste piping.

Like the other systems we have to allow space in the building for these systems to work correctly and meet the required code spacing for users or occupants.

Building Fire Suppression Systems

Building Fire Suppression Systems

Depending on the building type, use and occupancy a building fire suppression system may be required by the building code. The basic understanding of this system includes allowing space in the ceilings for the plumbing, rooms for the equipment to be located in and understanding the testing and fire departments requirements for locating connections for their use in case of a fire in the building.

Sometime the Fire Marshal who reviews the building as part of the permitting process may advice the architect on where to locate any fire department connections.

Building Electrical Systems

Building Electrical Systems

The final system that we need to understand for the basic building design is the electrical system. This is another utility that we will be provided on the site from a utility company and we typically utilize a transformer either on a pole or pad next to the building. We have to provide main electrical panels that include the electrical meter and main disconnects.

With-in the building we would then have an electrical room that distributes the power to other parts of the building which could also require additional rooms on each floor. These rooms are typically separated with fire rated walls and ceiling assemblies to protect the rest of the building in the event of a fire.

Other Building Systems

Other systems we have to understand that we did not discuss may include but are not limited:

  • Low Voltage – Cameras, controlled access, WiFi, Cable TV, data, fire alarm and lighting controls
  • Gas supply systems – gas supplies, if available, for hater heating, cooking or heating or for specialized types like those used in hospitals and doctor offices.
  • Exhaust systems – Either for specialized conditions like labs or for commercial kitchens in restaurants
  • Vertical transportation – Elevators, escalators and lifts
  • Compressed air systems – Automotive applications and some gym equipment

Final thoughts

Site visit to review the building systems for a project

So with that overview of the construction documents you can further understand that we, as architects, produce more information than just creating basic floor plans.

You can also appreciate that an architect has the understanding of the various systems with a building and that they have to coordinate with various engineers on the selection of the systems and how to integrate these systems within the building shell.

The design process is one of evolution where we start with a basic floor plan, created building elevations, produce building sections and design the details that bring the entire building project together.

For those aspiring architect I would encourage you to observe the built environment around you and review these systems as you design your projects in school. By understanding the systems early on you can use them to further your design projects and help you become a better architect.

Thanks again for joining me. Besure to leave your feedback, comments and suggestions below.


Matthew B. Von Dohre, AIA, ID, NCARB

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