Chapter 5

Many great ideas have first been given form as a few scribbles on a cocktail napkin. Your plans for improving your home may start out this way, too, but don't stop there. Careful planning will help ensure the success of your project, and it's much easier to correct a problem with an eraser than to have to correct a problem after it has been built. This happens--don't let it happen to you!

Architects and Designers If you are planning a large addition to a custom home you will probably want to hire an architect. Architects are professionals who have extensive education and a license issued by the state, and are usually certified by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Under some conditions it will be necessary to have an architect involved with your project in order to get approval from the local building inspection division for your plans. If you need special engineering, the architect will coordinate with engineering professionals to get all the approvals that are required. Your local AIA should be able to give you a list of qualified architects if you need one. Most typical residential renovations will not require a licensed architect.

You may wish to work with a designer before you begin to contact contractors, or you may find a construction company that offers design services. Some designers specialize in kitchens, closets, landscaping, or some other specific area. If you want a specific or distinctive look to a new addition, it could be very helpful to work with an interior designer as you plan the changes you want.

Decorators can help you with color selection, furniture and fabric choices, and floor coverings. Be sure to allow enough time in the planning stages to be confident about what you want. Good design professionals work with you to achieve what you are comfortable with, and their experience will enable you to consider options that you might not have thought of on your own. Whether you work with an architect, interior designer, or your prime contractor, it is helpful to understand the basics. The following sections will help you understand what is involved in transferring your ideas from that napkin into a working document that will guide your home improvement project from start to finish.

Plans Plans (often referred to as drawings, blueprints, or prints) should work together with the specifications (specs) to provide the information needed to complete the project. Plans include drawings and notes, and in some cases may be complete without the addition of specs. In other cases the specs may be enough, if they give enough information to do the job. Problems arise when there is contradictory information in the two documents; usually specs detail additional information that will not fit on the plans. If both are not carefully reviewed and compared, discrepancies will be discovered during the course of construction. The solution may require changing work that has already been done, and someone will have to pay for the change, but sometimes it's not clear who should be responsible for the cost.

Another important rule is to date every version of the plans and specs. Both will probably be changed many times as they are being drafted. Once you have more than one copy, it is crucial to be able to determine which version you are using. Refer to the plans and specs by date in the contract documents, and keep track of who has been given a copy of each document and which version they have. If changes are made after a set has been given out, notify that party in writing that the plans/specs have been revised. Keep records showing the dates, persons, and documents involved in this process.

Engineering and other special data may be necessary for your project. Structural calculations and energy-efficiency calculations are just two areas where a certified professional may be required to sign off on your plans before you will be given approval to start by the building department. This may not be necessary for a simple remodel, but if your project is more complex you may need to budget a higher amount for the preparation of plans and specs to cover the cost of these calculations and approvals. (In some cases the supplier may provide the engineering documents at no extra charge, such as when you are using manufactured engineered trusses for your roof structure.)

Plot Plan You will need a plot plan for any project that alters the "footprint" of your house. You can create a plot plan if you have a measuring tape and a ruler; it is easier if you have a 50- or 100-foot tape and an architect's scale ruler (available at most stationery stores). The architect's scale is marked on one side so that each quarter-inch equals one foot (thus, a line three inches long on your paper represents a twelve-foot-long wall). If your drawing represents a large area, you may need to flip the architect's scale to the side where one-eighth of an inch equals one foot (a line three inches long represents a twenty-four foot fence, for example). If you want to do much sketching or designing yourself, it is worth getting graph paper. Different sizes of drafting paper come with faint blue squares marked off at eighth-inch intervals, with slightly darker lines at the one-inch intervals. This makes it much easier to sketch accurately, as your corners will be right angles. It is important to scale your drawing correctly, so you can tell if the additions and changes will fit.

If you are planning an addition, you must check on the setback requirements of your locality. Even different subdivisions within the same city can have different zoning regulations. You should also check to see if there are any restrictions recorded against your property that affect only your area. Conditions, covenants, and restrictions (CC&Rs) may include references to design elements as well as setbacks. In some areas there are limits on styles and colors, allowable roofing products, and the like. These are rules that were established by the developer to help maintain the quality of the subdivision, and should prevent you or your neighbors from building an inappropriate or unsightly addition.

Easements are recorded restrictions to your right to use your property, such as utility easements. These allow for the current or future use of your property by others, and may prevent you from building in the area affected by the easement. For example, there may be an easement for the electrical service from the source to your house (overhead or underground wire). You should be able to look at the title documents you were given when you purchased the property to see if there are easements, CC&Rs, or other restrictions to expansion. Look at the site for clues, such as visible power wires or utility boxes. Show the easements on your plot plan.

Be aware of the drainage patterns around your house and keep these areas clear. As you draw your plot plan to scale, use your measuring tape to locate and accurately show sidewalks, trees, and setback lines. If you are doing a lot of measuring while you are planning, it is sometimes helpful to mark spots in your yard after you have located them. For example, if you have a 30-foot setback from your back property line to the closest structure, measure 30 feet and mark it with a small stake or a handful or flour. The distance between the mark and your existing house is the space that is available for your room addition. Stand in the yard and visualize the new structure in place. How will the addition affect the view from other windows? The shape of the yard?

Floor Plan The floor plan shows a bird's-eye view of your addition or change. Whether you are moving walls, repositioning appliances, or adding living space, you will need to show the location and proportion of the room. Measure existing rooms and compare them with what you are drawing. If you are redesigning your kitchen, allow enough space for the refrigerator door to swing open. A typical interior wall is nearly five inches thick, so allow for the thickness of the wall in your drawing. For example, an outside dimension of 40 feet with a couple of perpendicular interior walls loses almost two feet of usable space inside, leaving only 38 feet of wall space.

There are a few symbols for locating details on a floor plan that will help your sketch look more professional, even if you wind up having someone else complete the drawings later. You can make notes on the plans, sometimes using an arrow to show where the note applies, but you will need specs to go with your plans for most larger jobs. Identify rooms on the plans so the specs can refer to the right place (e.g.
Bedroom No. 3). Show door and window sizes, and be sure appliances, beds, dressers, etc. are scaled correctly so that they will fit in the finished space.

If you have a computer it may be worth investing in software that creates basic designs for construction. Professionals use CAD (computer-assisted design) programs that are complex and sophisticated, but there are some programs available that are intended for home use. Some of these programs will allow you to view your plan in 3D after you have created it in 2D. You may be able to view this type of result at a design center, or your contractor may use such a program. They are often used to design kitchens, where seeing the elevations is especially important.


Exterior elevations show the outside of the structure as if you were standing and looking straight at it. They do not show perspectives, but they are to scale. You should know what your roof line will look like, and where the windows will be placed relative to the doors, corners, etc.

Interior elevations are usually made to show cabinet details, but are not necessary for standard rooms. Details for interior or exterior locations may be drawn for any unusual construction. Some kitchen cabinet suppliers have computer programs that show elevations for the cabinets you are considering. This can help you decide where to put appliances, drawers, etc. Be sure to work with your contractor before committing to a final cabinet arrangement. Sometimes the need to show detail requires a "section," which is a cross-section of anything from a wall assembly to a whole room. They are often used to provide detail for the actual construction process.

Other details For a large project such as a room addition you will need a foundation plan, a roof plan, and possibly specialty details such as an electrical plan, framing plan, etc. If you are considering such a project you will probably need the help of a design professional, but your preliminary sketches will save time and money if they help convey your ideas to the designer.

Architectural renderings show the overall impression the changes will make. They usually show perspective, colors, and some details such as landscaping (e.g. mature trees) that may not be part of the final job. The perspective shown on the rendering may not be possible to see in real life, if you can't actually get far enough away from the structure to see it the way it is shown in the drawing. Such renderings are often used to "sell" a project, especially in commercial projects. It is not usually necessary for a conventional residential remodel, but could be worthwhile for a large and complex project.

Specifications The specs add information that may be missing from the plans, such as notes about colors, finishes, model numbers, etc. Some information can be listed in charts or tables, such as the window schedule, door schedule, or hardware schedule. In other cases, a narrative style can be used.

In many cases specs will be all you need for the job. If you are not making structural changes, a written description should be sufficient. Sometimes a simple drawing can be included in the specs, using letter-sized paper. This can help clarify a detail without the need for blueprints, rolls, or other awkward sizes. Keeping specs in an 8 1/2 x 11-inch format will allow you to use a photocopier for your duplication needs, which is especially helpful as you work your way through the planning process. You will change your mind often before you settle on a final version, and making copies can be a frequent chore at this stage.

Chapter 4 details the "sixteen categories" used by the Construction Specification Institute, and this is one way to organize your specs. You can also describe what you want room by room, especially when you are not changing the floor plan. The important thing to remember is that your plans and specs determine what you will get for your job. Someone will decide which range to install, or what pattern the bathroom floor covering will have, or what color the room will be painted. It is important to make these decisions before the job starts, so the contractor can keep working even if you are not home to answer questions. Keeping changes to a minimum will help keep the job on schedule and the price from going up.

Next Chapter: Finding a General Contractor
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