One of the most important decisions you’ll make when building a house is determining the kind of foundation it will rest on. After all, the foundation serves the essential functions of keeping your home in place even as the ground beneath it might shift, insulating it, keeping the moisture out, and keeping it level—even if your house is built on a hill with a 45-degree angle. Builders choose foundations based on the home’s location and climate, soil conditions and area humidity, and of course, the budget.
There are five main foundation types and a handful of important variations.
A full basement foundation begins with a hole of at least eight feet deep to accommodate an underground living space whose floor space matches most or all of the home’s ground level. You’ll place structural foundation walls on concrete footings that run the perimeter of the basement. Those footings need to be...
Building architects and designers are responsible for communicating countless things about a building’s construction: where it should be located on the lot, how it should be built, what materials should be used, what it should look like, and where the MEP systems that make it function go. To save space on blueprints and simplify information sharing, designers use a set of abbreviations and acronyms.
Most of these abbreviations are standard across the trades. But some architects might use their own abbreviations that aren’t standard or well known. So the title page of the architectural package includes an abbreviations block to help you decode these custom...
A floorplan is the building plan that is most familiar to most people: a bird’s-eye view of a building with all the elements laid out on a horizontal plane. A section, however, gives a vertical view—which is equally essential.
Professional builder Jordan Smith likens sectional views to taking a laser and slicing it through a part of the construction, so that you can see how elements of a building fit together vertically. In his Introduction to Reading Blueprints class, he explains:
“On a floor plan, we take a laser and we cut the house in half horizontally. We set the roof off to the side, we look down from the top, and we see our walls and our floor without the roof getting in our way. Sections are very similar to a floor plan, but instead of looking from the top down, we're looking across at the vertical section of a house. We're looking at the exterior of a house, and then we take our laser and we cut a slice off the...
A reflected ceiling plan (RCP) is a print that shows you the dimensions, materials, and other key information about the ceiling of each of the rooms represented on your blueprint. It takes its name from the idea that you are looking down at the ceiling as though there were a mirror on the floor reflecting the ceiling’s plan back to you.
Architects and builders draw reflected ceiling plans this way so that the orientation of the floor plan and the orientation of the ceiling plan are the same—and therefore easier to read. In other words, you are looking down at a view of both the ceiling and the floor.
In his Introduction to Reading Blueprints course, builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains:
“Sometimes we'll do a reflected ceiling plan on the floor plan, which means that whatever's happening up on the ceiling is reflected down on the floor and then drawn for our benefit as builders.”
Think of it as an engineering document that is...
If you’re building a simple project like a shed, simply sketching the details on a piece of paper will give you most of the information you need. But when you’re building a house or commercial project, you need a far more detailed plan.
A site plan—sometimes called a plot plan—is an architectural document that functions as a readable map of a building site, giving you all the details you need to know about how the structure will be oriented on the lot. A builder or contractor will create a diagram that shows the plot of land and its property lines, along with its landscape features, structural elements, setbacks, driveways, utility poles and power lines, fencing, and on-site structures.
Even landscape elements that don’t sit right on your property might be recorded on a site plan, says Jordan Smith, because the site notes can contain valuable information that impact your property. For instance, a tree on a...
Architectural plans are drawn to all different scales, ranging from the simple (1 inch = 1 foot) to the complex (3/16 inch = 1 foot). Plans are often drawn at 3/4, 3/16, 1/8, and other scales (in each case the dimension in inches here corresponds to one foot).
When you’re faced with figuring out how to convert a two-inch line drawn at a 1/4-inch scale on one drawing to another plan that uses a scale of 1/16 of an inch, the math can quickly become confusing. Fortunately, an essential tool of architects makes the process of decoding the scale of architectural and engineering drawings simple—an architect’s scale ruler (also known as an architectural scale ruler).
A triangular architect scale has a total of six edges, often with two different scales—say both 1 inch to 1 foot and a ½-inch to 1 foot—represented on the same edge. Some sets with multiple rules can include up to 16 scales. These...
Being able to identify the various types of walls on a structural plan is an essential skill, but it’s also important to know what makes each type of wall unique. Professional builder Jordan Smith explains in his Introduction to Reading Blueprints course:
“When you're reading a blueprint, you understand that all walls are not the same. You have shear walls, you have load-bearing walls, and you have architectural walls.”
While columns and load-bearing walls keep buildings standing up, carrying the compression load of the structure down to its foundation, the shear wall is what keeps structures from blowing over, resisting the lateral forces of wind and seismic activity.
Understanding all the physics of shear walls may require an education in structural engineering, but a simple way to grasp how they operate is to imagine a wooden square with four edges—essentially two columns and two beams. This...
Stem walls are the backbones of one of the five types of house foundations common in the United States, crawl space foundations. Here are the basics of how these short walls hold up large houses.
A type of foundation common in much of the United States, stem walls are short (up to several feet, or the height of a crawl space) and are attached to a concrete footing. They are typically used in houses with crawl spaces, either vented or unvented, and are especially common in California, Texas, the Northwest, and the South. They are also a popular choice among architects designing homes in areas where earthquakes occur frequently.
Stem walls wouldn’t be used in houses with full basements, common in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as well as the Midwest, or those raised atop piers to sit above flood levels, as with those built in some coastal areas.
There are many reasons why crawl space...
Demand for trades and craftspeople has always been high. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of construction laborers is projected to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average of all occupations (5.2%). For specialized and experienced tradespeople, demand follows a similar pattern. Job growth for electricians is 10%, for plumbers 14%, for weldsmen. Demand for these workers is driven from new construction and the maintenance of existing buildings.
Shrinking Labor Force
In contrast, the supply of talented craftspeople is getting smaller and smaller. In 2017, workers age 55 and older made up nearly a quarter of the construction and manufacturing workforce, a share that has increased by 15 percentage points in the last 25 years. As these craftspeople retire, the “grey tsunami” will exacerbate labor shortages. This “grey tsunami” is also worrisome since these...