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Design Lingo: Communicating with your Designer

Communicating well with your residential designer is paramount to a smooth home design experience.  The world of residential design has its own vocabulary, and surprisingly, I have seen miscommunication between a client and a designer begin with conflicting definitions.  To improve the communication between you and your design professional, I would like to share with you some of the basic terms that you will hear often throughout the design of your new home, remodel, or addition.

I will start with types of drawings that your drafter or designer will show you.




A perspective drawing is often the most helpful in understanding what your home design will look like in real life because a perspective drawing has just that: artistic perspective.  This means that things further in the distance will appear smaller, and things closer to you will appear larger.  Here are examples of both interior and exterior perspectives.  They can be drawn at eye level, from high above you (called a bird’s eye view), or from below eye level.


Triplet Ranch PerspectiveExterior


I hear many people interchange renderings, elevations, and sketches.  But most designers use rendering very specifically to mean computer rendering which is a snapshot taken from a 3D model which includes accurate lighting, shadows, and textures as simulated by a computer to look photorealistic.  Above, I have 2 images, one that is simply a snapshot of a 3D model, and the second a rendering of the same 3D model.


Floor Plans:
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The floor plan is a well known drawing to most people.  A floorplan shows where all walls, windows, doors, counters, tubs, toilets, etc are located.  More specifically, a floor plan as it will appear on construction documents is the result of virtually cutting the house in half at a 4 foot height above the floor and looking down at the walls.

partial floor plan


The darkest thick lines represent a solid wall, lighter thick lines represent a half wall, and windows are shown as a white space in the “wall” usually with a thin black line accross the middle indicating window glass.  Steps are always indicated by an arrow with the word up or down.  Doors always show the “door swing” or which way the door opens up.  Dashed lines indicate something going on above the 4′ high level such as in the case of a vaulted ceiling, dashed lines will show where the tallest point of the ceiling is and where any exposed beams are.  If you see dashed lines making a square shape that extends to the outside of the building, this usually means that there is a window high up on the wall above eye level called a transom or clerestory window.  Dahsed lines also show where there are upper cabinets, tray ceilings, and dropped soffits or archways overhead.  If you can find each of those things on this plan, then you are prepared to read your new floor plan well.


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Elevations are flat drawings.  In your set of new home plans, you will definitely see a north, south, east, and west elevation of your custom home.  These show what your home’s exterior looks like from every side.  Remember, an elevation is completely flat; unlike the perspective images, your elevations will make everything seem as though it is on the same plane.  Notice in this example that the space above the garage looks like it is directly above the garage, but we know from the floor plan and perspectives, that it is pushed back about 10 feet.  At Studio Boise, we like to show shadows on the elevation drawings because this helps remind you what is further back and closer to the front on these flat drawings.


partial section


Section drawings are some of the most telling, but often less understood drawings that your residential designer will produce.  To understand a “section cut” think of slicing a 3 layer cake.  From the outside you cannot see that the cake has 3 levels, but when you cut that cake in half and look at it from the side, you can see all three layers, what is the filling between each layer, and what type of cake is in each layer.  This is a section cut of a contemporary home design.  By looking at a “slice” of the home, you can get a better idea of the height to width ratio of each room, the height of counter tops, the size of the stairs, etc.  Sections are very telling drawings, and designers will usually draw at least 2 sections per home and many more if the home has unique design elements.


The location of where these section cuts are “sliced” is indicated on the floor plan by this symbol and a dash dot line showing where the section slices through:
Section Symbol_1


Lee Mundwiler Architects The Coconut House Stairs ImageLee Mundwiler Architects the Coconut House Stairs Detail


Javier Artadi Arquitecto Las Arenas Beach House Stairs image

Javier Artadi Arquitecto Las Arenas Beach House Stairs Detail


Lastly, you will probably never need to worry about the detail drawings in your set of home building plans, but you will likely here a drafter at some point say “I need to detail that corner,” or ,”I have a great detail for framelss doorway reveal.”  When you hear these, it’s nice to be in the loop.  Detail drawings are usually flat and show the section of materials but can also be drawn in 3D, and they show a very, very zoomed in view of how materials in your home connect to one another.  Stock plans do not incorporate very many details, leaving much of the decision about materials up to your builder.  A truly custom home designed by an professional will usually include many more details because designers are making your home specific to your likes and tastes.  Above are examples of two different stair details from my favorite detail source, Virginia McLeod’s Encyclopedia of Detail in Contemporary Residential Architecture and the resulting stair aesthetics.

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