Architectural Plans | How to Build Your Own Home And What You Want With Your Drawings

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Whether you order plans out of a magazine or catalog, hire a draftsman, or an architect, this is what you want to receive with your house plans:

(a) a foundation plan,
(b) a floor plan,
(c) the exterior elevations,
(d) the cabinet elevations,
(e) the cornice and rake details,
(f) a cross section,
(g) an electrical plan,
(h) a framing plan, and
(i) a door and window schedule.

Don't assume you're going to receive all of these items. You must verify what items you expect to receive, first, and include your requirements in your contract if you hire a draftsman/designer or architect.

a. Foundation Plan

The first thing you want is the foundation plan. If your home is going to have a basement, your plan needs to show a basement. If it is going to have a crawl space, your plan needs to show a crawl space. If it is going to be built on a solid concrete floor on top of the ground, called a slab, your plan needs to show a slab.

If you have full-unfinished basement, a lot of plans will show a beam down the center of the basement. On top of the beam would be the floor system for the first floor. This beam is normally made of steel or wood. If money is no problem, you could install a continuous steel beam that would run the entire length of the home. If this beam were large enough, you could support your home and need no support columns or posts under this beam. It would look like a large open roller skating rink in your basement. This beam could be very expensive. As the beam becomes smaller, which is cheaper, you will need columns or posts underneath the beam for support. The smaller the beam, the more posts will be needed. So the size of the beam is a function of the number of support posts you're willing to live with.

The person that can tell you what size beam to use, based on the number of posts you want, is a structural engineer. If you wanted to remove a post or support wall in an existing home, contact a structural engineer rather than an architect. Most architects will sub the job to a structural engineer. A structural engineer can also tell you if you have the correct size beam.

As a builder, instead of a beam with posts, I think about how I would finish the basement. I may have a future game room, a workshop, etc. Then I go ahead and build the walls in the basement according to my vision. These walls will now become load-bearing walls. On top of these load-bearing walls we'll build the floor system for the first floor.

There are two good reasons for doing this. First of all, I can build those load-bearing walls as cheap and many times cheaper than I could install a beam with the posts. Second, a potential customer will see all these walls and rooms and say to his wife, "Goodnight Martha, for another nickel and a couple of trips to the local supply house we can have all this finished space for free!" In reality, it's going to cost more than another nickel, but it helps sell the home.

When you're designing your basement area, what we call the "lower or terrace level." Include a room called the "mechanical" room. In this mechanical room you will place your heating and air system and water heater. If you only have one heating and air system in this area, design the room as close to the center of the home as possible. If you have a large home with multiple heating and air zones, design the room as close to the center of the zone as possible.

Many homes have the problem of the porch and/or steps being constructed on fill dirt. Over time this fill dirt will settle and the porch and/or steps will pull away from the home. In order to prevent this from happening, construct what are called T-walls or brackets under your porch and steps. We'll discuss this more when we build the foundation. However, draw the location of these T-wall or brackets on the foundation plan.

b. Floor plan(s)

The floor plan(s) should definitely include the following:

i. The dimensions of your rooms.
ii. The size and location of all doors and windows.
iii. The size and location of your tubs and the location of toilets and lavatories.
iv. Furnace vent-pipe location

If you have a gas furnace, you may locate the furnace in a crawl space or basement. Most gas furnaces will have a pipe that goes from the furnace up through the floor and out the ceiling and roof to vent fumes. We simply call it a "vent pipe." Be sure to show the location of any vent pipes on the floor plan. By showing this pipe on our drawings, you solve that age-old problem of the heating and air subcontractor walking on the job after the home is framed and saying, "Well, where do you want us to put the vent pipe?" And you say, "What vent pipe?" Then you have to give up part of your kitchen cabinets or a walk-in closet to accommodate this vent pipe. If you plan ahead you can normally locate this vent pipe where it's not going to be in the way or stick out like a sore thumb.

v. Hallway width

A hallway needs to be a minimum width to install doors. The molding around the door or window is called the casing. Many people will request and spend the money for wide door and window casings. Make sure the hallway is wide enough to accommodate the door casing. In many homes you'll see where the 4-inch casing is trimmed down to 2 inches because the hall was not wide enough. Any time you have a door or window near a corner, make sure there is adequate room from the door or window to the corner for the wide casing. These items need to be checked on the floor plan.

vi. Plumbing wall

Most walls in a home are constructed of 2X4 boards that are 3 ½ inches wide. Behind the kitchen sink and bathroom vanities the plumber will need to run a horizontal pipe in the wall. This pipe could be as much as 3 inches thick. If you cut a 3-inch pipe in a 3-½ inch wall, the wall is going to be structurally weak at that location. In those areas only, build a plumbing wall using 2 X 6 boards that are 5 ½ inches thick. Your plumber can show you in advance where these larger pipes will be located. Be sure to show these wider walls on the floor plan.

vii. Attic stairs

Show the size and location of any pull-down attic stairs. These are stairs that you'll pull down to access the attic. They will normally unfold. We have installed these stairs in short hallways only to realize, after the fact, there was not enough room to open them. I was then forced to purchase attic stairs that did not unfold, but rather slid up into the attic. These stairs cost ten times more than the regular pull-down type. Make sure, on the floor plan, there is adequate room for your attic stairs.

viii. Garage doors

In many garages the only way you can get into or out of the garage is to raise the garage door or walk through the home. I like to install a separate door in the garage for exit and entry without going through the home or raising the garage door. This also needs to be shown on the floor plan.

Many builders will install an 8-foot wide garage door for a single door and a 16-foot wide garage door for a double door. I recommend you spend the additional money (it's not that much) and install a 9-foot wide garage door for a single door and an 18-foot wide garage door for a double door. That way you don't have to do precision driving as you drive in and out of the garage. Because 16 and 18-foot doors tend to sag over time, I prefer two single doors rather than one large door. Also consider installing an 8-foot tall door instead of the standard 7-foot tall garage door. Considering that the larger SUV's [sport utility vehicles] are very tall.

ix. Miscellaneous items

Show the size and location of all medicine cabinets, skylights, laundry shoots, and dumbwaiters on the floor plan. As a note, if you're going to spend the money for a dumbwaiter, look into the cost of a residential elevator. For a little more money, the residential elevator is more useful in the long run than a dumbwaiter.

c. Exterior elevations

Your plans should show the front, rear, and right and left side exterior elevations of your home. The elevations will show you how the how the exterior of your home will look and what material will be used.

d. Cabinet elevations

Many builders will build without cabinet elevations. If you want to clear up assumptions, I highly recommend you have cabinet elevations. When I say cabinets, I mean the kitchen cabinets, the bath vanities and any built-in cabinets and/or bookcases.

Note: Plans from a catalog will normally include cabinet elevations. If you hire a draftsman or an architect they can include them for you. If you have money in your budget you could hire a professional kitchen and bath designer or CKD [Certified Kitchen Designer]. To find a CKD in your area and to learn more about kitchen and bath design go to the web site for the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

e. Sections

If you were able to cut your home in half and draw that area, you'd be looking at a "cross-section" or "section" of the home. Most homes only need one section of the home. You want at least one section included in your plans because it will indicate the size of framing material to use in your home.

If you have anything unusual, like a balcony overhanging a living room, you may need a section of that balcony to show the builder and the workers how it is constructed and/or supported. An ultra modern home with a lot of curved walls and overhangs may have 20 pages of sections to show the builder and the workers how the guts of that home are constructed and/or supported.

If you hire a draftsman or an architect and if you have a two-story home, tell them you would like to have a section through the "stairwell". By drawing a section through the stairwell you will solve a common problem of having the home framed without adequate headroom to go up and down the stairs.

If you make a change such as raising the ceiling from 8-feet to 9 or 10 feet, be sure to have the section redrawn to reflect this change because when you add height between the first and second floors it requires more steps, which means you'll need more horizontal distance in the stairwell to accommodate this change.

f. Cornice and rake detail

The cornice and rake are the edges of the roof. You will learn more about these areas later. Be sure to have a section or detail showing how the cornice and rake are designed and constructed. There are literally an unlimited number ways to design and build the cornice and rake, which is normally dictated by the amount of money you are willing to spend. If you do not have a section or detail of this area, it creates a lot of confusion for everyone.

g. Mechanical drawings

It's very common in residential, commercial, and industrial construction to see the location of lights, switches and electrical outlets on the drawings. It's also common to see the location of tubs, toilets, sinks, water heaters, exterior faucets and heating and air conditioning systems on the drawings.

In commercial and industrial construction it's very common to have drawings, called mechanical drawings, that show the size and location of plumbing pipes and the size and location of heating and air ducts. However, in residential construction it is not common to see drawings that show the size and location of plumbing pipes and/or heating and air ducts. On a large luxury home, the designer or architect may hire a mechanical engineer to design these items like they do on a commercial building. If you want to know this information, ask your heating and air subcontractor and plumber to give you a sketch showing the size and locations of these pipes.

h. Roof and Framing plan

If the design of your home or roof is complicated, a framing and roof plan is very beneficial. It not only shows everyone how this area should be constructed, it is especially helpful in calculating the quantities of material that will be needed.

i. Door and window schedule

A door and window schedule places all the information for doors and windows, such as size and type, in one convenient location.

Suggestion: House plans are very simple to understand. When I read a set of drawings, I will imagine going through the front door and walking down the hallway. I'll walk into a bedroom and imagine looking at the location of windows and doors. If you'll spend a little time looking at the drawings, before you know it you'll have no problems understanding what you see.

Tom Harrison is the Founder of The National Institute of Home Building [NIHB] in Atlanta, Georga. He is a native of Atlanta and a graduate of Georgia Tech.

For FREE you can now learn his complete course on "How To Build Your Own Home" and much more at

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