How to Tame the “Wild” Blueprint

How to Tame the “Wild” Blueprint


Plan interpretation is a fundamental skill that on occasion can trip up even masters. How often have you heard a story that begins with “It was one little note/detail!!!”… Although my personal career involved literally thousands of structural packages supplied; there was on more than one occasion corporate profits squandered needlessly. So pull up a screen and maybe you can avoid some of the cliffs this truss Lemming continued to jump off of over the last thirty years.

Where to begin

In any business the more information you have about what you are about to undertake the greater likelihood you may have a successful outcome. Do you have a complete set of plans and the spec book? Do you have a reliable point of contact (Architect, Engineer, CM, GC, Framer or Owner) that is readily available to aggressively pursue the inevitable questions that the graphical plan will generate? Avoiding unanswered questions is goal number one of the opening round of this adventure. Whipping out a preliminary guess can waste many valuable hours of design time, do so at your own peril.

Mine the information

Think of yourself as a structural archaeologist digging for the missing pieces of a monumental collapsed structure. Begin your study of the plan at the first page and skim all written notes. Move through each page warily with no distractions creating your own list of the pertinent data as you isolate it from the rest of the clutter. Invariably there will be conflicting testimony between the written and the drawn. Some of the plans will be riddled with these contradictions since many times not all pages are drawn by the same individual at the architect’s office. I like to call this the “Tower of Babel Effect”. Read the relevant sections in the plan specifications making sure no mines are ticking there either.

Locate discrepancies

Now that the erroneous verbiage is ready to submit, begin your examination of the load paths. Study the foundation page, noting all interior and exterior pads and footings. Foundation dimensions trump all the other levels as it will be the first created. So if the upper floors dimensions are not in agreement guess which one wins? Are the sections and details relevant to the drawing? Showing that you truly grasp the designs complexity arms you with the knowledge required to create a worthwhile list of RFI’s. The RFI is only thing between your company and complete and utter chaos more likely than not.

Visualize the content

Move through each floor in a similar manner building a preliminary three-dimensional picture of the finished structure in your HD imagination. Is the document able to meet the all-important criteria of a buildable building or is it riddled with unresolved yet hopefully solvable structural faults? The length of your first list of questions or the lack thereof will of course reflect this. Checking whether the stair openings are in the realm of code is a few minutes well spent. What about the headers; are they one size fits all or suitably thought out? As a structural professional there is no part of the diaphragmatic support system that should not be considered.

Contemplate the reality

With the lower level supports well sorted, now you can begin the creation of the roof cap: first in 2D and then finally in 3D. At this point, the elevation pages are the main point of your attention. As you look back and forth between them do they actually match or do they too have contradictions? Do the published pitches align with what’s drawn or do they make the porch swallow the second floor windows? Are there ways that with a few minor simplifications that the look could be maintained, yet the girder and beam count could be reduced? Does the entire system drain well or it a flashing salesman’s dream come true? Are there shaped ceilings to be refined or have they been eliminated? Do the overhangs miss the casement windows or should they be shortened and or raised?

Identify the areas of concern

All these minor considerations and easily fifty more should be on your first glance checklist. Now that you have identified the potential pitfalls of the plan documents the well worded request for information list can be crafted. Some blueprints are so awful that the temptation to ridicule the competence of the plans authors may be overwhelming. Share this urge with your long-suffering coworkers and keep the tone of the inquiry as specific and devoid of opinion as possible. You have no idea whose eyes may consider your list of concerns, insulting the integrity of the other members of the design team who preceded you is never a good start and may even get you blacklisted from future consideration. Always give a firm deadline for answers! There is no more uncomfortable thing in our industry than being held responsible for design related delays.

Provide solutions

There are usually a half-dozen ways to solve a given problem, use the RFI to open the dialogue and save your suggestions for improvement once you have gauged the receptivity of your audience. Many is the time that I identified a defect and was certain of the cure, only to end up learning a completely new code approved gravity trick from some clever construction professional. Conversely we see and fix a higher percentage of gravity related problems than anyone else; so if you are invited to contribute let your hard-won experience shine. This can help distinguish your brand in the marketplace and gain new allies for the long-term.


Taking responsibility for making certain that all the relevant issues are explored on the front side adds a layer of effort the some may feel is excessive. Maybe a final design with a verification package to be forwarded to the interested parties makes more sense in your eyes. Speaking of eyes, if the wrong person on the other side fails to catch what you have overlooked and the framers figure it out, guess who gets hung with the rebuild liability? At best, you may have a client with a bad taste in their mouths. Who needs that! So get out your X-ray glasses and see how good you are as a plan proofreader. No cheaper insurance can be bought than an extra hour or two on the initial evaluation of the documents provided.

James David Braddock – Design Trainee

Gould Design, Inc.