Being able to read construction blueprints is critical if you are in the construction world – whether you are a subcontractor, contractor, owner, or designer. It doesn’t happen with people who have been experience in construction but when we work directly with end users of a space it is sometimes apparent that the “average Joe” doesn’t know exactly what they are looking at when reviewing the construction blueprints until the space is framed up or built out. It’s always interesting to see a client walk through a space and say, “wow this is not what I expected”. Most of the mid-large sized general contractors are involved in Building Information Modeling (BIM) that allows for 3D models to be built of building or spaces, but some tenant improvement or remodel projects just aren’t worth modeling or don’t have the budget to be modeled. So, until then, it’s worth it to learn a few “construction blueprint reading” 101 ideas to be able to walk through your new tenant improvement design.
Before you start reading blueprints for a project, if you haven’t already I would recommend reviewing the existing space or site in person. Sometimes it’s helpful to picture what the space or building is going to “look like” if you have an idea in your head of what the current existing conditions are and can try and visualize what the design will eventually look like in person.
A little side note – I don’t actually call blueprints “blueprints” anymore. That was an old term used because plans used to be recreated starting in the 1800’s with the “blueprinting” process was used to reproduce drawings. Blueprinting paper which was coated with a mix of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide, was sensitive to light so people would create master copies of plans and then reproduce them on blueprint paper. Everything exposed to the light would turn dark blue, hence “blueprints”. Obviously that process is not used anymore and we usually just call them “plans” now, but don’t worry if you use the term “blueprint” I know exactly what you are talking about!
If you are just beginning a career around building construction or you are the owner or tenant of a new space here is a quick “how to” guide on reading construction blueprints. Here is a summary of what we will be going over in this post:
How to Read Construction Blueprints
1. Title Page
2. Types of Plans (by Discipline, and View)
3. Where to Start – Most Important Sheets
– Floor Plan
– Reflected Ceiling Plan (RCP)
– Finish Plan or Finish Schedule
– Structural Foundation, Floor, and Roof Plans
MEP Floor Plans and RCP
4. Everything Else
1. Title Page
The title page in a set of construction blueprints is naturally the best place to start when opening up a set of blueprints. Most of the time it is the first page but if the first page looks like a cover sheet with only the project name and a rendering or something then try to flip back 1 or 2 sheets and see if you can find the actual titlel page. Normally it is filled to the brim with information and looks a combination of the cover of a book as well as a table of contents in most cases. The title page usually contains some very important information including:
- Project Name and Address
- Where it’s being built, sometime who it’s being built for, and what the project is (tenant improvement, addition, remodel, etc..)
- Project Team
- Owner/client representative, lead designer, design consultants, and general contractor if the GC has already been selected
- Title Block with Project Information and Date of Drawings
- These are usually pretty standard and typically include information on when the drawing was produced, with an initial of who produced it and/or reviewed it, and usually a name identifying the sheet.
- Revision Block
- If a sheet has been revised since it was produced as part of one of the major architectural steps such as SD, DD, CD, then the revision information is required to be able to track changes correctly. Feel free to see my other article titled “architectural design process” for more information.
- Table of Contents
- This is usually what I find most helpful on the title page blueprint when I first open a set of blueprints. The table of contents lists all of the sheets behind the title page and includes what sheet view is each one (plan, section, elevation, detail) and what discipline it is (civil, architectural, pluming, mechanical, electrical). See below for more information on the different views and disciplines.
- I don’t usually start with the legend but you will come back to this, especially if you are not in the industry, because there are going to be some lines/indications that you may have to figure out on the other sheets. Keep in mind that every discipline usually does their own “abbreviations” and “legend” so you may have to look at each discipline’s title page to find the legend information that you need.
- Building Code Analysis
- Not essential if you are the user of the space but usually the title page will include information on what year building code they used to design their space. Sometimes cities have not “adopted” the latest and greatest code yet (since all of their plan reviewers and inspectors would have to be trained up enough to know it) so it’s important for the building department to confirm what year building code the design is working off of as well as some essential egress information that is usually needed for each project.
2. Types of Sheets
When I receive a new set of tenant improvement drawings I am usually drawn to certain sheets right away, usually because they contain the most general, important information. Then if I have time I will dig into the more “detailed” sheets that give less (but still just as important) information.
First of all, a full set of construction blueprints usually contains multiple disciplines. If you are doing a ground-up or addition, usually it’s best to start with the civil drawings. These blueprints are usually completed by the civil engineer, and they usually include a general site plan, a site utilities plan, and a number of other sheets that help to layout grading and horizontal controls.
If you are building a tenant improvement or an interior remodel project, I typically start with the architectural drawings. These are completed by the architect or interior designer, and usually include all of the “framing” dimensions and “finish” information. So if you want to know how the general layout of the space, how everything is getting built, and what finishes are called out, this is the best place to start. In addition, there are usually always mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural drawings depending on what is involved in the particular project that are you a part of. Each of those disciplines are typically done by the “consultant” or “engineer” that the architect hired, so most of the time these plans are based on the architect’s plans anyhow.
In addition to the multiple disciplines that are included in the drawings, there are usually also different “views” of the drawings. The most common view is a “plan view”. This view is basically a birds-eye view or assumes that you are looking down at a space from above. The “plan view” can be seen on a main floor plan or also a reflected ceiling plan. In addition, if there is underground work being performed, there can be an underground utility plan view shown as well. In all plansets (including the floor plan) you need to make sure you understand the scale of the blueprint. Some interior projects are usually done in 1/8″ = 1′, 1/4″ = 1′, etc… It’s usually best to look at a standard 3′ wide door frame and see how big it looks on the blueprint to gauge how big the rest of the space is.
A blueprint elevation view is basically if you are standing in a room or outside of a building and looking straight at a wall. Elevations come more in handy when you are doing an addition or a ground-up project, but they are also found in tenant improvement or interior remodel projects. Typically, if a special finish is called out, there are some interior windows, or cabinets or millwork is being installed a wall elevation will be drawn to show the intent of the design.
Sections are usually a “cut through” of a wall or a building. They typically show the construction of a wall or building, and usually with it will include the height of the wall, height of the ceiling, and information on what’s “inside” the walls or between floors includes structural members, etc…
Those are typically the 3 main views in ANY blueprint but there are always a number of other drawings but each one is usually a more detailed “plan, elevation, or section” view. When you look at each drawing you are going to want to determine pretty quickly what “view” you are looking at before you dig in because it can get pretty confusing if you think you are looking at a “plan view” but are really looking at an “elevation” (or vice versa).
3. Where to Start – Most Important Sheets
I look at a lot of blueprints in my line of work and position running an interiors remodel group with W.E. O’Neil Construction – a commercial general contractor, so I am all about efficiency. If you are looking at a design of the space you are about to buildout for your company or a design of your house for your family then if you take this same approach you will hopefully get the most out of your time if you take this approach on how to read plans.
I always start here. This plan shows the overall floor plan and helps you to see the layout of the entire unless it is a bigger tenant improvement project. Again, this plan is “bird’s eye view” so you have to picture yourself looking down at it. The plan view shows wall locations, door locations, gives you an idea of where millwork and plumbing fixtures exist, and sometimes give floor finish information as well.
Reflected Ceiling Plan
The reflected ceiling plan or RCP is the second place that I usually go to in a tenant improvement or remodel project. The RCP is basically like a floor plan except the focus falls on the ceiling. This really shows what the new ceilings are going to be, and where the new ceiling devices such as light fixtures and HVAC supply grills are going to be located. These locations can be found in the respective consultant (electrical, mechanical) drawings but if the project does have an RCP in the blueprints it’s usually contains the most comprehensive information about the ceiling.
Finish Plan or Finish Schedule
One piece of information that is sometimes missing from the floor plan is the finishes information. If your floor footprint is small sometimes the design team can fit the information, but often the finish information such as floor finish, ceiling finish, and wall finish (i.e. paint color, etc…) will be located on a separate blueprint. Sometimes architects prefer to do a finish plan that lists all of the finishes on a different floor plan, and sometimes they prefer to do it on a finish schedule, which would be more of a “table” that lists each room and what finish the walls, ceiling, and floor is to receive. You will have to figure out which one it is by reviewing the title page or sometimes the floor plan will point you in the right direction.
If your project is a new build or is a remodel that requires structural work I usually head to the structural plans next. The structure plans are created by a structural (civil) engineer so if there is any “real” structural demolition or construction that must take place you know that it’s going to show up on the structural plans. These are usually done after architectural plans are completed in a remodel in order to accommodate what the overall design is going for so that’s why I normally start here afterwards. Depending on the extent of the structural modifications there could be a number of sheets that you will need to focus on to understand what is happening structurally with your project:
Foundation Plan – If it is an addition then I usually start with the foundation plan. This will show what has to take place in the ground before you can get to the point where you have a floor in place.
Floor Plan – the type of floor system will be included in the floor plan. Sometimes this is combined in the foundation plan but if there is a special floor needed such as a structural concrete or composite deck then it usually merits its own sheet to detail everything out correctly.
Roof Plan – Usually a floor plan is followed by a roof plan so you can see how the roof and walls will be supported on top of the foundation.
Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing Floor and Reflected Ceiling Plans
After reviewing the architectural and structural plans then the last step in having a general understanding of your projects blueprints is to review the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) plans. Similar to the architectural plans, the most important plans in the “MEP” blueprints are the floor plan and the ceiling plan of each discipline. This will give you a great idea of what equipment and devices are going to be installed and where.
In addition, each discipline will also have a “schedule”, such as a lighting schedule, mechanical equipment schedule, and plumbing fixture schedule. These are all very important as well if you are curious to see what type of heating and air conditioning equipment, lights and controls, or plumbing fixtures you are getting. Sometimes the location of these schedules is not very consistent so you will need to look at the title page or table of contents of each discipline to try and try each schedule down.
4. Everything Else
The plans mentioned above will hopefully give you the most “bang for your buck” so to speak and will hopefully allow you to understand your project the most in the shortest timeframe. Now, the list above is not very long, so what about all of the other dozens or sometimes even hundreds of blueprints that come along with those main blueprints? If you have a lot of time or really want to dig into the project blueprints then if you start with those “main” plans, then those are usually a really good reference for the “rest” of the drawings. You will notice a number of “expanded views” available on the floor plans or ceiling plans, or potentially some “elevations” called out on the floor plan that you can see on another sheet. Use the floor plans and ceiling plans as a guide to find other views that you would like to look at.
For instance, if you want to see what a break room or kitchen elevation looks like, chances are very high that the floor plan is going to indicate what page you can go to in order to see that kitchen cabinet elevation. By all means feel free to flip back and forth between the floor plan and any drawings you want to see. Luckily in this day and age there is inexpensive plan viewing software such as Plangrid out there that allows you to switch back and forth on views very easily, but if you just have a hard set of blueprints or plans then the good old fashioned “page flipping” works well too!
That is how to read construction blueprints in a nutshell! Let me know if this is helpful or if I am missing any information. As I mentioned before I usually need to search full sets of blueprints very quickly on a pretty regular basis, so this is how I do it and hopefully it’s helpful for others as well!