Understanding the Building Blueprint The Floor Plan

In architecture, floor plans or designs have always been crucial in mapping out how a structure is put together. Even in ancient Egypt, primitive drawings have been found to suggest that builders have been relying on floor plans for millennia.

In its simplest form, a floor plan is a map—a diagram, usually to scale, of the relationships between rooms, spaces and other physical features at one level of a structure. Most go into specifics of size and materials needed to help the contractor and architect communicate on paper.

Of course, board members and managers have to look at floor plans on a regular basis, often in the context of a resident’s alteration project, or a project affecting their building’s common areas. Without any training or experience, however, reading and understanding a floor plan isn’t easy. Architecturally-savvy observers will know what they are looking at, but if a board member or manager looks at a proposed floor plan, they might think they are looking at hieroglyphics.

Getting Started

When a condo or co-op decides it’s time for a renovation project, they hire an architect and talk about what they want done and how they can achieve their vision. The first drawing will be of the existing space, so everyone involved knows what they are working with.

“The first step in preparing a floor plan is to talk to the client and find out what their needs and desires are. It’s essential that the client has input and you want them to understand the process,” says Richard Metzner, an architect with Gandhi Engineering Inc. in Manhattan. “In your mind, you sketch out some alternatives to achieving what the client wants to do. Then you go back and sit with them and go over this idea or that idea and it’s like a succession of approximations. You get closer and closer to what they want to do, and when you feel you’re there, you draw them up into biddable drawings.”

But just because someone envisions something doesn’t mean that it’s practical— or that it can be done at all. It’s up to the architect to make sure that they make their clients happy, but also that they explain the do’s and don’ts of renovations before a floor plan is first designed. If a board member wants to knock out a wall or two because they think it’s going to make the room bigger, it obviously can’t be done if it would result in the condo falling down.

“Obviously you need to inspect the space and take measurements and make sure that what they want is feasible,” says Andrew Sayers, an architect with Aspen Designs in Woodside. “You talk with them about their needs, but being a professional you have to know if those needs can be met under the law and so forth. People sometimes want to move certain structural walls or partitions that you just can’t do.”

On Screen

If you started in the business 20 years ago or more, you most likely learned to create floor plans on paper, called ‘manual drafting’ among the pros. But nowadays, almost all the work of floor plans after the initial sketches is done with computer designing or CAD programs.

Computers make it easier to make changes, measure more precisely and display a better understanding of what the finished project will look like.

“To show a third dimension it’s all done with computers, where it’s easy to show 3D,” says Sayers. “You can print it out in two or three dimensions and clients like to see 3D because they want to see more of what it will look like physically, as opposed to the construction drawings that they aren’t going to really be able to interpret.”

Customary sizes for floor plans are based on a scale of a quarter-inch to the foot or a half-inch to the foot.

Show and Tell

Although a cursory glance of a floor plan can help the contractor have a general idea of what the costs will be for a project, according to Sam Nixon, project manager for Godsil Construction in Manhattan, you can’t really give an accurate estimation without a full examination of the project plans.

“No, you can’t tell immediately,” says Nixon. “Generally for us, an architect will send us a plan that includes architecture such as framing the walls and things like that, including electrical, plumbing, and so forth,” he says. “Each one of those is a different price because there will be a different plan for each of them, so it’s a process. You can get maybe a general ballpark idea, but there are so many details to look at, that there’s no quick and easy method.”

Things that need to be taken into consideration are how long materials will take to order, prices of high-end materials that are drawn into the floor plan, and rules of the co-op board for working hours and things of this nature.

By working out these details, the contractors can figure out how much to bid on projects so there aren’t any surprises.

“If it’s a good plan it will have all the details,” says Nixon. “What kind of tile, what kind of wood for the floors, paint for walls, every single detail that you need to plan, down to the finish on your toilet paper holder. You can price up every single aspect of it based on the speculation packet that comes with the set of drawings.”

When a company bids, they will have the set of plans in their office and if they win the job, they will have the set of plans and spec book to start.

Fighting Words

When a contractor wins a bid and starts on the work using the floor plan, there are many places where he or she may butt heads with the architect, and board members should pay attention to the architects’ and contractors’ worries.

“If there are issues where you have to deviate from the plan, [the contractors] are supposed to come to us and talk to us about these problems or issues before they do anything,” says Sayers. “I don’t like when they try to change the job to the point of cheaper, and not necessarily something that’s better. I don’t want them to do that. What I put on the plan, I want them to stick to.”

But sometimes, things are simply forced to change. Nixon says that he has dealt with numerous architects who draw floor plans without knowing the way pipes are running or where the ductwork is.

“What will happen is you start demolition on a renovation and you notice a big piece of ductwork in the way, and there are a million different things that can happen. So you follow as close as you can but a lot of times you have to adjust things on the fly and amend things based on field conditions,” he says.

Money and responsibility are the main things the two parties bicker about, and it often results from a lack of communication between them.

“When you have to build with unknowns because architects haven’t taken time to peruse the site and figure out how pipes are run and how ducts are run, [it’s an issue],” says Nixon. “As much of that is known up front, there will be less fights and less disagreements later on. This job we are doing now, the architect designed a bathroom and everything he specified wasn’t to code. We ended up building it just like he drew it, and the inspector came in and said ‘This is not to code’ and we had to tear it up and start over. So who is responsible? The architect should have drawn it properly, but the plumber should have known not to install it. It’s a real gray area there.”

Other matters of contention include contractors doing some things without asking, misinterpreting the plans, changing to lower quality supplies or switching colors or materials. That’s why when you hire someone to create your floor plan, you should consider hiring him or her for the length of the job.

“They better follow the plan to the letter,” Metzner says. “It depends if the owner contracts with the architect to be there for the construction period. Sometimes they just want the plans and say goodbye. So whatever gets built is out of the architect’s control.”

One thing that really upsets the contractors is when an architect has something vague in their plans or doesn’t fill in all that they can.

“A lot of the value of the floor plan comes from its details,” Nixon says. “A lot of times the architect will use a cop-out phrase like ‘verify in field’ or ‘to be confirmed.’ The more detail you can provide right up front, the more accurately you can build it. If there are question marks up front or unknowns, then it usually results in a lot of phone calls or back and forths, and ultimately it shows in the job.”

Subjective Art

While a floor plan might be considered a work of art to the architects, with each one being filled with their creative thoughts, for a contractor the floor plan is expected to be as detailed as possible with not much room for interpretation.

“A good floor plan or construction document is good when a contractor can read it properly,” Sayers says. “It should have everything he needs with not a lot of open ends. We don’t want him guessing on things. If he’s competent, everything should be explained to him in the plans and no one should worry about how things are done.”

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe Cooperator.

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