Re-thinking Construction Documents
December 8, 2007, 11:05 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Diagrams

A simple definition of “construction documents” could be – graphic instructions which show how physical things go together. In architecture the standard form of construction documents is the two-dimensional black and white line drawings, printed on large sheets and bound together. While these documents are the industry standard and are a powerful tool, the concept is beginning to seem outmoded given the sophistication of three-dimensional digital rendering, the integration among software, and the general sophistication of modern built form.

Today’s blog entry looks at other industries and reviews different methods of graphic communication. In addition to developing a catalog of methods, we also hope to spark some potential ideas applicable to architectural construction documents. Let us know of other examples out there.

LEGO instruction books include exploded color axons with supplementary details of the kit-of-parts and pre-assemblies. The step by step assemblies are an excellent example of clear graphic communication.
For an amazing collection of LEGO instruction books visit this website.

Lego instructions

Lego instructions

National Geographic published a series of diagrams identifying the layers of utilities under Manhattan. These high resolution renderings have a life-like quality and are technically correct with dimensions and relationship of scale.

Manhattan underground cross section

Manhattan underground cross section

Plumbing diagrams often use color and spatial dimension to clarify what would otherwise be complicated beyond comprehension.

Plumbing diagram

The simple axonometric drawings at just the right angle allow the viewer to entirely understand multiple objects and their relationship to one another. Diagrams from the book The Art of Japanese Joinery.

Japanese joinery

Japanese joinery

High resolution cut-away renderings with color coding.

Planetary physics

The process of construction is broken into graphic groups for the 9 different phases.


Directional arrows, brief notes and sketched shading provide a clear path to a finished product.


The rendering with selective cut-away areas gives the viewer a good idea of the exterior and some of the inner workings of the ship

Cruise Ship cut-away

Both the bow and stern of the kayak are shown side by side for geometrical comparison. Perspective, elevations and plan are all on the same page for clarity.


Details are broken out adjacent to the section cuts

Boat construction documents

The complete transparency of the shell allows the viewer to see the inner workings but still have a concept of the overall geometry of the aircraft.

Aircraft transparent axonometric

The partially exploded perspective also includes diagramming of the fabrics function.

Gore-tex axonometric

A sophisticated digital model allows for high resolution exploded axons of complicated geometries.

Adidas shoe exploded axon

Varying degrees of transparency give the viewer a good idea of the exterior and a basic understanding of the interior.

Automobile transparent perspective

The color cross-section helps differentiate materials while the identification key covers the technical information.

VW bus section cut

An actual photograph of the assembly is labeled to produce this diagram.

transmission shaft

Selective cross sections show areas of most important detail.

fire arm

Exploded axon with part labels of an IBM Series III copier. This and other diagrams can be found in Tufte’s series of books on visual communications

IBM series III printer exploded axon

Selective cross section cut indicates areas of detail, highlighting the complexity of the lens construction.

Camera trasparent axon

Models and renderings of complex geometries allow for an understanding of the human organs. Detail boxes add supplementary information to key areas. Diagrams from The Complete Portfolio of Human Anatomy and Pathology from Scientific Publishing Ltd.

Human organs



11 Comments so far
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[…] Re-thinking Construction Documents takes a look at the development of drawings used for the illustration of construction in fields other than architecture, and questions (or vaguely suggests the questioning of) the traditional method of conveying the assembly instructions of buildings. A simple definition of “construction documents” could be – graphic instructions which show how physical things go together. In architecture the standard form of construction documents is the two-dimensional black and white line drawings, printed on large sheets and bound together. While these documents are the industry standard and are a powerful tool, the concept is beginning to seem outmoded given the sophistication of three-dimensional digital rendering, the integration among software, and the general sophistication of modern built form. […]

Pingback by | blog » Construction Documents’ reconstruction documentation.

you might take a look at these two message board topics:

Comment by Greg La Vardera

I design recording studios; most of my clients are composers for film and television; these studios, either new construction or refitting existing commercial or residential spaces for this specialized activity, have all had budgets of less than 1 million dollars, which translates into new construction costs of around $400.00/ft. Consequently, my clients cannot afford construction firms specializing in acoustical structures (which tend to run around 900-1000/ft). As a result I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help ordinary construction carpenters decipher plan and elevation details, with mixed results. Unfortunately a lot of construction workers you would think would be able to decipher a moderately difficult architectural drawing simply can’t. On my most recent project I explained a complex control-room ceiling with 3-D Sketchup details instead. The results were remarkably better. This is time-consuming, of course, but definitely worth the time spent. I intend to do this from now on.

Comment by Patrick Gleeson

[…] build blog has an interesting post that shows use of 3D analysis / cut away drawings in other fields to allow […]

Pingback by Douglas R. Seidler » Re-thinking construction documents


There are a few extras that IMSI have produced of late that either help out specific TurboCAD users, such as furniture makers, or greatly improve other products with IMSI technology.

One of these is the IDX Renditioner. It is a plug-in for Google SketchUp that provides high-quality photorealistic rendering – fast and easily. Renditioner works directly within SketchUp and lets you control the materials, advanced lighting components, environments, background images. Renditioner is “one button” easy with 3 render options of Preview, Standard and Presentation. It is simple enough for novices and yet powerful enough for professionals. Powerful features are optimized in a jargon free interface. Simplicity paired with speed and working directly in SketchUp, means you can achieve design visualization objectives more quickly. Renditioner offers 16 megapixel renderings for large-scale printing and powerful presentation of your designs.

It is available for Windows XP or Vista on the PC, and OS/X 10.4 or 10.5 on the Mac and runs on either PowerPC or Intel-based Mac computers. As an extra it obviously requires you to already have SketchUp, but will be fine on the free version as well as the Pro version 6.4x or later. Like all photorealistic rendering, IDX Renditioner uses a system’s RAM and CPU power extensively, and is not recommended on systems with less than 1 GB RAM, with 2 GB recommended. Being fully multithreading, dual core, quad core, or dual quad core machines will each improve system performance dramatically.

SketchUp is a nice piece of kit, but with the edition of Renditioner it jumps from good to professional, equally of use to.

Comment by Paul Tracey

Paul – cool, throw some images or links our way to chew on…

Comment by buildllc

A larger audience of contractors can comprehend 3-modeling versus the 2-D traditional drawings. However, the luxury of having these type of drawings are at the expense of higher consulting fees and reproduction costs. 3-D drafting is not only time-consuming versus 2-D production, but the technicians are at a higher pay scale. Clients who are willing to incur the higher costs must also be willing to wait longer periods for drawing development.

Comment by Steven Lumpkin

I like the idea of 3-D design, however, I do agree that it will cost more to produce, at an also extended time period. I think, first, that the construction industry as a whole should go digital with its 2 dimensional drawings. I would much rather send out changes for redlines etc via e-mail instead of printing several copies for all the different agencies. The “old dogs” in the industry need to crossover to the digital idea for the connstruction industry one step at a time. The estimators at my company, 8th largest paving company in the US, still figure quantity take-offs long hand with ten-key calculators.

Comment by Andrew Anderson

At least for the architecture profession I’d say 3D design is here. Most firms will use SketchUp for presentations and preliminary drawings, but there’s also the aspect of incorporating Building Information Modeling (BIM) into future projects.

BIM does require a lot more upfront time than before (like during schematic design and design development), but once the model has enough information embedded into it the process of creating construction documents takes less time than before, so it should even out. BIM will also allow the architect a better ability to verify any conflicts with how the building is to be constructed, and if done correctly it will reduce the amount of RFI’s received from the Contractor which will save time and money during the construction process. I have a feeling that a set of construction documents that reads like the LEGO directions conveying a particular sequence to the construction method starts to impede into the responsibilities of the Contractor in regards to construction means and methods.

I checked out the link to the LEGO directions, and I just have to say that I am incredibly thankful that I don’t have to put together the Death Star II for my three year old son any time soon. I definitely wouldn’t blame a Contractor for complaining if my construction documents looked like that.

Comment by Eric

Check out the beautiful intelligent work of Edward Tufte demonstrating why good design of graphic material matters.

Comment by Liz

Liz – couldn’t agree more. His books line our shelves. Good call.

Comment by buildllc

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