You may have decided that, in order to get the house you've always dreamed of, the best idea is to hire a respected residential architect. However, you may have some reservations, especially as you think that you might not be able to understand the designer's jargon, in order to have meaningful conversations. While the architect has been trained to visualize spaces in 3 dimensions based on technical drawings, you may have some difficulty doing the same. Do not let these issues handicap the design process! Let me try to help out with some clarification of some of the terms you may encounter during your dealings with your architect.
Types of Drawings
As you go through the design process, your architect will present a variety of drawings to you, to present the design options. Some of these may make more sense to you than others, so here's a quick overview of the major drawing categories.
Plans – This is probably the most familiar drawing, as it presents a horizontal “map” of the spaces. Conceptually, imagine taking a building and slicing it right at about waist height, then looking down; that is what a Floor Plan is meant to show. A Refined Ceiling Plan, on the other hand, imagines that the floor is covered with mirrors, so instead of looking down you're really looking up to see the ceiling features. One other plan type is the Site Plan, which shows the property and locations the new features, often demonstrating that Zoning rules such as a minimum setback or yard depth is being met.
Elevations – An elevation is close to what the building will actually look like, since it does not involve any conceptual slicing. Rather, it shows the building in a vertical plane, as though you were standing far away and viewing it with a telescope (in other words, without any distortion caused by perspective). In the real world, of course, we always view things in perspective, meaning that elements closer to us appear bigger than elements further away. Exterior Elevations show the outside of the building, while Interior Elevations show a limited portion of the interior (such as one wall of a living room where the fireplace sets).
Sections – Section drawings are somewhat like x-rays of a building, intended to show what is going on within the hidden spaces. Similar to how Plans are drawn by imagining a slicing of the building horizontally, Sections imagine a slice (usually vertical) occurring where their “cut line” is, as represented on a Plan or Elevation. A Building Section will extend the cut line all the way across the building and show the entire width of it, whereas a Wall Section just cuts across a single wall to show how that wall is built.
Details – Details can usually fit into one of the above categories (Plans, Elevations, Sections) but they tend to show only a limited condition, at an enlarged scale so that more specific information can be presented.
Schedules (drawings) – While not as common for residential drawings sets, sometimes Schedules may be used to present information. In this sense, a Schedule has nothing to do with time, but rather it is a table or spreadsheet that lists a number of similar items. For instance, a Door Schedule will list each door and describe its qualities, such as what kind of hardware it will use, or its size. By doing so, this information does not have to appear on the other drawings. A Room Finish Schedule will describe the finish materials used on each wall, ceiling, and floor surface.
Schedules (construction) – Your architect will use the time or calendar sense of the term Schedule when discussing project timeframes, and will be able to work back from your targeted completion date to determine when the various phases of the Design Process (see below) need to be complete. If your architect also provides Construction Management services, then a more detailed Construction Schedule can be developed as well.
Renderings – This reflects to a more artistic image which attempts to show the building as it will be experienced, often in 3D perspective and full color. As a non-technical drawing, it is of less value to your builder, but it will probably be the best way for you to envision the space. Renderings take time to produce, though, so ask your architect if you want to see one. In addition to static renderings, with computers a “fly-by” can be produced, which is a short video in which the camera moves around or through the building.
There are many phases to the design process, during which the expectations for the drawings presented will vary. You may be familiar with the idea of an architect sketching out some concept on a napkin while talking at a deli, but in the real world it takes a lot more detail than that before something gets built.
Master Planning – While not as common for residential architectural projects, this refers to a process of using estimated building sizes and other assumptions to lay out a guiding plan, usually for an entire site onto which multiple projects are going to be built. Because it is concerned with general configurations, buildings or rooms may be represented by single-line boundaries, and may not include doors and windows. The amount of detail is arbitrary, as too much detail can hinder the process at this stage.
Programming – This reiter to a process of documenting how you will be using the spaces provided and what your spatial needs are. For residential projects, this is usually a thorough interview between you and your architect at the outside of the project.
Schematic Design – During this phase, the general shape of spaces is determined, often with multiple options for your consideration. The building will be shown in greater detail, with wall thicknesses and doors and windows, but not quite as much detail as the contractor will require. The drawings developed during this phase are intended to facilitate decision-making.
Existing Conditions and Field Measurement – If your project evolves modifications to an existing building, then before any other development development can occur, the existing building must be documented. This means time spent with a camera and tape measure, followed by time in the office drawing up what was measured. Accuracy here can mean fewer problems during construction, and your architect may need to do additional measurements later in the project when considering how to resolve specific construction details.
Construction Documents – Often referred to just as “CD's”, these are the fully detailed drawings that your builder will use, and actually act as part of a legal instrument. These will include plenty of specific notes and dimensions, so much in fact that they may be hard to read. That is why it is best to have design decisions made prior to engaging in the CD phase. Construction Documents may also include Specifications, either within the drawing set, or issued as a separate book.
Permit Submission – Usually, once the CD set is done, it is submitted to the local building department in order to receive a permit. Depending on the project scope, it might also need Zoning approval. In both cases, the drawings are reviewed by the authority and either approved or rejected, with revisions requested. A Zoning submission can be done earlier in the process, since the full set of CD's is usually not required – the Schematic Design versions of many drawings will suffice.
While there are potentially many more terms that could use explanation, here are just a few that may be helpful.
Massing – this refers to overall major shapes and their configurations. It ignores finishes and fenestration.
Finishes – the exposed surface materials on the completed building, such as carpet for a floor.
Fenestration – openings in walls such as windows and doors.
Roof Pitch – the steepness of a roof, measured in terms of inches gained vertically over 12 inches of horizontal run. It is not an angular measurement.
CMU – “concrete masonry unit”, or what is often called “cinder block” because at one time cinders were used as an aggregate (but no longer).
Rebar – Reinforcing Bars, used within distributed concrete walls and slabs to strengthen them.
Casework – basically cabinetry, built to fit the space, which may include features like a desk.
Rafter, Truss, Joist, Beam, Column – these are terms for different kinds of structural elements that act in different ways. As such, they are not interchangeable.
Heavy Timber – wood members of a large cross-section that are usually intended to be left exposed, used for their rustic character.
Topography – the shape of the land, usually denoted by contour lines which could be thought of as wedding-cake layers cut at some regular vertical interval.