Design Class: elephants never forget...and they can teach you how to read drawings

Have you ever had a designer invite you to go through some drawings? Has this given you pause for concern, worried that you’ll be confronted with a pile of papers full of squiggles and lines that make no sense whatsoever? 

Fear not.

This is actually a really common concern.  For some it can be worrying enough that they actually delay a much dreamed-about project.  Of course, your designer should be doing everything possible to guide you through, but it’s still important that you can read drawings with confidence.


You can make sure that everything you’ve discussed and agreed with your designer is incorporated.

You have a clearer idea of what the finished product will look like and how it will function.

You will feel more empowered and able to participate fully in the design process – after all, having your new house, garden or renovation designed should be an exciting and rewarding experience!

Today we’ll start right at the beginning, and look at the basic principles of reading drawings. And as this fear is often the elephant in the room at design meetings, we’ll use one of those lovely creatures as our life model for this session. 

Most projects will start with planning. Plans are the way designers make sure everything is in the right location and that everything will function properly.


Plans show what your project looks like from above.  A ground floor plan shows the building level closest to the ground, and it usually shows what’s happening about a metre above the actual ground level.  Our elephant pal Trunky’s ground floor plan would look something like this:

Buildings usually have a roof plan too. Imagine you were in a plane flying overhead. If you looked down, what would you see?  For our obliging friend it would be something like this:


What about how the outside looks?  To describe that we use Elevations. Each elevation shows what the project looks like from a different side.  To describe Trunky we would use a front elevation,

a rear elevation,

and a side elevation:


The next thing to describe is how things are made, and how the different spaces work in three dimensions. To do this we use Sections. A section is like a slice through the building or garden.  Sections show things such as how the ground floor and upper floor work together; how stairs work; or how a swimming pool sits in the ground next to a terrace.

Let’s see what’s going on inside Trunky. If you imagined him sliced in half through from trunk to tail, and looked at the cut surface, you’d get a section something like this:

So there you have it.  You can apply this technique to reading any drawings, and it’s easy if you stop and remember that:

Plans show something from above;

Elevations show the surfaces of something from outside;

And Sections are slices through something to see how they fit together on the inside.

Of course, things can get more detailed (and potentially more confusing!) than this, and there are different types of drawings for different stages of a project, but these basic principles remain the same.

Now it’s over to you.  Have you ever been surprised with the way something has turned out on a project, because you weren’t 100% certain from the drawings how it was going to work?  What else would you like to know that would help you read drawings more confidently?

Let me know in the comments section.