Blueprints to Basecamp: Modern Design Drawings


Moss was recently given the original blue prints for an upcoming remodel project – a mid-century modern bungalow – needing some updated windows etc.  While transferring the measurements into an AutoCAD file so that we could begin our re-design process, I marveled at the idea of drawing every line of a Construction Drawing Set by hand.  Hand drawn architectural plans are often quite beautiful but we don’t miss them when we are trying to complete a design project under deadline.  

Once More, With Feeling

As we said Tuesday, one of the most amazing things about the Eiffel Tower is the design team of 50 engineering draughtsmen who spent 18 months producing its 5300 sheets of construction drawings.  Each line and each copy had to be produced by hand, perfectly, or be done again.

That concept calls to mind the monastic scriptorium where diligent monks transcribed text by hand so that books could be read by more than one person at a time.  For architecture, the blueprint process of making copies must have felt a bit like Gutenberg inventing the printing press.  Today we have jumped further forward (digital text, anyone) creating our drawings in a medium that can be instantaneously shared anyone who needs them.

Who Put the Blue in Blueprints

In one huge leap for architect-kind, the Cyanotype Process (cyan as in blue) was pioneered by astronomer John Herschel who found that coating paper with iron salts and then exposing it to sunlight resulted in a uniform blue field.  If anything interrupted the contact of light with the paper, the original white color remained after the chemicals were washed away.  In one of its earliest applications (1843) it was used to a book with photographic illustrations (as opposed to engravings), using actual plant specimens to block the light and leaving copies of their outlines on blue paper.  The chemistry remained virtually unchanged as the technique was adapted by architects who created original drawing sets on translucent vellum, then layered them with the cyanotype paper exposing all but their drawn line to the blue light effects. The result … blueprints.

(Not) Back to the Drawing Board – Computer Aided Design

Using computers to generate design and construction drawings is (in some ways) a huge move toward efficiency as it allows for quick changes and adaptations of designs without having to re-draft an entire sheet or set of drawings.  The earliest CAD programs were little more than digital drawing tools – a means of making lines on a field.  But even in its most basic form, the ability to precisely measure, dimension, duplicate and move elements of the drawing sped up the process immensely.  One drawing file can contain multiple layers of information (location of walls and other building elements, power, lighting, mechanical systems, structure etc).

Even after drawings were produced in by computer and printed on large-format plotters, however, there was a use for cyano and diazo (blue on white) printing to make multiple copies – which could be produced more quickly and cheaply than directly printing.  Matt and Chris both remember their first drafting lab where CAD drawings were (slowly) plotted on velum and then (quickly) run through the blueprint machine to produce copies, filling the entire space with a strong smell of ammonia.

While some designers were reluctant to give up their drafting tables, everyone entering design offices today is expected to be proficient CAD software.  At moss we use AutoCAD to design our buildings, sharing drawing files with engineers and generating iterative plans in hard copy to discuss internally or share with clients.

Many firms further transitioning to BIM – Building Information Modeling – software which creates a highly detailed computer model of the final building and then coordinates all drawings (plans, elevations, schedules of materials etc) as the design progresses.

Drawings Today – A Base on Basecamp

While printed drawings are very important on a modern job site, all the intermediate stages of design communication now tend to happen via computer.  It is worth a salute to the PDF format (first presented in 1993) which allows for digital drawing and text files to be accessed by any computer (or smart phone).  One magic day, it became possible to send a PDF file to the printer and have large format prints produce, rather than making an in-house copy and delivering that to a copy show for reproduction.  Matt remembers the transition this way:

Why did it take so long to come up with this?

In remote communications with clients and consultants we depend on the rapidity and ease of sending a pdf detail drawing or full set of drawings.  We depend on the (Chicago based) project management program Basecamp to coordinate with everyone, uploading digital drawing files, long to do lists and communications between multiple parties to work out the details of a building.  The Basecamp recently invited Matt to their brainstorming panel to make the project even better – we only had a few suggestion.

Don’t get us wrong, we still do a lot of thinking with pen in hand – sketching is a key element of our design process and communication.  But we’d all be lost without the computer when it comes to preparing detailed accurate Construction Documents.  So, thank you, Blueprints, but we’re glad not to use you anymore!