Rules for exceptional documentation

Ten rules for exceptional documentation

Almost two decades ago, the summer before I started studying architecture, I did a week of work experience at the old Public Office studio of Six Degrees Architects. I can still remember the lunch vouchers, hot desks and pigeon holes, and the daunting feeling of being a very small fish in a very big pond.

I accompanied one of the architects to a nearby warehouse for my first ever measure up, a crash course in the use and misuse of a measuring tape. Returning to the office, the architect asked me to draw up the floor plan. She must have sensed my hesitation, so let me watch over her shoulder for a while as she worked. Her hands flew dextrously across keyboard and mouse, lines appearing magically on the screen. An incomprehensible variety of lengths, orientations and colours.

“This is AutoCAD,” she said.

I sat down, the era of Google and YouTube well ahead of me, and stared dumbly at this unfathomable piece of software. The architect’s simple request took me a day and a half to execute, but haltingly and with liberal use of the CTRL-z button, I did as she asked.

Starting in one corner, I drew careful line after careful line, the floor plan slowly emerging as a single yellow zigzag meandering across the black screen. Indents for engaged piers, outdents for windows and every other minute perambulation were subsumed within that drunken line. Layers were alien to me, as was the polyline tool. Painstakingly, I made my way around the warehouse perimeter and returned to my starting point. I was 150mm out.

In the distance, sirens.

Fire; London

The summer of 1999 was a lifetime ago, but in the intervening years I have grown accustomed to AutoCAD and one or two of its brethren. I have become competent, then capable, then accomplished. There have been countless plans, elevations, sections and details. There have been files dramatically lost and others miraculously recovered. There have been laughter and tears.

It has and continues to be a love hate relationship.

But drawing in AutoCAD is one thing. Preparing construction drawings is something else entirely. It requires clarity of vision to see every square millimetre of what the building will be. It requires a rational and orderly mind to ensure the information contained within the drawings is legible. And it requires elite time and task management skills to document efficiently.

In this, documenting is a lot like juggling.

Beni Hassan; Egypt; Tomb painting

The analogy of the juggler

An architect is halfway through documenting a project. She arrives at her studio one morning, boots up her computer and continues on with her work. She has a long list of things that need doing, and starts by throwing her first ball in the air:

She rejigs the window layout on the north facade.

The architect discovers the new window layout necessitates changes to the kitchen joinery. She throws another ball in the air:

She modifies the length of the kitchen bench.

Another ball:

She updates the breakup of the kitchen cupboards.

While working on the cupboard breakups, the architect decides to tweak the kicker height and door handle types. Two more balls:

She modifies the kicker detail.
She swaps out the handle on her fittings and fixtures schedule.

Each ball that is thrown in the air is a problem that needs solving. Each problem inspires a collection of further problems and more balls in the air. Like the juggler, the architect starts with a single ball but soon finds she’s juggling a dozen or more. Only once a problem is solved does its ball come down. And typically, the first ball to come down is the last that goes up. Only through flexible thinking and herculean multi-tasking can the architect finally pull all of her balls out of the air.

Architecture; Drawing; House design

I enjoy documenting. As our studio has grown, I have sadly become decreasingly able to carve out the bulk hours to do it. Documentation takes a lot of time, uninterrupted stretches for each ball to be thrown in the air and further stretches for them to come back down. But when I get the chance, I still find the juggle intellectually stimulating. I enjoy the design thinking that goes into good detailing, the artfulness of laying out a page, the methodical assembly of a rigorous documentation set.

As the years have passed, I have codified a list of ten rules for exceptional documentation. Some have been bestowed upon me by peers like perfect golden nuggets of wisdom, others have come to me in epiphanic dreams, and yet others I have had to learn the hard way with gritted teeth and much yelling.

Starting tomorrow, with one exceptional rule per day, I will release this list into the wilds of the internet so that future architecture students may stumble upon its wholesome goodness in their moments of need.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Image sources:

  1. Rules for exceptional documentation, author’s own image.
  2. Re-enactment of the great fire of London, sourced from NBC News.
  3. Egyptian wall painting from a tomb at Beni Hassan, sourced from Wikipedia.
  4. Deco House section, copyright Mihaly Slocombe.

3 thoughts on “Rules for exceptional documentation

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  1. I’m trying to understand CAD, and I’m much older than you. Thanks for the words of comfort. I love manual drafting but it’s too much for my eyes I think. Not practicing but on the edge of architecture for a long time.

    1. It’s like learning any new skill I guess Martin, you just need to throw a whole bunch of hours at it. Check out the Dunning Kruger effect, it describes the process perfectly!

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