Whether famously drawn on the back of a napkin or later combined into a set of formal project documents, architectural elevation drawings play a vital role in a buildings design development, composition, and communication.
Why? …because introductions are important and both won and lost via first impressions, and when it comes to architecture; it is the elevations time to shine and provide that all important initial interaction with its visitors and audience.
As a result, elevations drawings are produced for nearly every building around the world where they are often legally required to form one of the key components in a set of planning drawings, and later in a pack of construction documents.
In this article, we explain what elevations are, how they’re prepared, and how to make them for your own projects.
What is an elevation drawing?
Floor plans show spaces from above, section drawings provide a look inside through a section cut, and rendered perspectives show the building in three dimensions. So you might be wondering, what is an elevation drawing and why is it necessary?
In short an architectural elevation is a drawing of an interior or exterior vertical surface or plane, that forms the skin of the building. Drawn in an orthographic view typically drawn to scale, to show the exact size and proportions of the building’s features.
Externally an elevation is most commonly used to describe the vertical interface between the interior and exterior of a building, where the external facing walls and surfaces of each side of your proposal are drawn.
This can however be brought inside for internal use, where it can used to the same effect but to depict the vertical surfaces of rooms.
An elevation can be drawn in isolation, and sometimes depending on the circumstance come before any other drawings. However the most common approach is to firstly produce a floor plan and draw your elevations up from this.
As the plan and design evolve, this often results in draft elevations being drawn or adapted several times over before the final set is produced, in order to help communicate the proposals design development.
Elevations provide a vital tool in helping to communicate an architectural proposal, by breaking down the external envelope into individual segments and describing each surface separately.
For this reason they are a mandatory requirement for obtaining planning permission, and presenting proposals.
How are elevation drawings identified and what should they show?
Elevation drawings are often represented on plan views by elevation tags. These symbols have an arrow that points in the direction that the elevation is facing. Elevation tags can include letters or numbers indicating their sheet number and order.
There are two commonly used naming schemes for elevation views. The first one uses four basic directions starting with the side that faces the street. This method includes a Front Elevation, Right Elevation, Rear Elevation, and Left Elevation.
The second method is based on compass directions, with a North Elevation, East Elevation, South Elevation, and West Elevation. This is determined by the direction the elevation faces, so for example; if you were to stand in front of and look directly at a buildings North election, “North” would be behind you.
If an elevation faces between either primary orientation then they can be named North East or South East respectively. You may also find numbered elevation views for interior walls, or elevations that correspond with street names.
When drawing an elevation and for it to be successful, it needs to show absolutely everything that makes up and features on the particular side of the building you want to represent.
An elevation should show:
- All openings (windows and doors).
- Include all floors.
- External elements (such as stairs, balconies, columns, porches, or chimneys).
- All materials (timber cladding, zinc or glass for example).
- Landscape (anything in line or behind your elevation).
- Floor and ridge height levels.
- Entourage – people, vehicles, furniture, trees etc (to add scale).
- Shadows (to highlight protruding or recessive opening and objects).
- Roofing and awnings.
- Exposed structural members.
- Finishes and decorative accessories.
Everything that is it important to the communication of the proposal.
Why are elevation drawings prepared and what is their purpose?
While many architectural views are highly technical, elevations are much more straightforward. They are made to accurately illustrate how a building looks with all of its features. Their purpose is to provide a reference for clients to see how things look, and for builders to properly construct the features of the design.
Perspective views serve a similar purpose, but builders cannot use them to retrieve accurate measurements. And although perspectives provide a life-like view of the building, their angles and depth can make it hard to see all of the architectural elements.
For things like interior renovation or kitchen design, elevations are the only views that can effectively communicate the size, location, and spacing of individual drawers and cabinets.
Even in a stylized manner, elevations can be used to identify iconic structures. Buildings like the Sydney Opera House can be unmistakably recognized by its side profiles alone, which can be seen on souvenirs, clothing, and maps. This type of drawing is being used in architecture and beyond, all over the world.
Some of the main uses for elevations include:
- Exterior and interior designs
- Historical record of a building
- Renovation and remodeling
- Communicating construction information
- For planning and regulations approval
- Sales and marketing
- Details for fabrication or manufacturing
How to read an elevation
When viewing an elevation drawing, it’s important to remember that all objects in view, whether far or close, appear along a single plane. This means that there is no perspective effect, and all objects are shown at the same size and scale.
To better understand the view, it can be helpful to locate the same side of the building in floor plans and perspectives if available. You’ll also want to take note of any annotations on the drawing indicating floor heights, levels, materials, and fixtures.
Once you’ve matched the view to its corresponding plans, you can start to interpret elements in the elevation to get a better understanding of the design. Look for the edges of walls, the outlines of doors and windows, and the form of the roof.
You’ll likely be able to see the roof’s pitch, its height from the ground, and the level of its apex. All of this information will eventually be used to turn the vision into reality.
How to draw an elevation
Prepare your reference drawings
For an exterior facade, it helps to have detailed floor plans ready for easy reference. The floor plans will serve as the basis to accurately draw the elevations. Each side will be used to pinpoint the exact locations of wall corners, openings, stairs, and decks.
Project the lines
The next step is to draw the initial vertical projection of the building. To do this, line up your floor plan above the drawing space and create new lines aligned to the wall edges, window and door locations, and other prominent features. The general outline of the facade will start to take form.
Once you have the vertical lines drawn out, it’s time to determine the horizontal constraints. These can include the level heights for each floor, the distance from floor to ceiling, sill heights for windows, and the height of door openings. A typical building has a ceiling height of 10 feet, with doors at least 80 inches tall.
Add the roof
An effective shelter is not complete without a roof. The roof will cap off the building enclosure and shape the final profile of your design. Some roofs may not be visible in elevation views, if covered by parapet walls or hidden behind taller portions of the building.
Refine the design
By this point you’ll have a decent idea of how the building looks. This is your opportunity to make aesthetic adjustments to your design. Before adding the fine details, you can adjust things like roof pitch, sill heights, overhangs, and more.
Detail the drawing
Add details like trim, roof gutters and ridges, stone, siding, and cornices. Clients and builders will have a better understanding of the design with more details in the drawing.
Finally, you’ll need to annotate the drawing to include important information such as dimensions, floor names, and text callouts. Level lines typically indicate the elevation heights of each storey, including the natural grade line, finished floor lines, and roof apex.
To create an interior elevation, you’ll need to start with your initial design intents. You can begin by sketching the space with a rough draft of the final output.
Prepare the walls
Once you have a design reference, you can start drawing the walls in their appropriate scale. For this you’ll need to know the length of the walls and the existing or intended ceiling height. You’ll also need to coordinate the location, size, and appearance of things like doors, windows, and interior openings.
Draw the primary elements
Draw the primary elements of the space, particularly the things that require additional detail or that are not visible in other views. This can include wall cladding, counters, and cabinetry.
Add furniture, fixtures, details
Add the additional details to fill out the area, with objects such as furniture, fixtures, and other accessories. These items can complement the drawing and add context to the space for a more complete visual.
Add labels and symbols
Once the elevation is all drawn out, you can add labels for finishes, materials, and specific pieces of furniture or appliances. Symbols may also be necessary for closets and cabinets, with dashed lines to indicate the swing direction of doors.
Detail or Enlarged Elevation
Isolate the objects
For a detail drawing or enlarged elevation, you can start by isolating the objects that you want to focus on. This involves analyzing the subject to figure out what can be removed and which objects must be shown.
Create a rough sketch
Next, you can plan out how you’d like your drawing presentation to turn out. Make a rough sketch of what you need to show, whether it’s the installation process, inner mechanisms, or enclosed elements. It’s important to maintain clear communication in the drawing, and a sketch can help you determine the best visual approach.
Differentiate line types
When drawing the detail, you can use varying line types to differentiate parts and materials. Architects use a combination of continuous, dashed, dotted, hidden, and phantom lines to improve the legibility of the drawing. For complex drawings, you can also use different lineweights and transparency for additional levels of detail.
Hatch patterns are commonly used to represent different materials such as metal, concrete, wood, or stone. They can also be used for earth and gravel, to show areas below ground.
Add dimensions and labels
Detail drawings and blow-up views are meant to provide an additional level of information about a particular part of the project. These elevation views include plenty of dimensions and text to thoroughly explain the design intents. Whenever builders have concerns, they can refer to these drawings for clarification or direction.
How to improve your elevation drawings
Line-weight refers to the different thicknesses of line representation, where they can be used to represent distance, foreground, background, significance, and detail.
In an elevation view, major architectural elements can be shown with bold lines, while minor details such as wall patterns and vegetation can be shown with finer lines. Features in between, like doors and windows, can be shown with medium lines.
Line-weights help to add hierarchy, character, and depth to drawings, as well as provide a clear distinction between different parts and materials.
Color can help break up the monotony of black and white lines. It can also make certain walls and faces easier to see and distinguish. A well-chosen color palette can improve the overall viewing experience, from a rigid monochrome drawing to a page filled with pleasant hues.
Textures can be used to provide a touch of realism. You can apply textures to elements such as wood, bricks, stone, and shingles for example to make the elevation appear more life-like.
Most find textured elevations a lot easier to understand and read, as they relate directly to the material board without having to read finishes tags or material callouts.
Light & shadow
Light and shadows can be added to convey depth and contrast on a facade. They can also help in showing how the sunlight interacts with different coverings and openings.
Shades and gradient colors add a 3D aspect, and can serve as a simulated thermal study of the building’s enclosure.
Trees and plants can go a long way in an elevation drawings. You can find creative ways to include plants by filling planters with flowers, lining the garden with shrubs, or diffusing the background scene with trees and vegetation.
If the design permits, you could also add vines, hanging plants, and green walls to the mix. Vegetation and landscaping bring a natural element to the drawing that can help soften the rigidity of the building mass.
People and vehicles
Apart from vegetation, you can also add cutouts of life in motion. This can include people, animals, cars, boats to name just a few. Adding an entourage of people and vehicles helps to illustrate size and scale, and communicates the proportions of the design in human context.
It can also show how the building spaces are used and work, for situations such as access, social interaction, or events. Populating drawings with life makes it much easier to visualize the building in action.
For exterior elevations, you can frame your building with its surrounding context. Adjacent buildings, mountains, fences, and distinct features nearby can all be added to help viewers understand the site context, and to better associate the building with nearby landmarks.
The surroundings can also create a nice backdrop for your drawing to prevent the elevation from floating on the sheet.
Once you’ve found and established a set of line-weights, hatches and/or objects to regularly populate your drawings, it’s time to consider saving them and turning them into a template.
Templates greatly reduce the time often spent hunting down CAD blocks and trying to match visual styles from previous drawings. As once created (or bought) it is simply a case of copying and pasting them into your new drawings as and when required.
A carefully crafted template provides you with a library of essential tools, and a suite of additional drawing elements that make CAD drawings incredibly more efficient and presentable.
…and here’s one we have prepared:
Stop searching for CAD blocks!
Format your drawings with the correct set of tools. This CAD template enables you as a designer to spend your time on what matters – the design!
Foreground, Middle Ground, Background
Drawings require depth, and therefore your elevation drawings need to have a foreground, middle ground, and background. All three of these can easily be established via a quick study of the floor plan and breaking it into three separate planes.
Each plane of drawn information is then controlled by line-weight and color to disguise itself apart from the other two. Generally speaking, the lines should be at their thickest and darkest in the foreground and then subtly reduced towards the background.
The key is subtle here – each visual plane wants to be different but this doesn’t mean the foreground should be extremely thick and dark and the background thin and light. Create a subtle visual hierarchy.
Creating layers can greatly help with the organization and control of the above foreground, middle ground and background. By providing a structured and quick method of globally controlling whatever is drawn on them.
It is equally as useful to place other elements such as vegetation, openings, entourage and textures on their own layers for the same reason.
Visual hierarchy refers to prioritization of an element or series of elements in your drawing. Similar to the above three planes, this enables you to focus on certain aspects of the elevation and its composition.
As discussed in Architizer’s article on general drawing tips: “you can grab attention using size, color, line weight, or simply providing white space in an otherwise crowded drawing plane”.
Layers can also play a role in this, where they can be layered to create depth through line-weight, color and/or opacity.
Elevations are essential for architectural drawings, interior designs, and details. There are different approaches to preparing these views, but ultimately what matters is presenting the drawing in a visually pleasing and informative way.
Elevations form a bridge between the realistic and the technical, and your extra efforts in drawing them will surely be appreciated by clients and construction professionals.