How to produce great documents!

an isometric drawing of a house design

A well developed concept resolves all the potential construction issues.


There’s no doubting that design services are valuable. Some designers have a knack of getting it right with the swish of a pencil… an idea formulates instantly and sticks, hitting the mark in a fleeting instance, with a spark of brilliance. Alvar Aalto was such an architect. His ephemeral sketches went from whispering free hand lines seemingly on the back of a napkin to working drawings with no apparent intermediate steps. If Alvar Aalto charged by the hour, then his brilliant capacity for design was cheating himself of his livelihood! A brilliant design can reward a building owner far in excess of the cost of the Architect’s fees.

There’s also an art to producing contract documentation efficiently. The knack is knowing just how much information is required to get the building built the way it is intended to be. It is knowing how to communicate that information resulting in the least amount of conflict or error during construction. And how to document well without over-documenting. Knowing where errors or misinformation are most likely to occur and being able to prevent them before it costs money. The task required of the builder should be certain. A builder should be able to perform his contract without all the requests for information or the need for clarification along the way which would otherwise invariably lead to building contract cost adjustments.

If an architect does the documentation well enough then the task of contract administration is less obscured by the need for re-work. Ultimately, a great set of documents saves the builder and the owner money, and if done well, the savings far outstrip the cost of an architect’s fees.

As a consumer, how do you know you have a good set of documents?
Quite simply, you know you have a good set of architectural documents when there are very few questions and, if the builder follows his contract documents nothing unexpected is built. That’s usually a strong indication that everyone knows what they’re getting and knows what to do. They’re great documents!

What do great documents look like?
FS Architects do great documents so I’ll show you some of ours! We like to put all the information about a project on drawings and then append a general reference specification. People have their own ideas about what method is best but our preference is to just look at the drawing rather than flicking through a bundle of extraneous documents that could provide conflicting alternative selections so for us, putting the information on the drawings in a systematic way makes cross checking easier and more obvious for all involved.

Sample_General_Layout_Drawings.pdf (Click for sample)
For a dwelling, typically, you’ll have general layout drawings, including existing and proposed plans, elevations and sections as well as demolition drawings and any site management drawings. These are usually all the documents you need for a Construction Certificate, but obviously for great documents, the builder needs more information to construct the building you want. Unfortunately, many draftsmen finish their documentation at the Construction Certificate level of completion and owners and builders are left to work it out for themselves from there on in. If you have a very good working relationship with a builder you know, then the Builder might be able to help you along, but you face much angst if you do not completely understand the alternatives being offered to you, or perhaps more significantly, not being offered.

You could add to these general layout drawings a roof plan and a floor joist /pier set-out and slab set down set-outs for example, if they’re critical to ensuring a successful outcome.

Sample_Electrical_Fitout.pdf (Click for sample)
You might then have electrical fixtures layouts and ceiling plans, fire walls or fire services, storm-water reticulation, tanks, pits and so on located on a drawing and adequately described so that the builder is aware of them and prices to include them to your requirements.

Sample_Door_Schedules.pdf (Click for sample)
Indicate sizes and selections as well as glazing, screens and door and window furniture and lock selections.

Your wet areas such as bathrooms, kitchens and laundries will show tile setouts and heights as well as wardrobe and shelfing and cupboard joinery configurations, towel rails, toilet paper holder locations and so on to prevent re-work and help ensure that there is structural support installed where support is needed.

✤ Joinery Details
Kitchen and bathroom details, the barbeque area and pool surrounds and so on… these are essential to ensuring that the stove you have selected will fit next to that set of pan drawers you’re dreaming about for example. it also sows handle positions, materials selections and finishes as well as edge treatment to benchtops and the number of shelves necessary. It can be handled with a provisional sum, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what the exact cost will be from the outset?

It is prudent to detail those things that history shows consistently go wrong. Preventing leaking showers, stopping dampness, controlling movement cracking, controlled junctions between the various selected finishes, preventing condensation, preventing corrosion and so on… It is also prudent to detail anything unusual, like disability access or that secret cupboard under the stairs. We find ourselves dealing with some extraordinary requests in people’s homes, all of which are handled discretely and efficiently.

✤ Landscaping details
All those retaining walls, garden edges and fences, as well as paving detailing and plant selections… yo can wing it and hope for the best.. or you can document them and stipulate your requirements.

✤ Finishes Schedules
We like to put all the nominated selections in one place for quick reference. these selections are mirrored within the body of the documents which, prior to the advent of computer aided drafting, was fraught with potential risk of conflict.

✤ Colour selections
Nominated on a drawing for ease of reference with the rest of the set.

✤ Subconsultant’s drawings
Survey drawings, hazardous materials reports, engineering drawings and specifix… all bundled together and bound into the set.

✤ Index Sheet
A very useful guide.

✤ Specification
An industry standard general reference specification with all irrelevant clauses removed and any “special” items addded.

✤ Collated Documents
Provided in PDF format for search and dissemination to relevant parties.

What happens if I don’t provide all this information to a Builder?
A good builder will try and guide you through all these decisions as some builders are quite proficient at doing, and having priced off the documents you provided, the builder will allow additional money for his time and research required to co-ordinate these matters with you. These effectively become hidden costs. The builder will invariably modify his fixed lump sum price upwards, based on your late selections.

An average builder will ask you to provide the information without delay, or else the builder likely use one of the terms of a standard form building contract to make the choice to prevent delay, or he will delay the project and potentially charge you for the delay. He will also modify his price upwards for your selections.

An inexperienced builder will try to help, will not have allowed enough money to hold your hand through the process and this will potentially lead to dispute and dis-satisfaction from both perspectives. He may forget to modify his price and at completion attempt to recover his losses when his figures don’t tally.

Ultimately, good documents are good risk management. Excellent documents ensure that you get what you want for a fair price and they help minimise the potential for disputes.

FS Architects have put into place a systematic documentation system devised to strive for excellent documents.


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