Plan Uses


The single, greatest danger of trying to build anything without plans lies in the fact that what you think you’re going to build and what others think they’re going to build for you will not be the same. For instance, a mystery lies beneath the sentence, “I want Windows.” The windows you expect might be heavy-framed, solid wood with historically authentic panes. By contrast, the contractor might be expecting to deliver lightweight, plastic windows with no panes, at all. This same fly-by thought process is very likely to occur in all aspects of construction, including ceiling height, flooring, roofing, cabinets, fixtures, and appliances. In fact, everything.

More importantly, beyond the immediate perimeter of your project waits a host of building codes, inspections, ordinances, plat restrictions, regulations, and zoning. Contrary to public perception, none of these is for the sole purpose of revenue collection but are, instead, in place for the protection of the ‘building’ individual, as well as the general public.

Why Have Building-Safety Departments?

The task of every building department is to preserve the safety of the public, by verifying the safety of each individual’s planning and building efforts. Those who review plans can spot danger before it can cause harm. Green Building Verifiers can spot wasteful ways. Department engineers can help prevent failure in foundations, as well as electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems. Land-form specialists can help prevent flooding. Whether it’s a structural danger, a fire hazard, a risk of electric shock, or a prescribed action to prevent foundation chemicals from poisoning groundwater, the good people at the building department have only your best interest in their hearts and minds.

Don’t complain about the Building Department. Be glad it’s there because it’s there for you.

Next is a list of the primary uses for house plans, followed by a description of each. Click a topic to jump to its explanation.

Actual Construction
Building Area Within Property – Verification and Compliance
Changes and Alternative Ideas: Keeping Track
Code Compliance
Consistent Building Coordination, Techniques, and Standards Across Trades
Construction-Phase Documentation
Cost Projection
Decision-Making On-the-Fly
Drainage Verification; and Configuration of Storm-water Runoff
Earthquake Resistance
Easement Identification and Compliance ( All Types)
Energy Use and Energy-Code Compliance
Exploratory Compliances / Cost Projection / Permissions / Qualification
Flood-Storm-Tsunami Zone Compliance
Green Building Compliance, and Related Tax Deduction Documentation
Illustration Of A Specific Level Of Quality
Inspections During The Entire Construction Process
Insurance Acquisition
Meeting of the Minds
Mortgage Qualification, Acquisition, and Compliance
Parking and Maneuverability For Vehicles And Equipment
Permit Acquisition
Plat Restrictions-Protective Covenants Compliance
Property Line Verification
Sewage: Onsite Location Compliance
Silt Control
Site Orientation
Solar-Shadow Abatement Compliance
Storm Resistance
Vehicle Parking
Water-Well Location Compliance
Wind-Shadow Abatement Compliance

Meeting of the Minds –  Alphabetically this is out of order, but FIRST in importance.The primary purpose of house plans, even more important than construction, is to serve as common ground for everyone involved in the project. Plans provide a single source of information, allowing all participants to look at and share the same drawings, details, and specifications. It is not possible for two or more people to successfully build or make anything, unless everyone is in total agreement concerning all aspects of the thing to be built or made. That agreement is often referred to as ‘meeting of the minds.’ Concerning any given project, concepts within the mind of each participant must meet the same standards of design, cost, quantity, and quality.

Actual Construction –, though perceived as being the first purpose of drawings and diagrams, is actually the last use (though still a vitally important use) for any plan. However, actual construction using the plans should be delayed until all other aspects, such as those listed in this article, are considered and fulfilled. A widespread misunderstanding is that the acquisition of plans should come with a guarantee that construction within a proposed budget is more than probable. That’s a cart-before-the-horse attitude. In fact, without plans to present ideas and desires, no meeting of the minds is even possible, no code compliance can be assured, no costs can be projected; and no qualification for a mortgage, or insurance, or tax incentives, or anything is possible. Complete, expertly prepared plans are an absolute necessity, first needed to proceed to any and all of the items listed below; finally needed to actually build the home or addition. Get plans first, so everything else may follow.

Appraisal – A mortgage to build a new home or addition cannot be obtained without first establishing, before construction begins, the value the home or addition will have after it’s built. This is to protect the lender’s financial position in case of foreclosure and resale. Therefore, a moneylender will take measures to establish, and affirm the value of the project, by enlisting input from a professional who is qualified to analyze plans and extrapolate data to support or refute an owner’s claim of valuation of the project – a real estate appraiser. By studying the plans, by measuring the drawings, by reading the specifications, an experienced real estate appraiser can predict the value a construction project will have after it is finished.

Building Area within Property – Verification and Compliance –Although one may be the owner of an entire parcel of property, in most cases, only certain areas of that property are legally authorized  for construction. Almost always, plat restrictions, regulations, ordinances, and zoning exert control over how near to a property line a structure may be built. Even though a plat or survey of a homesite, and covenants, may define setback distances for the front, sides, and rear of the property, it is still possible for easements of any type to cross through the setbacks and stab deeply into the property, further limiting the building area on the homesite. Plans should include diagrams depicting the location of the main building, as well as any other detached buildings or structures, in relation to property lines, easements, and neighboring structures on other properties. In some places regulations for fire control require specific minimum distances between structures, even on different lots. So, drawings illustrating such distances between structures are important.

Changes and Alternative Ideas: Keeping Track – The average one room addition involves more than 100,000 decisions. The average four-bedroom house involves more than 300,000 decisions. It’s an impossible task to keep up with all those decisions in the mind. The best way to track changes and alternative ideas is to mark them down on a house plan on paper. Even in digital form on a tablet or computer or smartphone, there are apps to allow markups and notes. Failure to keep close track of changes, and discussions of options will lead directly to an undesirable outcome, which will waste time and money. Use house plans to track all changes, alternative ideas, and options.

Code ComplianceIf anyone is unsure about the value of strict American building codes they need only look at international news featuring reports, such as, “Fireproof-Touted Skyscraper Is Funeral Pyre For Dozens,” and “Construction Errors Lead To Building Collapse.” and an all-time favorite, “Sloppy Demolition Levels Five Neighboring Buildings.” Every one of these calamities, and hundreds more like them, were easily avoidable. The only reason they could happen is because they have occurred in countries with slackened or no building codes, where no one is watching, where no one is concerned about safety. Fortunately, in the United States building codes are precise, strict, and encompass every discipline and trade involved in residential and commercial construction. Code enforcement occurs at every civil level: municipal, county, state, and federal. Nearly all states have adopted some form of statewide building code, intended to reduce dangerous construction practices in rural areas, beyond the regulatory reach of municipal jurisdictions. Compliance with all applicable building codes is the only way to assure personal and family safety at home.

Consistent Building Coordination, Techniques, and Standards Across Trades – Well-prepared house plans graphically depict the locations of the various components of construction, including walls, openings, cabinets, appliances, fixtures, piping, ductwork; and structural elements, such as piers, posts, columns, beams, joists, and rafters. Using such plans, various tradesmen can coordinate with one another through the drawings, though they may never communicate directly.

Construction-Phase DocumentationThroughout the process of building, not just daily but hourly, questions will arise, clarification will be needed, and changes will be made, whether big or small. In every case the primary source for answers, clarity, and possibilities, will be the plans. As various tradesmen – and there will be many – seek answers, and respond to requests, once again the plans will become the single source of information shared by all.

Cost Projection – Hands, waved through the air above an empty homesite, cannot detect the quantity of materials needed to build a home that might one day stand there. Even multiple people waving multiple sets of hands will fare no better. But, un-rolling a complete set of plans on an empty homesite will provide a common source of information for multiple people, a source which will provide to everyone the count for quantity, the degree of quality, and guidance for successful completion of that important home of the future.

Decision-Making On-the-Fly – The requirement for multitasking in daily life in this 21st millennium is not compatible with home planning and building. Home planning and building decision-making on-the-fly is at risk of running afoul of the forces of life which constantly pull attention away from the task at hand on the homesite. Trying to build anything without house plans is like shooting from the hip in the dark. Whether on paper or on a digital device, house plans serve as a tangible point of contact, as well as an unwavering reminder of the primary goal – to end up with a home well designed, a structure well built, and a place of permanence for yourself and those in your care. In short, home.

Drainage Verification; and Configuration of Storm-water Runoff – It is the responsibility of the local building regulatory authority to assure public welfare by controlling the conditions which affect the runoff of storm water in all areas in its jurisdiction. Should homesites be located in a rural area not governed by a local municipality, then regulations are imposed in this manner: neighborhood, town, county/parish, state, federal. Flooding is such a serious issue that strict regulations are inescapable, even for those rule-breakers who try to build in secret and out of sight. Regulatory authorities include city, county, and state highway departments; all departments of health and welfare; the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA). No matter where a homesite is located, their regulations cannot be avoided. For each of these administrative departments the requirement is the same, storm water flowage documentation in the form of plans.

Earthquake Resistance -No matter where it may be in the entire world, the one characteristic of construction about which every building department takes a dim view is: buildings falling over. The aspect of construction which requires the most documentation is earthquake resistance. Plans must contain diagrams and details illustrating how a structure will offer resistance to tremors, a word which doesn’t sound too threatening, but in earthquake-speak means, “I will smash you to bits.”

Easement Identification and Compliance ( All Types) – A critical aspect of house plans is the identification, for the use of the building department, of areas on the site which are dedicated as easements. Every easement, regardless of what it may be called, is a no-build zone. Whether it’s for backyard drainage, waterside flood control, or neighborhood beautification; and even if it is contained entirely within a homesite, building within it is not allowed. Some easements restrict, completely, the adding or taking away of vegetation. Others are for access-only of vehicles, and perhaps clear paths for sunshine and wind for generating electricity. For purposes of maintenance and refurbishment, it is essential that every inch of infrastructure remain accessible, at all times. A Building Department will not issue permits for construction, until all easements affecting the site are identified; and the permanence of their accessibility is assured. It is the job of the plans to diagram this identification.

Energy Use and Energy-Code Compliance – In a world where the appetite for electricity stays on the razor’s edge of supply vs. demand, it is becoming ever more important that demand be stemmed so that energy may continue to be delivered at an affordable price to more people in more places, however widespread they may be. The process of extending building permits has become inextricably linked to the methods implemented to control the usage of energy in any given homebuilding project, both in the short term, and throughout the full economic life of that home. The documentation for such control measures is required to be contained in the plans for every project within any jurisdiction in which such regulations are imposed.

Exploratory Compliances / Cost Projection / Permissions / Qualification – Very often, the creation of plans is less about construction, and more of a study of feasibility. Cost projection, of course, is critical, but other aspects are of equal importance. To qualify for a construction loan to build a home, and then a permanent mortgage to continue living there; to comply with rules, whether they’re imposed by plat restrictions, zoning, ordinances, or federal and state regulations; to receive permission to build, whether from a homeowners association, a municipal building department, or a federal authority, plans are the first lines of communication through which concepts will be shared, feedback given, acceptance extended, or rejection inflicted. No matter what the outcome of such an exploration may be, no progress can be made without plans.

Flood-Storm-Tsunami Zone Compliance- includes this important information concerning the very first step for building in a floodplain : “Don’t build in a floodplain.” It’s expensive and dangerous. Even so, federal regulations exist which mandate certain construction materials, methods, and relationship to the potential high-water level, which when employed and installed correctly, are intended to create structural integrity which might survive the onslaught of floodwaters, storm surges, and tsunamis . Anyone who applies for a permit to build in such a zone must submit plans and documentation which clearly show intent to employ all required methods, materials, and exceed the minimum high-water level. Failure to submit properly prepared plans will result in rejection of the permit application.

Green Building Compliance, and Related Tax Deduction Documentation – As construction costs soar, many who build seek relief in two forms: 1. Savings on maintenance and utility costs by using green building methods; and 2. The refund of some construction costs in the form of tax deductions and rebates. It is the plans which demonstrate to the Green Building Authority that a project qualifies for recognition. It is also documentation contained within the plans, which must prove whether or not a construction project qualifies for tax -related benefits.

Illustration Of A Specific Level Of Quality- Well-prepared plans take the inescapable guesswork out of homebuilding, answering questions like, “How tall is that wall?,” and, How thick is that paint?,” and, “How steep is that roof?, ” and, “What kind of bearing soil do you have?” Leaving such questions to be answered only in the minds of the various people who may or may not be involved in a project, and only hoping that everyone will automatically know how tall, how thick, how steep, will invariably lead to a structure poorly built. Only complete, thorough, detailed plans and specifications can show everyone, at the same time, every critical detail of a well-built home.

Inspections During The Entire Construction Process – When a building permit is released, a commitment is made between the owner acquiring the permit, and the building department granting it. The owner/builder commits to following the plans and specifications as approved. But even with the best of intentions, errors can still occur. Modern construction processes are so technical, and components so numerous, that everyone working on a project needs to have someone more knowledgeable looking over their shoulder to assure that every step is carried out with ultimate precision. That more knowledgeable person is the Building Inspector. The inspector, or inspectors for there may be many, will use the plans and specifications as a checklist, scanning the drawings and lists for objectives, then watching carefully to assure that those objectives are met in ways that follow the spirit of the building code: to keep safe everyone who will ever work on the project, or live in it.

Insurance Acquisition – All phases of construction should be considered as periods of insurability. Construction-Phase Insurance may Include coverage against accidents, theft of materials, and damage or destruction by fire or windstorm. Underwriters of construction-phase insurance policies will use the plans to create an appraisal of the valuation of the project for replacement, should any disaster occur. The more detailed house plans are, the more data can be derived by the underwriter, the more precise the coverage can be calculated, and the better the insurance coverage which may be provided.

Mortgage Qualification, Acquisition, and Compliance – Money makes the world go round and raises homes up from the ground. But without raising money for construction there will be no raising of home. Several factors control borrowing money for building: getting a good loan requires having a good job; keeping a loan in place requires taking good care of the house, as well as long-term household  financial health; and getting a good loan quickly requires having good plans. The first line of communication for obtaining a mortgage is the information contained in well-prepared plans and specifications. Mortgage underwriters and appraisers rely on data and details contained in house plans to interpret the cost to build the project, and to predict the project’s long-term value, throughout its entire economic life.

Parking and Maneuverability For Vehicles And Equipment – The financial expenditure which is barely in second place to homeownership is vehicle possession. Considering all the money spent to own cars and trucks it seems logical that an abundance of time would be dedicated to figuring out where and how to park them. Sadly this is not the case. Technical terms like turn-radius, door-span, header height, and walk-by space, are virtually unknown in a global culture that practically worships its ability to travel. Plans prepared by an expert will take into consideration the width needed to park on a per-car basis; the height required for pop-up vans and tall trucks to pass under a garage/carport entrance; the minimum measurement needed to accommodate the overall length of any vehicles which might be parked, including extended bumper equipment, trailer hitches, and both trailer tongues and propellers for watercraft. Also, attention must be dedicated to maintaining walk-by space surrounding all vehicles, including space for loading and unloading of wheelchairs, whether by ramp or lift. Last, but of equal importance, is turn-radius. This is the space required to drive beside a garage/carport, then comfortably turn into it to park safely; and to easily back out and drive away. There is no standard distance for a turn-radius, though 20 feet is common. Instead, it is wise to treat each situation individually, based entirely on the vehicle’s ability to turn, whether in a tight space, or a broad sweep. Superior plans will include illustrations diagramming the proper allocation of space for parking vehicles.

Permit Acquisition – Why have building permits? A common misconception is that permits are just one more way for the government to take more money from citizens, like a hidden tax. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are three  primary reasons: Reason 3. Fees for building permits are used to hire all the personnel in the building department, office staff, plan reviewers, code interpreters, and inspectors. All of these people have the immediate and difficult task of preventing the building of unsafe structures. Were it not for permit fees, no one could be hired to protect the public from owners and builders who just don’t know any better, or try to sneak by with shoddy work and dangerous shortcuts. Reason 2. Acquiring the permit to build is the way individuals get in line for the attention and close scrutiny of professional building officials dedicated to creating and keeping safe buildings and homes. Very few individual owners have practical knowledge of the many skills every project demands. Even professionals come up short on building crafts other than singled-out specialties. To intentionally build under-the-radar, in secret, hiding from inspectors, removes every chance of a safe outcome. Reason 1. It’s the law. Building anything without a required permit could result in severe penalties, as well as legally enforced orders to tear down the structure. Pay the fees. Acquire the permit; and be glad someone is watching out for you. Finally –  Every building department bases its process of granting permits on information found in well-prepared plans. In more and more jurisdictions, plans must be viewed by several departments, such as structural engineering, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, environmental, fire, and drainage and flood control, then permits from each granted in an all-or-none process before any construction may begin. The more complete the plans, the faster the review process will go.

Plat Restrictions-Protective Covenants Compliance – The whole basis for the enforcement of plat restrictions and protective covenants for any given subdivision is the protection of value of both the homes and the neighborhood. It makes perfect sense to place each homesite into a state of submission to high standards of quality, which are designed to demand the creation of value for a single home in order to protect the value of all homes. The instrument which transmits the homebuilder’s intent to meet such high standards is thoroughly prepared, professionally drawn house plans.

Property Line Verification – Every house has to be somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ is on defined property. Boundary lines, which define the borders of property, are just as important on a postage-stamp lot as a country-sized domain. Building regulatory authorities in every region on the planet have requirements for inclusion in plans of drawings for the exclusive purpose of illustrating the relationship of the home to be built with the property boundaries which enclose it.

Sewage : Onsite  Location Compliance – Indoor plumbing is the standalone characteristic that makes modern civilization possible. But, the indoor part only works because of a connection to an outdoor sewage system. In the particular case of a private sewage system contained entirely on a single homesite, several traits must comply with the Department of Health which has jurisdiction over the project. First, the site must be comprised of an area large enough to accommodate a  leach field, which is itself large enough to allow sufficient quantities of raw sewage to soak into the earth for purification, in order to minimize contamination of the ground. Second, the ground which will make up the leach field must be capable of absorbing and purifying adequate quantities of raw sewage, at a rate fast enough to be useful to those who live in the household. Third, the septic tank, the box into which raw sewage initially flushes before being distributed to the leach field, must be the right size to accept the maximum volume of raw sewage expected to be generated, based on the number of occupants in the household. The documentation for all of these traits must be demonstrated with diagrams in the plans.

Silt Control – Mud (aka silt), like water, will flow from high places to low places. It’s bad enough that on the high places of a homesite it forms a gooey, sticky, slippery mess.  It’s even worse in the low places where it also clogs drainage easements, piles up against landform elements, like fences, garden walls, and sheds; fouls water features; contaminates lakes, rivers, and streams; and oozes uninvited across boundary lines onto the properties of neighbors, where it will surely become the focus of the breakdown of neighborhood harmony. While peace between neighbors is important, protecting the environment is more so. Regulatory authorities have strict rules and protections in place for the prevention of the uncontrolled release of mud into the environment. The primary prevention method is the legal requirement to install a barrier, called a silt fence. Before any building permits will be granted, plans must be submitted showing the locations for installation of silt fencing, along with diagrammatic indications of the downhill direction in which mud will flow, and how it will be prevented from crossing into easements, and over property lines.

Site Orientation – One important aspect of modern methods to control the expenditure of energy used for all parts of modern life at home is control of the orientation on the site of walls and openings in relation to the most extreme weather conditions, whether wind, rain, or sunshine. Two primary methods for controlling site orientation are: 1. Rotation of the entire building, which will cause the greatest concentration of exposed openings to face in the direction most desired to either maximize or minimize a home’s exposure, usually to the sun; 2. Design of the structure so that, regardless of how it must align with the homesite, exposed walls and openings are placed along specific walls which will either maximize or minimize a home’s exposure. If such design features are requirements for green building recognition, tax incentives, or building permits, then site orientation must be illustrated in the house plans.

Solar-Shadow Abatement Compliance – In some American states, and in countries other than the United States, legislation and regulations have been enacted for the purpose of protecting investments in solar energy collection devices and equipment. A requirement of these regulations is that house plans must include documentation which illustrates that a new home will not restrict the sunshine from falling on a neighbor’s solar collectors. A Sun-study plan must show how the sun’s shadow will trace across the homesite, and neighboring lots; and how that shadow will impact the neighbor’s solar collectors.

Storm Resistance – Everyone fears a house-killing storm. It can tear a home from its foundations, then float it off on a torrential surge, or fly it away like a kite with a broken string, whether whole or in pieces. Whether it’s for the owners, the neighbors, or the community at large, it is simply better if the house stays put during a terrible storm. How it stays put is defined in diagrams and details contained in well-prepared plans. Building permits will not even be issued unless plans are submitted, which contain proper documentation for the methods which will hold down a house in the midst of deadly wind and rising water.

Vehicle Parking – In more and more neighborhoods, around the world, whether brand-new urban developments, or rejuvenated older neighborhoods, parking regulations for privately owned vehicles are being adjusted in this way: off-street parking is in, on-street parking is out. The almost globally adopted culture of one-car-one-person has resulted in so many vehicles returning home at the end of the workday, that finding a place to keep them all has become a serious problem, made worse by the inclusion of the vehicles of overnight visitors. In most circumstances, before building permits will be issued, locally implemented parking regulations must be met, using illustrations showing the allocation of space on a homesite for the parking of privately owned vehicles. Well drawn plans equals sufficient parking.

Water-Well Location Compliance – The ground beneath and around a construction site can be contaminated in two primary ways: 1. Throughout the construction process spilled chemicals related to pesticides, surface coatings, and dissolved pollutants will soak into the ground and threaten to pollute the water table;  2. Pathogens and poisons will leak from the leach fields of on-site and in-community sewage systems. Because of the certainty of defilement, water wells meant to supply human consumption with clean drinkable water must be positioned at a specific, minimum distance from all sources of contamination. In order to meet such regulations, plans must include diagrams which accurately show that sources of drinkable water will be placed at safe distances from poisoned ground.

Wind-Shadow Abatement Compliance – Shadows are not caused only by sunshine and light. A wind-shadow is caused by any obstruction which diminishes, or blocks the flow of moving air, such as a mountain, a tree, or a structure. Not much can be done about mountains, but in America and abroad, legislation and regulations have a lot to say about trees and structures. In the same way that solar investment is protected, so is wind power. Where such regulations are enforced, plans may be required to illustrate the movement of air across the homesite as well as neighboring homesites; and include documentation concerning the creation of wind-shadows.