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Leonardo de Vinci had it right: Adding Scale to Architectural Drawings [diagrams]

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“Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are; and of things that are not, that they are not.” - Protagoras.

As an architect, your success relies not only on producing remarkable, unique designs, but in conveying those designs to your clients in a way that enables them to conceptualize them. After all, what good is a beautiful building design if you can’t convince your client to bring it to life?

One little thing you can do to make your client’s life easier is to include scale figures on your plans.

The Importance of Scale

For centuries, architects have been fascinated with the mathematical proportions of the human body. Perhaps the most famous example is Le Corbusier - the 19th century Swiss-born French architect - and his Modulor system. The Modulor is designed based on the proportions of a man with his arm in the air, and is based on earlier attempts, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the work of Leon Battista Alberti. Le Corbusier designed all his buildings based on this scale.

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The Modulor system, from Joe Blogs

The “human scale” is vital to architecture - it is the size of humans that determine the depth of stairs or the height of counters, the size or windows and the height of doors. Deliberately distorting the human scale of a building can be done to great impact - for example, to create a monumental effect with a large scale, or to serve an automotive scale (if a building is designed to be viewed from a road).

Scale is everything in architecture - it’s what makes a building work, or not work. And for your clients, understanding the scale of a building or space is the difference between being happy in a space, or not. It’s that simple.

Scale and Your Clients

Unless they have a construction background, clients aren’t used to looking at architectural drawings. They can find it difficult to imagine a space when you draw it on paper, no matter how snazzy your graphics are. Many architects solve this problem by creating a scale model of a proposed design, but even this can have little meaning if the client can’t conceptualise the person using the space.

Without scale people positioned inside the drawings, the client can have a skewed vision of the sizes and proportions of different objects. It can be easy to overlook features that will - when the plans are brought to life - be woefully ill-proportioned.

For example, I am currently working on designing my dream kitchen for an extension to my house we’re building later this year. This design includes a long galley style kitchen with benches in back and an island in front. When I drew the kitchen out on paper, I made all the benches 1m wide, and the island 1800mm! It looked great on paper, but in reality, it was far too large. Benches are usually only 600mm wide, as that’s as far back as our arms can comfortably reach. But until my draftsman pointed this out, and used some scale figures to show me, I was convinced I’d drawn everything the perfect size.

Scale is so, so vital in modern design, especially when design elements are outside the norm, which they so often are these days. If, for example, you design a building with extra-height doors (a common architectural element), then the eye will automatically re-scale the drawing in front of you to a normal size. The client might not even realise these features are present until they walk on to their building site!

The Correct Scale for Architecture

Of course, simply plonking a figure in the middle of your drawing isn’t going to cut it. You want to produce a figure that’s actually a useful tool for assessing the design. And that means your figure must be to scale.

Over on Life of an Architect, Bob Borson has a great post demonstrating the problems of using figures that are woefully out of scale. He gives this guide to determine the correct scale for figures.

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It should be standard practice for any architect to include the correct scale figures in client drawings. It’s important these figures are correct so the client has the best understanding of how the space functions before it is built and can’t be so easily amended. It goes without saying that you should never use a faulty scale to attempt to hide a less-than-perfect drawing or design feature.

Scaling your designs against people is an easy way for clients to grasp concepts and architectural features. The more the client understands about how the building works and what the space feels like, the easier it is for them to say “yes” to your design. Adding an appropriate scale is a simple way to add value for your clients. It’s a no-brainer!

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