What are blueprints?

When I was in graduate school I used to work for an architect who did everything “old school”. What I mean by that is that he was still creating drawings by hand as opposed to using a computer. Keep in mind, this was when AutoCAD was first stating its claim as the industry standard in the field of architecture and engineering. So you had this architect that has been doing it his way for the past 40 years and me, a snot-nosed kid coming in and basically demanding that he started implementing the computer. The debate went like this: “I can draw a line a lot quicker than you can make a line on the computer” “well that may be true, but once I have my line in the computer I can modify it, scale it, stretch it, copy it, erase it, array it, etc. whereas if you tried that with your pencil it would take you a half hour to do any one of those tasks!”. I loved the guy and we went back and forth for over a year. Alas you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and I get that. The guy was too set in his ways and didn’t have the desire to learn an entirely new way of doing something.

pencil2So what are blueprints you ask? Well the reason I prefaced this post with an anecdote on old school vs. new school is because the word “blueprint” derives from the fact that architectural drawings used to actually be blue with white writing. These were, to me, the dark days of working in an architectural office…a time of tedious menial tasks such as erasing lines with an actual eraser until you literally burned a hole in the paper (as opposed to just hitting delete on a computer keyboard). A time of jumping in the car and racing off to the nearest copy center whenever we needed to scale a hand-drawn drawing up or down (we would have to memorize scale factors that we would input into the copy machine to make the drawing scale properly).

The process of making blueprints worked as follows: we would take a piece of special paper called Diazo paper and run it through the Diazo machine (usually just called the “Diazo”) with the original drawing (which was usually done with ink on mylar – an insidious procedure to say the least….) overlapping it. The Diazo machine was a machine that was about the size of a modern-day plotter that was filled with ammonia (yes I said ammonia). The machine would then take the hard lines of either the ink on mylar or pencil on velum or whatever translucent material was used, and invert the colors to where the entire sheet of Diazo paper turned blue from the chemical reaction to the ammonia and whatever lines were black turned white. You were left with copies of the original drawing that were now literally blue in color, thus the term “blueprint”.

Now fast forward a little bit to today’s world of architecture and engineering. As opposed to walking into an architectural office and almost needing a gas mask because of the ever-present smell of ammonia, architectural offices don’t smell like anything! Thank the gods for modern technology. The reason we don’t use/need the old Diazo machines is because nowadays architects and engineers work on their computers instead of ridiculously huge tables, and whenever they want to see an actual hardcopy sheet, they just print it out on their plotter (basically a very large printer) and then the sheet gets printed…viola! Most people in today’s world still use the word “blueprint” because they don’t fully understand that the prints that we use today aren’t blue anymore…they are just big sheets of white paper with black ink. When most people use the term “blueprint” they are referring to what is technically called “construction documents”, or CDs. These are the drawings that architects and engineers work on that explain how buildings and specific project details are communicated to the builder so the builder can execute the work.

I felt compelled to write this post because I know a lot of people are confused by construction documents vs. blueprints, when in fact they are referring to the same thing. Just talking about it brings me back to the old school architectural offices where all you saw were rolls of drawings…everywhere. And when I say everywhere what I mean is, not only everywhere in the office itself, but everywhere in the attic of the office…everywhere in the architect’s home attic. Just think about how obnoxious it was to have to go back and find a drawing from years ago…I mean how could you find it? I remember clients asking us about projects that were “archived” = sent to the netherworld of old drawings…our stock response was, “well they have been archived so give us a few days and we’ll get back to you…”. We then hung up the phone, cursed, and started rummaging through drawings. No matter how good the architect was at filing drawings it was still a huge pain. In today’s world there are no hardcopies (at least not in my office!). The only time I work with an actual sheet of paper is when I have to plot out the finished product. Instead of having an office filled with drawings my office is lined with guitars and some football memorabilia…just as it should be!

The funny/sad/slightly controversial thing about switching the industry standard to computers is that there were a lot of people (myself NOT included) that saw hand drawing as an art form. Said people saw every letter that the architect drew as a beautiful thing and something to admire. To me, drawing by hand and lettering were just a means to an end. I didn’t become an architect to draw letters…if I was that interested in lettering I would have gone into calligraphy. I didn’t become an architect to draw pretty pictures…if I did I would have become an artist. I became an architect to design buildings. I wanted to simply take the ideas and visions that are in my head and communicate them to groups of people so that we could all come together as a team and create something amazing. That is what architecture should be in my opinion…it is about the built environment not the instruments of our services. Now don’t get me wrong, I can certainly appreciate a beautifully done hand-drawn elevation of a building. I actually do use an actual pencil on actual paper in the early design process to just sketch whatever I’m thinking, but it is always with the intent of getting it into the computer.

The reason I threw in the word “sad” when I referred to hand drawings is because I find it very unfortunate that it has now become a lost art form…just as hand-drawn architectural renderings have gone the way of the Dodo. Years ago I was talking with a friend of mine that was, by trade, an architectural renderer. I remember when we first met I told him that he needed to learn about computer models because as beautiful as his works were, I explained that I would never pay him for one because their use was one-dimensional. I explained that a hand drawing is great to get the initial “ooh la la” response from a client, but what next? Nothing…that’s the problem. If I wanted to make a change to the building I’d have to ask him to either alter the sketch or create an entirely different drawing. With a computer model I can work in real time by pushing/pulling as I see fit. Not only can I do that, but I can do it to scale. What that means is that an artist’s rendering (assuming we’re talking about a truly great architectural renderer) should be pretty darn close to being to scale. But when a computer model is used it is to scale to the fraction of an inch. What that means to the client is that they will see a better depiction of what their building will actually look like.

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