New Schematic Design Video

A new YouTube video highlighting our Schematic Design process.

Schematic Design, or Preliminary Design, is the first major design step when undertaking a home renovation, addition or new construction project. It's a fun and exciting time of the project and is usually the first time your ideas will be translated into plans, sections, elevations and 3d views

How to Read Floor Plans

Throughout your home renovation project your architect should be able to provide you with 3D floor plans and other 3D images of the design. These are incredibly helpful for all involved, especially at the preliminary design stage. However, to receive permits and to have your project built, you will need a comprehensive set of construction documents.  There is a lot of information that needs to be conveyed and the bulk of this information gets conveyed in plans, sections and elevations. These are 2d drawings that are packed with information, and many people have difficulty understanding how to read these drawings.

This post will cover how to read your floor plans. Floor plans are presented as a view from above looking down at the floor. It is assumed that the plan is “cut” at about 48” above the floor.

The primary goal of the floor plan is to provide information about the location and relationship of the spaces you want to be built. We define these relationships by locating walls, doors, windows and other items. One of the key elements of reading your floor plan is to identify the dimension strings. These sets of dimensions give instructions about where to place walls and how thick those walls are. There will usually be multiple strings of dimensions next to each other, as it helps to separate things like the location of windows from the overall dimensions.

Another important feature in floor plans are plain language text notes. These are brief explanations of something to which the architect wants to draw attention. Text notes are used to point out existing items, atypical conditions or special instructions to the builder.

In addition to dimensions and notes there are often special symbols on a plan that direct your attention to another drawing or a schedule. Marks near windows and doors, often a single letter or a few numbers, indicate the type of window or door. This mark will match a line on schedule, which is a spreadsheet containing additional information. For example, if you see a “B” in a hexagon next to a window you can refer to the window schedule to see that window “B” is 36” wide and 72” tall and is made of wood, etc. Some other symbols found on plans include section and elevation markers. These drawings provide information about the vertical separation between spaces, exterior siding, roof pitches, etc, that can’t be shown on a floor plan. Floor plans will have references to these drawings though, so you can understand where those drawings are in the context of your design. A section marker is usually a circle with an arrow, and a sequence of numbers explaining which page the drawing is on.

Did you have any specific questions that weren't covered here? Leave a comment or send us an email. Check back soon for how to read your sections and elevations!

Home Addition - One Project Start to Finish - Part 4

This is part four of a series of posts that will attempt to tell the story of one project from beginning to end, from concept to completion. It is based on a typical home renovation project in Montgomery County Maryland, but many of the issues convey to most jurisdictions throughout the United States.
Part 1: Inception
Part 2: An Actionable Plan
Part 3: Site Assessment

Part 4 - Schematic Design

Schematic Design (sometimes also called Preliminary Design or Conceptual Design) involves solving the big picture issues of your program. By the time it’s complete you should be presented with a design that accomplishes your goals and could feasibly be built.

At first this may be a simple as bubble diagrams…laying out a day in the life of how you use your new space to better understand how the spaces relate to one another. By the end you should have a good idea of what your new space might look like.

Schematic Design of a new kitchen

An important part of Schematic Design is ensuring that the concept which is presented could actually be constructed. Issues like structure, code requirements and construction methods should all be minimally accounted for. These items are far from resolved, but at the end of Schematic Design you should have a design that has considered and made provisions for these requirements. For example, your new project has a stair. At the end of Schematic Design you may not know what the stair is made of but you should know how long and wide it needs to be satisfy residential stair requirements and to reach the level to which it ascends. You may not know exactly what your walls will be made of, but you know they aren’t going to be single lines with no thickness. You may not know the exact framing layout of a new roof, but you understand that the structure needs to be deep enough to satisfy insulation and venting requirements.

Design Considerations

This list could go on forever, but here are a few of the typical items we are asked to consider when helping a client with a new addition:

Natural Light/Solar Exposure. Do not underestimate the importance of how your space is oriented. Breakfast rooms are different places when they can get morning sun and family rooms open on to westward decks very nicely for evening entertaining. Simple exterior shading designs can let southern sun through in the winter (providing free heat) and protect against the hot summer sun.

Views: Think about the opportunities you have for exterior views (it can increase the spatial depth of the house). Is your new space visible from the front door? Do you want an open concept or smaller more intimate spaces?

Noise: If you are on a noisy street you may want to locate that new master suite on the back of the house. If you have teenagers you may want some separation between your bedrooms and theirs. If you have young children you may want to be close enough to hear them.

Flow/Circulation: Picture how you use the spaces, coming home from work, cooking and eating meals, entertaining, doing laundry, etc. From wake up to bedtime picture how the relation of the spaces will work.

 Massing: You need to think about the massing of the addition. Typically, the roof will set the tone for this. Often the existing house has some general massing elements that the addition can do well to play off. Roof styles can be a part of this. Bump outs, bay windows, etc., can also help break up some boring massing.

Home Addition - One Project Start to Finish - Part 3

This is part three of a series of posts that will attempt to tell the story of one project from beginning to end, from concept to completion. It is based on a typical home renovation project in Montgomery County Maryland, but many of the issues convey to most jurisdictions throughout the United States.
Part 1: Inception
Part 2: An Actionable Plan


Montgomery County Zoning Map

Basic Zoning Research & Plats:

Zoning laws are in place to manage density and preserve or create neighborhoods, parks, commercial areas, etc. To this end, zoning laws will legislate how much structure you’re allowed to build on your property and for what it can be used. For this reason, zoning research must always be one of the very first steps when considering a potential addition. For a more detailed description of zoning requirements see our recent blog on Zoning Research.

When you buy a house, part of the settlement process typically requires a new survey to be done. A plat will be produced, which is a drawing that serves as a legal description of the property. This is done in metes and bounds. You can also search this link for your Montgomery County Plat.

Plat of a neighborhood in Takoma Park.

The plat will help your architect determine what size addition you will be allowed to build, based on zoning requirements such as setbacks and lot coverage. Although the zoning laws attempt to be as uniform as possible, every site is different and the zoning laws often require interpretation. For this reason, you may need to have some preliminary design work done that can be checked with the local authorities for conformance to the intentions of the local zoning regulations.

Increasingly such issues as water run-off, tree preservation, and other environmentally related areas of concern are being regulated and codified.


If for some reason you have a compelling need to do work that does not conform to the zoning regulations most jurisdictions have some type of variance process. To receive a variance you will typically have to show a reason why your design needs cannot be accomplished within the zoning guidelines, and even then you will typically have to show some type of hardship and probably have a public hearing.

Home Owners Association (HOA) Research:

Many established communities have Home Owners Associations (HOA) that have differing levels of jurisdictional authority with regard to what you can and can’t do to your property. Their mission is usually to keep the aesthetic feel of the community in tact by regulating how the “streetscape” feels. In many cases maintaining the neighborhood feel from the street becomes the primary mission of the HOA and though this can at times be constraining, it often lends to a stabilizing effect on property values.

Takoma Home Office field measure notes

House Measure and As-Built Drawings:

With some basic zoning research done it’s typically safe to proceed with the design portion of your project. The first step here is to get an accurate understanding of the existing conditions of your house. Existing plans will be helpful but your architect should be doing field measure verifications and developing their own set of “As-Built” plans upon which to base the renovation design work and drawings. We will come to your house and spend a few hours drawing your floor plan, measuring dimensions of all the rooms, doors, windows and taking tons of pictures. When we get back to the office we use these notes to create an accurate 3D model of your house. This model serves as a record of the As-Built conditions of your house and becomes the baseline for all design work moving forward.

Takoma Home Office Existing Conditions As-Built