A Good Detail

By: Mike Lopez

What is a good detail? What characteristics make an effective detail? Why do we need to include them? In the demanding construction and property management industries of the Greater New York City area, it is particularly essential to develop details that clearly communicate and provide substantial information regarding a project’s scope of work. “Time is money,” and that never rings truer than when a construction project goes awry. Good detailing helps to provide the owner and contractor with enough information to accurately estimate the project budget and timeline prior to the start of construction.

Historically, detailing was the creation of large-scale pencil drawings of specific building components. Materials were oftentimes not easily identified, and the original intent of detailing and construction drawings was to develop an idea, convince a client of a specific moment in the design, and to communicate the proposed construction assembly to the builder/contractor. Nowadays, the number of annotations required to be included on a detail exceeds the number of lines created to form the detail itself.

In a more general sense, construction documents include drawings that typically follow a set of architectural conventions, which allow design professionals to graphically communicate the project scope of work and design. These conventions include the type of drawing, floor plan, elevation, section or detail, the notation on the drawing, and even the drawing’s graphic representation (i.e. line weight). These conventions have been developed over time with the intent to provide all parties involved with the project the information necessary for construction. The overall progression of the construction documents develops from general drawings to more specific drawings, with the detail drawings being the most specific and last drawings to be included.

Depending on the size, scale, and scope of the construction project, the number of details included in a set can range from three to forty. It’s usually difficult for design professionals to anticipate how many details are needed until the project is fully designed and developed. Regardless of number, the goal is to graphically communicate specifics about the construction, the desired appearance, and the required assembly. It’s crucial to include enough details of, or rather graphically detail the design in order to provide a comprehensive and complete project design. If too few details are provided, the project timeline and budget can be sabotaged by overpricing, an increased number of requests for information, and numerous change orders for work that could have been accounted for during the design phase.

In the building envelope restoration world, details are often included for lintel replacement, sealant installation, roof-to-wall interface waterproofing, or even mortar repointing. While these details cover typical conditions, there are almost always unique conditions that require the design professional’s attention and problem-solving skills to achieve the construction intent. For instance, how do we replace a cornice without knowing its original configuration? How do we address underlying beam deterioration without seeing the amount of degradation and rusting? Sometimes, certain assumptions must be made to finalize a project design. These assumptions can then be verified and developed upon the start of construction once access to previously inaccessible areas is achieved. Good details incorporate known information along with previous project experiences to properly develop a drawing of an existing condition that, in most cases, design professionals cannot see or examine thoroughly prior to the start of construction.

In the end, details are more than just lines put together to describe a condition in two or three dimensions. They are a compilation of lines and words to convey specifics about the proposed design. The accompanying notes and annotations spell out a detail and ultimately compliment the drawn lines that “paint the picture.” As design professionals, the inclusion of details is an important aspect in developing a scope of work, and for building managers, knowing and reviewing drawings that design professionals put together is as important as the drawings themselves. Details ensure that design professionals are held accountable for developing and communicating a comprehensive project design that’s essential to the successful execution of a construction project.

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