How to get better at architectural detailing 101

How to get Better at Architectural Detailing

Drawing construction details is a key skill of an architect or technologist at any level, but many find it is difficult to learn and improve on.  Students in particular have a hard time building their detailing skills. In some cases, the way to improve is to take things into your own hands with some self directed learning. Practice really does make perfect, or at least better!


So we have come up with a few tips to help you get better at architectural detailing. 

Site Visits


Wherever possible visit sites that are under construction and study how things are being built. Being on site not only lets you see the details in real life, but also the sequence in which assemblies go together and construction techniques. It is one thing sketching a detail or drawing it to precision in CAD, but quite another to actually put that together in real life.


If you work in an office no matter how large or small, there is no harm in asking if you can attend a site visit every now and again. It is a great experience and will really help you to get a deeper understanding of detailing.

Image credit (

Study Buildings Under Construction Around You


So, maybe you are unable to go on a site visit. That’s ok, you can still learn a lot by looking at the construction that is going on around you. Go to any town or city, and you will inevitably see buildings under construction. Take a moment to stop and take in what you can. Usually you can see quite a lot from the site boundary. You could even take some photos and come back regularly to see how the build develops, the sequencing etc. Whether it is a small house extension, or a new build block of apartments you can still ask yourself questions like:

  • What is the structure made of?
  • How is it insulated?
  • What waterproofing methods are they using? 
  • How are they keeping water out?
  • What is the external skin made of? 
  • How are the window and door openings made?


You get the idea.

Study Existing Drawings


Another way to start to understand construction details is to study existing construction drawings. We are very fortunate that nowadays there are many places online you can go to find great examples. (see below).


Print out a detail and make notes on the function of the different elements of the detail. The main elements we are looking for are:

How are the following being controlled?

  • Water
  • Air
  • Heat Flow
  • Water Vapour
  • Sound
  • How is the structure supported?


As you start to identify the different roles elements of the construction play, you will begin to deepen your understanding of construction details, which will inform your own detailing process.


Studying existing construction details takes time, and you need to commit to doing this in order to improve.


Suspended timber floor detail MG5 2D

Modify Existing Details


Once we get to grips with studying our individual details, we can move on to modifying them. This allows us to think more in depth about the detail and what function it performs. 


Ask yourself if the detail could be improved, are there deficiencies in the design? Or perhaps you think aesthetically it could be altered. Get some tracing paper and lay it over the detail and make your modifications. As you go through, remember some of the key elements that we must consider, water, air, heat, vapour, sound etc. 


Design Variations of Existing Details


The next stage is to look at designing variations to existing details. This could come in many forms. For example, take a junction between a wall and ceiling that has an attic above, and adapt the detail to have an open sloping ceiling to create a double height space. Perhaps look at amending a cladding to a detail that includes an opening. You could look at changing the type of floor from a suspended timber floor to a beam and block floor. Try changing a timber frame to a SIP construction. Change a window to a door with a balcony, add a porch to a door. You get the idea!


This exercise makes you really study the details and the construction, but also carry out research in to how you will amend the detail and what methods you will use. Your changes could be to change the structure, the aesthetic, the performance and so much more. Time to get creative!

Find a Mentor


If you work in practice, approach someone who is experienced with detailing and design and ask if they will mentor you and help you improve your skills. Take their advice, study how they do things, see if you can visit site with them, etc. Try to understand how this person approaches detailing, how they solve problems and how they communicate this in a drawing.


Above all, always show your appreciation to people who take the time to help you learn, and be considerate of their time.

Visit Websites That Demonstrate Details


There are some really great resources out there that provide detail examples of real projects along with finished images so that you can compare the drawings to the building. Some of my favourites include:


AJ Buildings Library



ArchDaily has a specific detail tag so you can view all their latest detail focused articles.


Detail Online



There are more and more beautiful detailing and construction drawings on Instagram so make sure you get a little inspiration there.

Check out:



Let me know your favourite construction detailing instagrammer!

All images @firstinarchitecture instagram

Refer to Books 


Alert – shameless self promotion imminent!


There are a number of books that can really help with construction detailing, I’ll start with Understanding Architectural Details from First In Architecture!



We have a range of construction books that include really helpful graphics demonstrating the details, and you can download all of the cad drawings and all of the sketchup drawings that go with the books!


Our range includes:

Residential construction (for both UK and North American)

Commercial construction


Basement construction


Here is a video of the Residential book:

Other great books include:

Look at Manufacturer Information and Details

You can learn a lot from manufacturer details. Whether it is windows, cladding, insulation, there is a wealth of information out there. So if you are working on one of the exercises I mentioned above, and you are amending a cladding or improving performance, check out some of the manufacturers that would provide those products and learn about the product and how it performs, how it should be installed etc. This is really useful information.


Design New Details From Scratch


Finally, look at creating your own details from scratch. This is probably the most difficult self directed exercise, but the most realistic. This is where if you are a student working on a design studio project, you will be looking at working up your own design in more detail. Once you have developed your basic concept of the form and space of your building you could start to consider the following:


Create a list of appropriate materials

  • Looking at the plan, determine the key details that will need to be developed
  • Check the Building Regulations to determine any items that are relevant to the detailing process that need to be considered
  • Start to research relevant books, manufacturers information and guides to develop the structural and mechanical system
  • Start to develop the details getting feedback from tutors, colleagues etc


This is a process, and it is unlikely you will be 100% correct first time, if ever. There are many different ways to design a detail, some better than others. There is never just one way. It is about defining the problem, and developing the solution. Ask questions, be inquisitive, analytical and creative!


Good luck with your construction detailing journey!


If you have any other tips, it would be great to hear from you – please comment below.

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  1. I think that working construction is the best way to understand how architectural drawings are actually used and how they can be improved. It’s eye-opening how much drawings are either ignored or misunderstood on a job site. But there are also a lot of poorly detailed drawings out there contributing to this attitude. There’s nothing like having to work from someone else’s details to figure out how important staging, sequencing, conditions, cost, training, tools, management, and coordination all contribute to final results.

    Submittal reviews are another helpful method to understand detailing. These are re-statements by the trades, suppliers, fabricators, and manufacturers in knowledge areas they know more than the architect. Granted, some shop drawings are hurried and less comprehensive than they should be. But I find a phone call to their creators usually helpful in growing my understanding in their areas of expertise.

    Pre-installation conferences are also a great point of learning. Often the installers see things differently than the office staff who drew the shop drawings and made the submittals. Unless I know there could be a quality control issue or substitution problem with their suggestions, I regularly defer to the final installer’s recommendations or at least try to negotiate reasonable adjustments because their satisfaction with the process is the biggest factor in the success of a system’s implementation.

    • Great comments, thank you Steve. 🙂


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