Drawings and “Drawings”

by Don Friedman on June 14, 2016

Because the meaning of words tends to drift over time, and especially the meaning of words belonging to specialized niches like engineering, we end up with odd linguistic glimpses into the past. In 1988, I worked for a month or so on site at the construction of a large new concrete-frame building. The floors were two-way flat slabs but a lot of the older workers on site referred to them as “arches.” Here’s an example of a two-way flay slab. Find the arch:


That word use makes perfect sense in light of the fact that the origin of concrete labor in the United States was in masonry. Some 90 years after a bunch of masons turned to concrete work, their language still hung on.

The word that got me thinking about this is “drawing.” It’s a verb turned noun, which intimately links the physical object with the process of creating it. There’s only one problem: I haven’t drawn for more than five minutes in twenty-five years. When I create drawings, I don’t draw, I use a computer program that creates precision graphics – much better graphics than I ever created by drawing, as a matter of fact. I was an early adopter of CAD for the simple reason that I was a mediocre draftsman.

For some years after CAD replaced the process of drafting there was little change in how the drawings themselves were used. CAD drawings – computer files that bear a strong resemblance to databases – were sent to print and the paper drawings used just as they had been when reproduced from hand-drafted mylars. But steady improvement in computer technology means that we often now print to PDFs and those computer files are read by others on-screen rather than on paper. So the “drawings” we now work with are not drawn and are often not on paper. That’s fine with me, since the purpose of a drawing is solely to convey information.

One of the oddest critiques of architects and engineers that I’ve come across was from a sociologist who said that we use large pieces of paper for drawings as a way to convey authority. I read that some years ago, before iPads made carrying electronic drawings on site easy, and my immediate reaction was that we needed large pieces of paper because of the technical issues in scaling drawings. (If a building is 200 feet long and the level of detail to be put on a plan requires the scale to be no smaller than 1/8″ = 1′-0″, than the drawing had better have room for a 25-inch wide representation of the building.) But in the back of my head I wondered if that critique might be true. The use of tablets and the growing use of electronic filing seem to support my argument that the big pieces of paper (drawings) have always been less important than the information they carry (“drawings”).


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