When a new home or addition is designed, we rely on accurate plans to help us visualize what it will feel like when built. Walls, doorways, windows, stairs, fixtures and other architectural features are indicated by lines, arcs, rectangles and other symbols. But the way these are drawn relies on conventions that are not all self-­evident. In order to read a floor plan and understand it, so that you can visualize the room or house that it depicts, it’s necessary to understand those conventions and symbols.

House plans

A full set of plans may involve multiple sheets showing the elevations (side views) from every direction, the layout of walls and openings on separate floors, roofing details, wiring and plumbing diagrams, framing details, and more.

The floor plan is the map which illustrates the home layout. Each floor requires a separate floor plan. These are known as “plan views”: picture the home if the roof and ceiling were removed and you were looking at the top of the walls. That’s what the floor plan shows.

Basic layouts

Walls are the basic visual elements in understanding floor plans, usually represented as strong, straight lines. Breaks indicate openings between rooms. Windows are shown by rectangular symbols with a line running through them lengthwise. Doors or swinging windows may show an arc that indicates the swing of the opened door. Stairs appear as a series of rectangles with an arrow indicating whether they lead up or down to the next level.

Additional symbols

Floor plans typically also show the location of fixtures such as sinks, baths, and toilets. Symbols for these features are generally easy to understand because they look pretty much like the real things when viewed from above. Built-­in cabinets, counters and islands are generally labeled and also easy to recognize.

Flooring surfaces may be indicated with symbols that clearly indicate stone, wood, brick, or other materials.

Some designs may include symbols denoting furniture to give the viewer a feel of what it will be like to actually use the space, but don’t let the architect’s idea of where the furniture will go influence you excessively. The furniture in the drawing is just to give you an idea of the size of the room and show what different areas of a room might be used for.

Rooms and dimensions

Floor plans will show the dimensions of each room numerically and often the length and width of the entire house.

Some high-­ceiling designs allow an upper level to look out over a lower space. The lower floor may show the ceiling height with a dashed line for the perimeter of the higher space. The upper level will generally have an “open to below” notation.

Detailed plans often include “dimension strings” to locate the distances between a series of adjacent architectural elements all in a row. The ends of each separate dimension are indicated with a 45-degree hash mark.


Some people are so excited at the prospect of a breath-taking fireplace or a modern kitchen that they overlook functionality. The simplest way to evaluate designs from a practical standpoint is to imagine yourself entering and moving about the home. Think about performing typical activities such as doing laundry, entertaining guests, preparing a meal, and so forth. Do you picture yourself with adequate room to move? Will some things be too far away for efficiency? Will it make sense for a particular room to be next to, or far removed from, another? How will each room look from various perspectives?

With practice, reading floor plans can translate into a realistic vision of how the completed home or room will feel and work. The better you’re able to interpret floor plans, the more likely your new space will satisfy your needs and your vision.

Topics: Floor Plan