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Get to Know Your House with Oscar

Posted on: April 21st, 2020 No Comments

By Christine Bush

Greetings everyone, Oscar the Grotesque here, ready to look more closely at Adirondack architecture, historic buildings, and helping you find preservation opportunities of your own.

Last week we talked a little bit about how architectural details, such as eaves can help you identify the architectural style of your building. This week we dive a little deeper and help you “Get to know your house” by measuring and documenting through drawings and photos.

Field Notes Kit for House Work

Have you ever been curious as to how old your house is? What style is it? How was it constructed? How has it evolved over the years?

Your house has a story to tell!

One of the best ways you can start to answer these questions is to get up close and personal and jot down your own field notes.  Not only will having drawings help you better understand your historic structure, it is essential for:  identifying problems, monitoring conditions, planning projects, providing square footage numbers for estimating, and recording unique features that may become lost or needed for future preservation work.

Most of you have been spending a lot of time at home lately, and with springtime upon us, many of you are likely thinking about starting those restoration and repair projects.

Why not make one of the essential tools of your project a fun family activity. You will learn about your house and have a lot of fun documenting its spaces and creating a set of field notes.  An extensive restoration project requires professional level documentation, but with a few simple tools and techniques you can create your own plans, elevations, and sketches.

Required Tools:

  • Clipboard
  • Graph Paper
  • Soft pencil with eraser – No. 2 works well
  • Tape Measure – 25’ and 50’
  • Digital camera

Helpful Tools: (for those of you wanting to explore a bit more)

  • Compass
  • Ladder
  • Flashlight
  • Line level and string
  • Plumb bob
  • Drafting triangle

Now that you have your equipment assembled to take a look at your graph paper and determine what unit of measurement one square will represent. The most natural solution is to make each square equal to one foot. You can number your graph paper if that is easier to follow. Determine how you would like to note feet and inches, for example, 3’ – 6”, 42”, 3.5’ or my preferred method 36  with inched always underlined.

Grab your team and get going. Ideally, the team should consist of at least three people, two to hold the tape, and one to record the measurement. So get the whole family involved and have some fun.

Step One: Starting at the exterior of your house, do a quick sketch of the plan layout, and measure the overall dimensions. Record the measurements and cardinal directions on this drawing. This will provide a double-check and reference for laying out the rest of the drawings so that they will fit on your graph paper. This is also an excellent drawing to key in exterior photos and any landscape features that might be important. This is a simple site plan.

Step Two: Sketch out the first-floor plan, start at the exterior adding windows doors, chimneys, porches, etc. For window and door openings, measure to the inside of trim or other components, just be consistent.  The tape measure should be held at the same height (typically, chest-high) for all horizontal measurements.  Now you can move into the inside and begin adding in the partitions and interior features. Take overall dimensions when possible. Do the same thing for all floors from the basement to the attic. Take note of any problems, unique features, and note any questions and elements you want to study further.

If the basement and attic have exposed framing members, document them in a plan on separate drawings. You will come back to add more details.

Step Three: Starting in the basement, take a vertical dimension from the floor to the ceiling. If the framing is exposed measure as much as you can. Next, measure the height on the first floor, second floor, etc. and in the attic if accessible. This is a good time to record the window height, both from the floor to the sill and from the floor to the window head. This will help with step four.

Step Four: Sketch out each exterior elevations. Make sure to include window and door features such as window type, mullions, and trim details. Don’t worry if you don’t know what something is, just draw it. Oscar recommends doing larger-scale detail drawings for typical windows and doors. Establish a benchmark such as a water table or foundation wall that you reference vertical dimensions.  Unless you are feeling adventurous, chances are you can’t measure to the peak of your building. A good trick is to measure several courses of your siding and use this as your guide.

 Step Five: A picture is worth a thousand words, they say! Photograph and more photographs, take a video if possible, make sure to note when and where the photo is taken. Take lots and lots of notes and make detailed drawings of windows, doors, or any unique feature. If you have the time, you can do interior elevations of all the rooms too!

Now that you have a basic set of drawings and a much better relationship with your house, you can start to plan your next project.

Who knows what you might discover! Did you uncover a mystery? Not sure what you are seeing? Ask Oscar, just send me your photos and a brief description. I may be reached through AARCH’s Preservation Services Director Christine Bush at She knows where to find me

NEXT WEEK: Historic Tax Credits and Beyond

For More on Taking Field Notes:


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