When you read a book, it is common to get caught up in the story, to view the characters, places and events as a “real” world, one that you’ve invested time into. When a story is poorly written, you can poke holes through the plot, there are missing scenes, or someone acts out of character or in an unrealistic manner. The thesis of this post is that it would serve engineers well to treat their design drawings as a story. I review a lot of engineering drawings for developments and municipal projects and there are a number of trends that I’ve seen that make the review process harder than it needs to be, would thinking of drawings as telling a story or series of stories help? Now, I’m not expecting artistic renditions more akin to a landscape architect’s flowing designs, but even through the precise lineweights, linetypes and symbology of an AutoCad DWG file, it is possible to make your design tell a story – one that is clear, consistent, concise and satisfying to the viewer. Questions raised are immediately answered, the rules are met, the plot is methodically delivered.

Lyle in officeI’ve got a friend who is studying to become a Civil Technologist, and he was telling me how frustrating the technical drawing lessons were because the students were required to draw by hand. Many of you probably read that and thought, “What? In this day and age? Why aren’t they using the modern tools of the trade like AutoCad?” The discussion include the statement that it “just takes so much time!” And this is perhaps one of the differences between engineering drawings of the past and the work that is produced today, time and level of effort. Things couldn’t just be moved around on the page, you had to know what story you were going to tell, and ensure that the end product was clear.

While a set of drawing standards will help ensure a consistent tone, the story is built from the page layout, the order of drawings, the choice of details, sections, whether information is displayed in tables or graphically, (or both), how much text is on a page, and even how large the sheet of paper is. Much of this is outside of the realm of standards or municipal requirements, but there can be huge differences between sets of drawings depending on the skill of the designer and draftsman, the available budget, the size of the project, and the timeframe available for the design process.Here’s my starter list of questions and ideas for the stories that should be told in a clear, concise and consistent manner on civil engineering projects. With a faithful telling of the story, the designer will ensure that the reviewer has a clear understanding of the design being proposed. Note that the information that is required in a review may be very different from the story you are trying to tell the contractor who is tasked with building the project, (that is a whole other story)! It is good to remember that while the ultimate goal of the design is to construct the works, an important step that the client is paying for is approval of the design by the authorities, this step is easier if it is clear that the design has considered the real life elements in play on the site.

1. The Road Design Story

  1. What does the design tell you about the road usage – are there driveways?
  2. What classification of road is it? (Arterial, Collector, Local)
  3. What materials are you using?
  4. How does it fit in the terrain? (cut/fill slopes, depth of cut or fill on the profile and cross sections)
  5. What grades, curves, curb returns, super-elevation design criteria are being used, and what was the determining factor? (e.g. Importing fill or maximum grades?)
  6. Show where all of the low points are, in curbs, island edges and centrelines of roads.
  7. Give as much information as possible to show how this road will drive (cross sections (with crossfalls and elevations at centreline, lane lines, curb, property line and interface with natural surface), road profile, plan with finished surface contours)

2. The Utilities Story

  1. Where are all of the utilities servicing the site going? (Not just the ones you are designing)
  2. What special measures are required? (joint wrapping, concrete encasement etc)
  3. What elements deviate from the rules? (best practice or bylaw – be honest in where you had to compromise, if you don’t tell us, we’ll think that you didn’t pick it up)
  4. Information such as rim and invert elevations just presented in tables is like a puzzle where you are searching for a missing piece.
  5. Consider how the utilities will be maintained, design utility crossings at right angles if possible, with no bends between the main line and property line on a service.

3. The Drainage Story

  1. Show where the water will flow (not where you want it to flow, or think it should flow, but where it will flow!)
  2. What happens in the major storm? (assume that the Catch Basin inlets will not function unless specifically designed to do so in a 1:100 year storm)
  3. Don’t just use the standard coefficients or travel times
  4. If detention is required use a methodology that  is recommended for the application
  5. Consider how the system will be maintained and inform your client of the costs (whether municipal infrastructure or private)

There are many stories that could be told, depending on the complexity of the project and the specific site issues, but the point is that in designing with a story in mind, the designer’s perspective will shift from data to usable information, where every line and word is part of the narrative, where accuracy and consistency are valued. Honor the review process by ensuring clarity, where obvious review questions and thoughts like those above are answered in the drawings, and the approval that you are seeking will be easier to achieve.

This is just my perspective, it is a wish list of sorts – what are your thoughts on the role of designers in ensuring that the drawings tell a story?

I’ve been using this concept of design drawings telling a story for a while now, and see it as a useful tool in engineering education, or in explaining what it is that engineers do in the design process, because the idea of stories is so universal. For another neat perspective on the role of stories, check out this interview on the Accidental Creative podcast with author Lisa Johnson.

Note that these thoughts are mine alone, and do not represent the views of my employer, nor should they be construed as engineering advice – it is important to follow the requirements of the jurisdictions that any design is being submitted to.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

2 replies on “The Role of Stories in Civil Engineering Drawings”

  1. Nicely written!

    I reside in Brazil, and am currently graduating in civil engineering, and I have to admit that this new perspective is superb! If this view was taught by professors around the globe, I believe that the view people have about engineering (as being a cold, heartless exact science) would change in a very positive way.

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