What Is a Floor Plan?

Answers the Question: Where Are the rooms?

Garage, 3 bedrooms, family room, dining/lounge, office, and outdoor living area identified on hand drawn floor plan of a house
Hand Drawn Floor Plan. Kat Chadwick/Getty Images (cropped)

A floor plan is a simple two-dimensional (2D) line drawing showing a structure's walls and rooms as though seen from above. Walls, doorways, and windows are often drawn to scale, meaning proportions are somewhat accurate even if a scale designation (e.g., 1 inch = 1 foot) is not indicated. Built-in equipment, such as bathtubs, sinks, and closets are often drawn. Built-in furniture is often showcased in floor plans of a house, like Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright did in their houses with built-in seating and bookcases in the inglenook. In a floor plan, what you see is the PLAN of the FLOOR. It's sometimes spelled floor-plan but never as one word — floorplan is a misspelling.

A floor plan is very much like a map — with length and width and scale of how far apart things are.

Key Words

floor plan: 2D drawing shows exterior and interior walls, doors, and windows; detailing varies

blueprint: detailed architectural drawing used as a construction document or builder's guide (refers to an old printing method of white lines on blue paper)

rendering: as used by an architect, an elevation drawing showing what a finished structure will look like from different perspectives

bumwad: onion skin tracing paper used by architects to draw initial floor plans; also called trash, trace, or scratch paper, it is as thin as toilet paper, but stronger; rolls of tracing paper come in yellow (easier to see through layers on a light table or light box) or white (easier to make electronic copies)

schematic: an architect's "scheme" of how to satisfy a client's needs; the initial design phase of an architect's process includes floor plans

dollhouse view: 3D floor plan seen from overhead, like looking into a doll house without a roof; easily produced from digital floor plans

Evolution of a Floor Plan

overhead view of a crumpled cocktail napkin with a small floor plan sketch
The Start of a Floor Plan Idea. Howard Sokol/Getty Images (cropped)

Plans may begin on a cocktail napkin. Although usually drawn to scale, a floor plan can be a simple diagram showing the layout of the rooms. An architect may begin with schematic drawings on tracing paper, which is sometimes amusingly called bumwad. As the "scheme" evolves, more detail is added to the floor plan — a real advantage to working with an architect on a project is the expertise in design.

details floor plan on white paper
More Detailed Floor Plan. Branislav/Getty Images (cropped)

When shopping for house plans or building plans, you may study the floor plans to see how space is arranged, especially the rooms and how "traffic" may flow. However, a floor plan is not a blueprint or a construction plan. To build a house, you need a complete set of construction plans that will include floor plans, cross-section drawings, electrical and plumbing plans, elevation drawings or renderings, and many other types of diagrams. Floor plans give the big picture of living spaces.

If you have an older home, it may have been purchased in the early 20th century equivalent to online shopping — the mail order catalog. Companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward advertised free floor plans and instructions, if only the supplies were bought from the companies. Browse any index to selected floor plans from these catalogs, and you may find your home. For newer homes, explore the internet for companies that offer stock plans — by looking at floor plans, you may find your home has been a popular design. With simple floor plans, homeowners can conduct a type of architectural investigation.

Floor plans are often included in pattern books and developer's catalogs in order to better sell the presented real estate. In the early 1900s, the American Foursquare was popular. This method of advertising and selling product was used in the 1950s and 1960s to market dreams of home ownship well before home computers. Today, architects use digitized floor plans to sell their designs, like the perfect little house designed by Brachvogel and Carosso showing the splayed wings of their design.

Man in new home holding tablet with floor plan
Digital Floor Plan. Westend61/Getty Images (cropped)

Today there are many easy-to-use tools to draw a digital floor plan. Some people even use these new tools to document historic architecture, like the Gothic Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England, built between 1220 and 1258.

Can you build a house using just a floor plan and a picture?

Sorry, no. Floor plans do not usually have enough information for builders to actually construct the home. Your builder will need complete blueprints, or construction-ready drawings, with technical information that you will not find on most floor plans.

On the other hand, if you provide your architect or professional home designer a floor plan and a photo, he or she may be able to create construction-ready drawings for you. Your pro would need to make decisions about many details that are not ordinarily included on simple floor plans. For example, if your building site has expansive views in specific directions, an architect will take advantage of that aspect by suggesting certain window sizes and orientation.

"It is best to avoid a 'razy-quilt' plan, in which spaces are plopped down almost randomly with no overriding concept of how they fit together," explains author and architect William J. Hirsch, Jr. "Our brains need to find a reason why things are where they are. More often than not, this is a subconscious realization. A house designed with an understandable concept offers clarity and comfort."

Better yet, get your hands on some DIY software, like the Home Designer® line of products published by Chief Architect. You can experiment with design and make some of the difficult decisions and choices always involved in new projects. Sometimes you can export digital files in a comparable format to give your building professional a head start in completing the necessary blueprint specifications. The software takes a simple floor plan and turns it into renderings, dollhouse views, and even virtual tours. The process of design is very enlightening, and, by the way, the software is quite fun!


  • Hirsch, William J. Jr. "Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect," Dalsimer Press, 2008, p. 22