What Is a Floor Plan?

Answers the Question: Where Are the rooms?

The hand drawn floor plan of a house features a garage, bedrooms, family room, dining/lounge, office, and outdoor living area

Kat Chadwick / Getty Images

A floor plan or house plan is a simple two-dimensional (2D) line drawing showing a structure's walls and rooms as though seen from above. 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.

Floor Plan Features

A floor plan is very much like a map, with lengths and widths, sizes and scales of how far apart things are. Walls, doorways, and windows are usually drawn to scale, meaning proportions are somewhat accurate even if a scale designation (such as 1 inch=1 foot) is not indicated. Built-in furniture and equipment like bathtubs, sinks, and closets are often showcased in floor plans of a house; Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright drew built-in seating and bookcases in the inglenook.

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 Selection and Technology

A crumpled cocktail napkin with a small floor plan sketch
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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.

A detailed floor plan on white paper
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Today, architects use digitized floor plans to sell their designs. Well before home computers, however, floor plans were 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 ownership.

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 Co. and Montgomery Ward advertised free floor plans and instructions, so long as the supplies were bought from those companies. Browsing an index of selected floor plans from these catalogs would help you find your dream home. For newer homes, explore the internet for companies that offer stock plans. By looking at floor plans, you may find your home as a popular design. With simple floor plans, homeowners can conduct a type of architectural investigation.

Man in new home holding tablet displaying a digital floor plan
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Today, there are many easy-to-use tools to draw a digital floor plan. Sometimes people use these such tools to document historic architecture, like the Gothic Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England, built between 1220 and 1258.

Drawing a Building From the Ground Up

Sorry, but you cannot build a house with only a floor plan and a picture. 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. Iit is not enough to build a house.

While floor plans give the big picture of living spaces, they do not 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. You need a complete set of construction plans that includes not only floor plans, but cross-section drawings, electrical and plumbing plans, elevation drawings or renderings, and many other types of diagrams, as well.

On the other hand, if you provide your architect or professional home designer with 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 'crazy-quilt' plan, in which spaces are plopped down almost randomly with no overriding concept of how they fit together. 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."
(Hirsch, 2008)

Better yet, get your hands on some powerful DIY home designer software. You can experiment with design and simplify 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 right 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 playing with such software can be a lot of fun.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Hirsch, William J. Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect. 2nd ed., Dalsimer, 2008.