Nfld. & Labrador

It's all in the plans — or is it? How to take a critical look at architectural drawings

An accurate drawing of a disliked building might upset people for a moment, but an inaccurate drawing of a disliked building might upset them for life, says retired architect Jim Case.

Is it a vague line drawing floating in space? Take a second look, says retired architect Jim Case

This latest picture of what the Anglican Cathedral annex would look like was on display at a public meeting Thursday night. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

There's been a lot of opposition to a proposed expansion of the Anglican Cathedral in St. John's, but the plans have at least one thing going for them, says a retired architect.

The graphic, or artist rendering, of the expansion is detailed and realistic, giving residents and decision makers complete picture of what the finished product will bring, says Jim Case.

And that's exactly what people should be looking and asking for from these images, Case said. 

"Let's not assume that everything is accurate. Let's put our hats on and examine them critically and not make assumptions that, well, you know, this must be it. Or this is absolutely what we're getting," he said.

Jim Case is a retired architect living in St. John's. (Jim Case/Twitter)

A good graphic of a disliked building will make the public mad until a new one is proposed. But a bad graphic of a building that's only disliked once it's build will make the public mad forever, he said.

Just look at what's happening in Edmonton. Though it's still under construction, residents say the city's new library isn't shaping up to look much like the original drawings.

The mismatch was even covered by the BBC.

Are the neighbouring buildings shown?

He compares the mock-ups of the sleek, glass addition to the historic stone church downtown to those supplied for a proposed six-storey condominium complex on Rowan Street in Churchill Square.

"They presented a number of drawings to council where the building was just a building. It was ... just floating in the air," he said.

This rendering of a condominium project proposed for Rowan Street doesn't show any of the adjacent buildings. (City of St. John's)

When Case wrote a blog post about just how important decent architectural graphics can be, someone sent him more mock-ups, done from an aerial point of view, he said.

"Now unless you're flying over it in an airplane I'm not sure that the residents, the neighborhood around Churchill Square, will ever have any kind of impression of what the building actually looks like when they're standing, for argument's sake at the food market, or coming out a Shoppers Drug Market," he said.

"What's it gonna look like?"

If the graphic does include neighbouring buildings, it needs to do so accurately, he said.

Pointing to the drawings done for the Jag Hotel expansion, "someone said ... some of the adjacent buildings were missing a storey and a lot of the existing street level equipment were missing," he said.

This is one of the renderings of the Jag Hotel expansion submitted to the City of St. John's. (City of St. John's)

"That changes the scale and the context somewhat, does it not?"

Single-line rectangles? Look for more

A good drawing will also give an accurate indication of what the building materials will look like once it's built. Flat, grey, pixelated panels don't say a lot about what residents will see when they look out their windows.

And beware of drawings showing windows as blue rectangles framed by single black lines, he wrote in his blog post about the illustrations submitted for the condos pitched to replace the Anglican Parish Hall on Queens Road.

This proposal would replace the Cathedral Parish Hall on Queens Road with a condominium building. (Parish Lane Developments)

There's a lot of room for variation, even in a simple window frame.

"You cannot truly hope to gain any idea of this development's real impact on the urban fabric," he wrote. "And to assess whether or not the existing urban [green space] will be obliterated or not — well, good luck with that."

Where do the bad drawings come from?

Sometimes architects haven't spent the money on sophisticated 3-D graphics system to produce the better mock-ups, Case said.

The proposed Anglican Cathedral extension. (Submitted)

But ultimately, those illustrations cost money, and developers are hesitant to spend a whole lot of money for a great mock-up of a project that may ultimately be rejected.

"But of course the risk on the other side is: Do you want people to be mad at you for a week because [you] proposed a bad building or mad at you forever because you built something that wasn't representative of the design that you sold it in the first place?" he said.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Zach Goudie and On The Go

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