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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

How to Document an Old Building

Old buildings are documented mainly for four different purposes. Namely, for executing alteration works, recording old buildings before dismantling, for educational purposes and keeping a record of the heritage. While documenting an existing old building, it is important to take great care in recording the information accurately. Also, having a comprehensive checklist is a must before beginning the documentation. As the world has come forward, the tedious documentation process has become easier. With the advance in technology, the height of buildings can be measured easily. This article covers some tips and tricks that are effective in carrying out documentation of old structures smoothly.


List of Contents



1. General Tips for Taking Measurements

  • Calibrating all the tapes is important. The matching of the linen and synthetic tapes to the steel ones should be done before the documentation commences.

  • Always hold the tape at the sill level.

  • Measurements of lengths and widths must be taken from the floor level.

  • Cross-check all the measurements to avoid confusion later.

  • For measuring heights and levels, always measure at two points at least.

  • The diameter of the columns can be found by measuring the circumference of the same.

  • If you need any particular areas to be photographed, make specific notes in the same sheet, so that the photographer can refer to them later.


2. Checklist to Be Prepared


The following points are to be carried out in building documentation. A keen eye for details and a systematic approach will help to document the architectural details of the structure.


3. The Site and Its Surroundings

  • Location of public spaces like schools, temples, markets and others are to be noted.

  • Compound walls, Fortress walls and Entrance gateways, if near the site are to be marked.

  • Buildings that have disappeared around the site in context with the existing ones must be marked.

  • A detailed Site plan should be made


4. Plans

  • Master Plan

  • Floor Plans

  • Ceiling Plans

  • Roof Plans


5. Elevations and Sections


In addition to the overall elevations and sections of the building, all the four sectional elevations of each room have to be prepared.


6. Technical Drawings

  • Some important technical drawings to be made are:

  • Rafter details, to understand the roof framework and joinery details.

  • False Ceiling details

  • Column – Beam Details

  • MEP drawings if possible.


Kottapuram Market Before and After Conservation
Kottapuram Market Before and After Conservation

7. Elevation Details

  • Parapet designs, if present.

  • Eaves board designs at various portions of the building.

  • Note if there are cast-Iron railing details in the building.

  • Check if appliances such as fans and lights are present in the elevations.

  • Frieze decorations, if present.


8. Sectional Details

  • When measuring the height of a building (such as; parapets, walls etc.) remember that the floor of the rooms; especially the courtyard and terraces, will be sloping.

  • Measure the heights to which the plaster finish is done, as seen in section details.

  • Remember to note the level difference details in the thinnai.

  • The measurements taken should then be drafted into proper drawings. These are the drawings that should be referred while going forward in the process.


Removal of roof tiles
The Process of Removal of Roof Tiles Prior to Conservation at Cheraman Juma Masjid

9. Mangalore Tiles

  • While measuring Mangalore tiles, there are a few things to be kept in mind.

  • Count the number of rows to know the sloping distance.

  • Measure the centre to centre distance of the tiles.

  • Count the number of ridge tiles to know the tip length.

  • Measure the centre to centre distance of the ridge tiles.

  • Record the make, year and model of the tiles.

  • Make sure that the eave lines are matching.

  • Measure the eave distances as well.


10. Splays

  • Splays can be measured with the use of set squares and scales.

  • If you have to measure curved profiles, try to take it in scale 1:1 using a buttered sheet.


11. Doors

  • Every door must be documented.

  • Detailed carvings on wood need not be measured, they can be obtained using bitmaps.

  • Moulding details along the door frames need to be noted.


12. Windows

  • Every window must be documented.

  • Mouldings around the windows need not be measured accurately.

  • The width of the windows is the frame width, not the opening widths. This is because the corners may be chamfered, rounded or some mouldings may be given at the corners.

  • It is also important to remember that the frame widths on both sides can be different, due to the difference in plaster thickness.


13. Interior Details

  • Wall paintings along with the frame details.

  • Rafter designs


14. Cornices


When measuring a cornice detail, do specify which cornice you are measuring. For example; Details of which room, the North wall in the room. Also, mention the location of the cornice-Top or bottom. If it is present on a pillar specify which pillar is to be accounted for.


15. Light Fittings


The lighting accessories along with the electrical layouts should be mapped and noted. All their specifications like make, company and model number should be documented.


16. Plumbing Fittings


The plumbing drawing should be prepared after close observation of the buildings. The fittings and their specifications should also be noted down.


17. Craft Items


Vessels, utensils, furniture, kitchen equipment, plates & other important objects found should be accounted for.


18. Flooring Layout

  • Map and note the flooring used in each area.

  • Note the patterns on the flooring (mosaic or other patterns).


19. Extra Details

  • Get a mason to measure the levels of the house.

  • Get a master carpenter to know the traditional terms, wood species and other details needed.

  • Look into the account books and see if there are any details.

  • Look for any old photographs of the structure.


20. Some Precautionary Notes to Remember

  • When you climb up the attic or loft, check for electric conduits running through the loft floor or walls. Most of the wires may be exposed, so make sure that you are safe.

  • Also while climbing on lofts, check if the flooring is strong enough before walking on it. Some planks may look strong on the outside but would have been prone to termite attacks on the inside.

  • Give a brief description of the materials and construction methods used in these buildings.

  • When you measure the roof, make sure that you measure the sizes of all the timber members. Count the number of rafters and measure the centre to centre distance. But remember that the thickness of the rafters will vary, because sawing machines became prevalent only less than 100 years ago.

  • Measure the horizontal and vertical distances of the roof slope at various points to find the angle. The average of these measurements will have to be taken later.

  • When you measure timber roofs, remember that the distance between the walls (masonry) is not the span. It is the distance between the wall plates which is more critical.

  • When you measure the height of the wall plates, check on both sides of the walls. If the floor is levelled at all points and if the ridges are exactly in the middle; then the heights will be the same throughout. If the corner of the walls is rounded off, then the measurements should be taken a little further off from the corners.

  • If you have to measure a corner that is not at 90 degrees and you want to find out what angle it is, then use the triangle congruence method (SSS Postulate) and extend the lines as required.

  • Always write a (9) straight, a (6) curved and always cross a (7). Only then will it be easy for others to follow.

  • If there is an obstacle in measuring the plan along the sides of the room, then the width of the room can be measured where possible (for example, in the centre of the room).

  • Do not ever rely on redrafting. An error can easily arise in redrafting corrupting the entire purpose of the process.


21. Conclusion


Taking measurements of an existing old building is a time-consuming job. You need to have an eye for details and should be meticulous in documenting them. The team should follow the checklist prepared prior to the documentation strictly. The checklist and the steps mentioned above will make the task of documentation much easier. With the help of technology, some methods in documenting have become more simple. Once the documentation is completed the plan should be drafted as soon as possible to bring clarity on the present condition of the building.

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