Understanding and Using Architectural Scales

The work of an architect and urban planner can take on many forms thanks to the diverse curricular composition of most graduate courses, with subjects that deal with designing in different scales and contexts. From great urban plans to home renovations, and the metropolis to furniture design, these branches deal with different objects, however, all in common are the use of drawing and models as a tool for representation.

Whatever the project may be, drawing is the way to represent reality, ideas, speculations, and conceptions. Scale, a factor that establishes the level of reading one must make of these representations, determines the link between the real world and the dimensions of the drawing or model. For instance, the scale 1:1 is also known as “full size.”

Understanding and Using Architectural Scales - More Images+ 11

More than a relation between two numbers, scale works as a guide to the degree of detailing and/or indicates in which phase the project is in (since the natural tendency of the designing process is to start from a broader thought process, which requires a smaller scale, to a more detailed consideration, which requires a larger scale). However, how do you determine what is the ideal scale for a specific representation?  

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1:50.000 to 1:2.000

Map of Material Flows - Physical traces of commodities trading. Courtesy of the Brazilian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2018

The scope of small scales of representation, that is, drawings that are reductions of reality, are usually good for big dimensions. cartography, urban maps, regions, and even small towns can make use of them, for they can handle comprehensive data.

This type of scale is also found in urban planning and zoning propositions, such as master plans, as well as in aerial photogrammetric surveys.

1:1.000 to 1:500

Minimob/MAPA. Courtesy of MAPA

Zooming in on projects that demand a contextual reading without needing to show large territorial extensions, the interval between 1:1000 and 1:500 is ideal for most site plans.

An overview of the building and its location in the urban fabric, such as a block or a neighborhood, for example, can be contained in those scales. It is possible to highlight important elements such as the availability of infrastructures, among others.

When it comes to studies and researches, they come in handy for surveys such as buildings’ heights, land use, etc.

1:250 to 1:200

Communal Kitchen of the Lands of the Coast / ateliermob + Collective Warehouse. Courtesy of ateliermob + Collective Warehouse

Once the representation’s aim stops being the surrounding context and starts focusing on the design itself, it becomes necessary to zoom in. The scales 1:250 and 1:200 handle these type of site plans.

The components of the design become more evident here; the shape and volume, the access, roof characteristics, and the relation among built and empty spaces. These scales can also serve plans, sections, and elevations in larger buildings for a broader reading of the proposal, and they can even contemplate some spatial compositions and layouts.

Even when it comes to smaller interventions, they can be used on a first approach, working satisfactorily in the early phases of discussions and decision making that, with time, will guide a more accurate development of technical and constructive matters.

1:150 to 1:100

Partners In Health Dormitory / Sharon Davis Design. Courtesy of Sharon Davis Design

As the scales get bigger, it is necessary to evaluate the degree of expressiveness and the size of the work being represented. Scales between 1:150 and 1:100 can also work well for first approaches of smaller works and typologies. In the case of larger buildings, they contemplate more detailed drawings and models, including structural elements and a better-defined layout.

In any case, it is important to consider the intentions behind each representation, be it two or three-dimensional, so as to rank which elements are to be highlighted.

1:75 to 1:25

Surfer's Residence / Java Architecture. Courtesy of Java Architecture

Just as well, the scales 1:75 and 1:50 work with structures, layouts and the relations among floors. 

Urbanization of the Jardim Vicentina / Vigliecca & Associados. Courtesy of Vigliecca & Associates

In some cases, they are also valid for flooring, specifying wall coatings and for interior design. From 1:50 to 1:25 it is also possible to zoom in on rooms to better detail specific components, such as plumbing, electrical or structural plans.

Skjern / Johansen Skovsted Arkitekter River Pumping Stations. Courtesy of Johansen Skovsted Arkitekter

1:20 to 1:10

Surveillance Module / Escobedo Soliz. Courtesy of Escobedo Soliz

A more specific use of the 1:20 and 1:10 scales is to represent furniture. This is common for both architects and furniture designers to present the workings of the components and their structure. Being smaller objects, the need for a greater scale is evident.

AYC / DX Architects. Courtesy of DX Arquitectos

In buildings, these scales are used in detail drawings.

1:5 to 1:1

White Angel Building / Albert Simó Bayona and Eugénia Rodríguez Segarra. Courtesy of Gradhermetic

When the aim is no longer to represent the spatial organization of the projects, but the constructive aspects and its components, the large scales are the ones that allow us to communicate the technical details with more precision. It demands great development in drawings, particularly when it comes to materials, fixings and fittings, that is, the functioning of the components and how they should be built. This means that they are more common in the advanced phases, such as an executive project.

Bicycle bridge over the Sava River / Arhitekti dans. Courtesy of dans arhitekti

Large-scale tridimensional models are better suited as prototypes for solutions that come about during the designing process that may or may not be used in the construction site.


The attempt to systematize a guide for the use of scales in architecture intends to highlight the importance of thinking and decision making when it comes to selecting what is to be shown in a project. Scaling reality to deal with different levels of complexity during the designing process is part of every architect’s development and daily work.

Note: the examples presented in this article were not necessarily made in the referred scale. Digital reproduction issues and zooming tools make it impossible to confirm the real scales. They are hereby shown to illustrate the elements that can be part of architectural drawings in each of the aforementioned scales.

About this author
Cite: Daudén, Julia . "Understanding and Using Architectural Scales" 05 Nov 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/904882/understanding-and-using-architectural-scales> ISSN 0719-8884

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