PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
history of blueprints

The History of Blueprints

How does a building go from a designer’s imagination to a three-dimensional reality? How does a complicated structure with so many parts, materials and workers come together? The answer is in the history of blueprints.

In today’s construction industry, before anything is built, it’s dreamed, drawn and planned in the form of blueprints. These documents are truly the foundation of any construction project but they have been around for some time now. So, where did blueprints originate from and where are they evolving today? From the start of medieval drawings to the digital documentation sweeping today’s construction industry, below we’ll explore how the history of blueprints has evolved over centuries as well as where the future of these critical design documents is going.

Early Beginnings in Medieval Drawings

Before blueprints evolved into their modern form, look and purpose, drawings from the medieval times appear to be their earliest formations. The Plan of St. Gall, is one of the oldest known surviving architectural plans. Some historians consider this 9th century drawing as the very beginning of the history of blueprints. Mysteriously, the monastery depicted in the drawing was never actually built. So, a group in Germany is using this drawing, along with period tools and techniques, to learn more about architectural history. You can view a detailed diagram and models based on the plan here.

History of Blueprints in construction
The Plan of St. Gall

Renaissance Drawings

The documents that emerged from the Renaissance era look more like modern blueprints than the ones from the Medieval Period. In fact, architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi used the camera obscura to copy architectural details from the classical ruins that inspired his work. Today, Brunelleschi is considered to be the father the modern history of blueprints. The architects of the Renaissance period brought architectural drawing as we know it into existence, precisely and accurately reproducing the detail of a structure via the tools of scale and perspective. At the time, this was a highly time intensive and specialized job, often done by dedicated draftsmen.

History of Blueprints in construction
Camera Obscura
History of Blueprints in construction
U.S. Capitol Winning Design, 1796

Early Modern Drawings by Draftsmen

Until the mid 19th century, architects relied on skilled draftsmen to faithfully copy their drawings for distribution. However, enter the era of specialized architectural tools and draftsmen were then able to produce drawings more accurately and more productively. Myriad specialized instruments used for copying lines, curves, and arcs, from the French curve to the set square and the bow compass, were the tools of the draftsman’s trade.

History of Blueprints in construction
Drafting tools
History of Blueprints in construction
Draftsmen at work

How the Blueprint Became Blue

Ever wondered where the “blue” came from in blueprints? These documents actually obtained their trademark blue in 1842 when John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process. Artists and scientists quickly adopted this new way to reproduce notes, efficiently and at a lower cost than previous methods available. Preserving the silhouette of leaves, ferns and other botanical samples were easier than ever.

Using the cyanotype process, an architectural drawing was made on a semi-transparent paper, then weighted down on top of a sheet of paper or cloth that was coated with a photosensitive chemical mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. In the final stages, the document was exposed to light. The exposed parts of the drawing (the background) became blue, while the drawing lines blocked the coated paper from exposure and remained white.

History of Blueprints in construction
Cyanotype document

The Evolution of Midcentury Design Drawings

While draftsmen still copied drawings into the modern period, a variety of chemical and mechanical processes for reproducing architectural drawings developed out of the 19th and 20th centuries. The diazo process replaced cyanotype as the dominant printing process for most of the 20th century. Instead of a blue sheet with white lines, the process produced a white print with blue lines, and was also known as a “blueline” drawing or “whiteprint”. Diazotypes used a similar chemical process to the cyanotype. A drawing was made on mylar or another translucent surface, placed on chemically coated paper, and exposed. The American Institute for Conservation lists 14 different types of processes for reproducing drawings they discovered while conserving the New York Botanical Garden Library’s collection of drawings. This list is a basically a summary of the history of blueprints in the midcentury:

  • Aniline prints
  • Cyanotypes
  • Diazotypes
  • Electrostatic prints
  • Ferrogallic prints
  • Gel-lithographs
  • Hectographs, (handmade)
  • Pellet prints
  • Photostats
  • Sepia prints
  • Silver halide prints
  • Stencil duplicating (mimeographs)
  • Spirit duplicating (hectographs, machine made)
  • Van Dyke prints
History of Blueprints in construction
20th Century hand drawn plan
History of Blueprints in construction

CAD Drawings

The end of the 20th century saw the development of computer-aided drafting (CAD) technology and large-format printing processes that made the reproduction of multiple accurate copies of the architect’s original design easier than ever. Although producing documents was never easier, along with the ability to print to paper with ease came a document management nightmare. Now, offices were filled with massive reels of blueprints. On a paper-based system, each time a change in a construction plan was implemented, outdated documents need to be replaced. As a result, a huge drain on manpower and resources is created, not to mention the inevitable rework needed when an outdated set slips through the cracks.

History of Blueprints in construction
Paper plans organized by color

Entering the Digital Age in the History of Blueprints with Digitalization

Today, the blueprint of the future is digitally based. Although the construction industry is still widely paper-based, this is changing quickly. Now, with cloud-based document control solutions, digital drawing files are distributed instantaneously from office to the field. Users can upload plans to construction cloud software solutions, like PlanGrid, and automatically sync to all the individual tablets of project collaborators. Software that includes features like automatic version control replaces what used to take hours of project engineer’s time. Now, construction workers no longer waste time manually unbinding reams of blueprints or physically leafing-in revisions sheet by sheet. All project members have benefited from digital blueprint management systems, from the architects and design teams to the field workers on the ground. Chasing down foremen and superintendents to hand them a paper copy of the latest updates is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Digitalization is truly the next chapter in the history of blueprints. If you and your company have not evolved with modern plans, the time is now.

History of Blueprints in construction
Blueprints on PlanGrid on a tablet in the field
history of blueprints in construction
Blueprints on PlanGrid in the job trailer


Add comment