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A Place (Setting) for Every Napkin


As an architect, rarely do I find myself at lunch with a client that one of us doesn’t start to sketch on the back of a napkin. The ideas seem to flow a little faster, we both can contribute, and we have a record of what we did to remember later. Napkin sketches are idea-generating and inspirational; and the foundation for future development. It’s always flattering when a client asks if he can keep it, but I have yet to be asked to sign one.

The back-of-the-napkin approach has been around a long time, probably as long as we have been using napkins. It does, however, have its limitations. Napkin sketches are drastically out of scale and proportion, and don’t take into account site specifics like topography, boundaries, existing features, and regulations.

After the napkin sketch, and with a site or two in mind, I suggest moving on to a Sketch Plan, sort of a napkin sketch on steroids. The Sketch Plan is my tool of choice to explore site selection at the conceptual stage of a project.

One of the most common challenges developers face is unforeseen site issues that they uncover late in the process, after they have settled on a site. The Sketch Plan helps prevent much of that. It will tell you if a site is worth pursuing, given your intended purpose and budget.

Typically done by a site engineer (civil engineer or landscape architect), the Sketch Plan combines general site conditions with your general building requirements.

Within a short amount of time and with very minimal investment, the site engineer will help you determine the usable space you’ll have to work with on the site, given your intended use. The Sketch Plan provides a bird’s eye view, illustrated to scale, of the possible building footprint, vehicle circulation and parking, and allowances for managing the stormwater on a particular site. The usable space and layout are determined by such factors as topography, wetlands, flood plains, easements, and setbacks. While your project design might change moving forward, you’ll have a good understanding of the usable site configuration and conditions before purchasing the land.

If you have a relationship with an architect, a building contractor, or a commercial real estate broker, he or she can help facilitate your discussions with the civil engineer, but don’t get off track. The goal at this early stage is to develop a Sketch Plan to help evaluate the site, not facility engineering, design, or construction details.

The Sketch Plan also becomes a valuable tool to facilitate meetings with your architect, builder, commercial real estate broker, accountant, appraiser, and banker. Most municipalities also welcome a review of the Sketch Plan; and building general consensus early on can save time and money later.

Sketches are a great way to explore project challenges and solutions. And, different kinds of sketches work best for different kinds of problems. The well-proportioned Sketch Plan is ideal for evaluating relative site value, while the impossibly constructed napkin sketch is a great brainstorming tool (when it’s not neatly folded on the table or your lap).

Michel Gibeault, Vice President of Business Development, High Construction Companymgibeault@high.net