•  Carrier

Designing a building or engineering project is a challenging task, with many pieces to fit together and many aspects to take into consideration. Designers and engineers frequently work across multiple platforms and file types, piecing together sections and details submitted by various contributors or organizations for a single project. Many companies try to develop and maintain their own standards or preferences. When moving from one project to the next, it is nearly impossible to stay on the same page, as every entity is speaking a different language. Deciphering and translating each aspect of the project takes a substantial amount of time, considerably slowing productivity, and leading to misinterpretation and costly mistakes. How simple it would be if everyone used a common language for design data.

The United States National CAD Standard® (NCS) is like a common language for the design and engineering community. Just as many countries recognize English as the language of business, more than 5,000 workplaces across the country and increasingly around the world, recognize NCS as the “language of design data.” As this “language” becomes more widely adopted, more people want to use it to make things easier. Also similar to a language, NCS adapts to the needs of the industry, using input from end users and industry leaders. The NCS central committee of professionals vets and approves this input by consensus to develop updated versions. In fact, NCS recently released a new version of the standard – Version 5.0.

Having one, nationally recognized standard makes it much easier to implement and uphold consistency within an organization. For this very reason, Congress wanted to create a method to help designers and engineers produce quality projects and classify electronic design data. As a result, they appointed the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) to organize and maintain the NCS. The first version, released in July 1999, combined documents from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), the U.S. Department of Defense's Tri-Service CADD/GIS Technology Center and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS).

NCS Version 5.0
Since the first version, NCS has grown to combine layer guidelines from AIA, drawing standards from CSI and plotting conventions from NIBS into a streamlined style guide. Today, NCS includes:

  • The NCS Foreword, Administration Guidelines, AIA CAD Layer Guidelines, the Uniform Drawing System, Plotting Guidelines and the Appendixes
  • DWG files of the Uniform Drawing System Symbols
  • Excel files of the AIA CAD Layer Guidelines, Uniform Drawing System Terms and Abbreviations, Schedules and Regulatory Information, and tables of the Plotting Guidelines


NCS is constantly growing and expanding. For each new version, individual NCS member users submit changes and additions by ballot, and representatives from across the construction and design community perform a broad peer review and vote on the submitted suggestions. Version 5.0, released earlier this spring, contains a number of refinements and additions over the last version, released three years ago.

The greatest improvement in Version 5.0 is that it is now accessible in an electronic format. Rather than leafing through a massive two-volume set, users may now access a simple bookmarked, searchable document on the Internet. This improves readability, implementation of the standard, usage and the ability to share the information within an organization.

Another significant addition is the inclusion of implementation guidelines. These guidelines provide step-by-step recommendations on how to incorporate NCS. Not only do these guidelines make it simpler, they also provide a tool that helps demonstrate the value of NCS. Say that a CAD manager realizes that the effort of maintaining a company standard is eating up valuable time and resources. He or she must convince management to both invest in purchasing NCS and commit to upholding the new standard. These new implementation guidelines provide actionable steps, showing how to incorporate NCS into an organization in manageable portions.

Other revisions in NCS Version 5.0 include:

  • New Discipline Designators: Discipline Designators for “Distributed Energy;” a new Level 2 resource, Discipline Designator for “Real Estate;” and an expanded Discipline Designator for “Survey/Mapping”
  • New Layers: Layers for additional structures, wind and solar power, fire ratings, air barriers, architectural curtain walls, and electrical cathode protection
  • New Symbols: New and revised symbols for interior elevation indicators, azimuth indicators, architectural scale, electrical symbols and other areas


Benefits of NCS
The beauty of NCS is that it is not specific to one discipline. It is equally applicable to architecture, engineering, survey, construction and development, and even facility management. In the old days, each company or individual would have to recreate or alter information as it transferred from design to engineering to construction to management. Having a universal standard such as NCS simplifies communication across the board and improves the lifecycle of information.

With the standard, there is no need to think about what this line indicates or what that symbol represents. Instead, everyone – from the designer to the building owner – can consistently understand the information in every set of drawings. In the same set of plans, surveyors can input initial data, architects can layer in the conceptual design and engineers can fill in the building details. Out in the field, construction crews can translate the information to build the project; once it is complete, the same plans can be handed to the facility manger. Each person at each stage can easily find and maintain the information.

The consistency of a single standard helps designers and engineers seamlessly transfer information by providing common terms, symbology and naming conventions. Information appears in the same place in all drawing sets, so translation between formats is predictable, and time for file formatting and error checking is reduced. Above all, NCS helps organizations save money and increase productivity, since there is no need to invest in developing individual standards and staff members no longer need to spend time deciphering plans.

NCS is indispensible and essential in today’s world, so much so that educational institutions are teaching the standard to students and new hires are required to know NCS. NCS will become even more critical to the industry with the widespread adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM). One of the greatest benefits of NCS is its seamless integration with BIM. In fact, NCS is a vital, interconnected part of BIM, since designers and engineers need to get the detailed, 3-D information that BIM provides out to the people in the field. That’s where NCS comes in – NCS allows designers to get the electronic design data to the people who need to see it and use it in the field on a daily basis. It provides a consistent, understandable method for communication.

Since its creation, more than 5,000 public- and private-sector organizations have recognized the benefits that NCS brings to their businesses. Many government agencies and Fortune 500 companies either require or use the standard. Some of these include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. General Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC). In many cases, clients have spurred the decision to adopt NCS because they prefer the advantages it brings for communication and organization.

NCS is, and will continue to be, a key element of the language of design. Until virtual holograms of building models are projected onto the hoods of pickup trucks at construction sites, designers and engineers will need to communicate information using NCS. Even with the capabilities of today’s electronic tablets, those reading plans need to use NCS so drawings are easily understood. This is why so many workplaces have adopted NCS – because it simply makes things easier for the entire industry.

For more information on the United States National CAD Standard, visit www.nationalcadstandard.org.

Gregory L. Jordan, Software License Manager, Dewberry, 703-849-0662, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.