Use Story Poles to Visualize a Design

Do you have a design for a new home or addition but want to have a better sense of where it will be located or how tall it will be? Perhaps you are considering multiple options as your project’s design is developed. There are lots of reasons to study the “massing” or overall size and height of a design before proceeding with construction – see the list below for details. A powerful, yet inexpensive visualization tool is to use story poles. By standing PVC pipes at each building corner and roof ridge, you can quickly get a feel for the design’s size and how it relates to its surroundings.

Reasons to consider story poles:

  • A planning department may require story poles
  • Concerns with blocking views (yours or a neighbor’s)
  • Validate where to locate the structure on its site (siting)
  • Gain a better sense of overall height (walls, roof, etc.)
  • How the structure will relate to its environment (built or natural)
  • Quickly validate the overall design

Typically story poles are placed on site after a conceptual or schematic design has been developed, but before time and expense has been spent on construction documents (detailed architecture and engineering plans) Once a design is being evaluated, story poles can be set using the basic steps outlined below.

 Colorado Pavilion - Location Option #1 - Blocked views from living room

Colorado Pavilion - Location Option #1 - Blocked views from living room

 Colorado Pavilion - Location Option #2 - Too far from the home

Colorado Pavilion - Location Option #2 - Too far from the home

 Final location - selected after story poles helped to study alternative locations.

Final location - selected after story poles helped to study alternative locations.

How to place story poles (one of many methods):

  • Measure and mark locations on the ground where a building corner or roof ridge is planned.
  • At each marked location place a steel re-bar stake in the ground to serve as a base for a PVC story pole (3/8” or ½” rebar is recommended for most applications). This step assumes you have soft but stable soil to stake. Hard surfaces such as concrete might require a wood story pole or other solution.
  • Cut and/or assemble PVC pipes to length, representing the height of the building wall or roof at that location, being sure to factor for the existing grade elevation at each location.
  • Use bright or contrasting ribbon or paint to mark key heights on the story pole. Depending on the needs of your study, you may want to mark heights of windows and doors, walls, floors, roofs, railings, etc.)
  • Stabilize the story pole as needed. Tall story poles may be very unstable and should be removed quickly after the study for safety.


With story poles in place, try to spend some time and use your imagination to study the design’s successes and challenges. Consider the design’s impact from within its own footprint look outward, as well as any perspective you might see the completed structure. If it is addition to your house you can view the story poles from inside your existing home through windows with a view of the addition.  Use your imagination to “experience” the design in any way feasible or especially critical that might help validate or trouble-shoot the design before it is built.

 Studying height of future 2-story addition (with flat roof) relative to adjacent home's roof.

Studying height of future 2-story addition (with flat roof) relative to adjacent home's roof.

E-mail me if you have any questions about story poles or are interested in placing story poles for your project.

Remodeling and Home Design