This page is a living resource as part of an attempt to facilitate plain-language discussion of architecture. If there is a word or phrase you don’t know and can’t find below, visit the contact page or leave a comment on any post tagged “Dictionary”.

Beam (n): Horizontal primary structural member; supports secondary structural members such as joists.

Bulkhead (n): 1: A finished cover to hide a duct or plumbing. 2: Any of a bunch of other definitions, usually nautical in nature.

Casework (n): Cabinets. A casework contractor might also build other similar things, like window seats.

Column (n): Vertical primary structural member; supports primary horizontal structural members such as beams and girders.

Concept (n): An idea used to organize and guide the design process and unify disparate aspects of a design. Cannot be described in one sentence.

Context (n): Usually refers to what is in the immediate area around your site. Are there trees? Are there other buildings? How tall are they? How old are they? These are questions an architect would need to consider if she wanted her building to be “contextual”.

Eave (n): The part of a roof that overhangs the outside wall.

Elevation (n): Drawing type showing vertical surfaces, usually exterior walls. Shows organization of openings, finishes and roof lines among other building elements.

Fenestration (n): The pattern of openings in a wall, usually exterior. Also the root of “defenestrate”, which is to throw someone out a window.

Field Measure (v): To visit the site and firmly establish the existing conditions. Take extra careful note of things that need to stay, like load bearing walls and other things that are difficult and expensive to remove. X-ray vision is a plus.

Girder (n): Horizontal primary structural member; supports other beams.

Glazing (n): A fancy word for glass. Glazing can also refer to a storefront or curtain wall system as a whole.

Header (n): Horizontal structural member supporting the wall above an opening such as a window or door, usually concealed. See also “lintel”.

Hierarchy (n): The relative importance of different elements in a design.

Horizontality (n): Sounds better than “horizontal-ness”. Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style homes are detailed such that the seams in the material and even the heads of the screws mirror the horizontality of the spatial organization.

Joist (n): Horizontal secondary structural member; supports floor sheathing.

Juxtapose (v): To place contrasting building elements or shapes next to each other for interest. As you can see, I juxtaposed the rigid linearity of the building against the gentle curves of the meandering garden paths. Note: if your architect says “juxtapose”, he’s probably just going to keep going with a bunch of other expensive words. Just smile while he gets it out of his system.

Image from studiomaven.org

Lineweight (click to enlarge image from studiomaven.org)

Lineweight (n): A way of creating a hierarchy among the lines in a drawing. Heavy lines indicate dominant building features that orient the drawing, such as the ground line or where an object is “cut” in a sectional drawing. Light-weight lines indicate things like patterns in a tile layout, which are useful to see but are distracting if too heavy. Everything else is in between and requires a skilled draftsman to make a judgement call.

Lintel (n): Horizontal structural member supporting the wall above an opening such as a window or door, usually exposed. See also “header”.

Millwork (n): 1: Trim pieces, such as base (skirting, if you’re British), the bits surrounding a door, or the chair rail at the top of a wainscot. 2: Synonym for “casework”

Orthogonal (n): 1: A grid whose organizing lines meet at 90 degree angles. The walls in your house are probably orthogonal. 2: An orthographic projection is a type of parallel projection.

Image from studiomaven.org

Axonometric drawing, a type of Parallel Projection (click to enlarge image from studiomaven.org)

Parallel Projection (n): A type of drawing in which lines of projection are parallel to each other. To see a parallel projection in real life, you would have to stand infinitely far away from an object and have one infinitely big eye. If this is hard to imagine, don’t feel left out; most people who have not been trained to read these drawings find them confusing because they do not show depth, which is how we experience the world through our eyes. Far-away objects are the same size as close-up objects in a parallel projection. The closest thing you can get to a parallel projection as a human is standing super-far away from something. Architectural drawings for construction are almost exclusively parallel projections because they accurately show the relative size of objects and can be dimensioned. See Perspective Projection.

Parapet (n): Low wall at a roof or terrace. Traditionally used to rest your elbows as you gazed wistfully at the horizon, now used to hide HVAC equipment.

Parti (n): Simple diagram of a concept.

Image from studiomaven.org

Perspective Projection (click to enlarge image from studiomaven.org)

Perspective Projection (n): A type of drawing in which the lines of projection converge on one point. You can approximate seeing in perspective by closing one eye; the lines of projection are converging on your open eye. Perspective drawings are much easier to understand than parallel projections because they approximate how we see the world. They are not perfect; most noticeably, objects at the extreme edge of a perspective look strange and distorted. See Parallel Projection.

Pier (n): Vertical primary structural member, especially that with a square or rectangular cross section. You could call it a square column and you’d be right.

Pilaster (n): Looks like a column that is part of a wall, but is purely decorative. Often used to accentuate doors or other openings.

Plan (n): 1. Drawing type showing horizontal surfaces. Primarily used to show organization of individual rooms and their relationship to one another. A plan is usually a parallel projection, and it’s not a “bird’s eye view”. 2. (pl) Used to collectively describe a set of drawings, as in “that information is on the plans, sheet A4.0”.

Proscenium (n): In traditional theater design, it is the arch that is built around the stage that frames the performance and keeps all the messy parts and pieces out of view of the audience.

Rafter (n): Sloping secondary structural member; supports roof sheathing.

Read (v): How something visually comes across, especially as a first impression. Everything on your front elevation is in the same plane; I might recess the entry so that it reads as a separate element.

Section (n): Drawing type showing a cut through an element or an entire building. Used to show the relationship between vertical spaces and the structure of a building.

Soffit (n): 1: The finished portion of the underside of an eave, often ventilated. 2: Occasionally used interchangeably with “bulkhead”.

Stud (n): Vertical secondary structural member; supports the substrates such as drywall, cement board and plywood.

Valence (n): A finished panel used to hide gaps, fasteners or lighting from view. A valence might make up the difference between the top of a cabinet and the ceiling, or extend down to hide the undercabinet lights.

Value Engineer (v): The process of eliminating or altering portions of a project with the goal of reducing cost. All that cool stuff you got excited about and drew extensive details for? Gone during Value Engineering. Something that has been eliminated in this way is said to have been “Value Engineered”, or “VE’d”.

Verticality (n): Sounds better than “vertical-ness”. The “I”-shaped beams on the exterior of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building emphasize the verticality of the structure.

Wainscot (n): The lower portion of a wall, when finished differently than the upper portion. Usually 30″ to 48″ high, made of a durable material such as hardwood or tile, and topped with a chair rail.