Archi-speak / English Dictionary
Language that separates us from the lay-folk.
Each Profession has it's vocabulary - words, phrases, and terms that signify specific things or actions unique to that profession. Many in the architectural design disciplines mock the hyperbolic nature of our vocabulary, but it could be worse...you could be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a politician! This list is meant as an open call to readers - if you have terms to add, submit them at the bottom of the dictionary (or click the link below). We also suggest the use of ctrl+F to search specific terms.
Note: This dictionary is actively being revised and rewritten by the SC Community. To see the original 'Design Language Dictionary,' by SC Curator Elizabeth Stuhlsatz, please click here.
Active Systems (noun)
Tools and approaches for designing for human comfort that rely on mechanical or electrical, or other energy-requiring systems. Examples would be a gas-powered furnace, an air conditioning unit, solar panels, and hot water heaters. See Passive Systems.
Adaptive Reuse (noun)
A design project that uses an existing structure as a base, (as opposed to ground-up construction, which starts from nothing) and redesigns it to some extent—this can be anything from small changes up to a total gutting of the interior and extensive additions/renovations.
Architect’s Scale: (noun)
A measuring system (or the actual ruler used in measuring it) which is divided into feet and inches. When drawing to scale, common scales are: 1/8" = 1' (or one eighth of an inch equals one foot), ¼” = 1’, and ½” = 1’. See Engineer’s Scale, Drawing to Scale.
As-Built: (adjective frequently used as a noun)
Describes a set of drawings (possibly including plans, sections, or elevations) that reflect the current state of the building or site, before any changes or proposals are made. As-built drawings should include accurately measured dimensions.
We went out the job site today to take measurements so we can create the as-builts. Once we know what’s there to work with, we’ll start designing the renovation.
Axonometric Drawing: (noun)
A method of drawing a 3-D object to imply a 3-D view that differs from a perspective drawing. All lines parallel in the object are also parallel in the drawing; this can make the drawing seem distorted. Sometimes referred to as “axons.”
Building Information Modeling: an integrated set of concepts and software related to rendering and constructing a design. Essentially BIM is computer data (usually in 3-D) about the project that can be shared by the designer and the contractor, and is easier to manipulate by both than traditional CAD data. The most popular software package in use for BIM is currently Revit.
(pronounced to rhyme with “limb,” not “B-I-M.”)
A method or philosophy of design that patterns itself after nature. It can use literal shapes of natural objects, or principles of natural “design.” For example, airplane wings can be shaped to look more birds’ wings. Or, spider silk, which is very strong, can be studied to learn how to build stronger building materials.
Bubble Diagram: (noun)
A method for loosely planning out the spaces/rooms in a design by sketching them in rough shapes, instead of designing down the fine details. It is used to propose schematic relationships in architectural space. My bubble diagram shows that the dining room should be near the kitchen.
Contract Administrator or Construction Administrator. The person in a design firm in charge of managing the process of seeing the design through to construction and interacting with the contractors. Can also stand for Construction Administration.
Computer Aided Design; software that allows 2-D and 3-D rendering of designs. The most common program is currently AutoCAD. Typically the term refers to 2D digital drafting.
Construction Drawings, Construction Documents, Contract Drawings, or Contract Documents. The finely detailed set of drawings sent by the architect to the contractor that the contractor uses to actually build the design.
Building codes, usually determined by the state, regulate health, safety, welfare, and access issues.
The “big idea” that the design project is trying to express/explore/test. Ideally, every part of the project can be described in terms of the concept, from the materials choices, to the site design, to the floor plan. The concept might originate from the site analysis. The final project translates it into a built form. See Parti.
Concept Drawing / Model: (noun)
An abstract visual expression of the concept. These can be a rough sketch or a polished model, but they are attempting to convey an idea, not something that can be built.
Contour Lines: (noun)
Lines drawn on topographic maps to show elevation and how steep the slope of the land is. The lines connect points at the same elevation, usually in reference to sea level. If you are hiking on a mountain and walked following a contour line, you would stay at the same elevation. If you walked across contour lines perpendicularly, you would either be climbing or descending. The closeness of the lines also provides information; the closer the lines are together, the steeper the slope will be. (See: Topography)
Short for Critique. A session in which one or a group of students or designers present progress design work with the express purpose of receiving feedback from others such as instructors, guest critics, or colleagues. See Pin-up.
Deciduous trees lose their leaves during periods of adverse weather conditions, such as winter or droughts, as opposed to evergreen trees, which keeps their leaves (or needles) all year long. Knowing which type of tree species you are dealing with is an important consideration in landscape design.
A drawing of a portion of a design enlarged to show more information, usually with labels indicating materials, dimensions, finishes, scale, and construction methods. Can also be a verb, to detail—to create these drawings.
A branch of knowledge within architecture, it implies a knowledge of how building materials work with each other and the environment at places where they join together, for example when a wall meets a roof. Detailing is also the ability to create detail drawings that reflect this knowledge.
Diagram: (noun or verb)
An abstract visual expression of an idea or set of information, or as a verb, the act of creating such an expression. A diagram is not a literal representation of reality (like a photograph). It instead focuses on a specific aspect (of the building, the site, the idea) and tries to convey important ideas through simplified drawings, symbols, maps, colors, or shapes. Diagrams can simplify a complex idea, can show the relation of parts of ideas to whole ideas, or a series of diagrams can look at several different aspects of one larger idea and how they relate to each other. May accompany maps or graphs.
Digital Analysis (noun)
The act of using digital software to analyze building forms for various conditions, such as structures, lighting, acoustics, or thermal comfort.
The collection of information about the existing site or building for a project, with no attempt at analysis and no conclusions drawn. It may consist of photographs, maps, or raw data. Documentation is often a first step towards site analysis, but these concepts are distinctly different, as analysis attempts to make conclusions from the information documented. See Site/Building Analysis).
The movement of water on a site.
Drainage Structures or Systems: (noun)
Designed and built elements that direct the flow of water on the site. Open or surface drainage structures, such as gutters, swales, or ditches, move water over land. Closed or subsurface structures direct the flow of water underground.
Drawdel (Noun & Verb)
To drawdel, or make a drawdel, is a hybrid of drawing and model. This can be drawing on a model to annotate features, or a three-dimensionalization of a drawn medium, such as a diagram, map, or architectural section.
Drawing to Scale: (noun or verb)
The process of creating an accurate, realistic drawing of an object that is bigger than the page or screen it is drawn it on. Scale drawings preserve all the measurements of the larger object, but the measurements are proportionally shrunk down. To do so, a specific scale is used (See “Architect’s Scale” and Engineer’s Scale.”) For example, if you are creating a scale drawing of a 4 foot by 4 foot cube, and your scale is 1” = 1', you will draw a cube 4 inches by 4 inches. The scale of the drawing should always be listed on the page or screen so the viewer knows what scale was used.
- An orthographic drawing showing one or more vertical faces of an object
- The altitude of a location relative to a reference point, such as sea level.
Also may be used as a verb "to evelvate" meaning the act of drawing elevations, often used in interior architecture.
Engineer’s Scale: (noun)
A measuring system (or the actual ruler used in measuring it) divided into feet and tenths of a foot. When drawing to scale, typical scales are 1"= 10', (or one inch equals ten feet), 1” = 20’, 1” = 50’. Fractions of a foot in engineer's scale are expressed as decimals. Therefore ten feet four inches in architect’s scale would be expressed as 10.33 feet in engineer’s scale.
A building’s outer shell, including walls, roof, and foundation, seen as a whole: also called its “skin,” though this usually refers to the walls and roof. The “facades” refer to the walls on the various sides of the building (the east façade), but not the roof or floor. See Skin, Façade.
The removal of soil, rocks, and plants, due to weather such as rain, storm water runoff, or wind, or due to human use of the site.
To translate 2-D information or forms into 3-dimensional form and space, by “pulling” them up and out into 3-D. It is also the operation one uses with a Play-Doh pumper to make Play-doh forms. In her final model, she extruded the square shapes of her concept drawing up into a series of towers.
In architecture, refers to the parts / elements, the materials, that make up a whole; usually in a larger urban context. The Back Bay is an urban fabric made up of townhouses and a regular street grid.
Usually the front of the building, but it can be any side. The west façade of the cathedral is the most ornate. It’s also used to describe the side of a building when one material is a cover or veneer for another, as in The front of the building is a brick façade over structural steel columns. However, the word does not automatically have the metaphoric connotation of “falseness” as when we say “her face was just a façade.”
Figural Space: (noun)
This concept refers to the three-dimensional qualities of an architectural space. First, imagine filling a room with water. Then freeze the water and take the ice out as one unit. That ice is the shape of the space in the room. Certain spaces have been designed to make you aware of “the shape of the ice.” They don’t just feel like floors and walls; they feel like containers of space. The “ice” has an interesting shape that you experience in the space. These spaces are described as “figural spaces.” Examples include The Pantheon in Rome, or the Christian Science Center Plaza in Boston.
Refers to soil added to a site to alter the level of its surface (see Grading).
We added six tons of fill to the lower end of the site.
Fill can also refer generally to the whole area that has been altered by adding the soil.
The land by the school is fill; none of it is original. It used to be a swamp.
Finished Grade: (noun)
The completed surfaces of site-work such as lawns, walks, roads, etc., after design work has been done on the site. See Natural Grade, Grading.
The size and shape occupied by a building on a given site.
The home’s footprint is a 1000 sq. ft. rectangle; the renovations will add an additional 500 sq. ft. on the east side.
Metaphorically, a building's impact on its site and the larger environment.
This renovation, by using recycled materials, has a much smaller footprint than our average projects.
The degree of inclination of a surface, road or pipe, usually expressed as a percentage. See Slope.
The designed modification of the natural ground surface. Grading can either lower the ground level or raise it. This may be performed to modify the drainage, adjust circulation paths, or to establish a sense of space in a designed landscape.
A parametric modeling plugin for Rhinoceros 3d.
Green Roof: (noun)
A system that uses plantings on the roof of a building to achieve environmental benefits such as minimizing water run-off, increasing the thermal qualities of the roof, providing users with a roof garden, or providing birds a place to roost in the city.
Geographic Information Systems: this refers to a set of concepts for collecting, processing, and presenting data on geography and other spatially linked information, such as demographics. GIS software programs provide an interface between various data sets, allowing for research and analysis of geographical data. GIS data is often presented as a series of maps accompanied by other tables or charts.
Hydrologic Cycle / Water Cycle: (noun)
The natural cycle of water movement, from rainfall, to rivers/oceans, to evaporation back into the clouds, to rainfall. Human development disturbs this cycle in a number of ways which may increase the severity of floods. It is therefore important to design the site with an awareness of cycles of water movement.
Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (pronounced either H-V-A-C or H-vack) equipment such as duct work and VAV boxes used in buildings to provide thermal comfort.
A software program, part of the Adobe Creative Suite (Adobe CS), used to create vector drawings.
Used to describe a surface that does not allow water to pass through it, such as asphalt and concrete. These surfaces cause water runoff. It is considered better practice, wherever possible, to use pervious/permeable surfaces and allow water to be absorbed into the ground.
A software program, part of the Adobe Creative Suite (Adobe CS), used for document creation, such as portfolios, pin-up boards, posters, pamphlets, and papers: essentially any document where the goal is combining words and images. The output is typically in the form of a PDF or JPG.
Typically in architecture, refers to a low-budget insertion or modification of existing condition in a public place, often with the goal of highlighting blight, apparent neglect, or other undesirable existing condition. Interventions are often conceived of as public art. May also connote that the designers are helping people that cannot, or are unwilling to help themselves. When used by architects it may come off as arrogant ... that architects know better because we can see what others cannot; that we can save people, cultures, or societies from themselves.
Describes plants that are not native to the region in which they are growing, and therefore have a tendency to push out native plants. It is generally considered good practice to use native species in laying out plantings.
To repeat with variations, or to take an idea and develop it through multiple versions; recreating it until that “a-ha” moment happens.
I did five iterations of my model; one used circles, one squares, and three had different sizes of triangles. I realized my fourth iteration was the strongest expression of my idea and so I iterated it again, adding more triangles.
Jalousie Window (noun)
A type of window constructed of multiple glass linear elements that may be rotated open like louvers.
Having properties of movement. Kinetic architecture has elements that may move, either via natural processes such as wind, or mechanically.
Laser Cutter: (noun)
A digital fabrication tool for translating CAD vectors or raster images into cut lines using a laser. Small laser cutters may only cut or etch wood or plastic based products, while high powered lasers may etch and cut metals and stone. Typically in architecture laser cutters are employed to cut parts for scale models out of chip board, bass wood or acrylic.
“Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” is a set of standards for green building design and construction developed by the United States Green Building Council. A building can be LEED rated, and a designer can be LEED certified. There are different ratings levels/certifications, as well as specialty areas within LEED. (pronounced to rhyme with “reed.”)
A building “speaks” a “language” of a certain style through its motifs, ornaments, layout, etc. The language of the home is colonial, but there are references in it that speak to the Victorian period as well.
Lynchian Analysis: (noun)
A method of site analysis described by Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City that breaks an urban area down into five key concepts: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Paths are the important routes of travel (by any means—foot, car, train, etc.) Edges mark significant boundaries. Districts are noticeable segments of the city with their own character. Nodes are gathering points. Landmarks are significant features such as monuments. The point of the exercise is not only to document these five elements, but to create an understanding of the community and what is important in the space.
The general size and shape of a building, which may be worked out before any of the fine details. A massing model, which shows the rough shape and proportions of a building, can be created.
Master Plan: (noun)
A large-scale plan that shows the theme and general arrangement of a design, often used in urban planning and design, while avoiding specific details. Master Plans describe the scope and scale of the land and buildings, or the adjacencies among buildings, or a general circulation diagram. It may also give general guidance on approved styles, themes, and building usages. Master plans often include a written document that spells out possible completion dates, the strategic goals of the project, or the future vision of the organization. As a verb, to create such a plan.
Materials Board: (noun)
Usually as part of an Interior Design studio project, students create a presentation board including swatches of their fabric and material choices, pictures of inspirational/influential furniture, and colors or patterns they will integrate into their interior space.
A building or development that includes a variety of program types such as residential units, retail spaces, or restaurants.
Natural Grade: (noun)
The undisturbed natural surface of the ground.
Orthogonal / Orthographic Drawing: (noun or verb)
A drawing that shows a 3-dimensional object in 2 dimensions, such as floor plans, sections, elevations, and axonometric drawings.
The description of geometry using parameters such as length, width, and height, and using relational references to connect parameters together. Parametric has emerged as a 'style' that often takes on a biophillic aesthetic. See Grasshopper.
(pronounced par-TEE) The main concept or idea that informs and shapes the designer’s process and the design itself. There can also be a parti drawing or parti model. See Concept.
Passive Systems: (noun)
Tools and approaches to designing for human comfort that do not rely on mechanical or electrical systems. Examples include adding insulation, orienting a building so its windows face south, or planting trees for shading. The goal of passive systems is to reduce reliance on active systems, such as air conditioning, to save energy. See Active Systems.
The ability of the soil to absorb water. It is good practice in working with the site to permit soils to absorb surface runoff water. Synonym: “pervious.”
Perspective Drawing: (noun or verb)
A method of representing 3-D objects or space in 2 dimensions in which lines which are parallel in the real world converge on a vanishing point in the drawing to give the illusion of depth.
A measure of alkalinity or acidity. A pH of 7 is neutral, ranges from 0-7 are acidic, and from 7- 14 are alkaline (also known as basic.) A pH value of 6.5 in the soil is desirable, since it helps many food plants grow.
Phases of Design: (noun)
The design process usually passes through a few recognizable phases.
1. Conceptual Design (also called Programming): the beginnings of the design process, where the vision and the scope of the design is established, usually in an abstract manner.
2. Schematic Design (SD). Phase in which design concepts are created, space planning developed, and establishment of the scale and general shape of the design. In SD, designers work through rough sketches and models, and often purposely avoid making specific decisions about details and materials. In practice, designers typically require client approval in order to proceed to DD.
3. Design Development (DD): This phase is a refinement of the strongest ideas from SD. The designer makes specific decisions about scale, systems, materials, and textures. In practice, final DD drawings are often used to attain a rough cost estimate of the project.
4. Construction Documents (CDs) / Final Design: In practice, the design is brought to a level of detail where it could be turned over to contractors to be built. In a class, the design is completed and presented to the class.
In the context of architecture, a philosophy whose main focus is on the subjective sensory experience of the user, and the unique reality of individual places.
A software program, part of the Adobe Creative Suite (Adobe CS), used to manipulate raster images such as photographs or digital renderings. The software may be used alter or clean up existing images, to correct color, to create collages by combining images, or to add details using layers.
Affixing drawings on a wall or presenting a digital presentation at various points in the design process with the express purpose of receiving feedback from instructors, guest critics, or colleagues. See Crit.
The plan is a drawing that shows a flat bird’s eye view of the layout of a space. In plans of buildings, it’s called a floor plan, and shows the space as if the roof was removed, with walls rendered as thick black lines.
Poche: (verb or noun)
1. To darkly color in the areas on an orthographic drawing which are 'cut through' - most commonly walls - so they stand out and are more easily read as solid objects. Poche also refers to the dark shading itself.
- Abstractly, refers to the designed use of particularly thick walls, and the architect designs to make the user aware of those walls (for example, by using niches, alcoves, and deep windows that cut into the walls).
Po Mo (Noun)
Short for Post Modern / Post Modernism
A compendium of selected, carefully edited academic, professional and personal design work that demonstrates your interests, design communication skills and creative agenda.
Post-Critical Green (noun)
A hue of green employed in drawings and diagrams (often accompanied by magenta and black) in reference to Smout Allen's Pamphlet Architecture booklet "Augmented Landscapes." Term coined by Perry Kulper at University of Michigan.
Process Drawings / Models: (noun)
Work that shows development of the concept or the project over time. Content that represents the stages of the designer's ideas being iterated and expressed. They are not yet the final project, but they are more developed than the concept drawing. For students, sharing process content in presentations or portfolio helps instructors and critics understand the project's development and design process.
Previous designs, buildings, artworks, or even abstract ideas, which have inspired or may provide a model for the current work. A Precedent study is an analysis of these precedents, through images or words, or usually both.
Program: (noun, and also a verb, “to program.” See Programming.)
- The set of constraints on and requirements for the design, both quantitative and qualitative. The practical specifics of a project, in contrast with “the concept of the design, For example, the program for a house might include requirements for: 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen, a fireplace, fit onto a small narrow lot, cost less than a certain amount to build, have a view to the water, etc.
The process of determining the program. This may be achieved by interviewing the client(s), conducting site analysis, analyzing precedents, drawing bubble diagrams, or creating a preliminary schematic design.
To annotate drawings with corrections, additions, suggestions, so that the corrections can be added, often by someone other than the producer of the original drawing(s). Redlining may be performed by hand or by software. The process of fixing these corrections is often called “picking up redlines.”
The principal of my firm redlined the construction drawings, and I entered the changes into Revit.
Rendering (noun or verb)
A visualization of a view in or around a design proposal, either a hand-drawn perspective, or using digital software. In hand drawing the term also refers to adding shade and shadow, while in digital software the term means to calculate lighting and materials using one of a number of rendering softwares such as Vray, iRay, Maxwell, or Mental Ray.
Retention Pond: (noun)
A man-made pond-like area used to collect storm water runoff and control storm water flow. Retention ponds may have a permanent pool of standing water. Similar structures, known as Detention Ponds, dry out over time.
A popular 3-D software program by Autodesk used to construct BIM models of buildings.
Often called 'Rhino.' A popular 3-D software by Robert McNeel and Assc's often used for schematic, conceptual, or advanced geometry design. See Grasshopper.
After a rainstorm, rain water will evaporate, percolate into the soil, flow off the site, or drain to some point on the site. The water that flows off the site is called runoff. Good site design practice tries to minimize runoff.
Schematic Design: (noun)
Roughly planning out the design—for example, at this stage, you might think about what goes where, but not its final appearance.
A type of 2-D drawing: imagine it as a plane (typically vertical) cutting through a space; the section drawing shows what is in the vertical plan and behind it, but nothing in front of it. Walls are rendered as thick black lines (poshe). “Cut lines” on a plan mark where a section has been taken; a section titled “A-B” will extend from points A to B on the plan.
- The cut-line of a section
- A website devoted to demystifying the design process
Site (or Building) Analysis: (noun)
Studies on the conditions existing at your proposed project. These may include maps, diagrams, observations, and photographs. Site analysis may look at circulation patterns on the site, sun and wind conditions, topography, site usage, and any other relevant research, and then makes observations or draws conclusions from them. Site analysis helps the student formulate a design that responds to the site conditions.
Skin (of the building): (noun)
The outer shell, the façade, the exterior. See façade.
A software program owned by Google that can create and modify 3D forms quickly and fluidly. It has a “library” of looks, textures, and features—for example, you can make your image look hand drawn, or show the daylight and shadows at a specific place and time of the year. Often used for schematic design or interior design.
How objects/spaces/buildings relate to each other. Or, how the building expresses a style. See “language.”
*The ornate furniture speaks to the Louis XV influences on the house. *
Soil Types: (noun)
The upper 6-8 inches of soil. Below is a more compact, less fertile layer called subsoil. Soils that are moved in by wind, water, or glaciers are called transported soils.
Shortened form of “Star-architect,” it refers to an iconic celebrity architect such as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid.
Storm Water Management: (noun)
The process of designing for the collection and disposal of surface and subsurface water running though the site during stormy weather, through the use of the site’s natural features, drainage structures, retention and detention ponds, swales, or other features as needed.
Structures / Structural Systems: (noun)
A branch of knowledge that seeks to understand the forces in a building, bridge, or other construction, such as gravity, tension, compression, stress, and strain. Structural analysis of a building or bridge can help determine what type of material to choose in the design, how much of it to use, and how to construct the building or bridge so that it is safe to use. In practice, most of this work is performed by structural engineers.
A ditch or long depression in the ground, either man-made or naturally occurring, which collects surface water and moves it from one point to another.
A conceptualization of material and structural relationships of a design, how those relationships communicate something about the design’s concept, and how it was constructed. A design is described as “tectonic” if it expresses its structure and/or materials openly.
*My concept of “connection and compression” is communicated tectonically through the connections between the posts and beams and the way the posts touch the ground. *
The study of the 3 dimensional features of a surface or site, which can be shown in a topographic map: a two dimensional representation of three dimensional land-forms.
*The topography of the area is mountainous and contains many rivers. *
The Trades: (noun)
A collective term referring to the builders of buildings: the contractors, plumbers, electricians, millworkers, masons, carpenters, etc.
The various ways in which a concept is expressed in a project.
My concept was “weaving,” so I translated this through my materials by using lots of wicker furniture.
While glazing may offer literal visual transparency, the term typically connotes a project's conceptual transparency (open, visible, unmistakable) - it can signal clearly to the viewer its purpose.
The Chinatown Gate is a transparent border between two neighborhoods. Glass bus shelters are functionally transparent; you’d never mistake them for anything but an uncomfortable place to wait for a bus.
A building type, classified based on various characteristics.
The suburban single-family-home on a big lot with a 2 car garage is the “American Dream,” but given our current environmental and economic situation, perhaps we should examine other typologies.
Vernacular: (noun or adjective)
Traditional local or regional style, method, and materials used to design and build. Vernacular is not one particular style or method; every region has its own vernacular, for example, New England vernacular, Swiss vernacular, etc. However, architects will refer broadly to “the vernacular” when discussing the general concept of using regionally-specific building methods.
An (often sketchy) visualization of a point of view in or around a project design, meant to evoke the feeling, atmosphere, or design qualities one would experience in the space. Typically created as a series of vignettes.
Zaha (proper noun)
The first name of Zaha Hadid, widely known as a highly successful Iranian/British female architect - an innovator of parametric style.