Useful Terms When Working With an Architect

Every industry has terms and phrases that are specific to it; architecture is no different.  When designing a custom home or remodeling an existing structure, you will hear a lot of terms which are important to understanding the process.  Some are especially fun as they describe elements of the design; i.e. quoin, pergola and oriel (others may not be particularly relevant but may incite a chuckle – like ‘flying buttress’).  Many terms are a bit mundane and yet relevant to the process.  Following is a list of architecture terms for quick reference, divided into 4 sections: Design Process, Site, Plans/Drawings, and Trending Terms.


This is a word architects like to throw around — a lot! It means a wish list — basically a written (or scribbled, drawn, recorded or other) description of what you want, what you need, and what you’re willing to pay for. The program is a vital part of the process as it defines scope, features, purpose, and functionality of your home.  The “vision” of the project is established in the program.

An intense and focused design session incorporating collaboration from multiple sources and decision makers.

Bubble Diagram
A bubble diagram is a diagram which represents information visually in the form of a series of bubbles.  In architecture, the bubble diagram depicts the spatial relationship of areas and rooms within a building and the required circulation routes between these areas.

Conceptual or Schematic Design
An initial design scheme that seeks to define the general scope and conceptual design of the project including scale and relationships between building components. At the end of the schematic design phase the architect will present some loose, possibly freehand rough sketches to the owner for approval.

These homeowners are getting ready to move from the schematic phase into design development.

Design Development
An important drawing step between the preliminary sketches and the final set of construction drawings. While still sketchy and loose, design development drawings are where we really start to pin down dimensions, details, materials, and begin integrating systems.

An architect’s scale is a specialized ruler designed to facilitate the drafting and measuring of architectural drawings, such as floor plans and orthographic projections. Because the scale of such drawings are often smaller than life-size, an architect’s scale features multiple units of length and proportional length increments.

Red Line
Redlining refers to marking up the drawings with changes. Typically, redlining is used when two or more people are working on a drawing together; each individual can redline the drawing with changes. The redlined changes will then appear in a special color (or as bold) so that others can see the changes that have been made.

Zones are areas designated for separate uses in a home.  Examples are ‘the children’s wing’ or the ‘play’ area.  Zones can be created with walls, level changes, halls, distance and various design elements.

Home with volume space in living room
Volume space is incorporated into this family room to create a feeling of spaciousness. Residence 5 by TRI Pointe at Centerra. Architecture by KGA Studio Architects, PC.

Volume Spaces
Architecture is essentially the enclosure of space.  Volume space is created when ceilings are raised from the old standard of 8’ or 9’ (9’ has become new standard).  The incorporation of volume space can add interest and excitement.


Written and recorded authorization by a property owner for the use of a designated part of the property by others for a specified purpose.  Examples of easements include the use of private roads and paths, or the use of a landowner’s property for utilities.  For instance, the back 20 feet of your property may contain an easement that was granted to the local power company for the purpose of a running a gas line.  The power company has the right to enter and use that portion of your property no matter what improvements may exist.

A property survey report is a legal document that clearly indicates the location of all improvements relative to a property’s boundaries.  A real property survey report generally contains an illustration of the physical features of the property such as roadways, rivers, creeks, structures, easements and encroachments. Some surveys also note topographical information, like elevation and soil density.

Set Back
The minimum distance required by code or ordinance between a building and a property line or other reference.

Deed Restriction
A limitation, which is recorded with the county register of deeds and to which subsequent owners are bound, on development, maintenance, or use of a property

Bulk Plain Regulations
Standards that establish the maximum size of structures on a lot and the location where a building can be, including coverage, setbacks, height, impervious surface ratio, floor area ratio, and yard requirements.


Site Plan
A site plan is a specific type of scaled plan which accurately and completely shows the site boundaries, dimensions and locations of all buildings and structures, uses, and principal site development features, proposed for a specific lot.  A site plan shows means of access to the site, and nearby structures if they are relevant to the design.

As-built Drawing
A drawing or print of a home which depicts the actual conditions of the structure as it exists.  As-built drawings are necessary in remodeling projects for the architect to produce working drawings.

Construction Drawings/Working Drawings
The construction drawings are a comprehensive set of drawings used in a building construction project: these will include the architect’s drawings and structural engineer’s drawings. Everything up to construction drawings is preliminary design, while the construction drawings represent the final design that completely describes what’s needed to build the project. (For a more detailed description, read our blog on Understanding the Architectural Design Process).

Permit Set
Basic construction drawings consisting of the necessary floor plans, four elevations, and a section or two which are required by the county or city where the construction is slated are considered a permit set.  While a permit set is good enough to get a home’s construction started, it won’t have all of the information that’s needed to actually complete the project. Finishes, built-ins, cabinetry, special details, appliances etc. are all things that will have to be decided on but won’t show up in the permit set.

A section represents a vertical plane cut through the building, in the same way as a floor plan is a horizontal section viewed from the top. In the section view, everything cut by the section plane is shown as a bold line, often with a solid fill to show objects that are cut through, and anything seen beyond generally shown in a thinner line. Sections are used to describe the relationship between different levels of a building.

3D Rendering of Rear Elevation by KGA Studio Architects

An elevation is a view of a building seen from one side, a flat representation of one façade. This is the most common view used to describe the external appearance of a building. Each elevation is labelled in relation to the compass direction it faces, e.g. the north elevation of a building is the side that most closely faces north.  Buildings are rarely a simple rectangular shape in plan, so a typical elevation may show all the parts of the building that are seen from a particular direction.

A detailed description of requirements, composition and materials for a proposed building. Specifications are often a part of the Contract Documents contained in the Project Manual consisting of written descriptions of a technical nature of materials, equipment construction systems, standards and workmanship.


Urban Infill
The development of the last remaining lots in an existing developed area, the new development within an area already served by existing infrastructure and services, or the reuse of already developed, but vacant properties.  Urban infill is popular and valuable because:

  • It increases the density of the built environment.
  • It builds and fosters community.
  • It focuses on the reuse and re-positioning of obsolete or underutilized buildings and sites.
  • It activates neighborhoods, making them more useful and livelier for longer periods of the day and night.
  • It uses what is already there to its advantage, as opposed to starting with a blank canvas.
DELO Townhomes in Louisville, CO
DELO (short for Downtown East Louisville) is an example of an urban infill project by Boulder Creek Builders. Architecture by KGA Studio Architects.

Zero Net Energy
A zero-energy building, also known as a zero net energy (ZNE) building, net-zero energy building (NZEB), or net zero building, is a building with zero net energy consumption, meaning the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. These buildings consequently do not increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They do at times consume non-renewable energy and produce greenhouse gases, but at other times reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas production elsewhere by the same amount.

Green Building
Green building is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.

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