Architecture Terms: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet

Each industry has its own jargon and terminology, and architecture is no different. There are many different architectural terms you’ll encounter in residential design and construction, and it can feel overwhelming when you’re just getting started on your new build or remodeling project. A good architect will happily explain them to you, but having a cheat sheet or architecture glossary at your fingertips is helpful in your research and as you review documents, drawings, and contracts.

Bookmark this list of architecture terms for quick reference, divided into five sections: Design Process, Site, Plans/Drawings, Structural, and Trending Terms.

Table of Contents

Design Process


Program 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. The outcome from a charette may vary from client to client — it could result in a bubble diagram, sketches, or even computer-generated drawings depending on the meeting.

Bubble Diagram

A bubble diagram is a diagram that 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.

Schematic Design (SD)

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 or computerized plans to the owner for approval.

Design Development (DD)

An important drawing step between the preliminary sketches and the final set of construction drawings. Design development drawings are where we really start to pin down dimensions, details, materials, and begin integrating systems. If plans have not already been put into the computer, they will be computerized during DD.

Construction Drawings (CD)

Construction drawings mark the final phase of the design process after design development and are a comprehensive set of drawings that detail exactly how to construct the building. These will include the architect’s drawings, the structural engineer’s drawings, as well as any other consultants involved, such as an interior designer, civil engineer, landscape architect, etc. (For a more detailed description, read our blog on Understanding the Architectural Design Process.)


Because architectural drawings are not life-size, they must be drawn to a scale factor to fit on a sheet of paper. The scale itself is a specialized ruler designed to facilitate the drafting and measuring of these drawings, including floor plans and elevations.


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.

Volume Spaces

Architecture is essentially the enclosure of space. Volume space is created when a ceiling is raised above the typical ceiling height in a building. For example, volume space is created in a home with 10’ ceiling by increasing the living room’s ceiling height to 12’.   The incorporation of volume space can make a room look and feel larger while adding interest and excitement.

Unique interior dormers add even more interest to the volume space in this historic remodeled home.

Finished vs. Unfinished

These terms are used to describe rooms or areas in a home to determine square footage. Unfinished spaces are typically not counted toward square footage and include garages, screened or open patios, porches, and unfinished basements.


Massing is how a structure’s shape, form, and size look to the eye and in relation to its surroundings.


The way people move around and through a home, or circulation, should be top of mind to your architect. Good circulation provides easy transitions between spaces, improves flow, and increases a home’s comfort.


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 of a home that depicts, to scale, the existing conditions of the structure. As-built drawings are necessary on remodeling projects to have before the architect can start designing. Most architects will produce as-built drawings if you do not already have them.

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 is generally shown in a thinner line. Sections are used to describe the relationship between different levels of a building.

A section represents a vertical plane cut through the building.


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 labeled in relation to the compass direction it faces or by its position relative to the home (e.g. front or rear). 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 will include all selections made for a building as well as written descriptions, of a technical nature, for those materials.

Design Review

Sometimes a project is located in an area that has a designated entity that establishes and reviews design guidelines. A homeowners association (HOA), design review committee (DRC), or design review board (DRB) are examples of the most common design review authorities.

Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)

This is a blanket term that refers to any authority that has some controlling power over the project. It may vary from one jurisdiction to another and may include a county, city, HOA, DRB, or similar.



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 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. There are different types of surveys, and you may need a specific kind depending on your project and its jurisdiction

Building Setback

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 Plane 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 area ratio, floor area ratio, and yard requirements.

Building Height

Each jurisdiction has requirements on the maximum building height, or the vertical distance between the land’s finished grade and the tallest point on the structure.

Lot Coverage

This is the percentage of a land parcel that is covered by a structure’s footprint. This may include eaves, overhangs, or anything else that extends from the structure, depending on the jurisdiction.


Grade is the ground elevation of a lot or site. Often a site will need proper grading to level the land, remove or add slope, or make improvements for drainage and weight-bearing construction. A property’s grade will impact building height.


Most sites fall under a zone, which is a set of regulations that dictate what kind of building can be constructed, building setbacks, easements, building heights, and other structural and usage characteristics. Zoning is set and enforced by jurisdiction.



A dormer is a structure that projects out from a sloped roof. It is often a small room, bedroom, or part of an attic and includes a window.

Traditional farmhouse with dormers.


An eave is the portion of a roof that overhangs a home’s exterior wall.


The façade is the exterior of a structure. In home design, it commonly refers to the front-facing exterior.


Fascia boards run along a roof’s outer edge to direct water away from the home. The fascia provides the roof and rafters with a protective barrier and is often where gutters are installed.


A frieze board can be placed between a home’s soffit and siding as a decorative trim.


Flashing is a thin piece of metal that redirects water from a building’s areas that are vulnerable to leaks, including roof valleys, chimneys, skylights, and transitions from exterior wall siding to trim or stone, among others.


When architects talk about fenestration, they are referring to the arrangement, location, size, and style of a home’s windows and doors.


A finial is a decorative feature to enhance the appearance of a roof, gable, dome or other prominent exterior parts of a structure.

Traditional custom home with finials.

Fur out

Furring involves the installation of fur strips to raise a wall’s surface to make it level, increase airflow, or add insulation. 


A gable is a type of pitched roof with two sloped sides that create an “A” or triangular form.

This contemporary farmhouse consists of 5 pods with gable roofs: the great hall, master suite, guest suite, laundry and garage. The pods are linked by flat roof connectors.

Head Height

Head height is the distance from the floor to the top of a window.


A mullion refers to a vertical divider between windows. When a window is mulled together, it was factory built as a single unit instead of including framing between multiple windows.

Muntins are the vertical and horizontal grids used in windows whereas a mullion is the vertical divider between windows.


Muntins are the vertical and horizontal grids used in windows to create divided lites. Muntins extend to a variety of styles and are primarily used to add character and visual interest.


A parapet is a low wall that travels along the edge of a roof, terrace, or balcony.


Rafters is the set of sloped structural components, usually wood, that frame a roof and support its deck, underlayment, roofing material (shingle, tile, etc.), flashing, and vents.


Not to be confused with the common garden tool, the rake describes the roof overhang along a gable.

Spacious wraparound deck with outdoor dining and oversize sliding doors in modern farmhouse remodel by KGA
The overhang along the gable (where it looks like a triangle) is called the rake. The overhang along the other side is called an eave, or a raked eave. Notice the tongue and groove wood on the underside of the roof – this is the soffit.

Roof Types

There are many different types of roof styles, however some of the most common are gable, hip (similar to gable but features slopes on all sides), flat, and shed (lean-to or a single-pitched roof).


A sidelite is a narrow vertical window that flanks one or both sides of a home’s exterior door.

This shingle style home has a sidelite on both sides of the front door.


A soffit is a material located on the underside of the eave that connects a home’s roof to its outer wall. Soffits come in several different materials and can be vented or unvented. Vented soffits improve a home’s attic ventilation while offering protection against the elements.

Window Types

Windows help create the soul of a home, and there are many different types from which to choose. Here are a few of the most common you’ll come across in residential architecture:

  • Casement
  • Fixed
  • Sliding
  • Single hung
  • Double hung
  • Awning

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.
An urban infill project can be as small as a single home or duplex, or as big as an entirely new neighborhood such as Berkley Shores (pictured here).

Net Zero 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 environmentally responsible and resource-efficient processes throughout a building’s life cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction.

Passive Solar Design

Passive solar design is a collection of design methods and materials that improve a structure’s collection or deflection of solar energy or heat. A home constructed with passive solar design requires less energy to keep it warm during winter and cool in the summer.

Build to Rent (BTR)

Build to rent is used to describe a product segment of new single-family homes and/or townhomes built to rent long term. BTR distinguishes itself from multi-family complexes and structures in that it aims to appeal to renting households that desire many of the benefits of for-sale homes and neighborhoods. Some examples include living in a home without neighbors above or below, a small yard, and access to community amenities.

Emerson Olde Town Build to Rent Townhomes
Emerson Olde Town: Build to rent townhomes in Arvada, Colorado.

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU)

An ADU is a self-contained residential unit that is either attached to or detached from a property’s primary dwelling.

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse is the process of breathing new life into older buildings that need an update or new purpose. It is often a part of a neighborhood’s revitalization efforts and includes making repairs and improvements to older structures, bringing them to code, adapting them for new uses, and maintaining their foundational architecture and cultural legacy.


Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an international green building rating and certification process for the design, development, and construction of buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. It’s comprised of a multi-tiered rating system that measures a structure’s environmental impact.

If you’ve made it to the end, give yourself a pat on the back! That was a lot of words, many of which you’ll learn along the way and throughout your project. A good architect will take the time to explain each architectural term and step so you’re clear and comfortable with the entire process.

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