An Architects Guide to Architectural Terms

As architects we love to use them, and as students we need to learn them; Architectural terms are firmly embedded in our language and are used daily in most if not all architectural situations.

From the ‘fabric of a building’ to a ‘Corbusian vernacular’, an architectural term can be used to describe an action, meaning, experience, method of thinking and/or an object.

Students in particular are encouraged to use these terms in their general dialog to help demonstrate knowledge and promote their understanding of the subject, as this helps greatly when in discussion or during presentations of projects and theories.

Architectural Terms

As architects, architectural terms are generally misunderstood by the general public outside of the industry, and so whilst we enjoy ‘exploring the notion’ of something, and studying its ‘urban grain’, architects will often find themselves ‘dumbing down’ their language to a more simplified and familiar dialog.        

So here we have a comprehensive list of our favourite and most used terms and words, that we hope will either refresh your memory or introduce them to you for the first time:


Adjacencies – Convenient alignment of two different concepts.

Aesthetic – The appearance of something.

Amalgamation – An excessive adding-together of things.

Ambiguity – The state of being undefined; a looseness.

Appropriate – To use and make one’s own.

Arcade – A covered walkway lined by columns.

Archway – An opening with a curved or pointed top.

Architectural Symmetry – Characteristic by which the two sides of a facade or architectural floor plan of a building present mirror images of one another.

Articulate – To express an idea coherently.


Balcony – A platform that projects from the wall of a building.

Balustrade – A guard to protect from falling or to assist with walking.

Banal – The architects version of “boring”.

Bespoke – Individual and unique.

Blobitecture – A style of architecture that uses ‘blobs’ as a concept (best to avoid).

Brace – A reinforcing and/or stabilizing element of an architectural frame.

Bracket – A projection from a vertical surface that provides structural and/or visual support for overhanging elements.

Brutalism – A strong shaped concrete-based architectural style.

Building Envelope – The elements that wrap the building.


Cantilever – A long projecting element fixed at only one end, with no columns to support it.

Casement Window – A window frame that is hinged on one vertical side, and which swings open to either the inside or the outside of the building.

Catalyst – An event or object that sparks a radical change or idea.

Celebrate – To design something which emphatically highlights a particular feature of itself or its surroundings.

Charette – An intensive design workshop and critique.

Classical Architecture – Architecture modelled after the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome.

Colonnade – A range of columns that supports a string of continuous arches or a horizontal entablature.

Column – A supporting structural pillar.

Concept – The single most important part and driving force behind a design.

Contemporary – Current and up to date design.

Context – The existing state and history of a site.

Corbusian – Inspired / reminiscent of the French architect Le Corbusier.

Courtyard – An open space, usually open to the sky, enclosed by a building.

Create a gesture – To create or design something that evokes an emotion or action.

Curate – To choose.

Curvilinear – A form that has curves.


Deconstruction – A style of architecture which describes the separation of a design into its own constituent parts.

Device – An object that provides something

Diagrammatic – Sophistically simple to read.  

Dimension – The length of something.

Dissonance – A lack of correlation between two ideas.

Domesticity – A description of a place’s homeliness.

Dormer Window – A perpendicular window located in a sloping roof to provide more space, height and light.

Duality – A system of complementary concepts, such as light and dark, ying and yang, or built and unbuilt.

Dynamic – Something which has many combined working parts.


Eaves – The projecting edge of a roof that overhangs an exterior wall or opening.

Eclectic – Visually chaotic and bespoke.

Elevation – The outside skin of a building, room or object.

Enfilade – Rooms that are arranged in a straight line.

Ergonomy – How well something has been designed for use by humans.

Explores the notion – Tests and investigates the idea of something.

Exposed Rafters – Rafters that not covered.

Extrapolate – To define and dissect the parts of a problem to form a logical conclusion.


Fabric – The skin a building or a city.

Facade – An exterior wall, or face, of a building.

Fenestration – Windows, doors …exterior decoration.

Floor Plan – The arrangement of rooms in a building.

Formal – Strict arrangements.

Free-flowing Floor Plan – A simple and uncomplicated floor plan in which everything just works.


Gable Roof – A roof with two slopes – front and rear– joining at a single ridge line parallel to the entrance façade.

Generative – Having the ability to generate; usually used to describe a concept.

Gentrification – Standardising, normalising and bring wealth into a place.

Gesture – A feature of a building that communicates something to a user.

Grain – The substance of a place.


Hardware – The metal fittings of a building, such as locks, latches, hinges, handles, and knobs.

Hierarchy – Describes and orders elements into relative importance.

Hipped Roof – A roof with four sloped sides. The sides meet at a ridge at the center of the roof.

Holistic – Demonstrating a commitment to thinking things through properly.

Homogeneous – A collection of objects demonstrating the same characteristics.

Human scale – Used to describe the space in a building.

Hybrid – A combination of two unrelated ideas that are brought together.


Iconic – Visually striking …a one off.

Inspiration – A form of concept that gives a project a starting point or next step.

Iteration – A step in a process.


Joinery – Carpentry.

Juxtaposition – Two opposites placed together for increased effect (old and new).


Kitsch – Design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality.


Language – How a building is read and appears.

Legibility – The quality in which the above ‘language’ can be read.


Map out – Think about.

Masonry – Being of stone, brick, or concrete.

Massing – A simple arrangement of the to-be designed spaces.

Materiality – The type and quality of the materials used.

Metaphor – A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

Miesian – Inspired / reminiscent of the German-American architect Mies Van Der Rohe (a lot of glass).

Modular – Describes a (simple) construction system for a building which could be added to indefinitely.

Moment – Used to describe a feeling or emotion when experiencing the architecture.

Monolithic – An awe-inspiring, large and solid object.

Morphology – The study of form, shape or structure.

Motifs – An important element of a design that is often repeated.

Mullion – A vertical element separating panes in a window.


Negative/Positive space – For example Used / unused, inside / outside, serve/served

Negotiate – Find a solution to a design problem.

Nodes – The connecting point of a network, usually of roads or paths..

Nuance – Subtle difference in expression.


Order – A classical style of architecture.

Organic – Natural and often curvy in appearance.


Parapet– A low wall, located at the top of any sudden drop, such as at the top of the facade of a building.

Parametric – A design principle and method created by algorithms.

Parti – A diagrammatic interpretation of a design concept.

Pastiche – An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.

Penetrate – To go into.

Permaculture – The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

Phenomenology – A sensory understanding of human consciousness and the objects of direct experience.

Pillar – A structural support, similar to a column.

Pilotis – A structural support, similar to a column.

Play with – Experiment and test a design of notion.

Poché – Areas of an architectural plan or section that are filled-in, often with a hatch or solid color.

Pods – Small and rounded forms.

Portico – An entrance porch with columns or pilasters and a roof.

Post-Industrial – Land and/or society that used to evolve around industrial working.

Projection – A side wing, tower, or window bay that protrudes from a building.

Proud – Sticking out, as in “the countertop is proud of the cabinet” or “my building sits proud of the streetline because it is more important.”

Program – Forms part of the design brief, and outlines what is required to be inside the building.

Programmatic adjacencies – Alignments in purpose of different elements of a building’s program.

Public Realm – Areas that are open to the public.

Push/Pull – To extrude and collapse forms.


Rebate – A recessed strip.

Redundancy – A situation in which something is no longer useful.

Rectilinear – Appears to be and is made up of rectangles.

Regenerate – To improve and bring back to life.

Regionalism – The theory or practice of regional rather than central systems of administration or economic, cultural, or political affiliation.

Robust – An object, method or idea, that seems to be flawless and sensible.

Roofline – The part of a building that rises above the building’s eaves.


Scale – The size of something.

Section – A vertical, horizontal, or diagonal cut that results in the removal of one of the selected parts to reveal it’s the objects inner elements

Sequence – A defined order of items.

Served and Service – A way of describing living and utility spaces/areas.

Setback – A step-like recession in a wall.

Skin – The outermost layer of the building …its external material.

Solid/Void – A special design concept that explores spaces between and within buildings.

Space – Another way of describing an exterior or interior area.

Spatial composition – How a building and its parts sit together and interact with its context.

Stucco – A plaster used as a coating for walls and ceilings.

Superimpose – To place one thing over another.

Sustainability – A measure for how environmentally friendly a building is.


Tectonics/Architectonics – The expressive elements of a design, usually shown in how different parts are joined together.

Threshold – The boundary between two spaces, often marked by a door, change of flooring, or similar change.

Transparency/Opacity – The measure of how visible an object is through another (looking through a window into a room for example) .

Truncated – A shape with its corners chopped off.

Typology – The language and features of an object or environment.


Uniformity – The arrangement of objects that are the same or similar to one another.


Vernacular Architecture – Vernacular architecture responds to local methods of building construction, local climates, and local living needs and traditions.

Verticality – A measure of tallness and uprightness.

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