Jargon Watch: The World-Building Language Of Architecture

No, a flying buttress isn’t a circus act.
The rooftop of a Mosque representing the world of architecture jargon

Architecture is all around us. We tend to only notice it when we’re looking for it, like when we visit a medieval castle or a really old church. But every building around us was designed by an architect, including the one in which we live, and these visionaries have very specific architecture jargon they use when going about their work.

You’ve probably heard some of these words and phrases thrown around and never really knew what they meant. What the heck is a “flying buttress”? And others, like “fenestration,” you’ve maybe never heard at all. If you’d like to know a little more about the world of architecture or are simply curious about fun slang, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common architecture jargon. This list is by no means comprehensive, but these words will form the foundation for building your architectural vocabulary.

Common Architecture Jargon

Adobe — building material made out of mud or clay and baked under the sun or in a kiln. The word adobe means “mudbrick” in Spanish. Buildings made of adobe are particularly common in the southwestern United States.

Balustrade — a type of railing in which a row of small columns is topped by a rail, often found along staircases. 

Bousillage — a form of plaster made by combining mud, clay and moss or grass. It was used primarily by French colonial settlers in Louisiana.

Building envelope — the physical separator between the exterior and interior of a building, which includes doors, windows, outer walls, roofs, etc. Sometimes called “building skin.”

Bumwad — thin sheet of tracing paper used by architects to sketch a building detail. It gets its name from its resemblance to a piece of cheap toilet paper.

Chalet — also called a “Swiss chalet,” this is a cottage or lodge made of wood with a sloping roof and wide eaves. They come from the Swiss Alps but are now found around the world.

Cornice — a decorative molding that crowns a building or wall, from the Italian cornice meaning “frame.”

Cupola — a small dome or tower at the top of a building that can be used as a lookout or for ventilation.

Dormer — a structure, usually containing a window, that juts out from the sloped roof of a building.

Eaves — the edges of the roof that overhang the side of the building.

Facade — an exterior wall or face of a building; usually refers to the front wall.

Fenestration — the design, construction or presence of openings in a building.

Flying buttress — a type of buttress, which is a structure built against or projecting from a wall that serves as support. A flying buttress consists of an arch that extends from the upper portion of a wall to a pier or wall that is separate from the building.

Genius loci — the prevailing atmosphere of a location. In the classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place.

Motif the theme or predominant feature of a design.

Parapet — a low, protective wall or barrier along the edge of a roof, balcony or bridge.

Pastiche — a work that imitates the style of a previous work or a more-famous creator. In addition to architecture, this term can refer to art, music, film or literature. In the architectural world, it’s sometimes used to imply the work is unoriginal.

Spatiality — a general term describing anything related to the nature of space or occupying space.

Tectonics — the process of shaping or assembling materials in the construction of a building, from the term for the process of controlling the structure of the earth’s crust (i.e. tectonic plates).

Terracotta — a fired mixture of clay and water used in interior or exterior wall elements or ornaments, from the Italian terra cotta, meaning “baked earth.”

Transom window — also called “peek-a-boo windows,” these are small windows placed above doors or larger windows.

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