This abbreviated glossary is provided to help you with some of the terms and jargon used in the architecture profession.  There have been many books written on the topic.  One of my favorites is A Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching.

Accessible Design

A design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered. Accessibility sometimes refers to the characteristic that products, services, and facilities can be independently used by people with a variety of disabilities.



Abbreviation for air changes per hour, a measure of infiltration. ACH50 represents the infiltration rate when a building has been pressurized or depressurized to 50 Pascals air pressure, typically in a blower door test. In layman’s terms, ACH50 is the equivalent of a 25 mph wind simultaneously blowing against all building surfaces including the foundation.


Air Barrier

A membrane, sheet or other component intended to reduce infiltration.


Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP)

A heat pump that draws or rejects heat to the outdoor air.


Approved Equal

Materials, equipment, or method proposed by the contractor and approved by the architect for incorporation in or use in the work as equivalent in essential attributes to the material, equipment, or method specified in the contract document.



A designation, reserved by law, for a person or organization professionally qualified and duly licensed to perform architectural services.


Building Codes

Regulations, ordinances or statutory requirements of a government unit relating to building construction and occupancy, generally adopted and administered for the protection of public heath, safety, and welfare.


Building Envelope

The outer shell of a building including such components as the walls, windows, doors, roof and foundation; components that are in contact with outside air or the ground.


Building Performance

A broad descriptor of a building’s ability to meet goals of efficient energy and water use, as well as those for comfort, environmental and durability.


Change Order

An amendment to the construction contract signed by the owner, architect and contractor that authorizes a change in the work or an adjustment in the contract sum or the contract time or both.


Climate Change

The long-term change in atmospheric air temperatures and associated impacts such as the melting of polar caps. Climate change is attributed to human activities such as the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels, releasing hydrocarbon chemicals and the interaction of such combustion products and chemicals with the atmosphere.



A process for verifying that aspects of a building that consume energy, impact energy consumption or affect indoor environmental quality are working properly.


Construction Budget

The sum established by the owner as available for construction of the project, including contingencies for bidding to contractors and for changes during construction.


Construction Documents

Drawings and specifications created by an architect that set forth in detail requirements for the construction of the project.



Not only is artificial lighting a concern of both first cost and operating cost, but the lighting itself gives off heat which often increases the heat load on the HVAC system and adds additional cost to monthly operating costs. One way to reduce this cost is to incorporate daylighting into a building. Daylighting includes strategies for increasing the percentage of illumination provided by natural light in your building such as light shelves, toplighting, clerestory windows, optimized building orientation and room layout, and shading among others. Not only is daylighting free, it is a more enjoyable light to in which to work, play and live.


Design Development

The architect prepares more detailed drawings and finalizes the design plans, showing correct sizes and shapes for rooms. Also included is an outline of the construction specifications, listing the major materials to be used.


Embodied Energy

The energy used to harvest, process and transport materials and building products.


Energy Efficient Heating and Cooling

Controlling the interior temperature and humidity of a building is one of the largest expenditures of energy and also one of the highest components of operating costs that building owners face. Once you have made use of all the passive heating and cooling strategies (see passive heating and cooling) that are available to you, specifying highly efficient equipment is the next important step. Consider operating costs as well as first costs when you are choosing equipment for your project. 


Energy Model

A computer simulation that predicts a building’s energy use.


Energy Star Appliances and Lighting

The Energy Star program is a partnership between the EPA and the US Department of Energy which is focused on saving energy as a means to both help preserve the environment and reduce the cost of energy to both residential and commercial clients. Lighting and appliances that have met the standards set by the Energy Star program are labeled as such. Energy efficient choices can save up to one third of monthly energy costs in addition to reducing the environmental impact of construction.. Thanks to a labeling program, Energy Star appliances and lighting are easy to specify.


Energy Use Index (EUI)

The total annual energy use of a building divided by the building floor area. EUI is used for benchmarking and for tracking purposes toward lower or zero energy use.


Green Building

Building to provide healthy environments in a resource-efficient manner, using ecologically based principles. The terms “green building” and “sustainable design” are often used interchangeably. Sustainability calls for a whole-systems approach to development that encompasses the notion of green building but also addresses broader social, ethical and economic issues, as well as the community context of buildings.


Green Roof

A roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation, a growing medium and drainage system, installed over a waterproof membrane to lower building temperatures, reduce the heat island effect, lessen stormwater runoff and absorb carbon dioxide from the air.


Heat Pump

A device that transports heat from one body, such as the ground or outdoor air, to another body, such as the air inside a building, in a process that is reversible.


Heat Recovery

The process of extracting heat from one flow, such as exhaust air from a building, to heat another flow, such as the intake air for building ventilation from the outdoors in winter.


HERS Index

Home Energy Rating System Index, a standard by which a home’s energy efficiency is measured. A score of 0 represents a net-zero energy home; a score of 150 represents a home that is expected to use 50% more energy than a standard new home.


High Performance Windows

Once you have placed and sized your windows to make the most efficient use of solar energy (see Passive Heating/Cooling and Daylighting), the next step is to choose a window that will balance your lighting needs, energy performance requirements, and long-term maintenance desires. Windows are rated by U-factor and SHGC. The U-factor is the measure of the speed with which a window transfers heat by conduction. The SHGC, solar heat gain factor, rates a window according to how much radiant solar energy it lets through. Once you’ve chosen an appropriate window for your location and budget, be sure to pay attention to the installation. A high performance window that is poorly sealed doesn’t give you the performance you are paying for. 



The exchange of air between the outdoors and the interior of a building.


Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)

A system for formwork for reinforced concrete consisting of modular, interlocking units of rigid insulation.


LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

A green building certification program administered by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED the most widely used third-party verification for green buildings, with around 1.85 million square feet being certified daily. LEED works for all buildings—from homes to corporate headquarters—at all phases of development. Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several areas that address sustainability issues. Based on the number of points achieved, a project then receives one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient. They use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As an added bonus, they save money.


Life Cycle Assessment

Evaluating the full range of environmental and social consequences assignable to a product, process and service from cradle-to-grave, such as the impacts created throughout the life of a building product from the gathering of raw materials through materials processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, maintenance and disposal or recycling.


Local Materials

The manufacturing and life-cycle performance of construction materials is only part of their environmental impact. There is also a cost – both financial and environmental – to having them delivered to the job site. Using local materials can also improve your construction schedules and make acquiring materials for maintenance and repair easier in the future. Establishing a goal of purchasing locally available materials and finding out what is locally available in the earliest design phases of your project will help reduce building cost and environmental impact of your project. One of your first clues about what is available will be to look at common construction materials in older buildings in your area.


Low VOC Materials

VOC’s, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are chemicals which evaporate into the air during the curing or, in some cases, throughout the life of the material. Paints, primers, sealants and varnishes are the most common materials which can have a high VOC content. There are other sources of indoor air pollution by VOC’s however, including wood products that use formaldehyde as a binder. Fortunately, low- or no-VOC substitutes are becoming more common. VOC’s can affect the health of people using the building, and they also contribute to air pollution and reduction of the ozone layer. Once you have moved into your house, be sure and keep track of the VOC content of your cleaning materials. 


Net Zero

The ability of a building to require zero externally provided energy or to not release carbon emissions. Net zero can refer to a variety of different energy consumption or carbon emissions metrics.



The basic scheme or concept for an architectural design, represented by a diagram.


Passive Heating and Cooling

Mechanical heating and cooling systems are not the only ways to achieve indoor comfort. Passive heating strategies most often rely on the collection of heat from the sun during the day, while passive cooling strategies rely on heat gain avoidance and the use of cross ventilation, evaporation, and thermal mass which stores heat during the day to release it at night. Passive heating and cooling can not only reduce the first costs of your HVAC system, but they can drastically reduce your operating costs. Since these strategies make use of free solar energy and local breezes, they do not cost anything themselves. Include them in your schematic design discussions of building orientation, skin construction, and plan layout to get the greatest benefit. 


Passive House

The term passive house (Passivhaus in German) refers to a rigorous, voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building, reducing its ecological footprint. It results in ultra-low energy buildings that require little energy for space heating or cooling. Learn more at PHIUS.



The architect and homeowner discuss the goals, needs and function of the project, design expectations and available budget, pertinent building code and zoning regulations. The architect prepares a written statement setting forth design objectives, constraints, and criteria for a project, including special requirements and systems, and site requirements.


Project Budget

The sum established by the owner as available for the entire project, including the construction budget; land costs; cost of furniture, furnishings, and equipment; financing costs; compensation for professional services; cost of owner furnished goods and services; contingency allowance; and similar established or estimated costs.


Recycled Content Materials

One way to reduce the environmental impact of construction is to specify recycled content materials. Many types of construction materials can be purchased with some degree of recycled content. As you are designing your building and specifying building materials, not only should you try to use as many recycled content building materials as you can – but you should also consider how the building you are constructing can be dismantled and recycled as it reaches the end of its useful life. 


Renewable Energy

There are many forms of renewable energy from geothermal to biomass to wind and of course solar power. The first costs on many of these systems are high, but when life cycle costs are calculated which take into account the cost of energy over the life of the system, you may be surprised how much sense they make. Even if it doesn’t make sense for you to consider on-site renewable energy, you still have the choice to contract with local utilities that sell energy from renewable sources. 


Schematic Design Phase

The architect consults with the owner to ascertain the requirements of the project and prepares schematic studies consisting of drawings and other documents illustrating the scale and relationships of the project components for approval by the owner. The architect also submits to the owner a preliminary estimate of construction cost based on current area, volume or other unit costs.



An orthographic projection of an object or structure as it would appear if cut through by an intersecting plane to show its internal configuration, usually drawn to scale.


Solar Photovoltaics (PV) System

A system for generating electrical energy from solar radiation using semiconductors that exhibit the photovoltaic effect.


Solar Thermal System

A system that converts sunlight energy into heat for domestic hot water or space heating.



A part of the construction documents contained in the project manual consisting of written requirements for materials, equipment, construction systems, standards and workmanship.


Square Footage

Can be calculated as both gross and net square footage. No uniform standard for computing a residential square footage yet exists. Architects, builders and Realtors each measure square footage differently. Square footage is not always an indication of the livable space available in a structure. 


Stormwater Management

Water runs more quickly off hard surfaces than it does off unpaved surfaces, and when it runs over parking lots in particular it carries with it many pollutants. Slowing the speed of water leaving your site, and reducing the amount of pollution that the water carries off when it does leave, is a significant contribution to the health of your local eco-system. Many municipalities require some level of stormwater management and there are several strategies. These strategies for managing storm run-off need to be included in your initial site planning discussions and are integral to any landscape strategy for your site. 


Structural Insulated Panel (SIP)

A prefabricated assembly comprising a rigid insulation core sandwiched between two layers of structural board and combining the functions of structure, insulation and air barrier. SIPs are most often used for walls but may also be used for floors and roofs.



Superinsulation of the building envelope minimizes heat gain during the summer and heat loss during the winter. Superinsulation involves substantially increased R-values combined with proper detailing for minimized thermal bridging and thorough air sealing for minimized infiltration. This strategy must be paired with controlled ventilation in order to maintain a healthy indoor environment. 


Sustainable Design

See “Green Building” above.


Thermal Bridging

The loss of heat from the building interior to the outdoors by means of conduction through solid building materials.


Universal Design

The process of planning, designing and creating products, buildings and environments that are accessible to all individuals including those with disabilities or special needs, to the greatest extent possible given current materials, technologies and knowledge.


Water Saving Appliances

There are many daily things that you can do to save a lot of water like take shorter showers, fix leaky faucets, and not leave the water running while you are doing dishes. But purchasing water saving appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines is also an important strategy to conserve water resources. Compare water usage as one of your criteria when you are specifying appliances to reduce your monthly operating costs and to share in preserving the resources. 


Zoning Codes

An ordinance regulating the division of land in to zones, so as to restrict the height, bulk, density and us e of buildings, and the provision of such ancillary facilities as parking. Also known as Land Use Regulations in many communities.