Five Words Architects Have a Different Meaning For

Going into a new endeavor can be confusing.  Those with knowledge and skills in the subject can seem like they are speaking a different language.  Most professions have specialized jargon. Jargon often has unique words not found in normal conversation.  Or a normal word might have a different meaning in the context of that subject.  

Like you and I have a meaning for “shock” like I was in shock when she said that” we mean something emotional, but a nurse saying “the patient is in shock” typically means something physiological, major reductions in blood flow.  

Architecture is no different when it comes to jargon, and I would like to share 5 words that might not mean what you think when it comes to architecture.  

#1 Contractor:   I like to start with an easy one that has somewhat made its way into common use.  That is “contractor” In everyday speech contractor means anyone who provides services on a temporary basis.  Like in, I need file a 1099, as a contractor, for that copy editing gig I had.  

In Architecture it is specifically the builder on a project. The party that will obtain all the materials and labor and deliver the finished building on schedule.  

Contractors might not even have a particular trade, some are just great managers and bean counters, but I find with most residential work they are often associated with one trade like carpenter, mason, painter, plumbers. Contractor is often used interchangeably with general contractor, to differentiate it from subcontractors, which are parties hired by the general contractor to do a trade they don’t do.  

#2 Scale: Architect use the term scale in two ways.  In design scale denotes how the overall size of an element relates to the size of others things, like the decorative detailing brings the building to the human scale.  Or ”Despite this being a public building it fits into the scale of the residential neighborhood.  

The term scale also refers to the ratio of the size of an architectural drawings as it relates to real size.  This is just like the scale on a road map, where one inch might equal a mile. In the US, Architectural drawings have scales like quarter of an inch equals one foot.  Meaning if you measured on the drawing the thickness of a wall to be one quarter of an inch, it represents a one foot thick wall. If something measures one inch it is four feet.  

#3 Elevation: Architect also use this term in two different ways.  Elevation is a drawing of a frontal view of a vertical surface, like the front of a building, or inside of a room facing a particular wall.  

Also elevation can be used to denote the height of something relative to a baseline like the elevation of a mountain peak relative to sea level. Since this information comes from the survey, elevations in the US are typically noted in decimal feet.  This can cause some confusion since a measurement of four feet six inches 4’6” in decimal feet is shown as four point five (4.5’) feet and is often misinterpreted as four feet five inches.  

#4 Grade:  Grade refers to the surface of the ground around the building as in the pipes are 3’ below grade.  It also can be used as a verb, the act of moving earth at a site to get the final designed heights and slopes of the surface as in “We need to grade the site before laying the pavers.”

#5 Plan: Most people have a general understanding of the term plan as a type of map, which is mostly true but we need a little more to understand what a plan is fully.  There are several types of Plans like a Site plan which is very much like a map but when architects talk about plans they are typically talking about floor plans. Floor plan is a scaled top down view of a level of a building.  To make this drawing work you need to get the things above this level out of the way and draftsperson uses the concept of a cutline to do so. To understand a cutline think of a doll house and your looking down at it. You want to see the first floor so you take a saw and make a horizontal cut halfway between the first floor and second floor, that is the cutline.  Then move the top half, out of the way and now you have the 1st floor plan view. On a floor plan the cutline height is almost never stated but it is typical around 4 feet above the floor or at eye level, Architect often chose to keep this cut line vague, since they often change the cutline within the same floorplan to show imports elements the are above the cutline.  Like to show a high window.  

I can talk more on floor plans but I “plan” on doing another segment on reading drawings as well as more on architectural jargon.  

You can find more about me at  Have a great day and good luck on your architectural endeavors.

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