Common Architectural Terms

Instructor: Christine Gyovai

Christine has taught elementary, middle school and adult learners in a variety of settings, and she has a master's degree in urban and environmental planning.

While there are hundreds-- if not thousands-- of architectural terms, this lesson provides an overview of the most common terminology in architecture to provide a solid starting point into this exciting field.

Architectural Terms Overview

Imagine you have just traveled to Greece and you've seen extraordinary buildings. You call your mother to describe what you've seen, saying, 'Mom, I've just seen the most remarkable building. The front was big. The post-like things holding up the roof had interesting shapes.' While traveling to see great works of architecture throughout different countries can be a very rewarding experience, without knowing common architecture terminology, it can be difficult to relate the beauty or uniqueness of what you are seeing to others. While there are thousands of different architectural terms, we'll focus on a brief glossary of common architectural terms here so that you'll be able to distinguish between a column and a cornice.

Common Architectural Terms

Balustrade: A type of railing usually found along the edge of stairs, a roof, balcony or a porch that is comprised of small posts called balusters.

Bay Window: A type of rectangular or square window that juts out from a building.

Belfry: A square, small bell tower that is located on a roof with a bell enclosed in the structure, often found on schools and churches.


Board and Batten: A construction method for walls or doors, referencing the way the wood is placed in vertical boards and then kept in pace with a horizontal board called a batten.

Bulkhead: A set of doors, generally metal, providing an outdoor entrance to a basement or cellar.

Buttress: A type of wall, usually constructed of stone or brick, located at the sides of a building.

Casement: A window that opens to the inside or the outside that has a hinge on one side.

Chair rail: A piece or ornamental wooden strip attached to the wall at the approximate height of a straight-back chair.

Clapboard: A surface applied horizontally to the exterior of buildings to create a weather-tight wall using narrow wooden boards, usually with one end narrower than the other.

Colonnade: A row of columns that are spaced consistently and connected above by a horizontal entablature.

Column: A strong, round structural support similar to a pillar.

column scroll

Cornice: A decorative, horizontal molding that sits atop an element it is attached to.

Cupola: A small dome, particularly a small dome that sits on top of a larger dome, that adorns a ceiling or roof.

Double Hung Windows: Windows with two sliding panes, or sashes, sitting vertically on top of one another.

Dormer: An opening for windows at the roof level that has a gable or shed roof on the top.

Dormer diagram

Eaves: The edges of a roof that hang over an exterior wall, sometimes with exposed rafters.

Entablature: A structure that lies across columns horizontally and includes both decorative and structural elements.


Façade: The primary exterior face or front of a building.

Fenestration: The way that windows and doors are designed for a specific proportion or arrangement in a building.

Floor Plan: The arrangement of different levels of a building showing the location of chimneys, stairs, porches, rooms, interior walls, and doors.

Frieze: A decorative, generally wide band that sits below a cornice or in the center of an entablature.

Gable: The area formed under the slope of a roof that is the triangular end of a wall.

Grille: An ornamental element, usually iron, that is a grate used to protect an opening such as a door or window.

Latticework: A structure made of thin strips of metal or wood that criss-cross and overlap.

Lintels: A structural, horizontal element over an opening, that can bear weight or be decorative.

Masonry: A construction type using tile, brick, stone or concrete block with mortar.

Molding: A section of trim, often contoured wood or made of another decorative material, that is placed below the connection between a ceiling and a wall.

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