Architectural Dictionary

Click on the highlighted terms for additional detail in the appendices to the Architectural Dictionary

This architectural dictionary is not intended to be a complete work, but to give more information about terms used in As grows the site, so grows the architectural dictionary. In some cases the word will link to another page for additional information about that word

  • abacus - A plate of stone, often square, that rests on the capital and supports the architrave.
  • arcade - A covered walkway formed by arches, usually on columns. In some cases that columns and arches form both sides of the walkway. Often one wall is formed by the wall of a building, so that the arcade runs along the edge of a building. Similar to a colonnade but with arches.
  • arch - A curved support, often of masonry, that serves to redistribute a load, usually to create an opening under the arch. In the picture to the right the arch over the doorway bears the weight of the bricks above but transfers that weight to the columns and the walls beside the doorway.
An arched doorway over an entrance to the St. Thomas Parish School in Ann Arbor, MI
  • arcade - A row of arches. Also the space defined by two rows of arches.
  • architrave - The lowest level of an entablature. It rests on the abacus at the top of the capital of a column.
  • balustrade - A rail and the row of balusters or posts that support it, as along the front of a gallery.
  • bargeboard - A decorative board hanging down from the underside of an overhanging eave. Also called vergeboard.
  • bas-relief - Shallow carvings.
  • bay - In post-and-beam construction the house is built in sections, or bays. Two posts and two beams are assembled into a rectangle while horizontal. Then the rectangle is propped up so that the posts are vertical. At this point additional beams tie into the rectangle and join it to the the bays that have already been assembled.
  • belvedere - "Beautiful view". A roofed structure on building, often open, put in place to provide a viewing platform.
  • campanile - A tower. In public buildings usually a bell tower.
  • capital - An extension of the column, usually carved, that supports the entablature. It spreads out the load on the entablature, but concentrates it on the column.
  • churrigueresque - A baroque style of ornamentation used in Spain and New Spain.
  • colonnade - A row of columns carrying a common entablature. Also the space defined by two rows of columns.
  • copula - Also spelled cupola. A domed structure set on a roof, with the dome usually set on pillars. See for the web's premier resource on cupolas.
  • corbel - A bracket supporting a roof, where that bracket is tied into the structure of the house. A projection jutting out from a wall to support a structure above it.
  • cornice - On an entablature it is the molding that sticks out from the entablature to the edge of the roof. The same terms is applied to the molding that either connects the wall to a ceiling or an overhanging eave, or rests at the top of the wall right below the ceiling.
  • cornice return - the continuation of a roof cornice onto the gable for a short distance to suggest a pediment.
  • diaper - a repeating geometric pattern in brick, tile or stone. Also repeating carved stonework, often rosettes, used to fill in blank walls in Gothic buildings.
  • entablature - in a classical roof supported by columns it is the weight bearing support that connects the roof to the columns. It is divided into three elements, the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice. The architrave is the beam resting atop the columns. The frieze rests on the architrave and is usually decorated. The cornice is the area of mouldings that extends the entablature out to cover any overhanging eave.
  • entasis - the application of a shallow curve to a surface. An example of this is the slight narrowing of classical columns near the top.
  • estipite column - a column formed from an inverted obelisk or cone.
  • finials - A carved or cast decoration capping the top of a roof or the end of a gable.
  • flutings - shallow vertical grooves in a Column. Originally a decorative element to hide the seams in wooden columns made in long sections.
  • frieze - the decorated horizontal band that rests atop the architrave and below the cornice in an entablature. Its purpose is decorative, since the same functional benefit could be achieved by using a thicker architrave.
  • gable roof - the end of a simple roof formed by two planes meeting at a ridge.
  • gambrel roof - a roof consisting of two planes on either side ending in a gable at both ends. This is your iconic barn roof shape.
  • Gothic arch - An arch that comes to a point and which is never wider than its base.
  • half-timbered - a construction method in which the spaces between posts and beams are plastered over without covering the timbers.
  • hipped roof - a pyramid shaped roof, or a roof with a ridge but where the ridge terminates in a triangular shaped roof surface.
  • honeysuckle - Also known as anthemion. A running decoration of alternating stylized representations of flowers and groupings of leaves, often on a base of scroll work. Sometimes the flowers are repeated elsewhere individually.
  • jetty - An overhang where an upper floor extends out beyond the lower floor.  
The broad stone that tops this window is a lintel. It distributes the weight of the stone above to the stones on either side of the window.
  • lintel - A horizontal support that spans an opening in a wall, such as for a window or a door. If the material is stone then lintel is likely to be a visible design element.  Wood or iron lintels are often hidden behind siding or bricks.  A lintel is an alternative to an arch.
  • loggia - A recessed portico. It is an indented porch that serves as an exterior entry hall, leading to the interior entry hall. More generally it can also refer to an open sided hallway, such as when an arcade wraps around a courtyard in Mediterranean architecture.
  • mansard roof - A roof that has continues part way down the exterior walls.
  • metopes - A decorated panel between two triglyphs.
  • modillion - In a Greek Temple a bracket that supports the corona and that sticks out more horizontally than it goes up vertically. Similar to a corbel, the latter being used in Gothic buildings to support arches.
  • mortise and tenon - The method by which beams were jointed to posts and to each other in post and beam construction. The mortise is a female hole or slot cut into a timber. The tenon is the male mating part. The two are joined then a hole is drilled through both and pin inserted securing the two timbers.
  • mullion - A structural element separating two windows.
  • muntin - The metal or wood separating individual panes in window. The muntins form the frame holding the glass in place.
  • oriel window - A window that projects out from the exterior wall. An example would be a bay window that is not supported below and with its own roof that indents back to the wall.
  • richardsonian romanesque - A type of Romanesque revival popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838 - 1886). The style favored horizontal lines, simplified massings, and rough cut stone giving it a muscular appearance. 
  • romanesque - A style of public architecture that developed after the fall of the Roman Empire. Roman arches and columns dominate. Barrel vaults and ribbed vaults gave height to the ceiling. Clerestory windows were often used to bring light in from upper stories. Some innovations from the classical include clustered columns and a change in the types of capitals. It reached its high form about the 12th century when Gothic architecture began to supplant it.
  • patera - A bas-relief carving forming an oval or a circle filled with an open flower, or sun rays.
  • pediment - On a Greek temple it is the triangular gable that is supported first by the columns, and then by the entablature. On a house the gable can form a pediment if there is a border at the base of the triangle, so as to distinguish it from the wall below it. A pediment can also be a decoration above a door resembling a temple roof. In some cases such door pediments only vaguely resemble a roof.
  • peristyle - An open courtyard surrounded by columns, usually with a fountain or pool in the middle. Or a type of Greek temple with columns surrounding the walled temple building.
  • post and beam - A method of constructing houses and other buildings relying on heavy timber posts supporting heavy timber beams.
  • portico - A porch.
  • prostyle - A type of Greek temple with a porch of columns projecting out from the walled building.
  • quoin - On a stone building these are special blocks that form the corner of the house. They are usually of a different size or color or texture. They are usually primarily an ornamental device to provide the illusion of strength or stability or to provide visual relief to the facade.
  • raking cornice - A cornice for an angled roof eve on a gable.
  • Roman arch - An arch forming a half-circle.
  • solomonic column - A spiraled column.This was supposedly the type of column used on King Solomon's temple.
  • spandrel panel - The space between the top of a window and the bottom of the window directly above it, when distinguished from the rest of the wall by color, texture or other means.
  • swag - A garland of flora or ribbons. Used decoratively in bas-relief on friezes or walls. Often shown suspended by rosettes or animal heads. Occasionally free floating.
  • Syrian arch - An incomplete Roman arch.  Whereas the Roman arch is half of a circle, the Syrian arch is something less than a half circle
  • taenia - A molding between the architrave and the frize.
  • transom - Where a door frame extends well above the door itself, that space above the door is the transom. Usually this is filled with a window or a panel. This is sometimes done where the architect is trying to keep the doorway proportionate to a very tall room, but not wanting the door to be too tall or heavy. See the pages on proportion for an understanding of why this a doorway would oversized.
  • triglyph - A decoration consisting of three vertical bars. Found on the frieze of Doric order Greek temples.
  • tympanum - The open triangle on gable of a Greek temple formed by the entablature and the raking cornices.
  • vergeboard - Same as bargeboard.
  • volute - An ornamental design that looks like a scroll seen on end. The word comes from the Latin "voluta", meaning "scroll". It is the ornamental device seen on the top of every ionic order capital.
  • wreath - A circle of foliage. May be a complete circle or open opposite to where the foliage is tied.

There are other architectural dictionaries out there. I offer Mark Alan Gerwing's Architects Glossary as one I deem worthy of my regard.

Click on highlighted word for additional detail in separate appendices to the Architectural Dictionary.

You can request that a word be added to this architectural dictionary using the comments form below. This comment form is for any improvements or suggestions for this architectural dictionary. If you have photographs that would illustrate terms, you can attach them with the form, and I may include them in my detail pages or in the architectural dictionary.

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