business logo

  New Homes, Additions, Alterations, Outbuildings, Small Construction Projects, Failure Investigations and Repairs.

Home Overview Architectural Services blank blank blank Investigation blank blank Glossary

GLOSSARY • Construction Terms

The following definitions are from my, a Virginia architect's, point of view and were prepared 04 February 2013.

These definitions are for your convenience and use of them as 'legal' terms of reference is at your own risk. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has documents for different purposes that delineate definitions of key words as used in those documents.

Terms are not in alphabetical order but grouped categorically and in the order a small project owner may encounter them.

If you have questions, comments, wish to add or contest any definitions please contact me.

Project Types

Architecture • The design and planning of the man made environment.

Construction • The application of the means and methods necessary to build.

Development • The investment in property to increase its financial worth and/or utility.

Speculative Development • The acquisition and investment in property to increase its value for resale at a profit.

Builder Product • A home built, often repeatedly, by a speculative builder for resale and profit.

Addition • Adding physical space to a structure.

Alteration • Modification, within the envelope, of an existing structure.

Renovation • The renewal of built property.

Remodel • The alteration of existing construction - typically to update and rejuvenate it.

Restoration • Bringing construction back to its original condition.

Rehabilitation • To restore and correct problems with existing construction.

Pop-up • To add another floor above and existing floor.

Bump-out • Usually an addition and sometimes a cantilevered portion of a room bigger than just a bay window.

Custom Home • A home designed and built to satisfy the wants and needs of a single client.

Project Team Members

(Many times one person will perform the work of different job titles.)

Architect • A professional licensed by the state to design and plan buildings with the health safety and welfare of the public as a priority.

In Virginia, to apply for the architectural exam, an individual is required to have specialized education and experience. The educational minimum is a Bachelor of Architecture (BArch not BA) from an accredited 5-year college program. Three references from licensed architects who have know the applicant for at least one year equating to a minimum of three years of internship.

The exam itself entails a week of exams covering Pre-Design, Site Design, Building Design, General Structure, Long Span Structure, Lateral Forces, Mechanical/Electrical, Materials/Methods, Construction Documents.

More information is available at (

You are also able at the above web site to check the license status of anyone presenting his or herself as an architect. Many people use the title architect or state they provide architectural services without having the qualifications to do so.

    Architectural Certification (stamped drawings) • The seal and signature of a licensed architect certifying
    preparation of construction drawings and/or documents.

Designer • A person that does drawings for small projects that do not require architectural certification. Also someone who does space planning and composition of building components in a large office.

Draftsman • A person who historically used ink, graphite, plastic lead to illustrate the plans, elevations, sections, details and perspectives of a project onto linen, paper and mylar. With the introduction of CAD most drafting is done by CAD operators who's task is to input information into a computer for print out on plotter or laser jet. CAD operators have the same requirements of illustrating the construction as when the resulting 'drawings' were done by hand.

Project Architect • A person that has oversight over a specific project or projects in an architectural office.

Project Manager (PM) • A person that has oversight and some agency to manage a project. There can be a PM representing each party - architect, contractor and owner - of a project.

Construction Manager (CM) • Historically construction management was the end result of the design and planning process. I have read books on home construction written in the early 1900s that indicate the architect of record subcontracts out the construction for the owner.

The task of the construction manager is the implementation of the construction. This varies from project management by a higher degree of responsibility and as defined by contractual relationship.

This service performed by an architect parallels and replaces the work of a general contractor. The architect as CM is paid for services by the owner with all accounting being open to the owner's review. The owner holds all the subcontractor contracts and directly pays for materials. The major features, all else being equal - which it never is - between a construction manager and a general contractor is, that the owner gets a 'fixed' price from a general contractor, disregarding change orders and a number of other project conditions that can increase cost and, the owner instead of paying the GC's profit pays the CM a fee.

In the past several decades a construction manager may be added to the project team, at the bequest of the owner and directly responsible to the owner, to integrate the design process more fully with the resulting construction. This was accomplished by review of progress drawings and specifications, evaluation of construction economies and constructability and to monitor scheduling.

Current project delivery methods have made construction management an integrated part of architect lead Design/Build projects. In that case it is usually part of a fixed fee contract not a service fee agreement.

Construction Administrator • Member of the project design team that takes over project administration after the construction documents are complete and the work moves into construction. The task involves reviewing the work in the field against the construction documents, including shop drawings and other submittals, review of change orders and pay requests, attending construction progress meetings and preparation of status reports.

Engineer • A professional licensed by the state to design and plan a specific aspect of a building with the health safety and welfare of the public as a priority. Engineers provide structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and civil design services.

Civil Engineer • Civil engineers are in charge of the site requirements of a project. They prepare documents for roads, bridges, parking and drainage systems.

Structural Engineer • Structural engineers are in charge of the frame that supports the space requirements of a man made environment. They work primarily with wood, steel (metals) and concrete. As any new material is put into use it will have engineering qualification of how it is to be used and good engineers create new ways of using it.

Mechanical Engineer • Mechanical engineers are in charge of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning requirements of a built environment. It is typical that offices that provide mechanical engineering also provide electrical and plumbing engineering

Electrical Engineer • Electrical engineers are in charge of the electrical power systems from city grid to circuit distribution.

Plumbing Engineer • Plumbing engineers are in charge of the potable and sewage systems from tap to city sewer or well to rural septic system.

Contractor • A person that does work based on a written or verbal contract typically for a fixed fee.

General Contractor (GC) • A person or company that estimates, bids, assemblies sub-contractors and buys materials to build a project. A general contractor bids a project with the intent of taking on the risk of building for a fixed price and being able to make money by building for less than the accepted bid amount. The general contractor directly holds sub-contractors contracts. Some few general contractors, that I have only seen on small projects, will work on a time and materials basis like a construction manager.

Because the general contractor makes and loses money based on actual costs of construction, it is important that the owner have enough specifics on what is to be built, to not be surprised by the lowest cost of finishes, fixture, equipment and/or subcontracted work.

Trade Contractor • This person is part of a group of those that have trade licenses to install mechanical, electrical and plumbing or other specialty systems or materials. A subcontractor may turn around and subcontract out his contract to someone else unless his contract to the owner prohibits it. Who is doing the work in the field may need to be verified.

Manufacturer • A business that produces materials, finishes, fixtures and/or equipment for installation in a construction project.

Fabricator • A business that takes manufactured goods and customizes them for a specific use.

Distributor • A person or business that is a location from where manufactured products are 'distributed' to other outlets. A distributor is sometimes also a vendor and/or retailer.

Wholesaler • A person or business that is a point where manufactured products are sold in volume. Sometimes trade specific and not available to the general public.

Retailer • Sales to the general public of individual products of manufacture.

Vendor • A person or business that is a point of sales for manufactured products. Often and advocate of a product. This makes most any sales person a vendor.


There are a variety of different drawings that are created to describe a construction project.

There is a misunderstanding in the general public that drawings are expensive requirements put upon them by the building office. The intent of drawings is to 'build' a project on paper first. Creating the plans, elevations, sections and specifications allows the client to document the project to be built.

Drawings are a way to document to a third party (contractor) what is to be built and to provide a record of that information so it is substantially less susceptible to misinterpretation, poor memory and conflict.

Scale • A drawing is produced smaller than the thing it depicts for ease of use and to save resources. A drawing of small objects may be drawn at full scale or larger depending on the use it is intended for.

Plan • A drawing that is the view of something as viewed on a horizontal plane cut through or over it. On construction projects the view can be down as in floor plans or up as in ceiling plans. It can also be specific to some aspect of the plan such as structural, electrical or plumbing plans. Or it can be a site plan showing the entire site and features on the site.

Section • A drawing that is the view of something as viewed on a vertical plane cut through it. On construction projects the view can be left or right of a cut and is identified by section arrows on the plans or elevations. Sections are used on small and large scale cuts. A building section is similar to a plan in its comprehensive view of the building structure and envelope. A partial section can show the overall dimensions and relationships of a staircase. A detail section will typically be an enlarged portion of any section to show small features. Building sections are often done at a scale of 1/4"=1 foot and partial details will be at 1/2", 1", 3" per foot all the way up to actual scale. Sections are located on the plans and elevations with a directional arrow and flag that shows the direction the viewer is looking and the line of the cut with a reference as to where in the drawing package it can be found.

Elevation • A drawing that shows the vertical face of something. Elevations typically depict the outside of a project but may also be for detailed interior areas like kitchens and bathrooms. Elevations are typically located on the plans with a directional arrow to show the direction the viewer is looking with the a reference as to where in the drawing package it can be found.

    orthographic - A drawings technique that illustrates an elevation of an object as if it were able to be seen at
    90 degrees to its surface. In reality the human eye sees in perspective.

Detail • A drawing that shows an up close plan, section, elevation or other view of an object. Details of a drawing are typically located by use of a bubble that encompasses the detail and a reference as to where in the drawing package it can be found.

Perspective • A drawing technique that emulates how something would look to the human eye.

Isometric • A simple form of three dimensional drawing that shows the view of an object from typically a bird's eye view and drawn without perspective at 30 or 45 degrees.

CAD • This is an acronym that stands for Computer Aided Drafting. There are many CAD applications out on the market and they vary in complexity, capacity and difficulty of use. The importance of CAD is in the ease of making changes, its capacity to aid in layering information, and in its accuracy.

The down side to CAD is that the speed at which a drawing is produced and often the added specialized data input operator needed to use it takes the time out of 'building' a project on paper. Opportunities can be missed and errors duplicated too easily. Some of the basic qualitative aspects of illustration have been lost with CAD but as applications evolve that is changing.

    3-D walk thru - A development in CAD that allows a moving perspective to be created to get a better view for what an
    object may look like while moving around or through it. I was in my internship for two years before I found that different
    people have different capacities to imagine things in the minds eye. It was remarkable to me that everyone did not see
    in three dimensions, and even more so that some could not see in two.

Sketch • A freehand, as in human hand, illustration to depict how something will appear.

Schematic Design drawings • These are drawing developed to study how to implement the program objectives of a building project. There can be many different variations for any one project and complexity is not directly related to scale or proposed budget.

Permit drawings • These are drawings prepared for submission to a local building department. Though the building code has specifics on what are needed in drawings the actual permit office may have more or less stringent requirements. The building department is concerned with building code compliance and is not determining the qualitative good or bad implementation of design and/or construction.

Drawings for residential projects are the most abbreviated. The less information on the permit drawings the more the inspector in the field will make determinations as to if what is built meets the code or not. Though I have never heard of drawings accuracy of more than 95% too much abbreviation can increase costs to the contractor and/or owner.

Design Development drawings • These drawings are an intermediate phase between schematic design and construction drawings. At this phase the intentions of the schematic design are looked at in detail to find factors that will limit dimensions, materials and how a project may be built. This phase was much more pronounced prior to CAD.

CAD has allowed ease in drawing changes so the that design development overlaps schematic design without a specialized set of drawings. Design development shows up in the progress reviews of the construction drawings.

Construction drawings • The content of these drawings can vary substantially depending on what the owner and architect have agreed to. Permit drawings would be the lowest level of construction drawings.

Specifications • These are 'the specifics' of what is installed, how it is to be installed, and special conditions of handling it. Like construction drawings, specifications can vary widely in how extensive they are prepared. Specifications can be put directly into drawing notes and schedules and/or there may be a separate 8 1/2x11 book prepared that is jointed to the construction drawings by reference.

Construction Documents • These are the combined drawings, specifications and contracts that are to be used to get a project built.

Bid Documents • Bid documents are specific parts of the construction documents that relate to what is wanted from prospective bidders. They are also a subset of the construction documents usually cannibalized by the general contractor to give to prospective subcontractors.

Shop Drawings • Drawings prepared by a fabricator and/or subcontractor illustrating in detail what a product is and/or how something will be detailed and installed.

Product References

Product Style • A manufacturer will produce a product and in many cases a variety of products that are all of one category such as paint, light fixtures and fan motors. The style of the product is the name that distinguishes it from other similar products that the manufacture produces. Different manufacturers can use the same style names.

Product Model (Style) Number • Manufactures use product model numbers to distinguish between variations in similar products. This may be a change in color and/or include variations due to different options, assemblies or date of production.

Product Part Number (PN)• This is often used interchangeably with model number but is more often a discrete piece of an assembly that makes a complete product.

Product Serial Number (SN)• This is a series of numbers that identifies multiple qualities of a product such as the date, location and plant of manufacture, the different assemblies that may be specific to an individual part or system and finishes.

Legal References

Zoning • This is the Zoning Ordinance prepared by and made into law by the jurisdiction your property is located in. It pertains to the use of land and the regulations of built features allowed. This document should have a section of definitions to help you understand the language used in the ordinance.

Plat • A plan drawing prepared by a Land Surveyor that locates a property and its improvements. This is typically part of the deed of sale and a necessary part of determining where you can build on your property.

    easement - The plat of your property should indicate any transportation, utility or use easements. These are areas that
    are the property owner's and are for his use within the limits of the easement. The easement would have been
    purchased from a previous landowner and is now a feature of the property as much as the street the property fronts
    onto. An example may be an underground utility easement that runs through a property. The easement would allow
    the easement holder to damage anything built on the easement if need be to work on the utilities.

    covenant - This is not directly related to zoning but is a limitation on land use transferred with the property when it
    is sold. You may live in a 'planned' community that has covenants not allowing you to paint your front door anything
    but brown.

Uses Permitted • Your property will be located in a zone as described on a zoning map. The zone the property is in regulates what the property can be used for.

Height Limit • A structure built in a specific zone will have limitations on it for how high it may be built and possibly varying setbacks at different heights.

Area Required • This is the minimum area of the land improvements such as a house and garage can be built on.

Set Back • This determines the building limits on a property. There are front, side and rear setbacks.

Site Coverage • This determines the percentage of area improvements to property can cover.

Codes • This is the basis used by and made into law by the jurisdiction your property is located in to promote good construction practices. Currently the International Code Counsel (ICC) is in use and replaces the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) code. The ICC publishes the International Residential Code (IRC) along with codes for hvac, plumbing, fire, fuel gas and others. Electrical requirements are codified by the National Electric Code (NEC) and incorporated into ICC codes by reference. The International Building Code (IBC) is for larger nonresidential projects.

These code books like the zoning ordinance should be available at or through your central library.

Contract Related Terms

Licensed • An individual or business holds the correct license(s) for providing the services solicited.

  contractors license - Contractors licenses come in three levels based on the dollar volume of the contract. The type of
  work down on the license will vary. Building contractors are often referred to as General Contractors. There are licenses
  for electricians, plumbers and HVAC mechanics as well as a list of specialties contractors.

    Class A license holder is unlimited.

    Class B license is restricted to contracts/projects that are less than $120,000, with the total amount of all
   contracts/projects performed in a twelve month period remaining below $750,000

    Class C license is restricted to contracts/projects that are less than $10,000, with the total amount of all
    contracts/projects performed in a twelve month period remaining below $150,000.

Insured • Contractor licenses require general liability insurance and, if there are employees, workers compensation insurance. There are also other types of insurance that may also apply to the work that is being done.

    Certificate of Insurance (COI) is a document that shows a certificate holder (you) the insurance policies and limits in
    place for a business (contractor). Typical policies that are included on COIs are general liability, workers compensation,
    commercial auto and umbrella liability. As a homeowner, business owner or contractor, the COI shows the certificate
    holder is insured and the company to contact to confirm insurance is current.

Bonded • Contractor licenses require a surety bond as part of the licensing application. This is a basic level of assurance that the contractor working on a project will not fail in his contractual obligations to the owner. It is of a limited amount and does not necessarily cover all the contractor may or may not do.

There are also bonds that may be required by owners as part of a specific project to assure the contractor will perform to the project requirements, or face a financial penalty intended to cover the failure, and these are overall called Surety Bonds. They are typically Bid Bonds (so the contractor that wins the bid assures undertaking the work), Payment Bonds (to assure subcontractors and suppliers are paid), Performance Bonds (that assure schedule and quality or work meet the construction documents) and Ancillary Bonds (targeted to some specific aspect of the work).

Estimate • A non binding cost of construction services. An estimate can be anything from a guess to a detailed item by item take-off.

The more comprehensive the description of the work needed, and the better the qualifications of the estimator, the more exacting the estimate. Even a detailed estimate will have a percentage error. The less time and the less information available for preparing an estimate, the larger will be the margin of error. Free estimates are often worth what is paid for them and are referred to as Guesstimates.

Quote (Bid) • This is a number that will be honored by the provider typically for 30 days from the time it was submitted. It is not an estimate. It is a binding agreement.

Change Order • This is an order submitted by the owner to a contractor to have work done or deleted from what was in the original contract. Before it is an order it is a request of the other party to add or deduct work to the contract not previously specified.

How changes are processed is hopefully delineated in the owner/contractor agreement.

Fixed Fee • This is the dollar amount in a contract to have specific work down.

Allowance • This is an estimate built into a contract that stipulates what the bottom line cost of a project is based on. If something cost more than the allowance the owner adds the difference to the contract amount. If something cost less than the allowance the contractor deducts that amount from the contract. Note that it takes time to locate and price materials and services so how allowances are calculated is something that needs to be described in the contract.

Time and Materials • This is an agreement to pay an hourly rate for services plus materials needed to accomplish the services.

Delivery Methods

Design/Bid/Build • This is the traditional way a project is accomplished. The owner hires an architect to describe what he wants to build, bids the work of building it out to contractors and the selected contractor builds the project.

Design/Build • This method came out of attempts to manage costs and conflicts that arose between the design and the construction teams.

By making the design and construction the responsibility of a singe entity it eliminated the contractor's change order incentive to making money by low bidding a job and then stacking up change orders for work not explicitly described in the construction documents. It also removed the accusations that the design and planning were not complete and that the contractor eliminated things that were basic to good construction practice or inferred by the construction documents as needed for a complete job.

The draw back to this method is that if an owner does not know what he is contracting for there is no other party watching over his interest.

Construction Management • This is when an owner hires a person or business to act as his or her agent (educated party) in managing the design and construction of a project.

Depending on the qualification and credentials of the person or business and the services contracted, the construction manager will augment the owner?s capacity in understanding and having the work of designing and construction of a project done.

Fast Track • This method came out of trying to shorten the time line from project start to finish in order to get a project operational as fast as possible reducing carrying cost and getting the benefits of resale or operations sooner.

This is accomplished by starting construction before the design and documentation processes are complete. It entails completing preliminary design and then preparing construction packages as they are needed by the sequence of construction. For example while the foundations are being built the superstructure design is completed and while that is being built the infill drawings are being preparing; etc.

Of course the cost saving or money making potential needs to be enough to offset the cost of adding what ultimately is not needed or the risk of missing something and having to take out what has been finished.

Please call (703.524.7595) or email ( for more information.
Located in Arlington, Virginia 22207 (by appointment only)