When working with an architect, you may come across a few terms that you’re not familiar with, or that have different meanings for the profession than they do elsewhere. Check out this brief vocabulary lesson, and soon you’ll be able to “speak architect” like a pro.

Read more: Your Five-Minute Architecture Education


This is a word we might all know as the surrounding information of a subject or object. But when an architect refers to the “context” of a building, he/she is not using the word lightly: the architect is referring to the essence of a myriad of things that essentially make that building what it is. Context includes the history of the neighborhood, the flow of traffic (both of pedestrians and cars), the air quality, the climate region – basically, anything that could possibly make a place a place. Only a building truly responsive to the many elements of its context will last meaningfully.


For a building to be “parametrically designed,” its shape has to be intensely responsive to its context. Architects have been using this word for more than 20 years, and derived the term from the word “parameter,” meaning the extent or perimeter of a building. Patrik Schumacher is an architect that is currently arguing that his peers should design whole cities parametrically, to aid in the efficiency of pedestrian circulation, automobile traffic, and weather patterns.


The space between the inner and outer walls of a building is referred to by architects as the “poché.” Whatever it consists of – metal, wood frame, or some other support – is conceptually less important than the radical division it makes between the public outside and the private inside. It is usually drawn as ambiguous black matter, and it is what separates landscape from bedrooms and thunderstorms from fireplaces. In 1748, Giambattista Nolli drew a map of Rome that entirely consisted of poché. By doing so, he was able to successfully distinguish the public spaces from the private and determine where all people were able to inhabit. In some of his drawings, the poché was exaggerated to cover up private spaces.


Architects have a shorthand for a vast majority of buildings: slab, mat, and totem. The three refer to the overall shape and massing of a building, and the terms often reflect the character and program of that building as well. A mat building, for instance, is a large, sprawling single- or two-story building understood as one large space. Many supermarkets and department stores are considered mat buildings. A slab building has a rectangular base and is generally tall. The UN building in New York is a good example of a slab, and the type allows for a number of elevators and many spaces with access to natural light. Totem buildings are also known as skyscrapers, typically with a small footprint and upward of 80 stories. If a building cannot easily be described through any one of these three terms, then it requires a more lengthy description.


In the 1980s, many architects were growing bored of the building designs celebrated by major corporations and generally wealthy clients, and were interested in questioning the role of architecture anew. Deconstructivism was a movement created to literally take architecture apart and consider the relationship between walls and floors, windows and doors, and countless other elements. Frank Gehry was a successful deconstructivist architect, and he chose to break architecture down by recomposing it with materials widely understood to be cheap and gaudy, including barbed wire, exposed metal, and plywood.  

A Renovator’s Guide to Architectural Terms was last modified: May 25th, 2020 by Shane Reiner-Roth