Architectural Terms

My understanding of architectural terms started by playing with tinker toys and wood blocks as a child. I didn’t know what a buttress was, but learned through experimentation that my creations would collapse without structural integrity. Whether you are designing websites or church buildings, it’s helpful to know some basic architectural terms like buttress, column, cornerstone, and keystone. A glossary of architecture1 provides a good foundation. When you are building something important, it’s OK to build it slow.

Important Architectural Terms

  • Cornerstone – The first stone laid for a structure, often at the corner, serving as the foundation.
  • Keystone – The central wedge-shaped stone at the apex of an arch that locks the other stones in place.
  • Buttress – A support structure on the exterior of a building that braces against lateral forces from vaults and arches.
  • Column – A vertical structural member that carries loads down to the foundation.
  • Beam – A horizontal structural member that spans between supports like walls or columns.
  • Truss – A rigid framework made of straight members arranged in triangles to span large distances.
  • Lintel – A horizontal structural member over an opening like a door or window.
  • Foundation – The base of a building, usually below grade, that transfers loads to the earth.
  • Footing – The enlarged base of a foundation that spreads loads over a bigger area.
  • Joist – Horizontal framing members that support floors and ceilings.
  • Rafter – Sloping roof framing members that span from the ridge to the eaves.
  • Girder – Large horizontal beam used to support smaller beams and joists.
  • Pier – A vertical column that supports structural elements like arches or beams.

Important Concepts in Architecture

  • Form – The overall shape and structure of a building. Consideration of mass, volume, symmetry, and balance.
  • Function – How a building is meant to be used. Form should relate to and facilitate function.
  • Space – The creation of interior and exterior spaces. Architects organize space through layouts, proportions, scale, and circulation.
  • Light – The illumination of spaces through daylight, windows, skylights, and artificial lighting. Lighting design impacts aesthetics and usability.
  • Structure – The skeletal system of load-bearing elements like columns, beams, trusses, and frames.
  • Sustainability – Designing for environmental responsibility through energy efficiency, water conservation, etc.
  • Context – Designing a building to harmonize with its surrounding location and landscape.
  • Systems – HVAC, electrical, plumbing, conveyance and other systems needed to make buildings functional.
  • Aesthetics – The architectural style, ornamentation, colors, textures that define the visual appeal.
  • Accessibility – Designing spaces to accommodate users of all physical abilities.
  • Scale and Proportion – Selecting appropriate sizes and ratios between building elements.
  • Building Envelope – The exterior façade that separates interior and exterior environments.
Mirador de la Cornisa del Palacio Real - The Royal Palace of Madrid. Architectural terms: arch, archway, keystone.
Mirador de la Cornisa del Palacio Real. Royal Palace of Madrid. This photo by Rodrigo Curi captures the arches, keystone, light and shadows.

I studied anthropology, linguistics, and theology in college. However, my interest in classical architecture2 grew when I was an IT Systems Architect, working at Electronic Data Systems (EDS). The correlation between information architecture and traditional building architecture is fascinating. Architectural motifs in building designs often imitate the intelligent design found in biology. Some of the concepts in designing buildings are similar to concepts in designing and building websites. See 10 Criteria to Evaluate a Website for more details.


  1. Glossary of Architecture – Wikipedia ↩︎
  2. Classical Architecture – Wikipedia ↩︎

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