Home Architecture Terms — From “Alcove” to “Zeitgeist”

Friday, June 104 min read

It’s hard enough to choose the perfect shade of eggshell paint, but navigating the language of residential architecture is a daunting task. Is that wall “board and batten” or “wainscot,” and what IS “molding”? Whether you’re building a home, house hunting, or dreaming of HGTV fame, we’ve got you covered from A to Z with these must-know terms.

Alcove

An alcove is a small, recessed section of a room, traditionally (but not always) featuring an arched opening. A French loanword, alcôve can be traced back to the Arabic al-qobbah, meaning “the vaulted chamber.”

Batten

This piece of wood is used to seal a joint. Batten is often used in decorative “board and batten” designs, especially on accent walls. It comes from Anglo-French bataunt meaning “to beat.”

Cupola

This is a small, dome-like structure located on a roof to let in light and/or air. In modern home architecture, square cupolas are popular in farmhouse and coastal designs. "Cupola" was derived from 16th-century Italian.

Dormer

A dormer is a window that sticks out from a sloped roof. It has been used in home design for centuries and stems from the French dormeor, meaning “dormitory.”

Egress Window

From the word “egress” (a synonym of “exit), an egress window is designed as an emergency exit. They are a requirement in certain areas of a dwelling (e.g. rooms used for sleeping). "Egress" comes from Latin egredi, “to go out.”

Facade

This French loanword likely came from the Latin ​​facia, meaning “face.” “Facade” can refer to just the front of a building, but it also describes a specific architectural style where a higher-end material wraps the front of cheaper construction material (e.g. “The home had a stone facade”).

Gable

A gable is the triangular section of an exterior wall that encloses the end of a pitched roof (and may or may not feature a window). Gable roofs have been designed by architects since ancient times.

Hearth

This area in front of a fireplace is typically made out of brick, stone, or cement. Residents sometimes decorate their hearth or use it for seating. This 12th-century word is an alteration of the Old High German herd.

Inglenook

A popular feature in interior design, an “inglenook” is a recessed section of wall next to a fireplace. “Ingle” was another word for a fireplace in the 16th century, from Gaelic aingeal meaning "fire, light," and “nook” is an even cozier “alcove.”

Jamb

A “jamb” is the surface that forms the side of an opening, such as a door jamb or window jamb. English speakers might not have been aware of the silent “b” at the end of this word, but it comes from the Anglo-French word gaunbe, which was used as “door jamb,” but its literal translation was “leg.”

Keystone

This 17th-century word describes the central stone at the top of an arch. A keystone was first named in Middle English architecture, and remains a common feature in brick-and-stone designs in homes.

Louver

As another French loanword, a louver is an opening with slatted, movable fins that allow for airflow. These are commonly seen on the exterior walls of attics, and louvered doors are also useful for ventilation in laundry rooms and bathrooms.

Molding

Also seen spelled as “moulding,” this is a decorative strip of woodwork that is fixed onto trim, cabinets, or furniture for ornamentation. Crown molding, one of the most popular modern styles, is fixed to the top of an interior wall. There are almost infinite styles to be discussed with an interior designer or architect, but the word itself has been around since the 15th century.

Niche

In the interior design world, a niche is a small recessed area in a wall, often used to display objects. Both pronunciations (rhymes with “sheesh” and rhymes with “pitch”) are deemed correct. The word comes from the Middle French nicher, “to nest.”

Ox-Eye Window

This is just a fancy term for a round window. In French, the original name was oeil-de-boeuf. It’s also sometimes called an oculus or a bull’s eye window, and it’s a popular choice within gables, where there is limited space.

Pergola

This Italian loanword describes an outdoor structure with an open, slatted roof and, often, climbing plants. A pergola is a fixture in many backyards, but it differs from a gazebo, which has a solid roof.

Quoin

Now you know the word for the decorative stones on the exterior corner of a building. Quoin also makes for an excellent five-letter Scrabble or Wordle word.

Rafter

Rafters are the parallel beams that support a roof. Some coastal or rustic interior designs call for exposed rafters (made of finished or painted wood). "Rafter" is an Old English word that has retained the same meaning for centuries.

Soffit

The soffit of a home is the part of the underside of a roof that overhangs the exterior wall. Soffit appearance can reveal signs of water damage. As so many home and architecture terms, it’s another French loanword.

Threshold

The piece of the floor that lies underneath the door (typically at the main entrance) is the threshold. From Old English, the idea of a “threshold” has been wrapped in superstition for centuries, especially on a wedding day. A groom is to carry the bride over the threshold to avoid evil spirits at the front door.

Underlayment

Don’t skip this crucial part of any home flooring renovation — the "underlayment" is a layer between the subfloor and the flooring to help with leveling, water protection, and padding. Modern underlayment became popular in the 1940s.

Veranda

This sophisticated term for a porch is a roofed gallery attached to the exterior of a home. "Veranda" is most likely a Portuguese loanword.

Wainscot

"Wainscot" is a type of wood paneling on interior walls that typically only covers the lower portion of the wall. It likely came from the Middle Dutch wagenschot (wagen “wagon” and schot “crossbar”).

Xystus

Originally used by the Greeks and Romans, a “xystus” (pronounced “zis-tuhs”) is a long, open portico (a covered walkway leading to an entrance) usually covered in greenery or decorative pieces. Sometimes, the word is used to describe a walkway lined with trees.

Yard

For some, the yard — the outdoor area surrounding the house — is the most important part of a home. It comes from an alteration of the Old English word geard, which more generally meant “garden.”

Zeitgeist

This German word essentially means the “architectural concept” of a building or home. It can be used more generally to mean the “spirit of the age,” but it allows us to identify period-defining aspects in architectural design. Architectural movements, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modernism, or Gothic cathedrals, reflect a certain “zeitgeist.”

Featured image credit: pcess609/ iStock

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