When you start dipping your toe in the world of exterior design, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the new vocabulary you’ll start to come across. What’s the difference between cladding and siding, or muntin and mullion? What about a bay window, box window, and bow window?
We’re here to help.
To start, we created this graphic that illustrates some of the key exterior design terms on one mish-mash home:
You’re not likely to find a home like this in your neighborhood, with all of its different forms of cladding and architectural styles – but it’s a great way to illustrate a variety of terms!
Below, you’ll find definitions of these words and many more, including some detailed illustrations of different parts of a home or building.
This exterior design dictionary isn’t comprehensive, but it covers some of the most commonly used vocabulary that we’ve come across in our work. And we plan to add to it over time. We’ve split it up by section of the home for easy browsing. If you partner with us on an exterior design, you may even find some of these terms mentioned on your deliverable.
We hope this resource will be helpful as you embark on your exterior design update. If you come across a term that isn’t addressed here or have any questions about something specific that you see below, please feel free to contact us!
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Table of Contents
You can think of cladding as the catch-all term for the material that covers the outside of a building. Officially, it’s the application of one material over another, or the outermost layer in construction. In the case of a home, cladding is usually layered on top of insulation or sheathing. (Want to nerd out? Check out this article from Fine Homebuilding on the many ways walls can be layered when building a home.) Cladding has both a functional and an aesthetic use – it provides some insulation and weather resistance, plus it makes buildings look more beautiful. Lastly, cladding can be made of all sorts of different materials: wood, metal, brick, vinyl, and composite materials such as aluminum, wood, blends of cement and recycled polystyrene, or even wheat/rice straw fibers.
Board and batten
Sometimes referred to as board-and-batten siding, board and batten is a style of cladding that has alternating wide boards and narrow wooden strips, called “battens.” They may be oriented horizontally or vertically, though the latter is more commonly associated with the style. When used vertically, board and batten siding can make a structure feel taller than it actually is.
Clapboard is usually intended to refer to long, thin boards used to cover walls of buildings. These boards are oriented horizontally and are typically overlapping. Traditionally, the material used when clapboard is mentioned is wood, usually cedar, pine, spruce, redwood, cypress, or Douglas fir. Depending on where you live, clapboard may also be called bevel siding, lap siding, and weatherboard.
Clapboard may be called lap siding, but lap siding is not always clapboard – that’s because its definition is usually broader. In modern usage, lap siding is any type of siding that is installed horizontally on your home. Unlike clapboard, it’s not always wood.
Shingle & shake siding
Traditionally made of cedar, shingle siding is a type of cladding made of thin, tapered pieces of wood. The cedar is often stained in browns, grays, or other earthy colors. This type of siding is commonly associated with Cape Cod–style homes.
Shingle siding is also frequently called shake siding; however, if you want to get technical, shakes are actually a specific type of shingle siding. Shake siding is made in the way all shingle siding was historically produced – split from straight grained, knot free bolts of wood. Modern shingle siding is usually cut.
With advances in building materials, shingle and shake siding can be made out of other materials than cedar, like fiber cement. While cedar is classic and gorgeous, composite materials are lower maintenance and can offer more durability.
Traditional stucco is a mixture of sand, Portland cement, lime, and water. It has been around for centuries and is usually used as a finish layer over concrete masonry or wood-sheathed buildings. Synthetic stuccos became common on homes built after the 1950s; some of these have proved problematic.
Check out this post about some of our favorite stucco home designs for inspiration, or learn more about stucco finish in this deep dive on The Spruce.
Masonry refers to the individual units, laid in and bound together by mortar, that are used in building a structure. Common materials used in masonry are brick or stone, and these are most often the types of masonry structures that we work with for exterior design. Specific examples of stone include marble, granite, and limestone. Other materials used in masonry are cast stone, concrete block, glass block, and adobe.
Half-timbering is a mock frame of thin boards with stucco or stone filling in the spaces between the boards, most frequently used on Tudor-style homes.
Vinyl siding is plastic exterior siding (80% PVC resin). It is the #1 installed exterior cladding for residential construction in the United States and Canada; however, it is less durable than fiber cement siding. Importantly, vinyl siding can only be purchased pre-painted. If you’re interested in painting your vinyl siding, be sure to use a vinyl-safe paint.
Fiber cement siding
Fiber cement siding is a durable, flame- and warp-resistant exterior solution that we love using on properties that are looking to update their cladding in a beautiful and functional way. It can have the appearance of wood, stucco, or masonry. Lastly, fiber cement siding can be purchased “primed for paint” or pre-painted.
Learn more about our preferred vendor for fiber cement siding, James Hardie, here.
LRV stands for light reflectance value, though it may also be called light reflective value. It refers to how light or how dark a paint color is and how much light a paint color reflects. Next, light reflectance value is based on a scale from 0–100. The darker the paint color, the lower the LRV number. The lighter the paint color, the higher the LRV number.
We go into more detail in this breakdown.
Paint finish or sheen
Paint finish or sheen is a measure of the reflected light from various types of paint. We often think of it as “shininess.” Paint that has a higher sheen contains more enamel, making it harder, easier to clean, and more resistant to scratching, scuffing, and staining.
We created this handy guide to help you choose what sheen or finish you’ll want to use on different parts of your building’s exterior:
Limewash is limestone that has been crushed, burned, and mixed with water to form a lime putty that can be applied to interior and exterior surfaces. It is absorbed into the surface (unlike paint) which means it works best on stucco, stone, and brick. Generally available in a neutral palette, limewash occurs most often in its natural off-white state. It’s environmentally friendly and its high pH reduces pests and organism growth. Overall, limewash has been around for centuries and is a low-maintenance option to freshen up any masonry used on your exterior.
German smear, also known as German schmear, is a type of mortar wash attained by spreading wet mortar over masonry, then removing some before it dries. Usually this treatment is done on brick, though sometimes stone, to give it an Old World charm.
Windows & Doors
Muntins are the wood grids on windows that separate glass. Just as a tick-tack-toe grid separates the playing spaces, muntins separate panes of glass in true divided-light windows. Muntins are traditionally made out of wood, but some are made out of steel. Muntins are also known as grilles, grills, or grids.
Some window grills are imitation muntins, meaning they appear to look like muntins, but they don’t truly separate individual panes of glass. Instead, they attach to one large piece of glass. This often appears on newer homes, as it provides the same beauty of muntins without the risk of causing as much draft.
Learn more about muntins — and how they differ from the similar sounding mullions (defined below) — in this post.
In contrast, mullions run vertically or horizontally and combines separate, but adjacent, door and window frames. When dividing adjacent window units, a mullion’s primary purpose is a rigid support to the glazing of the window. Its secondary purpose is to provide structural support to an arch or lintel above the window opening.
Learn more about mullions – and how they differ from the similar sounding muntins (defined above) – in this post.
A keystone is a central stone or other piece at the apex of an arch or vault, often over a door or entryway. Also known as a capstone, a keystone is typically wedge-shaped when at the apex of an arch and round when at the apex of a vault. Specifically, a keystone is the final piece placed during construction, locking all the stones into position and allowing the arch or vault to bear weight. Keystones are often enlarged beyond the structural requirements and decorated. Note that a purely decorative keystone is also sometimes used at the center of a lintel above a door or window.
A lintel is a horizontal piece of timber or stone resting on the jambs of a door or window, or spanning any other open space in a wall or in a columnar construction, that serves to support the load of materials resting above the opening.
A window frame is the framework that surrounds and supports the entire window system. It’s composed of the head, jamb, and sill.
The head, or header, is the main horizontal part forming the top of the window frame. Likewise, this term is also used for doors.
Jambs are the main vertical parts forming the sides of a window frame.
The sill is the main horizontal part forming the bottom of the window frame.
The sash is the moveable part of a window made up of the vertical and horizontal frame that holds the glass.
An egress window is a large opening that offers a secondary exit in case of an emergency, usually used when adding bedrooms or livable square footage to a basement. Moreover, egress windows have the added benefit of allowing more natural light into these lower level spaces.
Relatedly, a window well is a recess in the ground around a building to allow for installment of bigger windows in a basement either below ground or partially below ground.
Pella has a wonderful rundown on egress windows here.
Casement windows open away from the home and are operated by a hand crank.
Double-hung windows consist of two vertically sliding sashes and are one of the most popular types of windows among homeowners. If you have double-hung windows in your home, you can completely open the top sash or the bottom sash, or even open both sashes part way.
Picture windows are stationary, meaning they do not open. Consequently, picture windows can be larger than double-hung or casement windows. They’re usually used to maximize a view.
Also called casing, window trim refers to the decorative moldings covering the jambs and head of a window and enclosing any cap between those structural parts and the wall.
For a fantastic rundown of the anatomy of window trim, and how to trim a window out yourself, check out this article from This Old House. (Note that the project is for trimming the interior of a window, but it’s still full of great resources for those looking to learn more.)
An apron is decorative trim installed against the wall immediately beneath the sill (or stool, on interiors) of a window. It accentuates the look of the window, acting almost like a piece of molding. Aprons are more common on interiors but can also be used on exteriors.
Usually used for commercial buildings, spandrel glass is an opaque glass solution designed for non-vision applications. Manufactured by ICD High Performance Coatings + Chemistries, this environmentally friendly water-based silicone coating is typically used on the building façade to obscure the view of mechanical systems, insulation, slab ends, and other unsightly construction components.
Transoms are any type of horizontal element that separates the head (top) of a door from a window above. They are transverse structural beams, bars, or crosspieces. A transom window (sometimes called a transom light) is the window that sits above this crosspiece.
Sidelights are windows that flank a door or a larger window. Usually they are tall and narrow and are found alongside a front door, to emphasize it visually. Sidelights may run on one or both sides of a front door.
Bay window vs. Bow window vs. Box window
A bay window is the combination of three or more windows that angle out beyond an exterior wall. They can be made up of casement, double-hung, or picture windows, sometimes in combination.
A bow window is a particular type of bay window that is curved. Also known as a compass window, bow windows typically combine four or more windows, which join to form an arch. Casement windows are frequently used for bow windows.
Bay windows are more common than bow windows and are most often three-sided.
A box window is, as you might guess, shaped like a box. Box windows are sometimes called box bay windows and have flat sides and a flat front, protruding from the façade of a building. They are usually rectangular in shape and have some sort of roof of their own. Box windows are common in the UK.
Gables are the triangular parts of a wall where roof pitches meet and come to a peak. The peak itself is known as a roof gable. A gabled roof is the type of roof that comes to a peak.
Eaves are the overhanging area of the roof that extends beyond the house. Their primary function is to keep rainwater away from the areas of the home beneath the roof.
Soffit is how we refer to the covering for the underside of the eave. Soffits are often vented.
Fascia is the term for the decorative and protective horizontal board that covers the rafter area below the roof edge. It often holds the gutters.
Roof trusses are the structural framework of timbers designed to provide support for a roof. They create a roof’s frame and determine the shape of the roof and ceiling. Trusses are becoming increasingly popular. We sometimes used exposed trusses beneath porch awning gables – not only are they functional, they can be aesthetically appealing, as well!
Learn more about the different types of roof trusses, including great diagrams, in this article.
A dormer is a structure that projects vertically beyond the plane of a pitched roof. It has its own roof and often contains a window. Dormers are often used to increase livable space in a loft or attic.
Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia!) has a great breakdown of the different types of dormers, including visuals.
Gutters are installed to catch any water coming off of the roof in order to carry it away from the home.
Learn all about copper gutters — and why we love them — here.
Downspouts are the downward tubing installed specifically to direct the water down and out from the gutters.
Hardscape is the word used to describe non-living landscaping elements like fountains, walkways, courtyards, patios, pavers, and breeze block walls.
A gabion is a cage, cylinder, or box filled with rocks, concrete, or sometimes sand and soil for use in civil engineering, road building, military applications, and — most relevant to us! — landscaping. For erosion control, caged riprap is used. For dams or in foundation construction, cylindrical metal structures are used.
A note on the following terms: Pergola, trellis, and arbor are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact different structures. However, all are typically built from wood. See below for illustrations and definitions. For more, check out this oldie-but-goodie article from Fine Homebuilding.
A pergola is an outdoor design element that creates a shaded walkway or sitting area, like a deck or patio. The pergola itself consists of vertical posts or pillars that support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice ‘roof’ above.
A trellis is a frame of latticework used as a screen or as a support for climbing plants. A trellis can be freestanding or attached to a building.
An arbor creates a tunnel-like passageway of climbing plants, usually with trellis-like walls that connect via an arch overhead.
Also called an overhang, an awning is a secondary covering attached to the exterior wall of a building. We often use awnings to create new porches that don’t require structural changes for our clients. Sometimes use them to cover windows, where they can provide both an aesthetic and functional purpose.
Get inspired with these porch awning ideas on our blog.
A porch is an open front extension around the entrance of a home, normally covered, often by an awning or roof.
We use the term portico to refer to a small, covered space leading to the front door of a building, usually supported by columns.
A note on the difference between a porch and a portico: A porch is much larger than a portico and usually extends the functional living space of a building, often with room for seating. A portico might only have room for a planter or two. It essentially acts as a place to get out of the elements before going through the front door.
A balcony is a raised platform that is connected to the side of a building, projecting from it, and is surrounded by a low wall or railing. Balconies are often only accessible from inside of a building.
In architecture, a deck is a flat surface capable of supporting weight, similar to a floor, but typically constructed outdoors, often elevated from the ground, and usually connected to a building. The term came from the deck of a ship! And, like the deck of a ship, decks are often made of wood, or a wood-look composite.
A patio is an outdoor space generally used for dining or recreation that often adjoins a structure and is typically paved. Unlike decks, porches, porticos, and balconies, patios are usually not raised off the ground.
A courtyard is an unroofed area that is completely or mostly enclosed by the walls of a building.
A railing consists of fencing or a barrier with small posts (rails) often around an open part of the house, like a deck or porch.
These deck and porch railing ideas will show you what an impact this simple swap-out can make on an exterior design.
A baluster is an upright and often vase-shaped support for a rail. A balustrade is a group of balusters supporting a handrail. Finally, the term banister refers to the system of balusters and handrail of a stairway.
Columns are vertical posts that hold up roof extensions, such as porch awnings. They are often important visually for an exterior design.
Here are some of our favorite on-trend front porch column ideas.
Colossal columns are columns that are more than one story in height — usually two stories, for the sake of our work, but may be even taller.
Don’t worry, there’s no test at the end
Is your head spinning? Please don’t be overwhelmed! Of course, we don’t expect you to become experts on exterior design and learn all of the many vocabulary words above before you work with us. That’s why we’re here. This exterior design dictionary is merely intended to be a resource to help you navigate any updates you may be considering. If you want to use it before you submit your order with us, that’s cool, but it’s far from a requirement. However, if you manage to successfully work ‘gabion’ into a dinner conversation, we’d love to know.
Updating your building’s exterior is a big commitment. Partner with us so you can visualize your property’s potential and get a big picture plan + guidance on all of the little decisions along the way. Get started today!
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