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Do you ever feel as if your contractor is selling you polyisocyanurate foam when what you really needed was a setback thermostat? Here is a handy guide to the common (and not so common construction terms). Scroll through the glossary below, or click on the letter that starts the word you're looking for. For example, to find polyisocyanurate foam, click "P".



ABS - A type of black plastic pipe commonly used for waste water lines.

Allowance(s) - A sum of money set aside in the construction contract for items which have not been selected and specified in the construction contract. Best kept to a minimum number and used for items who's choice will not impact earlier stages of the construction. For example, selection of tile as flooring may require an alternative framing or underlayment material.

Arc Fault Current Interrupters AFIs or AFCIs - These are new electrical safety devices and are becoming part of the electrical codes. AFIs are designed to prevent electrical fires and should not be confused with GFIs. AFIs are recommended for bedroom areas. The CPSC has some good information about AFIs.

Amperage or AMPS - A unit of electrical current or volume--see "Voltage." Most homes have an electrical service 'entrance' package of 125 or 200 amps. Some older homes have 60 or 100 amp 'entrances'. See the consult Q & A's on Amps, Volts, and Watts.

Anchor Bolts - 'L' shaped bolts which are set in the concrete foundation and used to attach the framing of the house to the foundation (see diagram). See the consult Q & A's on Framing.

Architect - One who has completed a course of study in building and design, served an internship and passed a test and is licensed by the state as an architect. See the consult Q & A's on Do We Need An Architect?

Asbestos - A common form of magnesium silicate which was used in various construction products due to it's stability and resistance to fire. Asbestos exposure, by inhaling loose asbestos fibers, is associated with various forms of lung disease.


S Beam - A horizontal framing member designed to carry a load from a set of joists or a roof and spanning an open space. Usually 6" x 6" or 4" x 10" or larger. article on Asbestos in the Home. See also the consult Q & A's on Framing.

Blue Print(s) - A type of copying method often used for architectural drawings. Usually used to describe the drawing of a structure which is prepared by an architect or designer for the purpose of design and planning, estimating, securing permits and actual construction.

Bond or Bonding - An amount of money (usually $2,000-$6,000) which must be on deposit with the governmental agency in order to secure a contractor's license. The bond may be used to pay for the unpaid bills or disputed work of the contractor. Not to be confused with a 'performance bond'. Such bonds are rarely used in residential construction.




Calcium Carbonate or Efflorescence - A white chalky material which is very often found on concrete basement walls and other concrete surfaces where water has leached some of the chemicals out of the concrete. Usually a sign of past or present moisture penetrations.
Carbon Monoxide (CO) - A toxic colorless and odorless gas and common combustion by-product. CO testing must be a regular part of the annual gas furnace service. Combustion appliances including: furnaces, fireplaces, grills, generators, gas water heaters etc. require proper installation and service in order to prevent CO exposure.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) -
A toxic colorless and odorless gas and common combustion by-product. CO testing must be a regular part of the annual gas furnace service. Combustion appliances including: furnaces, fireplaces, grills, generators, gas water heaters etc. require proper installation and service in order to prevent CO exposure.

Casement Window - A window with hinges on one of the vertical sides and swings open like a normal door (see diagram). See the consult topic index on Windows and Skylights.

Caulking - A flexible material used to seal a gap between two surfaces e.g. between pieces of siding or the corners in tub walls. See the consult topic index on Bathrooms.
Caulking and roof patching materials are wonderful products but they can also cause problems. For example: most roofing and siding systems are designed to shed water from one surface to another. Ridge caps drain onto shingles, one shingle drains onto a lower shingle, metal flashing moves water from the chimney onto the roof, etc. When caulking is used to "repair" a defect, it must be used in conjunction with the system in place. In most cases, the defective part needs to be repaired or replaced, only then can caulking be used as a secondary level of protection.

If caulking or roof patching products are used incorrectly, they can nullify the original design and cause leaks and other problem. Such incorrect usage often results in preventing water from properly shedding from one surface to another. It can result in the water being wicked sideways or even up and under surfaces.

Change Order - A written document which modifies the plans and specifications and/or the price of the construction Contract. See the topic page on A Building and Remodeling Checklist.

Chip board - See, "Oriented Strand Board." See the consult Q & A's on Framing and OSB vs. Plywood.

Circuit Breaker - A device which looks like a switch and is usually located inside the electrical panel or circuit breaker box. It is designed to (1) shut of the power to portions or all of the house and (2) to limit the amount of power flowing through a circuit (measured in amperes.

'110' volt household circuits require a fuse or circuit breaker with a rating of 15 or a maximum of 20 amps. '220' volt circuits may be designed for higher amperage loads e.g. a hot water heater may be designed for a 30 amp load and would therefore need a 30 amp fuse or breaker. also see GFI

Concrete - A common construction material often used for foundations, ground level floors, and sidewalks. Most concrete is made out of (1) Portland cement, (2) sand, and (3) gravel or aggregate. It is commonly reinforced with steel rods (rebar) or wire screening (mesh).

Concrete Block - A hollow concrete 'brick' often 8" x 8" x 16" in size. Often used in low rise commercial and some residential construction.

Concrete Board or Wonderboard (tm) - A panel made out of concrete and fiberglass usually used as a tile backing material.

Contractor - A company licensed to perform certain types of construction activities. In most states, the generals contractor's license and some specialty contractor's licenses don't require of compliance with bonding, workmen's compensation and similar regulations. Some of the specialty contractor licenses involve extensive training, testing and/or insurance requirements. There are various types of contractors:

General contractor - Responsible for the execution, supervision and overall coordination of a project and may also perform some of the individual construction tasks. Most general contractors are not licensed to perform all specialty trades and must hire specialty contractors for such tasks, e.g. electrical, plumbing.

Remodeling contractor - A general contractor who specializes in remodeling work.

Specialty contractor - Licensed to perform a specialty task e.g. electrical, side sewer, asbestos abatement.

Subcontractor - A general or specialty contractor who works for another general contractor.

See the topic page on A Building and Remodeling Checklist and the topic page on A Field Guide to Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts.

Construction Contract - A legal document which specifies the what-when-where-how-how much and by whom in a construction project. A good construction contract will include:

The contractors registration number.
A statement of work quality such as 'Standard Practices of the Trades' or 'according to Manufacturers Specifications'.
A set of Blue Prints or Plans
A set of Specifications
Any Allowances.
A construction timetable including starting and completion dates.
A Fixed Price for the work , or a Time and Materials formula.
A Payment Schedule.
A written Warrantee
A clause which outlines how any disputes will be resolved.
All contracts should be reviewed by an attorney.
Some Lending Institution has developed some forms to help develop a good project budget. Both can be downloaded in a PDF format and used to develop your project budget:
The Specification and Description of Building Materials form can be used on most construction projects and includes the most common elements in a residential construction.

The FHA 203K Cost Breakdown form was developed specifically for the FHA "203K" financing program. This program allows for a single loan that includes the purchase and renovation of a home.

Cost Plus Contract - Same as "Time and Materials Contract."

Curtain Drain - A ditch sometimes filled with gravel and a drain tile which diverts storm and drain water away from a structure. See the consult Q & A's on Yard Drainage.



Deeds - A deed is a document used to transfer title to real estate. For further explanation, see Deeds.

De-humidistat - A control mechanism used to operate a mechanical ventilation system based upon the relative humidity in the home.

Designer - One who designs houses, interiors, landscaping or other objects. When used it the context of residential construction it usually suggests that a designer is not a licensed architect. Most jurisdictions don't require an architectural license for most single family construction

Dormer - A roof gable which is usually located at right angles to the main roof structure. Used to increase head room or as an architectural detail.

Double Hung Window - A window with two vertically sliding sashes. This common older window design was usually made out of wood and tends to require frequent repairs.

Dry Rot - See, "Fungal wood rot."


Drywall or Gypsum Wallboard (GWB) or Sheet rock or Plasterboard - A wall finish consisting of a manufactured panel made out of gypsum plaster and encased in a thin cardboard. Usually 1/2" thick and 4' x 8' or 4' x 12' in size. The panels are nailed or screwed onto the framing and the joints are taped and covered with a 'joint compound'. 'Green board' type drywall has a greater resistance to moisture than regular (white) plasterboard. See the topic page on Tub and Shower Walls.



Earnest Money Agreement - An earnest money agreement is a contract between a buyer and a seller of real estate. It is also called a real estate purchase and sale agreement. For further explanation, see What is an Earnest Money Agreement?

Earthquake Strap - A metal strap used to secure gas hot water heaters to the framing or foundation of a house. Intended to reduce the chances of having the water heater fall over in an earthquake and thus causing a gas leak.

Easement - A formal contract which allows a party to use another party's property for a specific purpose. e.g. A sewer easement might allow one party to run a sewer line through a neighbors property.

Efflorescence - See, "Calcium Carbonate." See the consult topic index on Basements and Crawl Spaces.

Electrical entrance package - The entry point of the electrical power including: (1) the 'strike' or location where the overhead electrical lines connect to the house, (2) the meter which measures how much power is used and (3) the 'panel', 'circuit breaker box 'or 'fuse box' where the power can be shut off, and overload devices such as fuses or circuit breakers are located.

Energy Dissipation Basin - A pit or ditch sometimes filled with gravel which is used to collect storm water. Water in the ditch soaks into the ground slowly, thus preventing soil eroding runoff and flooding. See the topic page on Downspout Drain Systems and see the consult Q & A's on Yard Drainage.

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Estimating - The process of calculating the cost of a project. This can be a formal and exact process or a quick and imprecise process.

Exposed Aggregate - A method of finishing concrete which washes the cement/sand mixture of the top layer of the aggregate - usually gravel. Often used in driveways, patios and other exterior surfaces.

The Exterior Envelope of a building consists of all of the elements protecting the building from the elements: roofing, siding, windows, exterior doors, porches, flashing, trim, caulking, waterproof decks, venting systems, chimneys and other elements which relate to the exterior surfaces of the structure.



Fascia - A vertical wood member, such as a cedar 1" x 6", which is nailed to the ends of the rafters and is often the backing of the gutter. See the consult Q & A's on Roofs.

Fixed Price Contract - A contract with a set price for the work. See, "Time and Materials Contract

Flashing - The building component used to connect portions of a roof, deck, or siding material to another surface such as a chimney, wall, or vent pipe. Often made out of various metals, rubber or tar and is mostly intended to prevent water entry. See the topic page on Roofs. See also the consult Q & A's on Roofs, and the consult Q & A's on Construction Details For A Deck.

Forced Air Heating - A common form of heating with natural gas, propane, oil or electricity as a fuel. Air is heated in the furnace and distributed through a set of metal plastic ducts to various areas of the house.

Framing -
The structural wood and/or metal elements of most homes. The floor and ceiling framing is called the joist work. Wall framing is usually made out of 2" x 4" or 2" x 6" studs. See - "rafters," "posts," and "beams." See also the consult question and answers on Framing.

Fungal Wood Rot - A common wood destroying organism which develops when wood containing material is exposed to moisture and poor air circulation for a longer (6 month +) period of time. Often and incorrectly referred to as "dry rot."

Fuse - A device often found in older homes designed to prevent overloads in electrical lines. See, "circuit breakers."




GFI or GFCI or Ground Fault Current Interrupter - A electrical device used to prevent injury from contact with faulty electrical appliances and faulty wiring - electrical shocks. GFIs should not be confused with AFIs, the later are designed to prevent electrical fires. GFIs are required in new home bathrooms, kitchen, garage, out of doors and in other locations where one might be in contact with a grounded surface and an electrical appliance. Most GFI's are located in the receptacle itself and can be identified by the presence of a 'test' and a 'reset' button.



Heat pump - A device which uses compression and decompression of gas to heat and/or cool a house. See the topic page on Heating Your Home.

Hot Water Heating - See, "Hydronic Heating

Hydronic Heating - A heating system which uses various types of fuel to heat water which is then distributed through pipes to radiators located in various portions of the house.




Ice Dams - A condition which can occur with snow and freezing conditions. When snow or ice melts on a roof over a heated or partially heated attic space, the melting water may refreeze over an unheated areas such as a roof overhang. This re-frozen water may create a "dam" and allow a

dditional melt water to back up under shingles and cause leaks.(See:Illustration "A").

Solutions include: proper roof venting and insulation (See: illustration "B"), membrane roofing or roofing underlayment, and heat tapes.

Once an ice dam occurs, remedies are difficult and or dangerous. Working on a frozen roof should be avoided, as should the use of any open flames. The use of hot water to melt the ice may help, it may also increase the amount of leakage.





Joists - A framing member, often a 2" x 10" piece of lumber, which is usually spaced every 16" to 24" and supports the sub-floor and flooring. The joist usually 'sits' on a load bearing wall or beam. See the consult Q & A's on Framing.




Lath and Plaster - The most common wall finish prior to the introduction of drywall. Thin wood strips (lath) were nailed onto the framing as a base for the sand/lime plaster (see diagram). See also the topic page on Restoring and Painting Plaster and Lath Walls.

Lien - A lien is a claim for money owed against another person's real estate. Deeds of Trust and mortgages are examples of liens. For further explanation, see Lien Priorities.

Load Bearing Wall - A wall which is supporting its own weight and some other structural elements of the house such as the joists. See the topic page on Common Construction Wisdom. See also the consult Q & A's on Framing.




Manufactured Wood - A wood product such as a truss, beam, Glue Lam TM or joist which is manufactured out of smaller wood pieces and glued or mechanically fastened to form a larger piece. Often used to create a stronger member which may use less wood.

Manufacturers Specifications - The written installation and/or maintenance instructions which are developed by the manufacturer of a product and which may have to be followed in order to maintain the product's warrantee.

Take a look...

A good example of a manufacturer's specification comes from our sponsor, Champion Metal of Washington. Their guide for the Snap-Loc roofing system can be used to specify how the material is to be installed.

These specification are well illustrated, clear and easy to read.

Modified Bitumen Roof -
See, "Torch Down Roof," and the topic page entitled The Sound Roof.




Oriented Strand Board or OSB or Chip Board or Wafer Board - A manufactured wood panel made out of 1"- 2" wood chips and glue. Often used as a substitute for plywood in the exterior wall and roof sheathing.



Polyvinyl Chloride PVC or CPVC -
A type of white plastic pipe sometimes used for water supply lines. See the consult Q & A's on Copper vs. CPVC Piping. Polyvinyl Chloride has some potentially serious toxicity problems during manufacture and disposal. I don't recommend the use of PVC containing materials such as: pipes, vinyl siding and some roofing membranes.

Payment Schedule - A pre-agreed upon schedule of payments to a contractor usually based upon the amount of work completed. Such a schedule may include a deposit prior to the start of work. Payments are often scheduled for the beginning of the month to allow the contractor to distribute to the subcontractors and suppliers by the 10th of the month. There may also be a temporary 'holdout' at the end of the contract for any small items which have not been completed. See the topic page on A Building and Remodeling Checklist and see the topic page on A Field Guide to Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts.

Percolation or Perc. Test - A test to determine if the soil on a proposed building lot is capable of absorbing the liquid affluent from a septic system. For further explanation, see Light, Heat, Telephone, etc.

Permit - A governmental authorization to perform a building process as in:

Zoning\Use permit - authorization to use a property for a specific use e.g. a factory, a single family residence etc.
Grading permit - authorization to change the contour of the land.
Septic permit - a health dept. authorization to build or modify a septic system.
Building permit - authorization to build or modify a structure.
Electrical permit - a separate permit required for most electrical work.
Plumbing permit - a separate permit required for new plumbing and larger modifications of existing plumbing systems.
See the topic page on A Field Guide to Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts.

Polybutylene - A type of plastic pipe (often gray in color) sometimes used in domestic water supply systems. Some polybutylene plumbing systems are been recalled due to a history of leaks and failure.

Polyisocyanurate Foam - A rigid foam board insulation often used in locations where there is not enough room for standard batt insulation. A nice word which can be used to impress or confuse someone. Programmed to various temperature settings. One of the least expensive ways to reduce energy consumption. See the consult Q & A's on Insulation and Energy.


Post - A vertical framing member usually designed to carry a beam. Often a 4" x 4", a 6" x 6", or a metal pipe with a flat plate on top and bottom (see diagram).

Pressure Relief Valve - A device mounted on a hot water heater or boiler which is designed to release any high steam pressure in the tank and thus prevent tank explosions.




Radiant Heat - A heating system which uses hot water or steam pipes, or electric resistance coils to heat the floors, walls or the ceiling of a room

Radon - A naturally-occurring radio active gas common in many parts of the country e.g. very high levels are found in portions of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and very low levels are found in most portions of western Washington. Radon gas exposure is associated with lung cancer. Mitigation measures may involve crawl space and basement venting and various forms of vapor barriers.


Rafter - The framing member which directly supports the roof sheathing. A rafter usually follows the angle of the roof, and may be a part of a roof truss (see diagram). See the topic page on Roofs

Rebar - See, "Concrete."

Relative Humidity - The amount of moisture in a volume of air as a percentage of the maximum amount of moisture which can be held in that air at a certain temperature - cold air can't hold as much moisture as warm air.

Riser - The upright section of a stair. The board between one stair tread and the next.

R Value - A measure of insulation. For example, typical new home's walls are usually insulated with 6" of batt insulation with an R value of R-19, and a ceiling insulation of R-28. See the consult Q & A's on Leveling and Insulating A Basement Floor and Insulation and Energy.

Roof Certification - A written opinion by a roofing professional (contractor or inspector) regarding the expected remaining useful life of a roof system (roofing, venting, flashing...). Under certain circumstances a financial institution may request a "roof cert" for a property prior to the issuance of a mortgage. Not to be confused with a roofing material or workmanship guarantee, or warrantee.




Sanitary Sewer - A sewer system designed for the collection of waste water from the bathroom, kitchen and laundry drains, and is usually not designed to handle storm water. See the consult Q & A's on Plumbing.

Sash - The frame that holds the glass in a window, often the movable part of the window. See double hung windows, and casement windows. See the consult Q & A's on Framing For Windows

Scupper - The drain in a downspout or flat roof, usually connected to the downspout. See the topic page on Roofs.

Septic System - An on site waste water treatment system. It usually has a septic tank which promotes the biological digestion of the waste, and a drain field which is designed to let the left over liquid soak into the ground. Septic systems and permits are usually sized by the number of bedrooms in a house. See the consult Q & A's on Plumbing.

Sewage Ejector - A pump used to 'lift' waste water to a gravity sanitary sewer line. Usually used in basements and other locations which are situated below the level of the side sewer.

Setback Thermostat - A thermostat with a clock which can be programmed to various temperatures at different times of the day/week. Usually used as the heating or cooling system thermostat.

Shake - A wood, usually cedar, roofing product which is produced by splitting a block of the wood along the grain line. Modern shakes are sometimes machine sawn on one side. See also "shingle," and the topic page entitled The Sound Roof.

Sheathing - The plywood, board, OSB or other material used as the base for the roofing.

Shingle - A machine sawn wood, usually cedar, roofing and siding product. See also "shake."

Side Sewer - The portion of the sanitary sewer which connects the interior waste water lines to the main sewer lines. The side sewer is usually buried in several feet of soil and runs from the house to the sewer line. It may be 'owned' by property owner or by the sewer utility, but it usually must be maintained by the owner and may only be serviced by utility approved "side sewer" contractors.

Single ply Roof - See, "Torch Down Roof." See the topic page entitled The Sound Roof.

Skip Sheathing - The normal base for shake, shingle and some tile roofs. 1" x 4" or similar sized boards are nailed at 90 degrees to the rafters leaving a space of about 4" between each row and allowing for better ventilation. See the topic page entitled The Sound Roof


Slab on Grade - A type of foundation with a concrete floor which is placed directly on the soil. The edge of the slab is usually thicker and acts as the footing for the walls. Concrete block homes were common in California in the 1940's and 50's (see diagram). See also the consult Q & A's on Foundation.

Soffit - A small ceiling-like space, often out of doors, such as the underside of a roof overhang.

Specifications or Specs. - A narrative list of materials, methods, model numbers, colors, allowances, and other details which supplement the information contained in the blue prints.
Field Guide to Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts and a suggested list of roofing specifications.

Splash Block - A pad which is placed under the lower end of a downspout and diverts the water from the downspout away from the house. Usually made out of concrete or fiberglass. See the topic page on Gutters, Downspouts and Drains.

Stachybotrys - A toxic black colored mold sometimes found in wet or flooded homes.

Standard Practices of the Trade(s) - One of the more common, basic, and minimum construction standards. This is another way of saying that the work should be done in the way it is normally done by an average professional in the field.

Among the many other "standards of construction", the following terms are used in an attempt to define a quality of work (listed here in a rough order of quality, lowest first):

"to code"

"minimum standards of the trades" or "builder basic"

"standards of the trades"

"standards of the industry"

"manufacturers specifications"

"craftsman like"

"custom construction"

"custom practices"

"first class" or "top quality"

The specific application of the "standards" can't be found in any one book or list, they are just one more attempt to define expectations for a specific job.

Storm Sewer - A sewer system designed to collect storm water and is separated from the waste water system




Time and Materials Contract - A construction contract which specifies a price for different elements of the work such as, cost per hour of labor, overhead, profit, etc. Such a contract may not have a maximum price or may state a 'price not to exceed...'

Title Insurance - Title Insurance is a title company's guarantee that the title to a parcel of real estate is affected only by matters shown on a written report. For further explanation, see What is Title Insurance?

Torch Down Roof or Single Ply or Modified Bitumen - A newer roofing material mostly used on flat roofs. This material usually comes in rolls and is applied to the roof with an open flame or 'torch'. See the topic page on The Sound Roof.

Treated Lumber - A wood product which has been impregnated with chemicals to reduce damage from wood rot or insects. Often used for the portions of a structure which is likely to be in ongoing contact with soil and water. Wood may also be treated with a fire retardant. See the topic page on Decks.

Truss - A manufactured wood member often in the form of a large triangle which is used to form the ceiling joists and rafters on the top floor of a home.

Tube and Knob Wiring - A common form of electrical wiring used before W.W.II. When in good condition, it may still be functional for low amperage use, such as smaller light fixture



UURHOT - An unused underground residential heating oil tank. Usually found in homes which were once heated with oil. See the topic page on Underground Oil Tanks.


Voltage - A measure of electrical potential. If we think of electrical measurements in terms of waterfalls then-- Multnoma Fall has high voltage and low amperage (very fast water and low volume). The Columbia River would have low voltage and very high amperage (low speed and very high volume).

Most homes are wired with '110' and '220' volt lines. The '110' volt power is used for lighting and most of the other circuits. The '220' volt power is usually used for the kitchen stove, water heater and dryer. (The terms '110' and '220' volts are a short hand, e.g. a '110' volt line is usually rated at 117 volts plus or minus 10%).




Wafer Board - See, "Oriented Strand Board."

Warrantee - In construction there are two general types of warrantees. One is provided by the manufacturer of a product such as roofing material or an appliance. The second is a warrantee for the labor. For example, a roofing contract may include a 30 year material warrantee and a 5 year labor warrantee.

Many (but not all) new homes come with a one year warrantee. Any major issues found during the first year should be communicated to the builder at once. Small items can be saved up and presented to the builder in a letter on the 11 month anniversary of the closing. This gives the builder one month to make the necessary corrections.
See the topic page on A Building and Remodeling Checklist.
Watt - A measure of the electrical requirement of an appliance calculated by multiplying voltage x amperage. For example; a 1600 watt hair dryer which uses '110' volt power needs about 15 amps.




Zoning - A governmental process and specification which limits the use of a property e.g. single family use, high rise residential use, etc. See the topic page on A Building and Remodeling Checklist and the topic page on Purchasing Undeveloped Land



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