Basic Building Construction Terms

Experienced home builders and tradesmen can easily tell if you are conversant with simple building construction terms, and know what each means. But are you? Well if you are newly building a house, you should, at least, know the basic terminologies.

Just as in all professions, communicating the right way using the right terms is an important aspect when you plan to develop your new home.

You need to know certain home construction terms and understand what they mean because this sends a clear signal to your builder that you are smarter than he may think, and he can’t confuse you deliberately as a few unscrupulous ones tend to do.

As new home builders learn to familiarise themselves with house construction terms before embarking on their building project, they better understand what is being discussed when architects, builders, and tradesmen, speak their “construction jargon”, and remove the possibility of misconstruing issues which can greatly affect the progress of works and its overall quality.

The good thing is that over the years, the same building construction terms have been passed down from one generation to the next, and even with today’s technological advancement which has been of tremendous benefit to the building industry, home construction terms has for the most part remained the same.

This article which is not exhaustive is a simple and straightforward outline of building construction terms and terminologies used by builders and consultants in the building industry. It includes the factors involved to expand and extend the knowledge of construction, and options available to help owner builders understand, plan and implement an efficient and rewarding project.

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Builders Terms and What They Mean

The listed terms are used from the foundation stage through to the final finishing stage of building a house.

1. Setting Out

This can be taken as the first stage of building construction works on a plot (lot), and involves mapping out the configuration of the foundation with the aid of rails, pegs and strings.

Setting out is carried out using detailed plans and dimensions of design blueprints produced by an architect, stock plan retailers, building designers, or construction companies and is done by means of a tripod mounted telescope and a long measuring tape . The tripod allows for a determined height to be transferred from a datum to pegs situated around the building site.

Sight rails or pegs are then set into the grounds and must be set at a minimum of one metre up above the final top of the ground slab. The nails on the sides of these peg profiles are used to form a stringed line that will stretch out where the brick-works face will be positioned.

The building’s shape can be seen at this stage and with ‘setting out’ in place, the foundation works can commence.

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2. Foundation

This is the concrete footing/base of the structure below the ground level that transfers, holds and distributes the building’s weight.

In the construction industry, the foundation is the term used to describe the concrete footing of the house and is the base of the building’s structure. Most home foundations are constructed using substructure cavity masonry block work. This is the most common form of foundation works.

Other types of building foundation works include:

Mass concrete trench filled foundation

Reinforced concrete raft foundation which is used particularly where the soil has poor load bearing qualities.

Groundwork sub contractors carry out digging, excavating, and concrete works required for building foundation tasks. They also lay the necessary plumbing pipes, and then build the ground floor concrete slab.


3. Floor Structure

This is the flat horizontal part of the building on which people walk & place objects.

Ground Floor – After the foundation is the ground floor construction, and can be any of the following:

In situ concrete slab built on sand and hardcore materials

Suspended timber floors, built with a ventilation void beneath it

Suspended concrete beam and blocks with some ventilated void beneath

With these three types of the ground floor structure, there must be a ‘damp proof membrane’ (DPM) installed. This membrane acts as a moisture barrier.

First Floor – The composition of the first floor is constructed using any of the following systems:

  • Concrete beams and blocks
  • Timber joists

Concrete beams and blocks – Transmission of noise can be considerably reduced if the pre-cast concrete system is used for the construction of the first floor. Using blocks and concrete beams forms a better resistance to both fire and sound, and so may be a better alternative to using timber joists.

However, because of weight penalties, concrete first floors are used only if the building is being constructed using load bearing masonry, whereas timber frame homes are meant to carry the weight of timber joists floor only.

For cast decking (concrete) first floors, wires, cabling, under floor heating systems, etc. are passed through PVC based conduit pipes embedded in a sand/cement screed. The disadvantage of this, however, is that if there is a need for unforeseen future maintenance works, it is difficult to get to.

Timber joists – If using timber joists is a preferred option, insulation against noise and fire protection materials can be added to the timber structures of the first floor. They are easier to install and they have sufficient void spaces for fitting in plumbing pipes and electrical wiring conduits.

Timber structured first floors give an even and level floor that allows for perfect installations of plasterboard ceilings of the ground floor. It also allows a smooth flat surface that’s great to receive floor boards, plywood or chipboard or hardwood floor finishes.

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4. Roof Carcass

This is the timber framework that forms the roof’s configuration and its structure.

  • The structural construction of the roof can be either of the following:
  • Trussed rafters (builders find this type faster and easier to install).
  • The traditional cut roof which allows for a relatively unobstructed and potentially useful attic space. Attic space is an added advantage in that it can be used as a bedroom, study, or simply as storage facilities.

5. Roof Covering

This is the outer covering installed on the roof carcass that completes the roof structure and protects the home from the elements.

There is a good number of types and styles of roof covering, including the following:

  • Roof tiles: these can be produced from clay or concrete, but those produced with clay are the more expensive type. Sizes and profiles vary and roof tiles range from the smaller plain clay tiles to larger pan tiles.
  • Slates: are popularly used as roof coverings in home construction and come in both the genuine quarry tiles and the cheaper artificial varieties.
  • Thatched roofs: today, this is used mostly in rural areas or recreational spots. It is used decoratively in landscape designs, for beachside bars, resorts, gazebos, etc.
  • Aluminium long span roof coverings comes with ridges and verges (edge of the roof slope which extends beyond the gable) and are installed by clipping onto roof carcasses with special screws, caps and other fixings.

6. Exterior Walls

This is the upright structure that is usually constructed of wood, brick and/or plaster. It serves as the shell of the building.

External wall structures in building construction generally come as any of the following:

  • Masonry cavity wall construction which is a concrete block inner leaf with an outer layer of facing bricks, plain tiles, timber boarding or simple plain mortar rendering.
  • Timber frame walls, which consists of a masonry outer leaf such as facing bricks, and a timber framework inner leaf. The framework can be filled with a quilted or a rigid type of insulation. It also incorporates plywood sheeting, breather paper and a moisture/vapour guard.

It is good to note that the cavities of external walls need to contain insulation materials in order to meet building regulation requirements. Many types of insulation materials are available including the options of full fill or partial fill insulation materials, but a clear cavity without insulation is also used, should insulation be provided for elsewhere in the wall cavities.

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7. Interior Walls (Partition Walls)

Interior walls are internal dividing upright structures formed to create rooms and areas within the enclosed boundary of the building’s external wall.

Interior walls, also referred to as partition walls by builders, are internal separating floor to ceiling structures formed to create rooms within the enclosed space of external walls. Generally speaking, internal partition walls within contemporary homes are not load bearing and do not carry any structural load from the first floor or the roof. This affords a high flexibility as to where internal walls can be built within the building.


8. Ventilation

This is the means of supplying fresh air to open spaces or rooms within a building structure.

It is a means of supplying fresh and clean oxygenated air into an enclosed space and window openings are a good source of fresh air. Where windows are installed on opposite walls there is cross ventilation. This form of ventilation is essential especially in the summer months, or in warm regions.

Other forms of ventilation systems are the mechanical forms like air expellers used in bathrooms and kitchens to keep stale air and moisture out of the rooms. Trickle vents can also be used in window and door units. The roof void should also be ventilated with adequate ridges, eaves and cable vents to avoid a build up of warm stale air within the roof structure.

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