architect's glossary

architect's glossary - soffit, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

 WS soffit

WS soffit

"Soffit" is a word that we architects and builders use so frequently that we forget that many clients have no idea what we are talking about.  A bit more about that below.

A soffit is a section of ceiling that is dropped well below the underside of the roof or floor above.  What it creates is an enclosed space above the ceiling, often filled with heating and cooling ducts.  A soffit is most often designed for an architectural affect - the dropping of the ceiling helping to create an area of space differentiated from other areas.  Soffits can also be exterior and the term is also employed to describe the ceiling-like underside of extended eaves (known more obscurely as the "plantia").

 BL soffit 1

BL soffit 1

The term owes is origins to a Latin verb meaning to fix underneath, and it is the "underneath" part that we have carried into current architectural parlance.

So, when your contractor says, "we have to add a soffit", that means they are going to drop the ceiling for some portion of the building because something up in the ceiling - ducts, plumbing, whatever, - does not fit in the ceiling run flat.  My advice to that is to check with the architect if you haven't already.  The legends of bad architecture are filled with the stories of ill-advised soffits crashing through rooms, clearly highlighting the fact that someone either forgot about the plumbing or didn't bother to find a better solution.  Soffits ought to existing to help shape the space of a room, not just hide stuff.

 AG soffit

AG soffit

"Soffit" is probably one of the most commonly used terms on a construction site.  And it is a term that most layman don't know.  This can lead to endless amounts of confusion and is the raison d'etre for this glossary.  Like any specialty, architecture and construction have their own lexicon of words and usage that are unknown to the uninitiated.  Often on the jobsite, we say things like, "we're going to run that through the soffit", and we assume that everyone understands that.  It is only with some time that you realize that a client, especially homeowners building for the first time, are not clear on the meaning of what was just said.  Worse yet, folks start using the jargon of the trade without a clear knowledge of the terms.  I have countless stories of clients, and occasionally builders,  describing beams as "posts", soffits as "eaves", and lintels as "headers".  These mistakes are easily cleared up without much embarrassment or misdirection, but better avoided.  Don't be afraid to point to something and say "that thing, right there, whatever you call it".

 BL soffits 2

BL soffits 2

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

architect's glossary - scupper

 scupper

scupper

A scupper, in architectural terms, is not some name for a lowly pirate, but rather a device to get water off a roof and away from a building.  Most typically found on flat roof buildings, scuppers project out from the sidewall of a building at roof level and allow rainwater and snow melt to flow not just off the roof, but hopefully also away from the edge of the building. In the image above, that standard shape is called a lamb's tongue.

This is a photo of a scupper we designed a few years ago with a rain chain attached.  In Colorado, our snow melt creates a slow dripping of water that repeated plunks in gutters and downspouts.  A combination of scupper and downspout allows the flow of the water down to a drain without the monotonous aural torture of the equivalent of the late-night dripping sink.

Gargoyles are imaginative, decorative versions of scuppers, most commonly found on Gothic buildings with water spitting ruefully from their fang-filled mouths.

 gargoyle

gargoyle

architect's glossary - palladian window or serliana

 serliana02

serliana02

In the US, a hallmark of colonial architecture was the Palladian window:

This is basically a larger, arched center window with flanking rectangular windows separated by pilasters or at least trim.  In Europe this is most commonly known as a serliana, a name derived from Sebastiano Serlio whose architectural treatise describes its origins from ancient Roman triumphal arches.

 archof constantine

archof constantine

However, like many classical architecture motifs, Palladio is credited largely because his work was so admired and frankly copied by so many English architects of the next few centuries, especially Robert Adam and Inigo Jones.  Jones was particularly interested in Palladio's villas as models for the large English country estates he was working on at the time.  That the British Empire soon flourished and spread across the world accounts for the ubiquitous of Palladianism from all far-flung colonies like India and the US.

 serliana01

serliana01

plasticity – architect's glossary

"Plasticity" is not about plastics.  However, it is about what plastics in a sense can do.  As used by architects, plasticity is a term used to describe a rich, three-dimensional or sculptural presence of a building.  When the form of a building exhibits a sculptural presence, even if that may be strictly made up of straight lines and boxes, we say that it has plasticity.

In engineering usage, the term plasticity refers to the likelihood of a material to permanently deform under a load.  In a sense it is the opposite of elasticity.  Translated into architectural-talk, a building with plasticity has deformed itself from a simple box into a more complex form because of the planned usage of the building or the pressures of the site or maybe just the will of the architect.

Taken to an architectural extreme, plasticity becomes a kind of frenetic composition, with each building part screaming for attention, the whole lost in the confusion of the parts.  One of the implicit or explicit desires of most architects is to bring each building into a balance between simplicity and plasticity.  Architects often make models of their projects in perfectly clean white cardboard or render computer models in generic white materials.  This is not necessarily a quest for purity or simplicity, but it allows the shadows casting on a building to more clearly demonstrate the level of plasticity of the building design.

image of a project we are currently working on up Sunshine Canyon