Friday, September 11, 2009

Construction Speak

1920's French Drafting Table by Restoration Hardware
Currently on my wish list for my next studio space.  As proficient as I am with CAD I love to draft and sketch and render by hand whenever I can.  I gave up my old drafting table several years ago during a move but I miss having one so much that I plan to make room for one in my next space.

Whenever I meet clients for the first time regarding a renovation project,,,at some point before the meeting is over, inevitably I always get asked this same question, “is your husband a contractor?”   I smile and politely say no, wondering to myself why everyone asks me that.   They always seem surprised that my answer is no.   I do admit, it would be a match made in DIY heaven,,,,,,but sadly, no I am not married to a contractor, nor was my father a contractor (usually the next question).

Just recently, when a client asked me that question yet again,,,,I laughed and commented that I didn’t know why everyone always asked me that, and she looked at me and said bluntly, “well you speak construction speak - I assumed you must be married to a contractor ”.   Huh, all these years and I had never thought that was the reason. So after 16 years as a professional interior designer,,,,spending most of my time on construction sites designing and overseeing new builds and renovations, wearing steel toes more than stillettoes,,,,, its interesting that people would assume I must come by my knowledge of construction thru my ‘husband’ ?  Strange thing is,,,, I can’t imagine how any interior designer could work in the industry without knowing ‘construction speak’.  After all, we design how interiors are going to be built, and are responsible for preparing detailed construction drawings that are code compliant, and ensuring they are complied with, wouldn’t it be strange if we didn’t know how things were constructed! 

Typically my days are spent on job sites that look like this (below), reviewing installations and meeting with the trades and or contractors.

A client's gutted kitchen gets all new windows and new window seat.

Often when I’m talking with clients or presenting design drawings to them, they’re not familiar with some of the terms that are noted.  Learning the terms that the trades use has just been part of my job and using basic industry standard terms when it comes to drafting notes on drawings is key to communicating the design intent to the team of people working on the project.  

Here are some of the most basic terms, in no particular order, that I get asked about most frequently, sometimes because they’re noted on the design drawings, other times in its spoken context. These are just off the top of my head and aren't by any means 'industry standard definitions', just my own understanding of them. 

AFF = Above Finished Floor: 

This is a critical note on plans and elevations, typically during a renovation when all the rough-in work is being done the floor consists of the subfloor material only or a floor that will be replaced with new.  But at the rough-in stage, I have to instruct the electrician, the plumber, or the window installer etc.,,,exactly where I want that light fixture mounted or those wall faucets placed.  If I give them a dimension, it has to clarify whether this is based on the subfloor,,,,,or the finished floor, which could be 1/2” to 1-1/2” higher.  The notation A.F.F. after a dimension indicates this intent and the fact that the additional thickness of the proposed new flooring needs to be factored in.

GFI = Ground Fault Interruptor:

(or as I usually refer to it,,,,‘Good F*n Idea”!)  

This is a type of electrical outlet that’s mandatory for electrical outlets that are within 3’ of a water source.

O/A = overall:  

This refers to a dimension, meaning end to end, top to bottom, or front to back, this dimension means its all inclusive, regardless of jogs, bumpouts, posts etc.

O.C. = On Centre:

This refers to a dimension and that the measurement is referring to the centre of something, ie; a drain, an electrical outlet etc.

CL = Centre Line:

Refers to location or placement of something with regards to where it should be installed or aligned in relation to the room or cabinet etc., whatever objects it intersects.

MDF = Medium Density Fibre Board

SPF = Spruce Pine or Fir

U/S = Underside


Black rigid plastic pressure pipes used for plumbing.  If you really want to know, it stands for Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene but most people can't pronounce it or spell it so its never called anything other than ABS.

P-Lam = Plastic Laminate

CH = Ceiling Height

L.F. = linear foot

CFM = cubic feet per minute

OSB = oriented strand board:

Not to be mistaken for particle board.  BTW, this make for an inferior subfloor, use plywood.

VOC = volatile organic compounds 

Knock down:

Remove rough spots on a surface by sanding or scraping

2 Gang, 3 Gang, 4 Gang:

Multiple switches or receptacles in one box.

J-box = junction box

Robertson = A Square Headed screw

Uniquely Canadian and ......universaly frustrating if you happen not to have  a square tip screwdriver handy.  Its good to know your Robertsons from your Phillips when your handyman or installer asks you to hand him one!

Phillips = Cross Headed Screw 

F*n Slotted = A slotted head screw

A slotted head screw.  Yes it may take two hands to centre the screw and the screwdriver might slip out of the slot,,,,but hey, in a pinch you can also use the tip of a knife, a dime, a nail file......

Hard Wire: 

A wire to wire connection, meaning the device has no plug.


to provide the plumbing pipes and electrical wiring that service a fixture and installed so its ready for hook-up of fixture,  but is not the fixture or device itself.


To apply a smooth finish coat of mud or plaster

Pink (n):

Refers to the insulation.

Pink it (v):

A nail hole filler compound that goes on pink, dries white.  I find it really cracks a lot over time though.


To cut lengths of panel product, mouldings or lumb etc. down in size


Slang for drywall,,,ie’ gypsum board, blue board.

Blue Board:

Moisture and mildew resistant gypsum board faced in blue paper.


A construction or millwork detail that refers to a recessed gap, intentional and predetermined, its a design detail.

Factory Edge:

The pre-finished edge on a material as made by the mfg.

Dry lay:

To mock-up or temporarily lay out floor tiles.


To feed new wire or cable thru existing structure to its new location.

Swiss Cheese:

This is usually what your ceiling and walls look like after your electrician or home automation technician are finished their ‘fishing’ expedition. Typically they use a 4” diameter hole saw to remove the drywall where needed and save these ‘discs’ of drywall so they can be screwed back in the hole and patched. (ok so not a technical term per say but I use it all the time!)

Hole Saw:

Big round circular drill bit.  


Electrical conduit box, this is where the wires are pulled to, then the actual outlet or switch device is hardwired within this box.  Boxes are sold for either new work (new construction) or old work (existing walls/ceilings) applications.

Flush: (not the toilet!)

To install flat to something or level with something, ie; flush mount.  Also refers to a flat surface, ie; flush doors.


A sheet size of a solid material such as stone or marble but also refers to poured concrete.


Or dead wood.  Wood reinforcement on or behind the wall board to provide extra support for wall mounted items.


to strap something is to install a nailing strip, (to accept nails or screws) for fastening board material.


Literally string, installed from the source panel to the device location in lieu of cable.  This allows for easier telephone, speaker, network or tv cable to be installed after the walls and ceiling have been closed up (meaning you'll have no swiss cheese!) The installer simply attaches his cable to the end of the string and pulls it thru,,,,,hoping the string doesn't break.

Camera it:

To camera your sewer or plumbing lines means to drop a video scope into a pipe to inspect it and survey its location.

Core Drill:

To drill a hole thru or partially thru a concrete slab, to remove a section of it.  This is typically not allowed in condo renovations as it compromises the structural integrity of the slab, being the subfloor and structure that supports the unit above.    Usually if core drilling is allowed it must first be reviewed and approved by a structural engineer and the property managers.

Trench:  to dig up your concrete slab in your basement thru to the ground beneath.


Referring to a dimension on a plan, this means its acceptable for this dimension to be an inch or 2 more or less than the number stated.


To site measure for a custom fabrication ie; marble counters or glass shower enclosure.  Work must be completed to a certain point before its ready for templating.

As Built:

Refers to the current existing built conditions of a space, which are not necessarily the same as the builders plans or the design drawings on hand.  Once a project is underway, the actual as-built dimensions always need to be verified against the dimensions on the proposed design plans.  Never build or design anything from a plan without verifying the as-built.

This is just a very general overview of some basic terms,,,,,,and each particular aspect of construction has its own specific set of jargon, ie; framing, drywall, stairs, tile setting, mouldings, doors and windows etc.. and in future posts I’ll elaborate on some of those terms.  In any case, my advice to anyone who's contemplating hiring an interior designer to oversee or advise them on the renovation of their entire house or even just one room,,,,you really should hope they speak 'construction speak' no matter who they are or aren't married to!