Kevin McCloud's guide to architectural definitions

Get to grips with the language of architecture with our insider’s guide – and can keep it close to hand while you watch the latest episode of Grand Designs

Title image: Matt Chisnall

Any self-builder worth his or her salt should know an insertion from an intervention. If you don’t, Kevin McCloud’s helpful summary of technical terms and definitions will spare your blushes


The budget will be double what you thought.


A term used to describe, in a finished building, the confluence of experiences and views that no one had expected or that no one had bothered to figure out beforehand.


An object to keep beverage containers hot, in a choice of new materials such as vermiculite concrete, orientated strand board or 316-grade marine stainless steel. An investigation will almost certainly be necessary before the design narrative of the ‘cosy’ can be evolved.

Desire line

The quickest possible route to the fridge or sofa.

Elegant solution

A fabulous and gravity-defying piece of architecture or element of your building. Usually not cheap and nearly always designed by the structural engineer.


What you send your cheque in.


Dress material such as linen or cotton available from all good haberdashers.

Fitness for purpose

Precisely what it says.


More painful than an intervention. An insertion usually looks as though it’s been thrust right inside a building, without the help of any lubrication.


Investigations usually result in an intervention or two. An intervention is a bit added or changed. The term might also be used, in the strategic, chess sense of the word, to describe an architect’s swift move to block any attempt by the client to change things.


What architects do first, which is to meet you, find out stuff and have a good look around the site.


A story, particularly of a place. The experience of walking through a building, where rooms are episodic chapters, the carpet the prose style and the door handles the full stops. Grammar can be highly idiosyncratic. Most architects like to put owners’ belongings and paraphernalia in grey boxes in the appendix.

Object of enchantment

A fabulously expensive and bespoke detail in your building of particular delight to you, the purpose and meaning of which will remain completely obscure to all your friends. It will require complex annual maintenance and may fall off.


The aspect of your building, in other words which way it faces. Accept nothing other than south.


In the continuous fabric of the envelope, an opaque term for windows.

Random disarticulation in the urban grain

Wibbly-wobbly buildings.


Mending a building, usually very, very slowly, involving (in the best possible conservation tradition) the use of traditional materials coupled with fantastically expensive high-tech solutions. Thus the wall of your cottage may be grouted with cheap lime and cow-dung slurry, but also strengthened with 50 titanium explosive bolts, at £1,100 each.

[Here’s a tip: modern conservation builders, such as stonemasons and carpenters who bring years of experience to the art of carving and careful replacement, treat ‘conservators’ (remedial specialists who have PhDs in chemistry) with barely disguised contempt).] Traditionally, repaired buildings often have highly modern insertions (that hardly touch the old building) or interventions (tortuously argued changes to the old fabric of the building).


Mending a building, usually very, very quickly, with a lot of postulated ideas about how it might have looked. General builders like this approach because it’s fast. Architects abhor it because it smacks of pastiche and fakery.

However, they are allowed to change their minds and choose the restore rather than repair option if they feel it’ll provide a bigger opportunity for a major intervention or insertion.


(as in insertion, intervention or sometimes glass): Utterly opaque or impenetrable.

For all things architecture and self-building visit Grand Designs Live and see Kevin McCloud speak at the Grand Theatre. 

Words: Kevin McCloud, from the original article on Grand Designs Magazine

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