VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Putting construction, engineering into laymen’s terms

Keywords Environment / Utilities
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Sometimes those of us in the construction industry-like many other professions-forget we have our own technical vocabulary that many laymen simply don’t understand.

Like some of my colleagues, I have occasionally started tossing around the lingo of our industry
before business and civic leaders from other fields and have seen the confused look that comes over their faces. I have to stop and define my terms.

With that situation in mind, I thought it might be helpful to put together a small glossary of some of the most-used terms in architecture and construction-expressions that frequently need to be explained in simple, non-technical English.


AutoCAD, or CAD for short, is a computer-aided design program used for creation of the industry’s graphical information. AutoCAD has drastically decreased the industry’s production time and has allowed for clear and concise information. In addition, computer-aided drafting has allowed for both two-dimensional and three-dimensional modeling, thus providing a representation of an idea more effectively.

Civil engineering

The practice of designing public spaces and spaces surrounding buildings. This includes site amenities such as parking lots, all drainage systems, both above and below ground, as well as all underground utilities. It’s a term that also applies to the design and construction of roads, bridges and dams.

Construction manager

A firm that manages and oversees the construction process on behalf of the owner. A construction manager holds a contract with the owner. The CM is hired on the basis of a predetermined fee. The owner generally holds the contracts with the typical sub-contactor such as roofing and masonry, but may also hold the contracts of several specialty sub-contractors such as IT and communications, whose efforts will be coordinated by the construction manager.

Critical path method

A graphical scheduling method where all of the tasks necessary to complete a project are charted in the sequence in which they must occur. The CPM is an informative tool for deadlines.


A type of project delivery approach that views design and construction as integral responsibilities. The owner has only one contract, with the designer/builder, where
as in a design-bid-build structure, the owner holds a contract with at least two entities, the architect and the builder.

Fast tracking

A type of project-delivery scheduling that attempts to decrease total project time by overlapping the design and construction phases.

In these projects, contracts are awarded to different contractors in stages, as the design is completed. For example, work on the foundation can begin while the design details for mechanical systems are being completed

General contractor

A contractor who holds a contract with the owner to complete the project. The contract is generally awarded to the lowest and best bidder. The general contractor holds all contracts with sub-contractors.


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide data and software tools to planners, realtors, environmental scientists, geologists, demographers, health officials, infrastructure managers, and many other people to visualize information in a more intuitive way.

Addresses, customer numbers, manhole numbers, and map coordinates are examples of data that can be tied to specific places on earth and can be used to spatially or geographically link information.

Green Architecture:

The practice of designing buildings to minimize the impact of the building on its environment. This includes using recycled materials and energy efficient systems.

MEP Engineer

Mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers are integral members of a design team. The drawings and specifications prepared by these individuals contain information regarding building operational systems, such as dimensions and sizes of heating systems, electrical components, along with water supply and waste removal of a facility.


“Quality Assurance” is a review process used by any company or entity to ensure the quality of their work.

Structural Engineer

The drawings and specifications prepared by these individuals contain information regarding building’s structural systems, such as dimensions and sizes of beams, columns, load bearing walls, concrete slabs and foundations.

While our industry has many other technical terms as well, these are among the most used. Hope you find them helpful – and understandable.

Green is president and chief operating officer of Paul I. Cripe Inc., an Indianapolis-based architectural and engineering firm. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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