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On the house: Some of my best friends are architects

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Posted on: June 15, 2023

By Matt Menke

Matt Menke lives in College Park and is a licensed Maryland home inspector.

Can you believe the Joneses called their mullions muntins? Did you SEE the cornice returns on that thing? I just can’t get anyone to work on my mansard … Yes, I am speaking in another language. It’s the language of architects, who have a name for everything about a house, inside and out. These terms trickle down to us in many languages from the most beautiful buildings in the world, and they can be fun to learn. 

Having a basic vocabulary can also come handy when you’re communicating with contractors; it  can set the tone for your interaction and signal that you’re no dummy. And once you know what That Thing There is called, you’ll see every house that has one of them, think about why it’s there, and grow your own sense of style. 

Without further ado, here are 10 of the house parts people most commonly ask home inspectors about:

  • Plinth. In its simplest form, a plinth is the square or rectangular block at the base of a column. If you have a pedestal sink in your bathroom, it may have a plinth at the base. Some doorways have them at the base as a decorative element, too. 
  • Lintel. This is the main support across the top of a door or window. In a brick house, the lintel is often steel; in a wood house, it’s typically a sturdy beam.
  • Sill. The horizontal board at the base of a window. Walls are constructed with a sill, too, which is also called a plate. 
  • Gable. The triangular top of an exterior wall where two slanted roofs form a peak.
  • Dormer. A dormer is a window that projects out from the rest of a sloped roof. Dormers have their own small roof that juts out perpendicular to the main roof. 
  • Pilaster. A vertical cosmetic element, like a column, only rectangular in shape, and attached to a wall. 
  • Cornice. It’s a fancy trim at the top of either an interior or exterior wall. It can be a simple board covering the top row of brick or ornately embellished or sculpted trim.
  • Cantilever. A horizontal structure that juts out past supports. If you have a deck that extends horizontally  past the posts below, you have a cantilever. Cantilevers have to be carefully engineered to ensure proper support and balance; you don’t want your deck to be a seesaw.
  • Corbel. An element protruding from the wall, like a bracket; a corbel can be functional, supporting a structure above it, or simply decorative — think cherubs and acanthus leaves. Rakes. Unlike the eaves, the low edges of your roof where gutters hang, the rakes are the roof edges that extend out and run up to the peak of the gable. They’re tough to keep painted so people often clad them with metal.

That didn’t hurt too much, right? Your homework is to use one of these terms talking with someone you know this week, so when they can look at you sideways, you know the look  I get just about every time I open my mouth. In the meantime I’l be in the kitchen, with a glass of cold lemonade, just leaning on the window sill.

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