What do Architects’ Acronyms Mean?

Architects love acronyms and abbreviations. No, that isn’t quite true; we absolutely love them, but we also rely upon them. All of our drawings and documents are filled with them. Still, as much as they’re ingrained in this profession, I absolutely can’t stand them. They’re confusing, mysterious, and do nothing to help us communicate with the people we serve.

A typical architecture drawing showing acronyms and their actual meanings.

Here's a typical architecture drawing with a smattering of abbreviations and their actual meanings.

The interesting thing about architecture, is that while everyone thinks we are designers and detailers, what we truly are, when you look at the root of everything we do, is communicators. Our drawings communicate our ideas to clients and contractors and our specifications communicate the myriad of other details we can’t draft. Our job should be to make that communication as clear and straight-forward as possible, but unfortunately, things like acronyms help build a wall. It ends up being very Us vs. Them, and if you have a timid personality, you’re often likely to assume you know what an acronym means instead of asking. And you know what they say about assuming things! As my mom was so fond of saying, “Assuming makes an ass out of u and me.”

As much as feasible, we try and pull out as many acronyms as possible in our drawings. Sometimes they can’t be pulled out (for a variety of reasons), or sometimes we just forget (as they’re so ingrained already in everything we do that you can often gloss over them), but our mission is to eliminate them from our discourse. In the meantime, though, here is a quick little summary of some of the more common acronyms used by architects so you can start to feel a bit more informed when someone speaks to you in “Archi-speak”!

  • AFF – Above Finish Floor

    This is an acronym commonly used in dimensioning. If you see a note saying 8’-0” AFF, it means that whatever is being referenced is 8 feet and zero inches above the surface of the finished floor (whatever you walk on, e.g. the surface of the tile, not the underlay) in that room.

  • AIAThe American Institute of Architects

    This is our professional organization that supports the profession of architecture, lobbies for us in the halls of government, and supports a variety of local and national events. You’ll see this after some architect’s names (like mine) which signify that they are members of the organization. Contrary to public opinion, while it does mean that the person with “AIA” after their name is a licensed architect, it doesn’t mean that someone without “AIA” after their name isn’t licensed. You can still be a licensed architect without being a member of the AIA.

  • ALT – Alternate

    This means that something should be provided as a separate line item as an alternate to what is otherwise drawn.

  • CL – Centerline

    Often, the L is drawn overlapping with the C. This will be found on dimensions and ensures that whatever is being referenced is aligned with the centerline of something.

  • CMU – Concrete Masonry Unit

    These are concrete “blocks” (did someone say LEGO?) that are stacked to form walls both for buildings and landscape walls. They are typically reinforced with rebar during construction, and often are a stand-in for poured concrete.

  • EXIST or E – Existing

    This means something is existing and not to be touched.

  • GC – General Contractor

    This is someone who builds your project and hires “sub-contractors” to perform specific work (electricians, plumbers, etc.).

  • OFCI – Owner Furnished and Contractor Installed

    This is an instance where a client will purchase something, but will have the contractor install it (like appliances or closet systems).

  • NTS – Not To Scale

    Anything drawn with a “NTS” next to it means that whatever you do, you should not get a physical scale out to measure anything. Read the text and ignore the dimensions and relative relationships of what is drawn. This is often done on drawings where it isn’t worth the time to revise them, but you still need to convey the information.

  • RFI – Request for Information

    A Request For Information is sent from the general contractor to the architect (usually) and is just what it sounds like. Typically, the contractor needs information to complete a detail, or order something.

  • RO – Rough Opening

    With things like windows and doors, the hole made in the framing to accept it is always bigger than the actual window or door, allowing it to be put into place. The space between the window and the opening is then shimmed with little bits of wood to make it plumb. Typically, the rough opening is only 1” or so bigger than the actual dimension of the physical door or window.

  • TYP – Typical

    This is one that I do actually love, even though I need to get rid of it, but it fits really nicely in our text for dimensioning. This stands for “typical” and means that if you see this listed once, everything else like this has the same note or dimension applied to it.

  • WC – Water Closet (Toilet Room)

    Typically a powder room with a sink, but every now and then I see a true “WC,” featuring a door and a toilet… and that’s it. Well, probably a really nasty door knob, as well.

  • W/D – Washer and Dryer.

    Nice and simple.

There are a slew more; a quick web search (finds over 3,300 of them! Whoa!). We include some in a list on the cover sheet of our drawings, shown below. We’ll never get rid of these pesky acronyms (which, of course, often mean different things in many different professions to add to the confusion), but hopefully we can help broaden the understanding between architects and everyone else to make this whole process far more transparent and accessible.

A partial list of acronyms used in architectural drawings.

Here's a partial list of some of the acronyms you'll see in architectural drawings.

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