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Death by Buzzwords? How About Death to Buzzwords

The words and phrases architects use sometimes put others on the outside looking in

By Scott Frank
Director, AIA Media Relations

When I saw The Atlantic Cities headline “Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014,” I was excited to see their editors suggest ridding the design and planning vocabulary of such nebulous terms like, “placemaking” and “tactical urbanism.”  Soon after, Ecobuilding Pulse took aim at “Green Building Words That Should be Retired,” and I got the idea to host one of the AIA’s monthly Twitter chats that would aspire to identify ways to better articulate the value of design.

So, I asked some media contacts with Fast Company, The Atlantic Cities and Ecobuilding Pulse to join the conversation and share their perspectives on how we might adjust the terminology related to architecture, urban policy issues and sustainable design. In an ideal world, we could kick start a process that might banish banal buzzwords and help neutralize a noxious nomenclature.

A colleague shared this article that he wrote that was intended to raise some awareness about how architects can hamstring their own communications. And while it is obviously a satire piece intended to poke some good-natured fun, it contained some cringe-inducing realizations nonetheless. Like, do architects really refer to ceilings as “overhead conditions”? Oh boy…

Questions for the Twitter chat included:

  • What architectural and design buzzwords need to be retired?
  • How do architects sometimes sabotage their own communication efforts with clients, media and general public?
  • How can we better advance green building efforts through communication and specific word choices?

The responses came quickly, and the genuine excitement that the participants had was an indication this was an important issue. There were complaints about the lack of meaning for “value engineering,” and the negative connotation associated with conducting an “energy audit,” as well as some disdain for broader terms like “green” and “iconic,” which have become lost in a sea of overused irrelevance. While there weren’t any viable alternative terms to the buzzwords that we were hoping to replace (perhaps a topic for a future Twitter chat?), there were some clear takeaways that hopefully will resonate with both practitioners and those of us who communicate about architecture or on behalf of architects and their work.

    1. Using plain English and layman’s terms can have the strongest impact with any audience. Overly technical jargon and “archi-speak” is off-putting and can alienate clients, journalists, and the general public.

    2. Speaking in terms of how design solutions can bring value (economic/environmental/quality-of-life) is the best way to bring to life the story you are trying to tell.

    3. Making claims about green or sustainable design are best done when they can be substantiated with energy performance metrics or projections that can quantify the outcome of design strategies.

Please keep in mind, the intent of this effort is intended to be the starting point of a larger discussion about improving communications both about architecture and from architects (even if it was administered with some “tough love”).

In the spirit of the Repositioning the AIA effort, consider this the first in an occasional series dedicated to offering help and suggestions for greater communication, and don’t be afraid to propose topics that you are interested in learning more about. You can reach me at or @aia_media on Twitter.

Big thanks to Shaunacy Ferraro, Sarah Goodyear, Katie Weeks and Bill Richards for representing the media in this discussion. You can follow them on Twitter at @shaunacysays, @buttermilk1, @katieweeks and @wrichardsiv.


Recent Related:

Architect Magazine: Word Wars



Visit the Repositioning the AIA website.


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