Insider’s Guide: Church Architecture Terms

One of the most common misconceptions about architects is that they have a special jargon of their own that isn’t accessible to the layman. That’s simply not true. While the art and science of architecture has many specialized terms, they don’t have to be a secret. Here are some church architecture terms that you may hear when discussing your next project with Vanman Architects and Builders:

Steeple

Most people will know this one. The steeple refers to the large, vertical structure that sits atop the church. Its purpose is to act as a landmark. The church steeple is often the tallest building in town, which means that people can easily identify it and locate the church.

Nave

This is one of the church architecture terms that you know about, but probably don’t reference it by its technical name. The nave is simply the area in front of the pulpit, where the majority of the congregation will sit during the service. This area will have the pews or other seating arrangements and be oriented towards the pulpit.

Narthex

This term used to refer to an annex behind the congregation area, but nowadays, it’s a fancy word for your church’s lobby. Many modern churches use their lobby as multipurpose areas, going so far as to implement religious book stores or small cafes. If you want to keep it simple, furnish your narthex with cozy seating and relevant reading material. It’ll make the church lobby a congregation spot before the service even begins!

Sacristy

In terms of church architecture terms, you may not hear this one often. The sacristy is a small room in the Catholic church where a priest can dress for his sermon. This is also where the vestments of the clergy are stored, which is why it is also often called the vestry. Interestingly, these rooms have an interesting plumbing system. Inside this room, there is a special basin that drains directly to the ground so that sacred waters can avoid being piped into the sewage system. If you need a sacristy in your church, be sure to let your architect knows so that the proper plumbing system can be authorized.

Buttress

While it’s not your everyday architecture, you may be interested in building a more classically-structured church. If so, buttresses may come into conversation. Buttresses typically come in two versions. The standard buttress is a structure that is built against another wall to help brace it. These can be wedge shaped and pressed against the wall, or built into an existing wall as additional support. A flying buttress, on the other hand, is arch shaped and stretches from a wall out to another, larger piece of the building. This helps reduce the lateral weight on the wall.