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Construction Terms You Need to Know

The growth of modular construction has put construction terms on your need-to-know list. Learn the lingo and use it like a pro with this handy dictionary that covers the entire construction process, from planning and designing to financing, constructing and delivering a new facility.

Architect of Record (AOR)

The architectural firm or individual architect listed on a construction project’s building permits, responsible for submitting the application, project drawings and building specifications to the state regulatory authority.

Attorney General Opinion 05-405

A 2006 legal opinion rendered by the California Attorney General defining which buildings can be purchased via piggyback contracting and which cannot: “A school district may not, without advertising for bids, contract with another public agency to acquire factory-built modular building components for installation on a permanent foundation.

Building Lifecycle

A 2006 legal opinion rendered by the California Attorney General defining which buildings can be purchased via piggyback contracting and which cannot: “A school district may not, without advertising for bids, contract with another public agency to acquire factory-built modular building components for installation on a permanent foundation.

Building Systems

Manufactured components designed and assembled to provide specific building configurations.

Non-Volumetric Components

Flat, one-dimensional building components that do not individually enclose space and must be assembled section by section at the building site to form a six-sided space. Roof trusses, wall panels, floor systems and cabinetry are non-volumetric building components.

Volumetric Building Module

An individual three-dimensional module that is fully-built, integrating walls, floor and roof to form a fully-enclosed, six-sided space that can be seamlessly connected with other modules onsite to form a complete building.

California Code of Regulations (CCR)

A collection of 29 legal codes enacted by the California State Legislature, which collectively form the general statutory law of California. The codes most relevant to education and public contracting include:

California Education Code (EDC or Ed Code)

A collection of laws directly related to California K-12 public schools that regulate the actions of local school boards and county offices of education. The Ed Code is permissive, allowing California school districts to take any action not specifically prohibited by code.

California Public Contract Code (PCC)

A collection of laws created to provide uniformity in public contracts, encouraging and providing clarification for competitive bidding and aiding public officials in the efficient administration of, and full compliance with, the awarding of public contracts.

California Sales and Use Tax Regulations

A collection of laws regulating the tax liability for California businesses, including construction contractors who sell or lease tangible personal property, with liability dependent on how materials, fixtures and equipment are purchased and how and where such items are assembled.

Regulation 1521

A section of the California Sales and Use Tax that defines a school building wholly or substantially manufactured at an offsite location for installation on a site owned or leased by a school district or a community college district as a “Factory-built School Building (relocatable classroom)”. Regulation section 1521.4 states “a contract to furnish and install factory-built school buildings is not a construction contract but rather is a sale of tangible personal property.”

Change Order (CO)

A written document between a project’s owner and general contractor (or between the general contractor and a subcontractor) authorizing a modification to the original contract terms, specifications, costs or schedule. A change order is executed when signed by all parties or their authorized representatives.

Code-Compliant Building

A building that is designed, constructed and independently inspected to ensure it meets the specific requirements of the state building code regulations.


The process of testing and verifying that the finished building and building systems, including HVAC, electrical, plumbing and security, perform as intended. Commissioning is conducted as part of the building closeout and includes onsite staff training to ensure the proper operation and maintenance of building systems and equipment.

Competitive Bidding

A process mandated by the California Public Contract Code to stimulate competition and protect against misuse of public funds by requiring public agencies to conduct an open bidding procedure for public construction projects, where all qualified bidders are given the opportunity to submit a bid before a contract is awarded.

Construction Contract

A legal written agreement between a contractor and an owner or public agency to erect, construct, alter, improve, repair or demolish a building, structure or facility.

Cost-Plus Contract

A legal contract where the contractor is compensated for allowed expenses plus an agreed-upon fee as profit (interchangeable with Time and Materials Contract).

Lump Sum Contract

A legal contract where the contractor receives a single fixed price for the entire construction project.

Time and Materials Contract

A legal contract where the contractor is paid the project’s actual costs, including time and materials, plus tax.

Construction Cost

Contractor “hard costs” for materials, labor, equipment, overhead, profit and other direct construction costs and services; does not include “soft costs” like architect, designer, engineer and consultant fees, the cost of the land or other costs expressly defined in the contract as the responsibility of the owner.

Conventional Construction (also called site-built, stick-built, traditional)

A construction method where buildings are constructed ground-up onsite vs. manufactured offsite in a factory and delivered to the building site for installation.

Design-Build Delivery

A streamlined project delivery method where one company contracts to provide a single point of responsibility for the design and construction of an entire project, efficiently reducing costs, conflicts and delays.

Division of the State Architect (DSA)

A state regulatory body that provides design and construction oversight for K-12 schools, community colleges, essential services buildings and other state-owned and leased facilities, ensuring that all public buildings fully comply with California building code regulations.

DSA-Approved Pre-Check (PC) Designs

Architectural plans for commonly used structures that have been pre-checked to meet the criteria of the California Division of the State Architect and are pre-approved for incorporation into site-specific construction projects. The Pre-Check (PC) process streamlines DSA plan review, fast-tracking PC projects through design and procurement to accelerate product delivery.


A phase of construction where modular buildings are assembled wholly or partially in a controlled factory environment before delivery to the building site for installation and finishing.

Factory-Built School Building

A category defined by the California Code of Regulations Regulation 1521, Article 2, Subsection 4 as a relocatable classroom building “designed in compliance with state laws for school construction and approved by the structural safety section in the Division of the State Architect, which is either wholly manufactured or substantially manufactured at an offsite location for the purpose of being assembled, erected, or installed on a site owned or leased by a school district or a community college district.”


Wood, concrete or masonry building support beneath the first floor, constructed on or below grade.

Concrete Slab-on-Grade Foundation

An inflexible, permanent foundation where concrete is poured into a mold to form a slab that sits directly on grade, allowing no space between the ground and the finished building.

Concrete Stem Wall Foundation

A flexible foundation with a short continuous perimeter wall and concrete footings, allowing both on-grade building entry and easy access to plumbing, electrical and technology wiring and cable.

Permanent Foundation

An inflexible foundation that is permanently affixed to the land, making a building difficult to remove and relocate without significant damage to the structure and site; a concrete slab-on-grade foundation is considered permanent, while concrete stem wall foundations and wood foundations are not.

Wood Foundation

A flexible above-ground foundation constructed onsite using lumber; generally used for temporary or shorter lifecycle buildings and easily removed.

General Contractor (GC)

An individual, partnership, corporation or other business entity that serves as the contractor with primary responsibility for successful completion of a construction project. The GC signs the construction contract, hires subcontractors and suppliers, manages the budget and schedule and ensures all work is completed.

General Obligation Bond (GO Bond)

A voter-approved method of financing capital projects through long-term borrowing. School bonds may be used to fund the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation or improvement of educational facilities.

High Performance Building

A highly-efficient and sustainable building constructed to the highest health and environmental standards and best practices, with high-performance features, systems and technology integrated to optimize energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance and occupant comfort and productivity.


A phase of construction where factory-built building modules are placed and secured on a site-built foundation and connected to form a finished building.


A project delivery method where the owner leases a site to the contractor, who constructs a building(s) on the site then leases the finished building(s) back to the site owner for a contracted period of time before the building(s) vests to the site owner.

Master Plan

A comprehensive facilities planning document that details the policies, guidelines, goals and development standards for a school district or school campus, providing a clear vision of how the organization plans to grow, expand and update facilities to meet future needs.

Modernization (also called mod, renovation, reno or improvement)

The total or partial upgrading of an existing facility to meet higher standards of quality, functionality and/or performance, as opposed to constructing a completely new facility.

Modular Building

A type of building where materials are assembled into fully-built modules in the factory, then transported intact to the building site, where each module is placed on a concrete stem wall or wood foundation and connected to form a complete building. A modular building is piggybackable by code.

Modular Component Building

A type of building where prefabricated structural components (walls, roof, floor, etc.) are assembled separately in the factory, shipped flat to the building site and assembled on a permanent foundation (typically concrete slab-on-grade) by onsite contractors. A modular component building is not piggybackable by code.

Modular Construction

A sophisticated, highly automated construction process where a building is constructed offsite in a controlled factory environment, using the same materials and built to the same codes, standards and specifications as a traditional building but delivered on an accelerated schedule. Factory-produced building modules are connected onsite to form a complete building.

New Construction

The design and ground-up construction of a new building, as opposed to modernization or reconstruction of an existing structure. New construction includes the pouring or construction of a new foundation and floor, erection of a new frame and roof and installation of new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Offsite Construction

Construction that takes place away from the building site. Building modules constructed offsite are delivered to the building site 90-95% complete.

Onsite Construction

Construction that takes place, start to finish, at the building site.

Payment Bond

A written form of security from a surety company or other third-party issuer guaranteeing payment by a contractor or subcontractor to all persons providing labor, materials, equipment or services as set forth in a construction contract. Public works projects over $25,000 require a payment bond to be issued for each contract.

Performance Bond

A written third-party guarantee assuring that the winning bidder will complete all work according to the terms of the contract and project specs; provided in conjunction with a payment bond.

Personal Property

Legally defined as something other than land that is subject to ownership and is movable from place to place. Personal property can be tangible or intangible.

Tangible personal property

Can be physically handled. Modular buildings are tangible personal property.

Intangible personal property

Cannot be physically handled. Stocks, bonds and trust funds are intangible personal property.

Piggyback Contract

A procurement method that allows public agencies to acquire personal property outside the competitive bid process by utilizing, or “piggybacking” onto, a pre-existing contract from another public entity. Piggybacking saves time and resources, giving school districts and other public agencies the option to purchase tangible personal property, including modular buildings, under the same terms as the initial contract.  

Portable/Relocatable Classroom Building

Defined by California Education Code section 17070.15 as a classroom building of one or more stories that is designed and constructed to be relocatable and transportable over public streets, and with respect to a single-story portable classroom, is designed and constructed for relocation without the separation of the roof or floor from the building and when measured at the most exterior walls, has a floor area not in excess of 2,000 square feet.

Prefabricated Building (also called prefab, pre-manufactured)

An umbrella term for a building that is fabricated or manufactured, to some degree, in a factory or other offsite location, before transportation to the building site for finishing. Prefabricated buildings are different from traditional buildings, which are constructed start to finish at the building site.

Premium Modular Building

High-end, longer lifecycle modular buildings built to the same code, using the same high-quality materials, with the same 50+ year building lifecycle as site-built traditional buildings. AMS EVOLVE and GEN7 are premium modular buildings offered by AMS.


The multi-phased process of purchasing a building, from design and construction through delivery and finishing.


A collaborative endeavor between a government agency and a private sector company to plan, fund, build and maintain a construction project that benefits the public while generating income for the private entity.

Punch List

A list of incomplete, deficient or unacceptable work items compiled by the AOR prior to payment and requiring timely corrective action or completion by the contractor prior to payment.

Real Property

Legally defined as land or other property that is attached to land, including prefabricated component buildings affixed to a permanent foundation and not readily relocatable. Real property can’t be moved, unlike personal property, which is movable from place to place. 


Replacement of components or materials to return an existing building to its earlier state.

Request for Proposal (RFP)

A solicitation for procurement of a specific project or services, inviting vendors and contractors to submit a business proposal with an overview of their offerings and costs through a competitive bidding process.

Request for Quote (RFQ)

A solicitation for procurement of a specific project or services, inviting vendors and contractors to submit price quotes for the fulfillment of pre-determined tasks through a competitive bidding process.

Scope of Work (SOW)

An outline that details the services to be provided and the work to be performed under a construction contract, including project goals, guidelines, essential personnel and resources, deliverables, costs and schedule.

Specifications (also called specs)

A detailed description specifying the exact materials, methods and quality of work for the design and construction of a building project.


A contract worker hired by the general contractor to provide a skilled service or trade, such as electrical, plumbing, lighting or finish work, for a project

Third-Party Building Inspection

An independent inspection performed by a certified third-party official to ensure a building meets state safety and health standards. Modular public school buildings are inspected in the factory by third-party inspectors certified by California Division of the State Architect (DSA); modular private school buildings, commercial buildings and multi-unit housing buildings are inspected in the factory by third-party agencies certified through the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

Traditional Building (also called stick-built, site-built, conventional)

A building that is completely constructed, ground-up, at the jobsite by onsite contractors using building materials delivered to, and stored at, the build site.

Value Engineering

A systemic evaluation of construction materials and methods to achieve better results at the lowest life cycle cost. Value engineering identifies potential obstacles and opportunities, improving efficiency, shortening schedules and substituting materials and methods with less expensive alternatives, consistent with specified performance, reliability, maintainability, aesthetic and safety criteria.

That’s the end goal: a better building at a lower cost, delivered faster to meet the changing needs of a changing world.

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