Vernacular Architecture: The Characteristics That Give it Shape

Vernacular architecture includes structures developed by local and indigenous groups using native building products and techniques. Vernacular architecture is difficult to define because it’s variable across the world.

Experts claim that vernacular architecture makes up 95% of structures around the globe. These buildings are a process of trial and error, resulting in improved techniques over many years.

Vernacular architecture is efficient and well-suited to the environment, making them some of the most lasting structures over time.

What is Vernacular Architecture?

What is Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular means indigenous or local, but this has not always been an accepted architectural idea. Locals have practiced this type of architecture since ancient times, but scholars did not use the phrase “vernacular architecture.” The phrase was first used by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1857 as a derisive term to describe buildings in styles other than Gothic Revival.

Architect Bernard Rudofsky next used the term in 1964 in an exhibition at MoMA and a book that he titled Architecture Without Architects. These works featured buildings from around the world and popularized the idea and the term “vernacular architecture.” Other words for this idea include “folk architecture” and “traditional architecture.”

Indigenous architecture is now the subject of a distinct field of study. Architects and historians value the way vernacular architecture reflects the values, culture, and achievements of certain groups.

Vernacular architecture also inspires modern architects to create more sustainable structures they can base in local tradition.

Characteristics of Vernacular Architecture

Experts define vernacular architecture based on characteristics organic to a particular environment.

  • Local artisans and builders create vernacular architecture rather than professional architects.
  • These craftsmen utilize local resources. These resources are naturally adaptable to the environment.
  • Vernacular buildings do not have a pure architectural style but are a mix of styles.
  • Builders create vernacular structures in response to a specific need and purpose.
  • Vernacular architecture may have a certain cultural significance and serves as a symbol of identity and history.
  • Vernacular architecture will have less impact on the surrounding environment as builders use local materials that they don’t need to source from a great distance.

Modern Impact of Vernacular Architecture

The study of vernacular style has had a significant influence on modern architects.

Interest in local building techniques came from architects and designers of the Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired other groups like the Prairie school. These architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, wanted to create architecture more fitting to the United States’ landscape rather than the typical European styles.

Inspired by vernacular architecture, modern architects sought materials more appropriate to the natural environment. This technique gave the added benefit of making the structure more sustainable.

Vernacular architecture also influenced modern architects in terms of design. They wanted to create buildings that would reflect localities. These ideas gave rise to the practices of regionalism and contextualism, which are more common today.

Factors That Influence Vernacular Architecture

Many diverse influences impact how people construct their dwellings and city buildings.

  • Climate – Climate is one of the most significant factors influencing architecture development in a specific region. For example, if the weather is hot, buildings will feature openings to allow in breezes and keep the interior cool. Buildings in cold environments limit the openings to the outside to keep the warm air from escaping.
  • Material Availability – Certain geographic regions contain different materials that local craftsmen use for building. Areas with abundant supplies of clay will build adobe-style huts and houses. Likewise, in regions with ample supplies of timber, travertine, and marble.
  • Technology – The level of technological development in a region impacts the type and size of the architecture. It was after the invention of concrete that Romans built the vast structures that still last today.
  • Religion – The practices and type of religion in areas impact the type and location of buildings. In India, craftsmen constructed temples near the water because people had to wash before entering.
  • Culture – The culture of each country develops in unique ways, which influence the type of buildings they create. In Japan, sliding lattice doors were essential in home design because of the climate. Still, they became central in the Japanese tea ceremony, which includes the delicate opening of these paper-thin doors.
  • Access to the Outside World – The amount of access a group has to the outside world impacts their particular building techniques. When geography protects groups from the outside world, they use local architectural practices. But their techniques change when the groups can exchange ideas and products with others.
  • Terrain – The type of environmental terrain impacts building designs. Mountain terrain will produce a different kind of indigenous architecture than desert terrain.
  • Mobility – Groups of people who move create structures they can move with them, like the tipis of the native people of North America or the yurts of the Kazakhs in Central Asia. Groups that practice farming build permanent structures.

Vernacular Architecture by Region Type

Vernacular architecture will look different depending on the region and building use.

  • Rural Regions – Vernacular buildings in rural environments reflect more traditional and rustic ways of life. These include barns, sheds, cabins, and farmhouses. These are rustic structures because of the inability to source materials other than those they find in a small local context.
  • Urban Regions – Urban regions feature some of the most sophisticated vernacular designs. In these regions, there is more exchange of ideas and materials. These include buildings useful in a larger social context, like schools, churches, apartments, and city buildings.
  • Coastal Regions – Craftsmen build coastal vernacular architecture to withstand the harsh weather of the coast, like storms and flooding. Coastal vernacular architecture includes lighthouses, fishing villages, and docks.
  • Desert Regions – Builders create desert architecture to withstand the heat, dust, and wind of desert regions. Desert structures include adobe houses, yurts, tent houses, and earth-beamed houses.
  • Mountain Regions – Like rural styles, craftsmen create vernacular mountain architecture in remote environments where they might not find abundant materials. Further, they need to build these structures to withstand a harsh climate. Examples of vernacular mountain architecture include chalets, barns, and cabins.

Significant Examples of Vernacular Architecture

Some vernacular architectural structures have amazing longevity and last as reminders of a group of people and their stories.

The Great Wall of China

Vernacular Architecture - Great Wall Of China

Architectural historians consider the Great Wall of China an example of vernacular architecture. Local artisans built the wall for a specific need using local materials. The structure reflects the local building techniques developed in China and represents an important cultural symbol.

Ancestral Puebloan Dwellings

Ancestral Puebloan Dwellings

The Pueblo people built towns and villages across the Southwest United States. They made these structures from adobe mud, sandstone, and other local materials. Puebloan buildings include apartment complexes built into cliff walls, great houses, pit houses dug into the earth, and jacal.


Haveli India Vernacular Architecture

A haveli is a manor house, mansion, or townhome in India. These homes were popular under the Mughal Empire. Craftsmen use local materials like sandstone, marble, wood, plaster, and granite to build them. They also use traditional decoration techniques, including frescos with traditional Hindu images, local animals, and images from British colonization. The builders designed these structures to allow ventilation to all parts of the home, adapting to the warm climate.