Vernacular Architecture: Organic Homebuilding Aesthetics

Vernacular architecture is a building practice that uses local resources to address structural demands. One of the most unique types of architecture in this world today. Other architectural styles are hanging on by a thread while those, like vernacular architecture, are thriving.

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The famous architectural photographer and historical preservationist Richard Nickel once said,

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”

Preservation efforts are underway to preserve the vernacular architecture of the world. The buildings and structures weren’t designed by famous architects or designers, they were built by regular people. 

Vernacular architecture feels like a broad term but it’s specific. Each region of the world has its own vernacular styles. 

What Is Vernacular Architecture? 

Vernacular architecture is a type of architecture that’s inherent to its location. This is because it’s indigenous to its home region. It isn’t a style that can be put onto paper or replicated. 

The materials and style are regional. Unlike Bauhaus architecture or brutalism, vernacular is pragmatic, organic, and based on geographical location. 

A home isn’t defined by the design style but rather by its environment. The most important part is location. Unlike traditional architecture that doesn’t take into consideration its natural environment, the vernacular aesthetic relies solely on local materials.  

For example, an igloo is vernacular unless it is built in the desert or another warm climate. It is only vernacular if it is built in the cold where it is indigenous to the region. With that process, you can find out if any home is vernacular. 

History Of Vernacular Architecture

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Vernacular architecture is the oldest form of architecture. Cave dwellers were the first to develop the vernacular style. As it’s based on local materials and resources, people built structures to stay alive rather than impress onlookers.

Throughout history, local builders, or those who built houses at the time, were not involved in vernacular architecture. 

The term “vernacular architecture” emerged in the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 60s when American visionary Buckminster Fuller began promoting the idea of sustainable living. 

Characteristics Of Vernacular Architecture 

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Specific characteristics make architecture vernacular. While the definition is tentative it refers to homes or buildings with specific styles of architecture in the region known by the locals. 

Sustainable Housing

Vernacular architecture isn’t a design movement like the Bauhaus school. It’s a manifestation of the immediate geographical surroundings. 

Buckminster Fuller is remembered as an “architectural futurist.” What made him a visionary was his ideas on sustainability.

Buckminster Fuller said, “A house is a machine for living,” and vernacular architecture fits with this idea. 

With vernacular homes, each one is designed to perform throughout the year. However, everything hinges on the environment. The builders, otherwise known as the home’s inhabitants, know the local environment better than anyone. 

Vernacular architecture hinges on pragmatism. In a way, it’s like an outdoor version of the Bauhaus principles regarding interior decor.

Unlike modern architecture, if a material or object doesn’t serve a purpose, then it won’t be used.  A vernacular house doesn’t rely on decoration or flair to impress neighbors.

Local Materials

In vernacular architecture, locally sourced materials are used to build homes.  Those who live in forest, for example, will use wood and other organic materials to build homes. 

Cultural 

This type of architecture doesn’t show off culture in the way that is often done today. Instead, people would use religious symbols and cultural icons for their own pleasure in their homes.

This was the norm and is still often done in many cultures today. The cultures shown were local as well as ancestral. People would honor their families by displaying their culture in their homes for their immediate family to learn about. 

Vernacular Architecture Styles 

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Different types of vernacular homes have emerged. Each country has its own style of vernacular architecture.

Vernacular architecture is a product of its environment. If the home looks out of place or too eclectic, it isn’t vernacular. 

Iceland – Turf Houses

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Turf houses are a combination of underground dwellings and traditional homes. Each home is built into the land which explains why their chief characteristic is a grassy roof.

The homes use flat stones as a foundation. Driftwood or birch is used for the frames. The homes are covered with multiple layers of turf. Glass was a rarity, so homes had small windows. And the roof would have one small hole for ventilation.

Yemen – Mud Towers

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Yemen’s mud towers are thousands of years old. A mud tower is a home with seven storeys built in a mountain.

The homeowner lives on the top floor. The first floor is for dry storage. The second floor is the kitchen and dining area. The third floor is for ladies. The fourth floor is for guests and the remaining floors are reserved for the family.

Central Asia – Yurt

Yurt homes were made famous by the Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan.  Due to the nomadic population, tribes needed housing that was easy to build and move.

The originals yurts were circular structures made of sheep’s wool and relied on very little wood. Interior temperatures were easy to control during hot and cold months.

Igloo

The igloo is recognized worldwide. It is a regional home style made with snow and ice. It’s an example of vernacular architecture because the home uses snow and ice and is indigenous. 

Created by the Inuits, igloos provide protection to families from the below-freezing temperatures by shielding them from the wind and giving them a good place to build a fire in the snow.

Teepee

The teepee is a Native American style homemade with animal skins and wood. It is durable, warm, and comfortable. It can also keep families dry during rains and cool during heat waves in the summer.

Teepees are portable. They can be taken apart and put back together, just like a traditional tent. It was designed to create a safe way for Native American Indians to create indoor fires without smoke filling their living spaces. 

Dugout 

A dugout uses the ground and is built on a hill. This type of home is in the ground so it’s cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. 

Chalet

Chalets were first built in Switzerland but soon moved to Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, France, and Scandinavia during the Belle Époque era. Today, they are seen everywhere. 

While chalets were more ornate than other homes, the basis of them included gabled roofs with wide eaves, exposed beams, and weatherboarding. Many homes draw inspiration from traditional chalets. 

Minka

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Minka homes are native to Japan. They once belonged to non-samurai castes like farmers and merchants. Throughout Southeast Asia, the vernacular style is centered on practicality.

The minka homes were box-like and open-concept. They are the traditional Japanese homes you imagine when you think of Japan. Furniture was to a minimum but the architecture was ahead of its time. 

True Farmhouse

The first farmhouses were examples of vernacular architecture. While today’s farmhouse has been modernized and is often considered high-end, the traditional farmhouse was anything but. 

Farmers weren’t wealthy. They had to build their homes. The style is considered folk architecture. Unlike contemporary architecture, the homes were built slowly and by hand. Often, they used only what they could find on their property. 

Cob House

A cob house is made of cob, of course. Cob is subsoil, water, fibrous organic material, and sometimes lime. It is an old type of house and is one of the oldest building materials in the world.

Cobb house materials are as old as Mother Nature herself. Literally forever. Plus, it was easy to create without tools whereas houses made of wood or large stones would have been difficult to make. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)FAQ

What Is The Underlying Premise Of Vernacular Architecture?

It’s an architectural style that isn’t designed to impress onlookers. Instead, it uses principles that are applied to building methods. It’s about survival, not status.

How Do Homes In Tropical Regions Use Vernacular Architecture To Stay Cool?

Homes in hot, tropical climates feature verandahs, balconies, and terraces that facilitate natural ventilation and air conditioning by allowing cross breezes to flow through the rooms. 

How Has Advanced Building Technology Hurt Existing Structures?

Cement renders, plastic paints, sealants, damp-proof membranes, and insulation materials serve as barriers that suffocate a building. What happens next is the building will become damp, unhealthy, and thermally inefficient because its walls will be less insulated than if it were dry.

Vernacular Architecture Wrap Up

It’s surprising how vernacular buildings make up 90 percent of the world’s buildings and roughly 800 million homes. With vernacular architecture, technology is coincidental. It’s not an easy decision to make when choosing an architectural style. Reasons for choosing vernacular architecture are based on its characteristics

Vernacular architecture is simple, affordable, and an example of how minimalism can save the planet. If this sounds like you, then you may want to become part of the vernacular architecture family. 

If you aren’t a minimalist but like vernacular architecture, you can still find a place. This means that you appreciate culture. Vernacular architecture is a way to do this while staying true to your region.