Vernacular architecture

Vernacular architecture is a term used to categorize methods of construction which use locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists. It has often been dismissed as crude and unrefined, but also has proponents who highlight its importance in current design.

It can be contrasted against polite architecture which is characterised by stylistic elements of design intentionally incorporated for aesthetic purposes which go beyond a building's functional requirements.[1]

A "Plantation Cottage" style building on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. This is a vernacular architecture style developed in Hawaii in the epoch of sugar cane plantations.
Stone and clay houses in rural Nepal

The building knowledge in vernacular architecture is often transported by local traditions and is thus based largely - but not only - upon knowledge achieved by trial and error and handed down through the generations, in contrast to the geometrical and physical calculations that underlie architecture planned by architects. This of course does not prevent architects from using vernacular architecture in their designs or from being firmly based in the vernacular architecture of their regions. For the similarities to "traditional architecture" see below.



The term vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning "domestic, native, indigenous"; from verna, meaning "native slave" or "home-born slave". The word probably derives from an older Etruscan word.[2][3][4]

In linguistics, vernacular refers to language use particular to a time, place or group. In architecture, it refers to that type of architecture which is indigenous to a specific time or place (not imported or copied from elsewhere). It is most often applied to residential buildings.[5][6][7]


Ronald Brunskill has defined the ultimate in vernacular architecture as:

...a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal. Local materials would be used as a matter of course, other materials being chosen and imported quite exceptionally.[8]

The term is not to be confused with so-called "traditional" architecture, though there are links between the two. Traditional architecture can also include buildings which bear elements of polite design: temples and palaces, for example, which normally would not be included under the rubric of "vernacular." In architectural terms, 'the vernacular' can be contrasted with 'the polite', which is characterised by stylistic elements of design intentionally incorporated by a professional architect for aesthetic purposes which go beyond a building's functional requirements. Between the extremes of the wholly vernacular and the completely polite, examples occur which have some vernacular and some polite content,[9] often making the differences between the vernacular and the polite a matter of degree.

Dwelling of half-timbered construction on stone foundation, La Rioja, Spain

The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as:

...comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.[10]

Vernacular and the architect

Architecture designed by professional architects is usually not considered to be vernacular. Indeed, it can be argued that the very process of consciously designing a building makes it not vernacular. Paul Oliver, in his book Dwellings, states: " is contended that 'popular architecture' designed by professional architects or commercial builders for popular use, does not come within the compass of the vernacular."[11] Oliver also offers the following simple definition of vernacular architecture: "the architecture of the people, and by the people, but not for the people."[12]

Frank Lloyd Wright described vernacular architecture as "Folk building growing in response to actual needs, fitted into environment by people who knew no better than to fit them with native feeling".[13] suggesting that it is a primitive form of design, lacking intelligent thought, but he also stated that it was "for us better worth study than all the highly self-conscious academic attempts at the beautiful throughout Europe".

Many modern architects have studied vernacular buildings and claimed to draw inspiration from them, including aspects of the vernacular in their designs. In 1946, the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy was appointed to design the town of New Gourna near Luxor. Having studied traditional Nubian settlements and technologies, he incorporated the traditional mud brick vaults of the Nubian settlements in his designs. The experiment failed, due to a variety of social and economic reasons, but is the first recorded attempt by an architect to address the social and environmental requirements of building users by adopting the methods and forms of the vernacular.[14]

In 1964 the exhibition Architecture Without Architects was put on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York by Bernard Rudofsky. Accompanied by a book of the same title, including black-and-white photography of vernacular buildings around the world, the exhibition was extremely popular. It was Rudofsky who first made use of the term vernacular in an architectural context, and brought the concept into the eye of the public and of mainstream architecture: "For want of a generic label we shall call it vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be."[15]

Since the emergence of the term in the 1970s, vernacular considerations have played an increasing part in architectural designs, although individual architects had widely varying opinions of the merits of the vernacular.

Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa is considered the pioneer of regional modernism in South Asia. Along with him, modern proponents of the use of the vernacular in architectural design include Charles Correa, a well known Indian architect; Muzharul Islam and Bashirul Haq, internationally known Bangladeshi architects; Balkrishna Doshi, another Indian, who established the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad to research the vernacular architecture of the region; and Sheila Sri Prakash who has used rural Indian architecture as an inspiration for innovations in environmental and socio-economically sustainable design and planning. The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was also a proponent of vernacular architecture.[16] Architects whose work exemplifies the modern take on vernacular architecture would be Samuel Mockbee, Christopher Alexander and Paolo Soleri.

Oliver claims that:

As yet there is no clearly defined and specialized discipline for the study of dwellings or the larger compass of vernacular architecture. If such a discipline were to emerge it would probably be one that combines some of the elements of both architecture and anthropology with aspects of history and geography[17]

Influences on the vernacular

European-influenced log cabin in Bariloche (Patagonia), Argentina. To comply with strict local building codes, every piece of wood cut down from the property must be accounted for in the building of the cabin and related infrastructure, and the same number of trees must be replanted in the vicinity.

Vernacular architecture is influenced by a great range of different aspects of human behaviour and environment, leading to differing building forms for almost every different context; even neighbouring villages may have subtly different approaches to the construction and use of their dwellings, even if they at first appear the same. Despite these variations, every building is subject to the same laws of physics, and hence will demonstrate significant similarities in structural forms.


One of the most significant influences on vernacular architecture is the macro climate of the area in which the building is constructed. Buildings in cold climates invariably have high thermal mass or significant amounts of insulation. They are usually sealed in order to prevent heat loss, and openings such as windows tend to be small or non-existent. Buildings in warm climates, by contrast, tend to be constructed of lighter materials and to allow significant cross-ventilation through openings in the fabric of the building.

Buildings for a continental climate must be able to cope with significant variations in temperature, and may even be altered by their occupants according to the seasons.

Buildings take different forms depending on precipitation levels in the region - leading to dwellings on stilts in many regions with frequent flooding or rainy monsoon seasons. Flat roofs are rare in areas with high levels of precipitation. Similarly, areas with high winds will lead to specialised buildings able to cope with them, and buildings will be oriented to present minimal area to the direction of prevailing winds.

Climatic influences on vernacular architecture are substantial and can be extremely complex. Mediterranean vernacular, and that of much of the Middle East, often includes a courtyard with a fountain or pond; air cooled by water mist and evaporation is drawn through the building by the natural ventilation set up by the building form. Similarly, Northern African vernacular often has very high thermal mass and small windows to keep the occupants cool, and in many cases also includes chimneys, not for fires but to draw air through the internal spaces. Such specialisations are not designed, but learnt by trial and error over generations of building construction, often existing long before the scientific theories which explain why they work.


The way of life of building occupants, and the way they use their shelters, is of great influence on building forms. The size of family units, who shares which spaces, how food is prepared and eaten, how people interact and many other cultural considerations will affect the layout and size of dwellings.

For example, the family units of several East African tribes live in family compounds, surrounded by marked boundaries, in which separate single-roomed dwellings are built to house different members of the family. In polygamous tribes there may be separate dwellings for different wives, and more again for sons who are too old to share space with the women of the family. Social interaction within the family is governed by, and privacy is provided by, the separation between the structures in which family members live. By contrast, in Western Europe, such separation is accomplished inside one dwelling, by dividing the building into separate rooms.

Culture also has a great influence on the appearance of vernacular buildings, as occupants often decorate buildings in accordance with local customs and beliefs.

Nomadic dwellings

Stilt houses in Cempa, located in the Lingga Islands of Indonesia.
A Yurt or ger, a circular dwelling from Mongolia during erection
An Igloo, an Inuit winter dwelling

There are many cultures around the world which include some aspect of nomadic life, and they have all developed vernacular solutions for the need for shelter. These all include appropriate responses to climate and customs of their inhabitants, including practicalities of simple construction, and if necessary, transport.

The Inuit people have a number of different forms of shelter appropriate to different seasons and geographical locations, including the igloo (for winter) and the tupiq tent (for summer). The Sami of Northern Europe, who live in climates similar to those experienced by the Inuit, have developed different shelters appropriate to their culture, including the atnaris-kahte tent.[18] The development of different solutions in similar circumstances because of cultural influences is typical of vernacular architecture.

Many nomadic people use materials common in the local environment to construct temporary dwellings, such as the Punan of Sarawak who use palm fronds, or the Ituri Pygmies who use saplings and mongongo leaves to construct domed huts. Other cultures reuse materials, transporting them with them as they move. Examples of this are the tribes of Mongolia, who carry their yurts or gers with them, or the black desert tents of the Qashgai in Iran.[19] Notable in each case is the signicant impact of the availability of materials and the availability of pack animals or other forms of transport on the ultimate form of the shelters.

All the shelters will be adapted to suit the local climate. The Mongolian gers, for example, are versatile enough to be cool in hot continental summers and warm in the sub-zero temperaturs of Mongolian winters, and include a closable ventilation hole at the centre and a chimney for a stove. A ger is typically not often relocated, and is therefore sturdy and secure, including wooden front door and several layers of coverings. A berber tent, by contrast, might be relocated daily, and is much lighter and quicker to erect and dismantle - and because of the climate it is used in, does not need to provide the same degree of protection from the elements.

Permanent dwellings

A Southern African rondavel (or banda)

The type of structure and materials used for a dwelling vary depending on how permanent it is. Frequently moved nomadic structures will be lightweight and simple, more permanent ones will be less so. When people settle somewhere permanently, the architecture of their dwellings will change to reflect that.

Materials used will become heavier, more solid and more durable. They may also become more complicated and more expensive, as the capital and labour required to construct them is a one-time cost. Permanent dwellings often offer a greater degree of protection and shelter from the elements. In some cases however, where dwellings are subjected to severe weather conditions such as frequent flooding or high winds, buildings may be deliberately "designed" to fail and be replaced, rather than requiring the uneconomical or even impossible structures needed to withstand them. The collapse of a relatively flimsy, lightweight structure is also less likely to cause serious injury than a heavy structure.

Over time, dwellings' architecture may come to reflect a very specific geographical locale.

Environment and materials

The local environment and the construction materials it can provide governs many aspect of vernacular architecture. Areas rich in trees will develop a wooden vernacular, while areas without much wood may use mud or stone. In the Far East it is common to use bamboo, as it is both plentiful and versatile. Vernacular, almost by definition, is sustainable, and will not exhaust the local resources. If it is not sustainable, it is not suitable for its local context, and cannot be vernacular.


An early work in the defense of vernacular was Bernard Rudofsky's 1964 book Architecture Without Architects: a short introduction to non-pedigreed architecture, based on his MoMA exhibition. The book was a reminder of the legitimacy and "hard-won knowledge" inherent in vernacular buildings, from Polish salt-caves to gigantic Syrian water wheels to Moroccan desert fortresses, and was considered iconoclastic at the time. Rudofsky was, however, very much a Romantic who viewed native populations in a historical bubble of contentment. Rudofsky's book was also based largely on photographs and not on on-site study.

A more nuanced work is the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World edited in 1997 by Paul Oliver of the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development. Oliver argues that vernacular architecture, given the insights it gives into issues of environmental adaptation, will be necessary in the future to "ensure sustainability in both cultural and economic terms beyond the short term." Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language, attempted to identify adaptive features of traditional architecture that apply across cultures. Howard Davis's book The Culture of Building details the culture that enabled several vernacular traditions.

Some extend the term vernacular to include any architecture outside the academic mainstream. The term "commercial vernacular", popularized in the late 1960s by the publication of Robert Venturi's "Learning from Las Vegas", refers to 20th century American suburban tract and commercial architecture. There is also the concept of an "industrial vernacular" with its emphasis on the aesthetics of shops, garages and factories. Some have linked vernacular with "off-the-shelf" aesthetics. In any respect, those who study these types of vernaculars hold that the low-end characteristics of this aesthetic define a useful and fundamental approach to architectural design.

Among those who study vernacular architecture are those who are interested in the question of everyday life and those lean toward questions of sociology. In this, many were influenced by The Practice of Everyday Life (1974) by Michel de Certeau.

Humanitarian response

"Sutyagin House", world's tallest wooden single-family house - declared illegal by the city of Arkhangelsk because of the fire hazard

An appreciation of vernacular architecture is increasingly seen as vital in the immediate response to disasters and the following construction of transitional shelter if it is needed. The work Transitional Settlement: Displaced Populations, produced by Shelter Centre covers the use of vernacular in humanitarian response and argues its importance.

The value of housing displaced people in shelters which are in some way familiar is seen to provide reassurance and comfort following often very traumatic times. As the needs change from saving lives to providing medium to long term shelter the construction of locally appropriate and accepted housing can be very important.[20]

Legal aspects

As many jurisdictions introduce tougher building codes and zoning regulations, "folk architects" sometimes find themselves in conflict with the local authorities. A case that made news in Russia was that of an Arkhangelsk entrepreneur Nikolay P. Sutyagin, who built what was reportedly the world's tallest single-family wooden house for himself and his family, only to see it condemned as a fire hazard. The 13-storey, 144 feet (44 m) tall[21][22] structure, known locally as "Sutyagin's skyscraper" (Небоскрёб Сутягина), was found to be in violation of Arkhangelsk building codes, and in 2008 the courts ordered the building to be demolished by February 1, 2009.[21][23] On December 26, 2008, the tower was pulled down,[24][25] and the remainder was dismantled manually[26] over the course of the next several months.[27]


Vernacular architecture - examples by Region

Museum of Decorative Finishes in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi


United States

  • Vernacular Architecture of Rural and Small-Town Missouri, by Howard Wight Marshall [1]
  • Earl A. Young (born March 31, 1889 – May 24, 1975) was an American architect, realtor and insurance agent. Over a span of 52 years, he designed and built 31 structures in Charlevoix, Michigan but was never a registered architect.[30][31] He worked mostly in stone, using limestone, fieldstone,[32] and boulders he found throughout Northern Michigan. The homes are commonly referred to as gnome homes, mushroom houses, or Hobbit houses.[30][31] His door, window, roof and fireplace designs were very distinct because of his use of curved lines. Young's goal was to show that a small stone house could be as impressive as a castle. Young also helped make Charlevoix the busy, summer resort town that it is today.[31][33]


Different regions in Ukraine have their own distinctive style of vernacular architecture. For example, in the Carpathian Mountains and the surrounding foothills, wood and clay are the primary traditional building materials.

The Museum of Folk Architecture and Way of Life of Central Naddnipryanshchyna is located in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine. The open air museum contains 13 theme museums, 122 examples of national architecture, and over 30,000 historical cultural objects. The Museum of Decorative Finishes is one of the featured museums that preserves the handiwork of decorative architectural applications often used in Ukrainian architecture.

See also

House types:


Real-life examples:



  1. ^ Holm, 2006
  2. ^ "Vernacular". online etymology dictionary. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  3. ^ "Vernacular(noun)". Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  4. ^ "Fiddling with words, again!". Tribune India. June 8, 2002. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  5. ^ definition
  6. ^ Cambridge advanced learner's dictionary definition
  7. ^ Merriam-Webster definition
  8. ^ Brunskill, 2000 pages 27-28
  9. ^ Brunskill, 2000, page 28
  10. ^ Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, volume 1, page not cited
  11. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 15
  12. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 14
  13. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 9
  14. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 11
  15. ^ Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects, page 58
  16. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 13
  17. ^ Oliver, 2003, page not cited
  18. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 25
  19. ^ Oliver, 2003, page 29
  20. ^ "NGOs criticise tsunami shelters" BBC News - 22 December 2006
  21. ^ a b Sutyagin House, Arkhangelsk, Russia: Standing tall., Wednesday 07 Mar 2007. (Includes photo)
  22. ^ According to other sources, 12 stories, 38 metres (125 ft)
  23. ^ Ponomaryova, Hope (26 June 2008). "Гангстер-хаус: Самый высокий деревянный дом в России объявлен вне закона [Gangster house: Russia's tallest wooden house is now outlawed]" (in Russian). Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Moscow, Russia. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  24. ^ "В Архангельске провалилась первая попытка снести самое высокое деревянное здание в мире [In Arkhangelsk failed first attempt to demolish the tallest wooden building in the world]" (in Russian). Realty (Недвижимость). Moscow, Russia. 26 December 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  25. ^ mihai055 (December 26, 2008). "Сутягин, снос дома [Sutyagin, demolition of houses]" (in Russian) (Flash video). YouTube. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  26. ^ "В Архангельске разрушено самое высокое деревянное здание в мире [In Arkhangelsk destroyed the tallest wooden building in the world]" (in Russian). Realty (Недвижимость). Moscow, Russia. 6 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  27. ^ "От самого высокого деревянного строения в мире осталась груда мусора [From the highest wooden structure in the world was left a pile of garbage]" (in Russian) (flash video and text). Channel One Russia. Moscow, Russia: Web-службой Первого канала. 6 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  28. ^ Holden, 2004
  29. ^ Holden, 2003, pages 85-86
  30. ^ a b Huyser-Honig, Joan (November 14, 1993). "Do Gnomes Live Here?". The Ann Arbor News. Retrieved March 8, 2011. 
  31. ^ a b c Miles, David L (writer); Hull, Dale (narrator) (2009). The Life and Works of Earl Young, Charlevoix's Master Builder in Stone (DVD). Charlevoix Historical Society. OCLC 505817344. 
  32. ^ Eckert, Kathryn Bishop (1993). Buildings in Michigan. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 418. ISBN 0195061497. 
  33. ^ Kelly, Anne (January 1, 2010). "Earl Young and Don Campbell, Pals Who Shaped Charlevoix: The story of Earl Young, creator of Charlevoix's Hobbit Houses, and his lifelong friend Don Campbell, who traveled the world and ultimately shaped Charlevoix together". My Retrieved March 13, 2011. 

Sources & further reading

  • Bourgeois, Jean-Louis (1983). Spectacular vernacular: a new appreciation of traditional desert architecture. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books. ISBN 0879051442.  Large format.
  • Brunskill, R.W. (2006) [1985]. Traditional Buildings of Britain: An Introduction to Vernacular Architecture. Cassell's. ISBN 0304366765. 
  • Brunskill, R.W. (2000) [1971]. Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture (4th ed.). London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-19503-2. 
  • Clifton-Taylor, Alec (1987) [1972]. The Pattern of English Building. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0571139884.  Clifton-Taylor pioneered the study of the English vernacular.
  • Holden, Timothy G; Baker, Louise M. The Blackhouses of Arnol. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland. ISBN 1-904966-03-9. 
  • Holden, Timothy G (2003). "Brotchie's Steading (Dunnet parish), iron age and medieval settlement; post-medieval farm". Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (4): 85–86. 
  • Holm, Ivar. 2006 [Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment]. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 8254701741. 
  • Oliver, Paul (2003). Dwellings. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0-7148-4202-8. 
  • Oliver, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. 1. ISBN 978-0521582698. 
  • Pruscha, Carl, ed (2005) [2004]. [Himalayan Vernacular]. Köln: Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König. ISBN 385160038X.  Carl Pruscha, Austrian architect and United Nations-UNESCO advisor to the government of Nepal, lived and worked in the Himalayas 1964–74. He continued his acitivities as head of the design studio "Habitat, Environment and Conservation" at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
  • Rudofsky, Bernard (1987) [1964]. Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0826310044. 
  • Rudofsky, Bernard (1969). Streets for People: A Primer for Americans. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0385042310. 
  • Wharton, David. "Roadside Architecture." Southern Spaces, February 1, 2005,

External links

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