Vernacular Architecture – Traditionally Speaking
What is vernacular architecture? Vernacular architecture is a school of design, principles, and practices that represent the essence of local traditions, materials, and builders. It’s a mode of building that is rooted in place – made, through a specific tradition, with specific materials. It’s the power of a place and it’s craft.
To use the term ‘school’ when defining vernacular architecture would be a misnomer. In fact, the traditions of vernacular work are based in the unschooled, untrained workers who built their dwellings and structures with what they had and what they could do. The buildings are often simple and practical. Vernacular architecture looks at the locale’s needs, the environment it is inhabiting and the people who in turn inhabit the building. It addresses them – function over form.
In the Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture, author Ronald Brunskill states that vernacular architecture is:
“…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.”
Vernacular architecture is largely influenced by two things: culture and climate. People and place.
The culture of the people using the buildings determines the function of the dwellings. In communities made up of several family units or if a household is made up of several generations of the same family, the dwellings will reflect that. In some places, the style might be to have a compound of several single-room structures, while another region may feature a larger domicile broken up with walls to separate space out. Both of these are vernacular architecture meeting the need of the people culturally in how they view and use these spaces.
The ways in which climate is an influence are clear. Climates determine the needs of the people, from escaping incredible heat and cold, cold nights to the types of weather frequently experienced. Where heavy rains and flooding are a common concern, the vernacular style rises naturally to meet these needs, perhaps featuring stilts or some other elevation to the home.
Vernacular, Sustainable Architecture
By working in communion with the surrounding resources and materials, vernacular architecture is also a green method of building. While we no longer live in a time when materials are hard to get, or impossible to move across the country, using what is readily available to us, locally is huge. When materials don’t need to be transported vast distances to the construction site, the energy that would be used is instead saved. The style takes advantage of the local methods to use the materials in the most efficient manner. When you only have what’s around you find multiple uses for the few trees available. Necessity begets inspiration. If the earth is the only resource that’s plentiful, you make it work. All of this cuts down on the heavy energy cost and potential footprint of more traditional means.
The Modern Vernacular
While the textbook definition might mean an amateur in design, the methods and spirit of the vernacular can still be found in work from trained architects and craftspeople. In modern uses, we take the key considerations of the style: the local materials, the environment, and landscape requirements, the traditions of the people to craft something purposeful, but also allow ourselves to bring design into it. It’s how we create work like Tucson Mountain Retreat. Working through nearby resources and regional traditions of the Southwest in rammed earth and adding a design to create a modern home, a unique silhouette against the natural backdrop of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
We study vernacular architecture to understand the essence of place, culture. We study how the vernacular fits into modern society. Our spaces are derived from responding to the natural and built environments, considering the environmental impact and the human experience. Let’s continue the dialogue.