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What is Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular architecture can be defined as a type of local or regional construction, using traditional materials and resources from the area where the building is located. Let’s look at what this really means, and what it looks like in practice, as well as some important examples of vernacular architecture integrated into modern society. 

Consequently, this architecture is closely related to its context and is aware of the specific geographic features and cultural aspects of its surroundings, being strongly influenced by them. For this reason, they are unique to different places in the world, becoming even a means of reaffirming an identity. Given such unique features, the definition of vernacular architecture may become somewhat unclear. Driven by this dilemma, Paul Oliver writes about the need for a more refined definition of the term in his book Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture (2006), part of a project entitled Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. His research has led to the definition of vernacular architecture as an architecture that encompasses the peoples’ dwellings and other constructions, relating to their respective environments and resources, usually built by the owners or the community, using traditional techniques. It is built to meet specific needs, accommodate the values, economy, and lifestyles of a specific culture. Following this definition, Rubenilson Brazão Teixeira (2017) singles out two major attributes associated with vernacular architecture: tradition and contextualization. He states that every vernacular architecture is traditional in the sense that it originates from specific ethnic groups and is a result of a long process over time, always based on familiar forms established by previous generations. Besides that, as already mentioned, vernacular architecture also respects local conditions, highlighting its great sensitivity to the geographical context of the surroundings, including climate, vegetation, and topography. Especially because of the latter, vernacular architecture has been addressed and revisited in many contemporary architectural practices, playing an important role in today’s society, as these buildings provide great bioclimatic characteristics and prove to be real examples of architectural sustainability. For this reason, ancient architectural approaches are being examined and replicated in projects that aim, for example, at maximizing energy efficiency with passive noise and thermal control, while reducing CO2 emissions to the environment.

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Features of Vernacular Architecture

1.Local Materials 

The vernacular architecture was designed in direct response to the locally available material such as bamboo, thatch, sticks, mud, or grass for construction, which were more energy-efficient, cheap, affordable, easily available, and even required less labour. The building construction material used today is more synthetic, not sustainable, and hard to reuse such as concrete and steel. The building industry consumes immense energy and contributes majorly to the world’s greenhouse gas emission. One common, though unfortunate, aspect of modern-day construction is that there is little to no connection to the actual house site. Water, energy, and other “inputs” are brought to the home by municipal utilities, often sourced from hundreds of miles away. Similarly, greywater and black water are usually flushed down the toilet or drains and into a sewer system for the region to manage. In developing areas of the world, where infrastructure is scarce, most homes have to find ways to integrate their homes into the local landscape. Without the “benefit” of a sewer system, vernacular architecture deliberates on the best way to recycle greywater into the landscape. Reconnecting the homes we live in into the land where they are built is an essential component of sustainable building.

2. Focus on Community 

Architecture is not just about filling the site with steel blocks or construction concrete rather it’s about understanding the place with consideration of its social, cultural, and environmental essence. Contrary to traditional architecture, the architectural space in contemporary architecture depends on an artificial urban landscape to harmonize and rationalize it with the individuality of contemporary buildings. Cities are full of landmarks rather than co-existed urban form. Whereas traditional architecture was harmonious with the surrounding, climate, geography, landscape and human psychology along with successfully co-existing, treating architecture as a holistic natural living element, stand still yet function, similar to trees as an organic living environment inventory with judicious use of building material, form and technology.

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The term “identity,” as defined in the Oxford English Living Dictionary, is the fact of being who or what a person or thing is; the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is. In other words, identity means being unique and distinguished from others, and this can be applied to a thing, person, and group of people, society, country, or even nation. Several natural and human factors contribute in defining “identity” such as place (region, geography, topography, and climate), people (society, community), and culture (traditions, customs, language, religion, and artifacts). It is essential to discuss these factors and how they are related to each other and how this was reflected in architecture. Culture is one of the major factors that defines identity as it is related to people that created this culture. Vibhavari Jani, in her edited book “Diversity in Design: Perspectives from the Non-Western World,” suggests that culture refers to: “… distinctive way of life that represents values, customs, and norms of a group of people who pass these traditional values from one generation to the next. This learned way of life then reflects upon social, political, educational, and economic institutions; value and belief systems; and languages and artifacts”. Architecture, vernacular in particular, is a product of people, place, and culture; it is one facets of identity. Symbolism of architecture can be related to the realization of identity personally and socially. This accretion has reached the level where “architecture as identity” became the equivalent to “architecture as space” and “architecture as a language”. Architecture, as the most obvious physical artifacts of any culture, has the most to draw from and respond to the uniqueness of place. 

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3. Sustainable Construction Methods

Vernacular buildings around the world are a great example of sustainable solutions to building problems. The buildings were energy-efficient and highly sustainable due to the use of local material and building technology. The architecture was in deep harmonization with site surrounding and had a minimal environmental impact as the most commonly used building material were mud and earth, which improved the building’s thermal and acoustic performance and enhanced the sustainability aspects. The construction was done on sustainable principles using local materials and technology through the amalgamation of the physical and natural environment with cultural, social, and mystical values offering rational solutions to the harsh climate and human needs. One common misunderstanding is that vernacular architecture didn’t utilize insulation. While traditional homes might not have incorporated foam or rolls of fiberglass insulation, they certainly did find ways to insulate their homes. In the highlands of the Andes Mountains, the traditional architecture used hollow reeds embedded into the walls. The reeds (with lots of space on the inside) vastly increased the homes’ insulation properties. Similarly, in the American Midwest, farmers used to build straw bale homes left over from the wheat harvest. Foam insulation and other conventional spray-type insulations used in modern-day construction can lead to dangerous chemical exposure. Using locally appropriate natural materials for insulation purposes is an important lesson that vernacular architecture has taught us, or perhaps we still have to learn. 

4. Cultural Representation 

Each community had its style of architecture, that featured their main character, culture, and retrieved a sense of heritage, giving them a unique appearance. They cannot be separated from the culture they were developed in, resulting in their own regional and economical aesthetic. The houses are built according to their regional possibilities, needs, availability of materials, topography, and climate. Traditional buildings that were rich for their culture have lost their identity due to the influence of Western culture which led to the construction of buildings that were internationally acceptable and used similar material across the globe.

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Each material in vernacular architecture is embedded in its physical and aesthetic characteristics, which dictates the architectural technology suited to it. Every society that creates architecture has evolved into forms that adhere to its people, language, clothing, customs, and traditional stories. Like with much modern architecture, vernacular architecture takes on the specific representational forms of art and expression in the society from which it emerges. For example, you have depictions of landscapes in the sides of buildings painted with clay mixtures, which uses local materials to represent cultural significant moments or places. People would honor their families by displaying their culture in their homes for their immediate family to learn about. 

5. Climate Adaptation

The glass and steel architecture constructed all over the world ignores the specific climate of the place and is left at the mercy of the climate. The buildings are fully air-conditioned and require year-round air conditioning contrary to the natural cooling options used by vernacular buildings which consumed less energy. These buildings prove to be inefficient, where glass exterior traps the sun’s rays during summer and haemorrhages heat throughout the winter. In the South Pacific island of Tonga, traditional homes were built with curved roofs. While the outsider might be impressed by these unconventional roofs’ aesthetic beauty, they actually protect the home from cyclonic winds that battered the island every year. The vernacular architecture of Tonga was designed around a fundamental understanding of how the natural elements affected the landscape and the homes situated therein. Architects and construction teams today would do well to take an in-depth look at how the elements affect the proposed home site. This focus on the local environment can be useful for several purposes, including energy-efficiency considerations and passive solar design. 

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6. Context Based Design 

A building’s fundamental purpose is to provide a comfortable living environment, protected from the extremes of climate, as well as respond to the site, setting, and context. The construction style of each vernacular style differs according to the context of the site. For example; the traditional buildings of North-Eastern India  are constructed over varying topography consisting of plains, mountains, and frequent flood-affected areas, using bamboo which is found in great abundance in the North-Eastern region; Giant houses built in Fujian, China from the 12th – 19th century with the main purpose of prevention against the plunder and attack of the outside forces, constructed strong fortress using locally available material that protected inhabitants from the outside dangers. Beyond sustainability, vernacular architecture sheds light on another fundamental issue today. It represents the cultural identity of a certain ethnic group and becomes a tool for strengthening the bond between the population and its geographic location, fostering a sense of belonging to the space in which they live. This bond is so important today that there seems to be a tendency towards the fragmentation of the individual as a result of the ongoing transformations of cultural systems.

 

Examples of Vernacular Architecture 

1. Brick House by iStudio architecture at Wada, Mumbai

To start, this farmhouse is set amidst a rural settlement and is made of wood, stone, bricks, and bamboo in their naked form. Further, eco-friendly technologies like rat-trap bonds, brick jaalis, and built-in furniture are not only economical but also give an earthly feel to space. Striking features that give it a contemporary touch are its organic form that emerges from the ground and into the skyline, as well as curvilinear spaces that flow into each other.The impact of the architecture of the structure is strong, leading the viewer to a new observation, not allowing him to be complacent about the space which he occupies. The organic form emerges from the ground and flows into the skyline, following curved dips and peaks. Each space flows into another along curved lines, leading into a seamless space held by the central courtyard. The observer begins his journey along the curved jali brick wall offering tantalizing glimpses of the interior, thus drawing him into dramatic compositions of light and shadows.

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2. Kripacharya Farmhouse by Q designs in Pune

From chira a local red laterite stone, to kund a traditional central open space, to padwi or large verandas; this house is the manifestation of everything vernacular. The konkan house typically comprises of house made in red laterite stone, commonly known as Chira.  Glass openings for direct daylight and double-layered terracotta roofing for insulation are some of the many brilliant choices in terms of climate responsiveness. The site was surrounded by fertile farmland with paddy fields , coconut and mango plantations. The architects had to maintain the footprint of the existing farm house built on 142sq.m. as registered in the gram Panchayat records. The evolution of built form can be seen as the result of interaction between the user and his environment, which not only includes the natural, but also the social and the economic environments. There was an existing mango tree adjacent to the old structure which was gifted to the client by King of Nepal . The mango tree was conceptualised as the epicenter of the house, the complete built form was planned around the tree in such a way that it became an intrinsic part of the design vocabulary. 

 

3. Traditional Sami homes in Häggsjönäs, Jämtland, Sweden.

These are some of the traditional Sami homes in Häggsjönäs, Jämtland, Sweden at the Njarka Sami Camp (Njarka Sameläger). The camp is run by the the Mattson family and is part of the Kall Sami community. It is Sweden’s smallest Sami community with 1,400 reindeer. Here you can join the Sami people in their everyday activities and learn about their culture; their handicrafts and clothing, how they manage their reindeer and their way of life. You can try everything from lasso throwing to baking in the embers of the fire. In the video above you can see the interior of the home with a central fire while Maud talks (in Swedish) about the many different uses for birch bark. Sami are the indigenous people of Arctic Scandinavia who have their own culture, language and traditions. The region where Sami live is usually called Sápmi, sometimes Samiland. It stretches over Arctic Scandinavia and includes parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

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4. Cape House by Architecture and Beyond in Surat

This eccentric name came from the fact that a gigantic brick ‘cape’ embraces this two-story house as it rises and shapes the skyline. Eco-friendliness, style, and cost-effectiveness have been the mantra for this house and that’s why bricks have been used extensively while being paired with other materials to provide rustic modernity.  In Surat, the team at Architecture and Beyond chose to make brick their hero: a gigantic brick “cape” embraces a two-storied house as it rises from the ground and shapes the skyline. The glass-enclosed living spaces sit lightly on the site, allowing ample natural light to stream in. For most of us, brick houses have been associated with architecture that is eco-friendly, stylish and cost-effective all at once. That has a lot to do with British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker’s houses, with perforations in the walls, manipulating the placement of bricks, and curved double walls, making the structures climate-sensitive and energy-efficient.  Surat-born architect Nari Gandhi was an organic genius in his use of rock and brick, elevating this home to a work of art. Increasingly, contemporary architects are using brick in unusual ways, making it a style statement in luxurious homes.

5. The adobe beehive homes of Harran, Turkey

These are beehive homes in Harran, Turkey near the border with Syria. Beehive homes stay cool in the desert heat. Their thick mud brick (adobe) walls trap the cool and keep the sun out. Beehive homes have few windows. The high domes collect the hot air, moving it away from the ground floor keeping the interior around 75°F (24°C) while outside extremes range from 95°F (35°C) to 32°F (0°C). Each dome is built from about 1,400 adobe bricks. The beehive shape of these abodes allows them to withstand earthquakes, violent wind storms, and seasonal heavy rains, which explains why they are still in use these days, thousands of years later. What’s more, it is relatively easy to expand the size of a beehive house by simply erecting another hive next to it and knocking an archway through.  

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6. Shotgun Houses, North America

A shotgun house or apartment is similar to a railroad house or apartment in that rooms are lined up in a row; however, shotgun houses never have a hallway, so residents must go through each room to get to the next (a setup that can prove difficult when living with roommates). It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) through the 1920s. Alternate names include shotgun shack, shotgun hut, shotgun cottage, and in the case of a multihome dwelling, shotgun apartment; the design is similar to that of railroad apartments. A longstanding theory is that the style can be traced from Africa to Saint Dominican influences on house design in New Orleans, but the houses can be found as far away as Key West and Ybor City in Florida, and Texas, and as far north as Chicago, Illinois. Though initially as popular with the middle class as with the poor, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty in the mid-20th century. Urban renewal has led to the destruction of many shotgun houses; however, in areas affected by gentrification, historic preservation efforts have led to the renovation of such houses. Several variations of shotgun houses allow for additional features and space, and many have been updated to the needs of later generations of owners. The oldest shotgun houses were built without indoor plumbing, but this was often added later, often on the back of the house (sometimes crudely).

7. Yurts, Central Asia

Usually found in Central Asia, a Yurt consists of a wood or bamboo frame covered in skins, canvas, or felt. A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent used as a dwelling by several distinct nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure consists of an angled assembly or latticework of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown, compression ring) possibly steam-bent. The roof structure is often self-supporting, but large yurts may have interior posts supporting the crown. The top of the wall of self-supporting yurts is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. Modern yurts may be permanently built on a wooden platform; they may use modern materials such as steam-bent wooden framing or metal framing, canvas or tarpaulin, plexiglass dome, wire rope, or radiant insulation.

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8. Asha Niketan by Fournier in Kolkata

French architect Laurent Fournier came to Kolkata to study the city’s heritage but fell in love with traditional bamboo and mud huts of rural Bengal; leaving him with no choice but to stay and incorporate this into his work. His first project, a meditation room for the mentally challenged did justice to the vernacular style by using local materials like exposed brick for walls, terracotta tile roofs, and large windows with bamboo mesh, locally known as dharma. A huge advocate of environment friendliness, Fournier made sure to build the structure in a zig-zag shape to retain the surrounding trees.   

 

Vernacular architecture can be so many things, and that’s part of the point. It adapts to its environment, and the materials and traditions present there. One essential vital element of this style of architecture, however, is that it responds to the needs of the people it houses.