Vernacular Architecture – Definition and Concept

Vernacular architecture theory broadly represents architectural non-conformity. The theory is that any form of architecture that does not follow the conformist recognised ways of architecture as taught generally by modern architectural literature is recognised under vernacular architecture. In vernacular architecture, the architectural work and composition does not constitute efforts by any professional architect(s), instead, it consists of any non-professional (though comprising of knowledge gathered whether locally, self-taught, observations under apprenticeship or otherwise of local materials and needs) architect, whose efforts whether in theory or practice, contribute to the construction and architectural work.

Traditionally, vernacular architecture is considered primitive, folk, rural, ethnic and restricted to locally available materials. Construction is generally guided by living conditions, culture, ethnicity, region and climate. As one may observe that most of the buildings in the world, historically, have been constructed by people of knowledge of regional needs, traditional structures, local materials and their sustainability, therefore, vernacular architecture is in fact, quite a broad concept. As such, though, popularly considered as primitive, folksy, rural or ethnic, vernacular architecture is not limited by it in its scope, because in fact, most of the world’s architecture is broadly vernacular.

image of a house on stilts
   A House on Stilts built using Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture comprises of utilising general local knowledge, for instance in a hot area, vegetation or greenery can be used to provide cooler airflow (- in the old city of Nablus in residential and public buildings such as mosques and the “khan”, trees were planted beside windows and doors, inside and outside houses[1]). Owing to its energy efficiency and eco-friendly techniques, the interest and curiosity in vernacular architecture and the efficacy of its concept, has increased in recent times.

image of a chalet with greenery
   A Chalet with Vegetation along the sides and window

History and Growth

Vernacular architecture concept and the term ‘vernacular’ became more commonly heard during the early 1800s. The era was a shift in times when you could no longer fall off by travelling to the end of the world. It was a time of exploration, of expansion, of colonialism. It was a time when cross-cultural ethnic interaction though dismissive, became more natural. Upon coming into contact with different regional, ethnic and cultural considerations, stories of travel conquests travelled far and wide with exhaustive explanations to differences in lifestyle, buildings, dwelling situations and ways of architecture. Such explorations resulted in the discovery and definition of different architectural types now known to man.

By the 20th century, the vernacular methods were being incorporated into modern architectural theory by the curious, more adventurous architects. One such name worth mentioning is Bernard Rudofsky. Bernard Rudofsky was a Moravian-born American architect who was the driving force behind the acceptance of vernacular architecture into high architecture. He organised an exhibition called “Architecture Without Architects” (later a publication by the same name) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from November 9, 1964 to February 7, 1965. Through the exhibition, he promoted and in some ways, introduced the unfamiliar world to non-pedigreed architecture (He stipulated that this form of architecture should have a name – vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural as the case may be)[2].

image of rumah adat
   Rumah Adat – Vernacular Architectural Style of Indonesia [Ribkha Tandepadang / CC BY-SA]

By 1969, vernacular architecture gained momentum in its spread when works by noted author architects of the time such as English architectural historian Paul Hereford Oliver in his book “Shelter and Society” and Amos Rapoport, one of the founders of Environment-Behaviour Studies, in his book “House From and Culture” chose to outline the efficacy of vernacular architecture.

Paul Hereford Oliver, also edited the three volume “Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World”, published in 1997 and recognised as the most monumental reference work for vernacular architecture with comments and writings from over 750 experts from over 80 countries on the topic.[3]

In 1976, The vernacular architecture received world over recognition when The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) took steps to protect vernacular architecture and heritage.

In 1989, the book “Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition” by Jean-Paul Bourdier and Nezar AISayyad, put emphasis on the cross cultural perspectives and heritage that vernacular architecture brought to light.

Jean-Paul Bourdier further explored vernacular architecture of the African continent and in 2011, bourdier along with Trinh T. Minh-ha co-authored “Vernacular Architecture of West Africa: A World in Dwelling”. The book explored the cultural dimensions of Africa and provides a wider variety of building practices and concepts that shatter the commonly held image of the primitive hut attributed to rural Africa.

brown and grey wooden house image
   Wooden House

Since 1997, after the publication of the “Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture, of the World”, architects world wide have taken an open view to vernacular architecture, not just limiting to environmental or technological aspects of it but also considering the heritage, local availability of materials and their sustenance, sustenance in different climate conditions, ethnicity and traditions involved thereof.

Marcel vellinga who co-edited the “Atlast of Vernacular Architecture of the World” with Paul Oliver, discusses the role of vernacular architecuture in modern times in the book “Vernacular architecture in the twenty-first century : theory, education and practice”.

Vernacular Architecture – Sustainability

1) Widely Used

Vernacular architecture is here to stay. It is so wide-spread that its usage is evident in the fact that 95% of world architecture is vernacular[4]. Vernacular architecture, since the advancement of technology, has gained a lot of interest because it is now easier to see what the world is like without even having to step out of the house. With the invent of internet, video calls, information flow has become quick and easy while social, cultural, regional divide has weakened.

2) Heritage

We need vernacular architecture,for the preservation of heritage. Heritage sites are a source of income via tourism to countries and also provide people with cultural and ethnic pride as well as a sense of belonging that connects them to their roots. Without the use and knowledge of vernacular architecture, its careful consideration and application, heritage sites cannot be restored closer to their earlier glory.

A structure made of clay
   A Clay Structure

3) Climate

Vernacular architecture is a need of the hour. Modern technological advancements have resulted in sky scrapers being built. We see so many sky scrapers nowadays. The United Nations secretariat, built during 1947 to 1952, is one of the earliest examples of a glass skyscraper. Tall buildings extensively made of glass have been known to cause greenhouse effect and result in the release of greenhouse gases. Glass buildings become hot easily and we need regular air-conditioning to cool the building down, which in turn results in increase in carbon emissions that affect climate and in turn, make the climate warmer.

image of un building
   “United Nations Secretariat Building, Manhattan, New York”, by Ken Lund, licensed under CC BY 3.0

4) Energy Efficient

More air-conditioning also results in more energy consumption. Studies[5] have also shown that electricity use, per square metre of floor area, is nearly two and a half times greater in high-rise office buildings of 20 or more storeys than in low-rise building with 6 or less storeys. With height, gas use also gets increased by about 40%.

The factor in favour of vernacular architecture is that since centuries, buildings have been created using vernacular techniques and theory but never before an environmental crises like now has come to pass. Using traditional methods of construction and materials, we can hope to return or atleast deter such effects.

5) Past and Future is Vernacular

Past and Future is vernacular [6] — Energy resources in the world is limited whether it is electricity for modern architectural machines or materials that go into building tall sky scrapers. The regeneration of resource needs time that the current pace of construction is unable to provide. The social, economical and cultural needs of today and space restrictions in urban areas have resulted in the adoption of modern methods of architecture. This need cannot be fulfilled with the current resource stock and either expansion of cities needs to be done in quicker pace or rural architectural techniques and the knowledge of traditional materials needs to be applied to meet the demands of the time.

image of a hut
   Vernacular Dwelling, India
Vernacular structure image
   Vernacular Roof Structure by Laurie Baker, Kerala [IM3847 / CC BY-SA]

The theory of vernacular architecture has wide-spread applications and its usage has become a core concept in architectural practice today.


[1]Contribution of the Vernacular Architecture to the Sustainability: A Comparative Study between the Contemporary Areas and the Old Quarter of a Mediterranean City by
-Fajer Al Tawayha (CTAC Research Centre, University of Minho, 4800-058 Guimarães, Portugal),
-Luis Braganca and Ricardo Mateus (Department of Civil Engineering and CTAC Research Centre, University of Minho, 4800-058 Guimarães, Portugal)

[2] Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture by Bernard Rudofsky. Page III

[3]Paul Oliver, ed., Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World

[4]Amos Rapoport, “House Form and Culture” (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969)

[5]’High-Rise Buildings: Energy and Density’ project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

[6]Marcel Vellinga, ‘Engaging the Future: Vernacular Architecture Studies in the twenty-first Century’, in, Lindsay Asquith, Marcel Vellinga, eds, Vernacular Architecture in the Twenty-First Century: Theory, Education and Practice (London, Taylor & Francis, 2006), Page LXXXIII.

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