Icons 1423861051 vernacular icon Vernacular Architecture

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More often than not, people build buildings without architects. Architecture without architects is called vernacular architecture. Almost 90% of all buildings in the world, ordinary buildings built by ordinary people, are thought to be vernacular. Buildings built with local materials by local residents using built-by-hand construction methods create a lasting architecture that is specific to place and culture. Vernacular architecture provides shelter and comfort with the evolution of craft passed down through generations. Because local residents build using local materials, vernacular architecture inevitably expresses the culture of both the people and the area. Indigenous buildings, repeated over generations, become time-tested responses to local climate conditions as well. From igloos to bamboo houses, from stone cottages with thatched roofs to terraced, white concrete roof decks, people create shelter and comfort in unique structures in response to their location on the globe.

Activity 1 – a world of vernacular architecture

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Vernacular architecture exists all around the world. Also known as indigenous architecture, it has different physical characteristics depending on its location. Walls in colder climates are usually heavy and thick with small windows to prevent heat loss. Buildings in hotter climates are generally made with lighter materials with wide door and window openings that encourage air movement. Draw or print a map of the world and color-code the different biomes, then research different shelter examples from the different biomes. Sketch examples of these shelters and notate materials used. Highlight unique, local materials in your drawing so that they stand out. Assemble everything into a poster using maps, notes, sketches and photographs. Be a world explorer.

Locate vernacular architecture around the world!

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Activity 2 – vernacular architecture uses local materials

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Vernacular architecture utilizes materials that are available locally. Using materials that are local and building with local labor is environmentally friendly; it cuts the distance materials need to travel, cutting down on the pollution created during transportation. For example: traditional homes in Central America are created from clay, which is abundant in the area. Adobe homes built in the southwestern United States are made from sun-baked earth. Vernacular architecture as a tradition is usually hand-made. Which materials are used where? Print a map of the world then research and collect images of homes from each continent. Make a material map of locally found materials used in vernacular architecture. Place a material map key on the world map to show the location of bamboo, grass, clay, wood, concrete and icehouses.

Locate local materials!

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Activity 3 – vernacular architecture is in your neighborhood

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For this exercise, research natural materials found in your area. What is produced nearby in your neighborhood, city or region? Is it wood, stone, brick, concrete, or mud? Once you have determined what materials are produced locally (or within a two hundred mile radius), take a walk around your neighborhood. Can you find these local materials in buildings? Are their similar materials or similar building types used in the structures around your home? Take pictures of 10 buildings that share the same characteristics of form and material and construction detailing and make sketches of them. Sketching allows you to study the building’s features closely. Paste the photographs and sketches side by side in your journal and compare what you have found! Many towns that are considered historical neighborhoods are valued for their use of local materials and consistent craft and detailing. Vernacular architecture helps to define the character of a place and differentiate from other places in different climate zones around the world.

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Activity 4 – vernacular architecture is cultural expression

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With the advent of modern technology, traditional building types are often torn down or lost to make way for new buildings. Since the 1950’s, when international trade became prevalent and different cultures became more friendly, architects have designed and built our homes with materials from all over the world. However, site specific architecture, or vernacular architecture, continues to be expressive of peoples’ traditions, beliefs and skills in craftsmanship. Search the internet and library books for a village, city or township that has preserved its original character, despite the advances of modern culture. This time, write about the architecture describing building forms, building type(s), materials used, particular climatic response and attention to detail, construction and unique cultural expression. Take a look at the amazing African Village of Tiebele, Burkina Faso and visualize the diversity in vernacular!

Describe this one of a kind area to share your knowledge with the world!

Activity 5 – Vernacular Architecture is Climate Response

Now that you know a bit more about vernacular architecture, you may be surprised to learn that though it is old, it is also new. Vernacular architecture is sustainable not only because of its traditions and cultural importance heritage, it is exemplary of today’s ‘green building’ practices. Vernacular architecture is shelter in response to climate. People build buildings with thick walls with little openings, or windows, when it is very hot or very cold climate. Houses are built on stilts when there is a lot of rain or moisture on the ground. Buildings have sloped roofs in regions where there is a lot of snow and rain. How should your community build in response to weather? Make a list of five climate response strategies including material choice, roof shape, window size, and cross ventilation. You are on your way to becoming a 'green architect’.


  • Vernacular architecture is specific to place.
  • Vernacular architecture is influenced by:
  • Using local materials is more environmentally friendly than buying materials from 1000 miles away.
  • There is only one form of vernacular architecture.
  • Today’s architects can still learn from vernacular architecture’s place specific construction.
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