5 reasons why vernacular design is better design

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Green Renovations, Historic Preservation

"Folk building growing in response to actual needs, fitted into environment by people who knew no better than to fit them with native feeling" - Frank Lloyd Wright

vernacular design
The Macy Colby house

Vernacular design is architecture based on local needs, local materials, and local traditions. It's what gives a place its character. Like flowers in nature, vernacular buildings evolve over time to live within the patterns of the local environment. Like nature they self-assemble based on local rules of interaction.

Before the advent of fossil fuel powered transportation, all materials had to be moved by human power. So local materials were a necessity. Shipping marble mined in Italy to be processed in China to become a countertop across the world in Boise, Idaho just wasn't practical. Generally, buildings could only be made from things that were available nearby.

Importantly, buildings were designed to recognize the local patterns of nature. Steep roofs on a Swiss chalet helped shed snow. Teak Thai homes on slits allowed air to flow underneath and keep the home cool. White-washed stucco homes on Greek isles reflected the Mediterranean sun. This architecture is set within and is connected to the landscape. And it is gorgeous.

Here are five reasons we are seeing a returning trend for vernacular architecture.

  1. More efficient: Local resources use less energy. Shipping stone across the globe is wasteful, but shipping a stone from China when you have local fieldstone laying on a nearby farm is just dumb. Locally sourced materials, whether it's stone, wood, or a manufactured product means it doesn't need to travel long distances at great energy transportation costs.
  2. Healthier: Harvesting local resources mean people see the harm and benefit locally and they protect the resources and the people they are serving. When a harvester, seller, or buyer all see the direct consequences of their actions, they are more likely to avoid products that cause harm to others or the environment around them. If people could see the devastation caused by a clear-cut forest or see the barren moon-like landscape of a strip-mine, the probably wouldn't tolerate it. We tend to protect what is near to us.
  3. It's beautiful: Vernacular architecture simply looks better. It fits with local environment by using local materials. A home with a Spanish style roof just looks silly in the mountains of Colorado. But a log home in the woods in Montana becomes part of its surroundings. Environments are different. When we design with harmony for the surroundings the results are unique and beautiful.
  4. Good for local economy: When materials, labor and design are sourced from within the local area, all the money spent on those services stays within the local economy. When we built our kitchen we sourced the wood from a local sawyer (using dead Ash trees) and had the cabinets built by a local Amish family. Nearly every dollar we spent went directly to people we know.
  5. Creates a sense of place: Think of some wonderful towns to visit. Close your eyes and picture Savannah, New Orleans, Santa Barbara, Nantucket, or a town in the English countryside. They each have a distinct and recognizable character. You'd never confuse the French Quarter with a town in Vermont. What you are likely to imagine are the buildings made from local materials and designed to adapt to the local climate. The heat of the American South, the salt air of the New England coast or the mediterranean climate of the Pacific all influence the local architecture and create unique places. It's the small things on a human scale that make places special. It is the human experience interacting with the people, the climate, and the environment that creates a culture.

Next time we think about what makes our cities and neighborhoods special, let's not ask "what's the next big thing." Let's ask "what's the next small thing."

Photos via WikiMedia

Macy Colby House https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macy-Colby_House

Old Stone House - Brooklyn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Stone_House_(Brooklyn)