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Vernacular Design: Architecture's Regional Voices

We hear that the word “vernacular” applied a lot to house design. Just what does it mean?

In brief, vernacular design is design rooted in its own locale. In certain respects vernacular design is said to be indigenous, the way a language is indigenous, or native, into a particular place and people.

The tepees of the Plains Indians are a particular type of vernacular style, as would be the rock and frame barns of the Pennsylvania countryside. Usually made from locally produced materials and made for utility, vernacular architecture consistently takes it design cues from the specifics of website and function.

Moger Mehrhof Architects

A vernacular design has a language which can be, like every language, broken into parts and reassembled to make new meanings. When architects designing in a vernacular style, they break that neighborhood design language into its components and reassemble them to write a new design story. So as a roof shape, siding material, color and rock foundation remind us of the regional barns, we might be presented with something entirely new.

Lake Flato Architects

Vernacular design is rooted in its own location even when it takes on a modern form and uses modern materials. I’d expect these basic structures organized on the landscape such as a temporary encampment will be familiar to many.

This teaches us that just as there’s a vernacular into a home’s design, there’s a vernacular to how a house, or group of houses, is organized on the land.

LASC Studio

“Vernacular” does not mean old. In fact, a design could be deeply rooted in the regional vernacular and be quite fresh and modern. It takes an understanding of exactly what constitutes the regional vernacular to attain this.

Whitewashed walls to maintain the inside glowing throughout the dark days of winter in addition to a splash of bright color to bring attention to a significant architectural element are suspended in Scandinavian design.

Because vernacular design is specific to its website, it changes from place to place. Where gable roofs and wood lap siding are components of this New England vernacular, adobe structure, simple forms and bright colours are vernacular components in the Southwest.

In fact, vernacular design was and continues to be adapted. Centuries past the pueblo vernacular of the Southwest Indians began to mix with a European, especially Spanish, aesthetic that stays with us today.

The Turett Collaborative

Just as a single house detached from the neighbors could be suspended in vernacular design, so too can an urban connected residence. Townhouses for many centuries are constructed using a language which includes tall and thin double-hung windows to maximize interior light, masonry structure for solidity and flame resistance, and wide stairways which lead to elevated entry stoops, to mention a couple.

I’d guess that houses constructed like those would be as familiar to city dwellers out of a million years ago as they are to town dwellers today.

Joseph B Lanza Layout + Building

Which kind of vernacular design appeals to youpersonally?

Is it the simple gable-shaped Cape having an exterior which is apparently a skin just like a membrane that is tautly stretched over its own frame?

Frederick + Frederick Architects

Or is it a more formal vocabulary, a symmetrical house with a deep-set porch along with an elevated main level?

TEA2 Architects

Or is it that the manner in which a locally sourced material is shaped and assembled to make a house deeply rooted to its location?

Kevin Daly Architects

Or is your preferred design vocabulary less about a particular vernacular and more about something new and different?

More: The Architect’s Toolbox

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