The building knowledge in vernacular architecture is often transported by local traditions and is thus based largely - but not only - upon knowledge achieved by trial and error and handed down through the generations, in contrast to the geometrical and physical calculations that underlie architecture planned by architects. This of course does not prevent architects from using vernacular architecture in their designs or from being firmly based in the vernacular architecture of their regions. For the similarities to "traditional architecture" see below.
The term vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning "domestic, native, indigenous"; from verna, meaning "native slave" or "home-born slave". The word probably derives from an older Etruscan word.
In linguistics, vernacular refers to language use particular to a time, place or group. In architecture, it refers to that type of architecture which is indigenous to a specific time or place (not imported or copied from elsewhere). It is most often applied to residential buildings.
The term is not to be confused with so-called "traditional" architecture, though there are links between the two. Vernacular architecture may, over time, be adopted and refined into culturally accepted solutions, but only through repetition may it become "traditional." Traditional architecture can also include temples and palaces, for example, which normally would not be included under the rubric of "vernacular."
The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as:
Oliver also offers the following simple definition of vernacular architecture:
Frank Lloyd Wright described vernacular architecture as:
suggesting that it is a primitive form of design, lacking intelligent thought, but he also stated that it was:
Many modern architects have studied vernacular buildings and claimed to draw inspiration from them, including aspects of the vernacular in their designs. In 1946, the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy was appointed to design the town of New Gourna near Luxor. Having studied traditional Nubian settlements and technologies, he incorporated the traditional mud brick vaults of the Nubian settlements in his designs. The experiment failed, due to a variety of social and economic reasons, but is the first recorded attempt by an architect to address the social and environmental requirements of building users by adopting the methods and forms of the vernacular.
In 1964 the exhibition Architecture Without Architects was put on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York by Bernard Rudofsky. Accompanied by a book of the same title, including black and white photography of vernacular buildings around the world, the exhibition was extremely popular. It was Rudofsky who first made use of the term vernacular in an architectural context, and brought the concept into the eye of the public and of mainstream architecture:
Since the emergence of the term in the 1970s, vernacular considerations have played an increasing part in architectural designs, although individual architects had widely varying opinions of the merits of the vernacular.
Modern proponents of the use of the vernacular in architectural design include Charles Correa, a well known Indian architect, and Balkrishna Doshi, also Indian, who established the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad to research the vernacular architecture of the region. The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was also a proponent of vernacular architecture. Architects whose work exemplifies the modern take on vernacular architecture would be Samuel Mockbee, Christopher Alexander and Paolo Soleri.
Oliver, in Dwellings, claims that:
Vernacular architecture is influenced by a great range of different aspects of human behaviour and environment, leading to differing building forms for almost every different context; even neighbouring villages may have subtly different approaches to the construction and use of their dwellings, even if they at first appear the same. Despite these variations, every building is subject to the same laws of physics, and hence will demonstrate significant similarities in structural forms.
Buildings for a continental climate must be able to cope with significant variations in temperature, and may even be altered by their occupants according to the seasons.
Buildings take different forms depending on precipitation levels in the region - leading to dwellings on stilts in many regions with frequent flooding or rainy monsoon seasons. Flat roofs are rare in areas with high levels of precipitation. Similarly, areas with high winds will lead to specialised buildings able to cope with them, and buildings will be oriented to present minimal area to the direction of prevailing winds.
Climatic influences on vernacular architecture are substantial and can be extremely complex. Mediterranean vernacular, and that of much of the Middle East, often includes a courtyard with a fountain or pond; air cooled by water mist and evaporation is drawn through the building by the natural ventilation set up by the building form. Similarly, Northern African vernacular often has very high thermal mass and small windows to keep the occupants cool, and in many cases also includes chimneys, not for fires but to draw air through the internal spaces. Such specialisations are not designed, but learnt by trial and error over generations of building construction, often existing long before the scientific theories which explain why they work.
The way of life of building occupants, and the way they use their shelters, is of great influence on building forms. The size of family units, who shares which spaces, how food is prepared and eaten, how people interact and many other cultural considerations will affect the layout and size of dwellings.
For example, the family units of several East African tribes live in family compounds, surrounded by marked boundaries, in which separate single-roomed dwellings are built to house different members of the family. In polygamous tribes there may be separate dwellings for different wives, and more again for sons who are too old to share space with the women of the family. Social interaction within the family is governed by, and privacy is provided by, the separation between the structures in which family members live. By contrast, in Western Europe, such separation is accomplished inside one dwelling, by dividing the building into separate rooms.
Culture also has a great influence on the appearance of vernacular buildings, as occupants often decorate buildings in accordance with local customs and beliefs.
There are many cultures around the world which include some aspect of nomadic life, and they have all developed vernacular solutions for the need for shelter. These all include appropriate responses to climate and customs of their inhabitants, including practicalities of simple construction, and if necessary, transport.
The Inuit people have a number of different forms of shelter appropriate to different seasons and geographical locations, including the igloo (for winter) and the tupiq tent (for summer). The Sami of Northern Europe, who live in climates similar to those experienced by the Inuit, have developed different shelters appropriate to their culture, including the atnaris-kahte tent. The development of different solutions in similar circumstances because of cultural influences is typical of vernacular architecture.
Many nomadic people use materials common in the local environment to construct temporary dwellings, such as the Punan of Sarawak who use palm fronds, or the Ituri Pygmies who use saplings and mongongo leaves to construct domed huts. Other cultures reuse materials, transporting them with them as they move. Examples of this are the tribes of Mongolia, who carry their yurts or gers with them, or the black desert tents of the Qashgai in Iran. Notable in each case is the signicant impact of the availability of materials and the availability of pack animals or other forms of transport on the ultimate form of the shelters.
All the shelters will be adapted to suit the local climate. The Mongolian gers, for example, are versatile enough to be cool in hot continental summers and warm in the sub-zero temperaturs of Mongolian winters, and include a closable ventilation hole at the centre and a chimney for a stove. A ger is typically not often relocated, and is therefore sturdy and secure, including wooden front door and several layers of coverings. A berber tent, by contrast, might be relocated daily, and is much lighter and quicker to erect and dismantle - and because of the climate it is used in, does not need to provide the same degree of protection from the elements.
The type of structure and materials used for a dwelling vary depending on how permanent it is. Frequently moved nomadic structures will be lightweight and simple, more permanent ones will be less so. When people settle somewhere permanently, the architecture of their dwellings will change to reflect that.
Materials used will become heavier, more solid and more durable. They may also become more complicated and more expensive, as the capital and labour required to construct them is a one-time cost. Permanent dwellings often offer a greater degree of protection and shelter from the elements. In some cases however, where dwellings are subjected to severe weather conditions such as frequent flooding or high winds, buildings may be deliberately "designed" to fail and be replaced, rather than requiring the uneconomical or even impossible structures needed to withstand them. The collapse of a relatively flimsy, lightweight structure is also less likely to cause serious injury than a heavy structure.
Over time, dwellings' architecture may come to reflect a very specific geographical locale.
The local environment and the construction materials it can provide governs many aspect of vernacular architecture. Areas rich in trees will develop a wooden vernacular, while areas without much wood may use mud or stone. In the Far East it is common to use bamboo, as it is both plentiful and versatile. Vernacular, almost by definition, is sustainable, and will not exhaust the local resources. If it is not sustainable, it is not suitable for its local context, and cannot be vernacular.
A more nuanced work is the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World published in 1997 by Paul Oliver of the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development. Oliver argues that vernacular architecture, given the insights it gives into issues of environmental adaptation, will be necessary in the future to "ensure sustainability in both cultural and economic terms beyond the short term." Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language, attempted to identify adaptive features of traditional architecture that apply across cultures. Howard Davis's book The Culture of Building details the culture that enabled several vernacular traditions.
Some extend the term vernacular to include any architecture outside the academic mainstream. The term "commercial vernacular," popularized in the late 1960s by the publication of Robert Venturi's "Learning from Las Vegas," refers to 20th century American suburban tract and commercial architecture. There is also the concept of an "industrial vernacular" with its emphasis on the aesthetics of shops, garages and factories. Some have linked vernacular with "off-the-shelf" aesthetics. In any respect, those who study these types of vernaculars hold that the low-end characteristics of this aesthetic define a useful and fundamental approach to architectural design.
Among those who study vernacular architecture are those who are interested in the question of everyday life and those lean toward questions of sociology. In this, many were influenced by The Practice of Everyday Life (1974) by Michel de Certeau.
The value of housing displaced people in shelters which are in some way familiar is seen to provide reassurance and comfort following often very traumatic times. As the needs change from saving lives to providing medium to long term shelter the construction of locally appropriate and accepted housing can be very important.