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What is Vernacular Architecture?

vernacular architecture
Image Credit: 123rf.com

I get asked by readers all the time what architectural style their house is and other than a few rare examples my answer is usually the same, “It’s vernacular architecture.” To which the response is usually, “What does that mean?”

Even though the vast majority of building stock across the globe is vernacular architecture most people struggle with understanding what this is and even what the phrase means. It has defied definition for centuries other than to say what it is not. Vernacular architecture is NOT architect designed, it’s NOT a specific high style (ie. Greek Revival, Craftsman, etc.), it’s NOT sophisticated, it’s NOT monumental, it’s merely…a building.

If I could take a stab at a definition of vernacular architecture it would be a variety of architectural styles based on local needs, types of construction materials available at the time, and the talents and traditions of local builders and craftsmen.

The Range of Vernacular Architecture

Across the myriad cultures of the world there is such range in vernacular architecture that it is difficult to define by looking at it unless you know the local traditions. Mud huts, thatch buildings, simple frame and siding homes, even McMansions all fall into this unplanned architectural style.

Some vernacular buildings are ugly as sin and others are amazingly ornate and gorgeous in their own right, but none of them were designed as a part of a prescribed style.

vernacular sod house
A vernacular sod house in Northern Ireland Image Credit: 123rf.com

Think of it this way. You need to buy a whole new wardrobe for yourself (the women are excited and the men are moaning right now). You can choose to go Banana Republic and buy everything you need in that one store. The make of the clothes are all similar with a theme of colors and styles popular that season that the big whigs at Banana Republic have decided are ”in” for this season’s clothes.

You come home with a definite look that is very distinct from your friend who did all their shopping at Urban Outfitters. This option is the high style architecture like Colonial Revival or Tudor. There are certain things that have to be included in a Tudor home that don’t belong in a Colonial home and vice versa and you cannot mix or intermingle them.

The other option is to go a department store like Macy’s where you pick up clothes from all kinds of designers in a variety of colors and styles. The options are almost immeasurable. Active wear, jeans, dress clothes, gowns, sneakers, heels, etc. You pick whatever you want and wear it however you want. Some people will assemble amazing wardrobes and others will assemble a collection that is reminiscent of a dumpster fire based on how they put things together. This is vernacular architecture.

Frame vernacular farmhouse Image Credit 123rf.com

Not only is vernacular architecture a conglomerate of different ideas and styles, but it is extremely local historically speaking. The Shotgun houses of New Orleans and the dogtrot Cracker houses of Florida were built to help settlers better deal with the hot, humid weather in the south; whereas the Saltbox style houses of New England were built to keep residents warmer with a low sloping roof on the North side to help that viciously cold northern wind go up and over the house rather than in the house.

Identifying Vernacular Architecture

So how do you know if your home is vernacular? It’s more of a process of elimination really. There are very specific high styles of architecture, and while your house may lean toward one style more than another, if it’s doesn’t follow some specific rules then it should be considered vernacular.

Rules for Vernacular Homes

  • Not designed by an architect
  • Not specific to one precise architectural style
  • Built by local builders
  • Built using commonly available local materials
  • Built with local or regional needs in mind

If you’ve got a house that looks like a medley of different architectural high styles that can also be considered a vernacular home. My first home was a 1929 bungalow that had some watered down Craftsman elements mixed with local building styles and a sprinkling of Greek Revival parts. She was definitely vernacular.

Is Vernacular Bad?

Don’t think of vernacular architecture as a cop out or a bad thing. Some of the most unique buildings in the world are vernacular, and like I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of buildings in the world are vernacular.

Sure there are some amazing high style homes out there, but the uniqueness of each vernacular home means that it is truly one of a kind and it has its own history. Maybe the local builder built only one or two of this style home and he was a master with local traditions.

An Amazing Example

One of the most unique vernacular buildings I have ever encountered is the Barnacle Boathouse in Biscayne Bay near Miami, FL. The original 2-story boathouse was built in 1887 by Ralph Munroe with a 1st story where he could build and launch boats and the 2nd story that contained living quarters. Built right on the water the original structure was destroyed by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926.

barnacle boathouse
The Barnacle Boathouse (note the 2 guide wires to support the building during hurricanes)

According to history, ”Devastated by the loss of his life’s work, Munroe examined how the forces of the storm led to the building’s collapse, and he used what he learned when he rebuilt later the same year. He added bracing and a concrete foundation to the new structure for strength and attached guide wires to the 2nd-story floor joists for stability. He also designed front and rear walls to break away to allow storm surge flood waters to wash through the building instead of tear it apart.”

When hurricane Andrew came thru in 1992 the 66-year-old building was tested and it performed as expected. The front and rear walls broke free and allowed the water to flow through the building and the guide wires were strong enough to support the incredible forces of the ocean railing against the building which left the 2nd story relatively unaffected by the storm.

barnacle boathouse hurricane damage
The boathouse after hurricane Andrew in 1992

Would a builder in New England know how to do this or need to building like this? Absolutely not. Did Munroe understand how to deal with roof snow loads and ice damns? Definitely not. That’s the point of vernacular architecture, it’s local, it’s creative (sometimes), and it’s unique.

So before you knock it or see it as playing second fiddle think again. Vernacular architecture is the most popular architecture in the world and you can find some of the most unique and inspiring buildings in the world when you search this architectural non-style.

If you are wondering what style your house is check out my resource page What Style is My Old House?

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3 thoughts on “What is Vernacular Architecture?

  1. Great article. I’ve been trying to decide what style my 1935 TX Farmhouse with added ornamentation would be.
    Vernacular Architecture fits the bill.

  2. I guessing you would put my Grandmother’s house in this category (now my Aunt’s house). She was NOT an architect but did plan the blueprint of how the rooms would be laid out. They had an old fashion house raising (1930’s if I recall). It is two stories. My Aunt added a garage and additional room, about a decade ago. It is located in Bumpass, Virginia about 30 miles west of Richmond.
    Thanks again for educating us.

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