Vernacular Housing Essay

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The term vernacular simply means native to a place. Anthropologists describe vernacular architecture as “ordinary building,” which is distinguished by its “communally sanctioned” qualities and its “intensity of social representation,” as opposed to individual expression. Vernacular architecture reflects the everyday lives of ordinary people and their relationships with the built environment. It embodies the social and cultural values, customs, and practices of a particular place, often providing insights into history. Due to its cost-effective use of local building materials and techniques, and its climatic and environmental sensitivity, vernacular architecture is considered an important component of sustainable development. Vernacular housing is a subset of vernacular architecture. It refers to individual dwellings built using traditional building styles, as well as the aggregation of such dwellings into larger settlements.

Various building principles, practices, and elements together characterize vernacular housing. Ancient builders are known to have used solar principles and other local climatic characteristics not only for individual dwellings but also for groups of dwellings. For instance, in ancient Greek towns, most buildings had stuccoed walls with few openings. Shadows kept them cool despite the bright sun. In residential buildings, windows were restricted to upper levels to ensure safety. Similarly, traditional dwellings in cold climates were usually sited just below the brow of the hill on a southward slope. The north face of the buildings had few openings whereas the southern facade had the main openings to maximize the benefits of limited sunshine. Such common-sense approaches, which are the foundation of vernacular building traditions, have inspired what is called “green” building today. In a search for innovations to promote sustainability, green builders have begun to adapt vernacular techniques and materials to achieve energy and cost efficiency.

Global housing demand for the projected population of nine billion people by 2050 is expected to have severe social and environmental implications. Promoting vernacular housing, particularly in developing countries, is seen as a long-term sustainable solution to the housing problem given its environmental and cultural sensitivity. Vernacular architecture is estimated to make up almost 90 percent of the world’s housing stock. Although not much of the housing seen today in the United States and Europe is vernacular, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, vernacular architecture still accounts for a majority of the buildings. Since vernacular building traditions are still prevalent in parts of the world with rising populations, they are expected to be the dominant housing pattern in this century.

While vernacular design is mostly guided by unwritten rules, there are also the more formalized, almost normative, vernacular building principles such as those represented by Feng Shui manuals in China or the Vaastu Shastra principles in India, which are immensely popular today. Also, the work of some architects, such as Hassan Fathy in Egypt and Laurie Baker in India, exemplify the skillful interpretation and expression of vernacular traditions in contemporary architecture. For instance, Fathy is credited with reviving the Nubian vault-an ancient building technique dating back to the Pharaonic times-which uses architectonic elements, and the ancient craft of claustra or lattice designs in mudwork. His design for Gourna village in Egypt is an example of contemporary vernacular housing that meets the needs of Egyptian Islamic society through a clear demarcation of the private, economic, and religious lives of the community. Similarly, Laurie Baker’s use of brick or mud walls, lime mortar made from seashells, recycled materials, and woven bamboo floors showcases the cost-effectiveness, sociocultural sensitivity, and environmental appropriateness of vernacular architecture today.

Technological advances, urbanization, and increased consumption, which accompany processes of globalization, have resulted in cultural changes. They have also created a range of environmental problems-from the depletion of natural resources to the excessive generation of pollution and waste. Consequently, the built environment, both as a cultural category and as a consumer of energy and resources, has a major role to play in addressing some of these issues. Architects, engineers, and planners have been promoting green building technologies in response to the growing environmental crisis.

However, critics point out that efforts to use such technologies in the past, especially for low-income housing in the developing world, have often failed because they tend to impose building types and standards without considering cultural values, local needs, and expectations. They argue that the success of green building technologies in the future will require them to be adaptable to cultural values and local customs. The current anthropological focus in architecture may be a step in that direction as it seeks to study the dynamic processes of living and transcend the simplistic reading of vernacular as just an “organic” physical form.


  1. Lindsay Asquith and Marcel Vellinga, , Vernacular Architecture in the Twenty-first Century: Theory, Education and Practice (Taylor and Francis, 2006);
  2. L. Kumar, “What Is Architecture?” in Ashis Nandy and Vinay Lal, eds., The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the 21st Century (Penguin Viking, 2005);
  3. Paul Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (Cambridge University Press, 1997);
  4. Paul Oliver, Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide (Phaidon, 2003);
  5. Amos Rapoport, House, Form and Culture (Prentice Hall, 1969).

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