Vernacular Architecture & Place-Based Design - Part 1

There is a timeless way of building and we have forgotten it!  

Historic vernacular architecture is the rudimentary construction done by your town’s original builders, with the traditions, skills and resources they had at hand. You might also think of it as your town’s architecture, before architects.

Think of historic vernacular architecture as the “original green” in your community.
— LL

There is a lot to learn about sustainable design through understanding the historic structures in your community.  This is the first place to look when designing green architecture. Today, new or old buildings can still benefit from the unique attributes found in the local vernacular style. 

Why Traditional Building Died

Our towns’ first residents got a lot of things right when they built. Leading up to the Great Depression and subsequent materials shortages during World War II, there was a standard for building that expressed efficiency, craftsmanship, quality, and several other marks of sustainable design - all that we have forgotten in our age of fossil fuel, automobiles, and the Internet. 

As a brief explanation, we learned to build cheaper in the years during and following WWII. Things like windows could be mass-produced from materials that were easier to process, instead of built in a local shop from local hands and renewable materials, like wood. 

Even entire homes began being mass produced in suburban developments like Levittown, PA. In the suburbs everyone could build bigger homes on more land, with subsidized mortgage programs to pave the way.  

Feeding suburban development was the increase in number of cars on the road. Everyone began moving further apart from each other and becoming more shutoff from each other. 

Instead of belonging to a neighborhood, we championed having our own place. Homogenized residential development in the outlying areas, and 2-car households became more prevalent. Cars became our go-to, to go anywhere.

The death blow probably happened in the 1960’s and 70’s when air conditioning became a central feature in the home. Windows in historic districts were eventually painted shut and front porches were often enclosed or became just another place to store our things.   

From the 1970’s to 1980’s we began parking our vehicles in garage-front homes. We turned inside and built our lives around the color television. Video games kept our kids close to home and out of those busy streets we built to get everywhere else so quickly.

Today, mass culture is turning inward still. I think we might eventually implode! Just think how smartphones and the Internet allow us access to virtually anything without coming into contact with others in the community!

I don’t want to dwell longer on what happened.  It is more important to get a picture of life before we relied on so many “modern conveniences”. 

Roots of Vernacular Architecture 

Can you imagine not being able to YouTube how to do something? In the late 1800’s - early 1900’s everyone worked with their own acuities (hands, eyes, brain, etc.) to produce something real. 

During the days of your town’s birth, there were skilled people to fit every demand. This included every kind of labor and service needed for the town to function. Instructions were passed down from person to person for work like:  making a saddle, a haircut, signage, a water well, drafting formal documents, or laying bricks. 

Early townspeople were town builders, and also stewards . Everyone had a place within the whole and played a part to keep things running. Sure, some goods and commodities were imported, like coffee, tea, silk, and sugar, but the day to day operations and maintenance were handled by your next door neighbor, your Grandfather, a friend, or a member of your congregation.

I like to think of the early communities more like villages. They had a condensed form and the limited infrastructure kept things simple. This allowed more chances to bump into neighbors on walks from place to place.  

In his book, Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture, Paul Oliver writes, “Sustainability through independence, rather than dependence is vital.” Sustainable communities area where neighbors look left and right for help, and in truth it is there.

Local Resources & Craftsmanship

Over time the town center began taking shape, typically around a the commercial “Main Street” district. Although, the first Main Street buildings may have began as simple wood-framed structures with a simple “boom town” facade, they were typically improved over time and became more permanent. 

Local labor kept money in the community and allowed a sense of local ownership. There is a sense of pride back then, and things were built to last.  Everything was built by hand, and constructed from repairable components and assemblies.

Some of today's building materials, such as vinyl windows, cannot be repaired. They must be replaced. This is the stark contrast between how our culture today differs from our early history. 

The terrible irony of this example is that a PVC window takes a lot more energy to manufacturer, which releases carbon (from fossil fuels) into the atmosphere, but energy is cheap now days. We should also be concerned by the abundant toxins from PVC production and they issue of their disposal. They do not biodegrade without further damage to the earth.

Wood windows come from all-natural, renewable resources. They last a long time, if maintained, and bio-degrade in a landfill. They do require more hand-labor over the life-cycle of the window. Craftsman labor may be costly, but the money stays in the local economy.  

Embodied Energy & Carbon

Existing buildings have embodied energy stored inside them. Embodied energy is the sum of energy it took to manufacture the building materials and assemble them into a completed structure.

In modern product and building Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), embodied energy and embodied carbon are both analyzed for environmental impact. They often correspond closely, so we should try and use products that contain low embodied energy.  

Since the best practices from our early days involved many renewable materials, and relatively little non-renewable energy, this points us toward a very sustainable solution. The good news is that we don't have to live in sod houses to avoid high-carbon buildings today. 

In Part 2, we will look further into our towns’ vernacular architecture and study the influence of climate, and sense of place found in the historic district.