Simply traditional yet all the more progressive in its actualisation, Vernacular design is the local language of the architecture of a particular community or region. The tradition and culture followed by the people of a specific region and the construction materials specific to that locale are the two significant elements rooted in the vision of vernacular design. Most importantly, it is built to acknowledge the way of life of the region’s people and their day-to-day activities and respect their environment and resources. Bringing a touch of local culture, sustainability, and modernisation into its functioning, it brings out the inherent beauty of a region by crafting architecture merged with traditional values in modern-day functionality.
The Shared Values of Traditionality and
Vernacular design started as a survival method by humankind to build their own houses from the locally available materials in an area. Since then, the realm of design has undergone a complete metamorphosis. However, the core values behind Vernacular design remain the same: to build sustainable buildings close to the ethnicity of a community and even closer to their hearts.
Built using local materials such as wood, clay, mud, bamboo, and laterite, it uses locally found and sustainably-sourced materials rather than high-end glass and metal applications. These materials are used in a modernised manner concerning the geographical and climatic aspects of the region so that they help regulate the temperature and thermal conductivity of the built space. Laterite in flooring and wall units is common in tropical areas where this material also acts as a building coolant.
Similarly, construction techniques such as rammed earth, an aggregate of sand, clay, and gravel, are gaining long due recognition in the present time primarily because of their non-toxicity, fire resistance, and durability combined with their raw natural beauty. The Great Wall of China is a popular example of this technique, built by compressing raw materials like gravel, sand, and clay in the shape of a wall.
Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School in Jaisalmer
Vernacular architecture is a distinctive approach with a sense of belongingness, linking a built space to its culturally rich environment. For instance, the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, designed by US-based architect Diana Kellogg is one of the finest examples of how vernacular design can quickly adapt to its surroundings and community. Made to empower and educate girls, the school is built in yellow sandstone and does not require any AC, even in the blazing 50℃ heat of Rajasthan. A courtyard, traditional to the homes of Rajasthan, runs through the centre of this oval-shaped school, which perfectly blends into the desert landscape of the region.
Merging Vernacular Design with the Urban Environment
Vernacular design is meant to blend into its surroundings, be it a small-scale village setting or a high-end urban dwelling. Recognising the advantages of Vernacular architecture in everyday construction, architects and designers have started to take bits and parts of this method to incorporate it into their designs. Sustainability, familiarity with local materials, employing regional craftsmen in the designing process, and re-discovering historical construction techniques are just some ways in how Vernacular design is applied to the built environment in the urban setting.
Krushi Bhawan in Bhubaneswar by Studio Lotus
The Krushi Bhawan Odisha by Studio Lotus is one such example that takes cues from vernacular narratives to make an institution dedicated to the empowerment of the agriculture and farmers of the state. The building facade itself pays an ode to the Odia craft of Odisha by employing over 100 highly-skilled artisans in its making. Using locally-sourced laterite and khondalite stone, the interiors depict the tales of agriculture through various craft techniques.
Human-made and Nature Go Hand-in-Hand
The vernacular design provides a region with much-needed meaning and context by expressing its cultural values and age-old traditions. This practice is often lost in present-day architectural practice. When we think about urban design, glass towers and multi-level skyscrapers come to our mind, built-in generalised materials like concrete, brick, and glass such that if you remove a building from, say, Shanghai and place it in New York, it would hardly make any difference to the cultural topography of the place. Such indifference in the design landscape of the cities with histories of the past and rich cultural context behind them is bridged by Vernacular design.
While that’s only the beginning of the small yet powerful implications that Vernacular design has in designing urban cities, reducing the carbon footprint of construction, mitigating heat, and addressing climatic factors without the need for installing additional equipment for cooling are among the many others. Take, for example, The House of Courtyards in Ahmedabad by Modo Designs, which is built upon the vernacular concept of ‘pol’ houses in Ahmedabad. A ‘Pol’ refers to a group of houses clustered around a central courtyard which also gives protection from harsh weather conditions. Circling the same idea, the house design incorporates several courtyards with an openable fabricated roof to create a tunnel effect and a cooling atmosphere in the interiors.
‘Cool Ant’ – A natural Terracotta AC by Ant Studio
We have all had ‘coolers’ in our homes to drive away the summer heat. Now, imagine using the same evaporative-cooling technique being used upon the entire facade of a building to create an energy-efficient natural coolant for your home. This is what Monish Siriporapu of Ant studio, a New Delhi-based design firm, has done through the making of ‘Cool Ant’, a natural terracotta air conditioner that reduces the surrounding temperature as water seeps through the porous layers of the terracotta. Pleasing to the eye and conscious of the climate, this modern interpretation of vernacular design reduces the need for air-conditioning in homes and reduces the carbon emission creating a sustainable way to beat the heat.
Vernacular design, a practice that has existed for hundreds of years, is now paving the way for a renewed realm in architecture and design. As responsible architects and interior designers, we should embrace the traditional values, construction techniques, and the usage of locally available materials to create designs rooted in the history and community of the region. “Sometimes you need to take one step back, to go two steps forward.” That is precisely what we need to do now: revisit our age-old architectural techniques, recognise their significance, and imbibe those philosophies into our current practices to create human-made designs that are not vehemently opposed to but instead in harmony with nature.
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