Vernacular architecture is the simplest way of putting a roof over one’s head. Originating from the basic human need for shelter, a vernacular can be interpreted in different design languages depending on different regions. For example, the vernacular of a cold Swedish cottage is a timber two-storied structure with a pitched straw roof whereas, for a house in the hurricane-prone tropic of the Philippines, it would be a stilt bamboo hut with a steep thatch roof of palm leaves.
While regional building methods may vary from place to place, the meaning of vernacular architecture remains unchanged since its beginning. It is all about traditional knowledge in its most basic sense; building techniques are handed down from our ancestors, who devised them as a response to their local climates & materials. This form of architecture goes far beyond construction – as most local structures are imbued with local culture, it is also a means of carrying forward the layered heritage of a region.
Until modern materials and technology (namely concrete) came into the picture, traditional methods of building were still commonly practiced all over the world. Today, we see little of those practices being followed, especially in urban sprawls where they are regarded as being outdated, backward, or irrelevant. When pitted against each other, vernacular architecture is no doubt healthier for the mind, body & soul than conventional building methods. It is also better for the environment and nurtures a symbiotic relationship with the surroundings.
With so many obvious positives, why is it that we find dwindling examples of vernacular design in present-day cities? Let’s find out.
1. Lack of Awareness
The most evident reason is less knowledge of vernacular practices. As several urban dwellers are born into metropolitan lifestyles, they are unaware of traditional systems that are followed in the countryside. Having spent all my life in a city brimming with lookalike structures, I myself had been unacquainted with building techniques followed by our ancestors up until I studied architecture. In the wake of technological advances & booming industrialization, the last few generations witnessed large scale migration to cities in search of better opportunities.
A dearth of living space meant that large, airy individual houses were replaced with multi-storied tenements packed to the brim, and bereft of design identity. As families become more and more nuclear, the only way children learn about their roots is through their grandparents’ childhood recollections. It is no wonder then that traditional building methods are a rare sight, especially in urban contexts.
2. Lack of Know-How
While many city folks are unaware of vernacular building, the ones that do are faced with the challenge of how to go about it. Our forefathers had a simple approach to traditional construction – community. As communities were smaller & tight-knit, construction was a social activity that saw the participation of locals who were proficient in climate responsive systems. Building was considered more of a skill than trade at a time when dwellings were made from locally available resources that were adapted to suit their context.
In cities, where knowledge of such techniques is scarce, landowners have to find skilled contractors or masons who are familiar with this form of construction to achieve the end result. To build vernacularly is an art form; to find the right person for the job is crucial – even the most experienced builders falter, with the outcome being far from the envisioned idea.
As more architects are practicing sustainable design, this process has become easier of late; but it is no simple feat to replicate the methods that our predecessors could accomplish in a fraction of the effort that it requires today.
3. Concerns About Cost
It is natural to think & rethink expenditure when building a house. While many factors dictate the budget, it is a false notion that vernacular building is more expensive. Urban dwellers, perhaps due to less knowledge about vernacular materials, tend to assume that conventional methods like RCC & concrete blocks are the most cost-effective option. While these materials may cost less, a significant expense is incurred in transporting the material to site and finishing stages (painting, flooring, etc).
It might surprise people that vernacular techniques are often more economical & durable in the long run as materials are sourced locally. Vernacular architecture is typically synonymous with eco-friendly & sustainable; it goes beyond building materials. There is significant potential of saving maintenance costs by employing systems such as water treatment, solar energy, biogas, recycling, rainwater harvesting, etc.
For example, air conditioning can be avoided with the use of courtyards & shading screens (jaalis) in tropical regions. A boxed structure with a glass facade that traps heat would hardly work for this climate.
Hesitancy About Practicality
As cities around the world start to look more & more alike, the skyline of a typical urban settlement has evolved into one that is densely packed with soaring steel & glass high-rises. As metropolitan residents are used to sleek, monolithic concrete structures surrounding them, they seldom think of exploring other options in terms of materials or design.
Some of the questions that I have commonly been asked by clients, ‘Will a load-bearing mud block construction be as strong as an RCC frame structure?’ or ‘Will having a Jack arch roof as an intermediate slab allow it to be used as floor space on the level above?’ exhibit an absence of confidence in these systems being able to meet their requirements.
Talking to people in the field or researching alternative methods of architecture can largely allay those fears. It is important to avoid believing hearsay from people who have had zero-to-minimal experience with this type of construction; vernacular architecture is just as feasible, if not more sustainable & resilient, than other built forms.
5. ‘Old-fashioned’ Style
Finally, and most notably, city folks tend to write off vernacular architecture as an outmoded & and archaic way to build structures today. While traditional methods may have their roots deep in a region’s past, their interpretation depends on the skills of present-day designers. There is a lot to be said about ancient building wisdom; courtyards, aangans (patios), barsatis (terrace rooms), madras roofs, etc., give breathability to a house that is missing from modern structures.
While using local materials in a traditional style may still appeal to many, taking a contemporary approach can yield pleasing results. Ancient knowledge can be adapted to current contexts, woven into modern fabric while performing the task it was devised for. As of late, there have been several architects adding their own flavor to vernacular architecture (Tropic Responses, PMA madhushala, Made in Earth, Abin Design Studio, etc).
While awareness about vernacular practices is growing, it has a long way to go before being accepted as a mainstream construction style. In contrast, conventional materials are affordable, easily available, and require less skilling. With the twin issues of escalating energy costs & global warming stare humanity in the face, people are slowly embracing regional building methods in a ‘hybrid’ style that is creating a unique legacy for future generations to imbibe. If explored well, vernacular techniques can save a lot of money while at the same time ensuring a healthy habitat for occupants as well as the surroundings.
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