Although vernacular was a usual practice more than a century ago, its principles continue to stand the test of time. As we all know, vernacular architecture is local, regional, and true to its roots. Unlike today’s mass designs, sole aesthetic perspectives, or statement forms, vernacular architecture has an all-rounded approach towards design. It encompasses aspects from context to culture and at times facilitates community interaction through its building construction process. These parameters make vernacular architecture unique.
Although these parameters might seem daunting, the simplicity of vernacular architecture is beyond spectacular. Let’s have a look at some key takeaways from vernacular architecture around the world.
Material Selection and building techniques
One of the crucial principles of vernacular or indigenous architecture is the use of locally available materials. Thus, buildings made up of various forms of earth materials, stones, wooden frames, bamboo, and thatch or a combination of these are found in places respective to their abundance. For example, an old technique of earth construction, wattle, and daub commonly used in medieval Europe has become scarce due to modern construction methods and materials. (Solidearth, 2021)
The technique mainly consists of a lattice of vertical and horizontal wooden frames daubed with a mixture of earth and straw. Straw adds fiber and provides much-needed reinforcement for the earth, whereas the lattice creates a strong base. The walls, unlike other earth construction methods, are non-load bearing due to the use of lattice. These give an advantage for the frame to be molded in any form opening a wide array of possibilities for reusing this technique in contemporary architecture.
Another variation of this style is the Dhajji-Dewari system found in the Kashmir region of India. It consists of a similar wooden lattice framework. Stones being abundant in the hills, the earth and straw mixture gets replaced by the stone and mortar mixture. Thus, an important takeaway is to use whatever is naturally found around a site or in a region. Some minute changes to a commonly known technique can achieve a unique style for a particular site requirement.
Sunpath, Climate and Seasons
Due to the lack of mechanical ventilation systems or HVAC in the previous days, the designs relied on passive solar strategies for achieving thermal comfort inside the buildings. Common strategies used in various parts of the world include thick brick and stone walls for thermal lag, verandahs, or spill-over spaces protecting the habitable rooms from direct sun penetration, overhangs to avoid summer sun but permit winter sun into the structure, and so on.
Excellent examples of climate responsive vernacular or indigenous architecture can be found in Nepal. Nepal’s large geographic extent and variations in altitudes divide the region into five different climatic zones namely, sub-tropical, warm temperate, cool temperate, alpine, and tundra climate. (Susanne Bodach, et al. 2014) Each climatic zone has a peculiar style of construction varying slightly within its sub-divisions.
Due to heavy rains and hot summers in the sub-tropical zone, the focus is on cross and stack ventilation by keeping the skin permeable to the air. In warm and temperate zones, the winter temperature does not fall drastically thus, solar radiation gain and thermal mass are enough to keep the building warm during winters. In cool temperate zones, solar radiation and thick walls and floors with a thermal lag of about 8 hours help reduce the need for active heating. Due to the cool and dry climate in the Alpine region, compact homes with small openings are desirable. To make the most of the temperature difference between the day and night, heavy and thick roofs along with walls and floors are recommended.
Thus, key learning here is to identify the extreme environmental conditions and derive strategies to achieve thermal comfort by allowing or obstructing sunlight and mitigating winds and rainfall.
Context and Culture
Customs and traditions influence architecture and design. While its impact has dwindled over the past few years, it was prominent in vernacular architecture. The use of a verandah space in houses across India indicates the need to maintain privacy demanded by the culture while providing a space for residents to interact with the passers-by on the streets, a usual cultural norm in India. Such spaces called Narthex were designed in Persian architecture too. (Mohammad Hadi Zare, et al. 2014)
The arrangement of rooms in a plan as per Vedic traditions for preserving good energies in the house also provided sustainable design solutions. Vernacular construction techniques involve every person contributing to their home promoting interactions and strong relationships. The large courtyards, central hall-like spaces in Wada-style architecture provided spaces for gathering, music festivals, celebrations apart from being a passive climate-responsive strategy. Thus, architecture should go beyond forms, structure, aesthetics and genuinely contribute to community development and interaction.
From Local to Global
We see many contemporary interpretations of the vernacular architecture across houses and other building typologies incorporating the materials, passive design strategies, or aesthetics of indigenous techniques. A revolutionary approach to modernizing a vernacular architectural technique is evident in the project mud frontiers. It is an academic research project by the University of California. It has tried and tested the use of mobile robots for printing a mixture of earth, clay, cob, and straw to create walls like that of rammed earth construction. It has also been tested to 3D print cement and sand mixture materials.
“The MUD Frontiers project re-examines and conceptually unearths traditional indigenous building traditions and materials using 21st-century technology and craft coupled with local labor to explore new possibilities for ecological and local construction techniques.” (Fabricate, 2020) Projects like these should become a common practice to perpetuate the benefits of vernacular architecture design principles.
In today’s world of steel, glass, and a race to build the tallest skyscraper, it is crucial to look back at these vernacular architecture precedents. It is the need of the day to derive lessons from traditional architecture to implement in contemporary buildings. Sustainability aspects from vernacular architecture should be given due consideration owing to the disasters of global warming and climate change we are experiencing. And as seen in the example of mud frontiers, combining technology with such indigenous strategies can yield outstanding outcomes.
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Susanne Bodach, Werner Lang, Johannes Hamhaber, 2014, Climate responsive building design strategies of vernacular architecture in Nepal,Energy and Buildings, Volume 81, Pages 227-242, ISSN 0378-7788,. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378778814005040) [Accessed 24 September 2021].
Mohammad Hadi Zare, Farhad Kazemian, 2014, European Online Journal of Natural and Social Sciences 2014; www.european-science.com Vol.3, No.4 Special Issue on Architecture, Urbanism, and Civil Engineering ISSN 1805-3602 https://european-science.com/eojnss/article/download/2519/pdf [Accessed 25 September 2021].
JANE BURRY / JENNY SABIN / BOB SHEIL / MARILENA SKAVARA, 2020, Fabricate 2020: making resilient architecture, UCL Press, Mud Frontiers, pages 22-27. [Accessed 26 September 2021].