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VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE: Architecture before the Architect

General Info about Vernacular architecture

Vernacular = sustainable = low-carbon designs

The term vernacular means "domestic, native, indigenous"; from verna, meaning "native slave" or "home-born slave".

  • Buildings before the 17th century are considered vernacular architecture.

  • Build with locally learned skills

  • Build by people for the people: the buildings are simple, cost-efficient and easy to build (ease of construction was key)

  • Materials are locally sourced.

  • The design reflects the climate and the regional culture of the people that build it.

Vernacular Architecture
Vernacular Architecture

The vernacular architecture provides a vital connection between humans and the environment. It re-establishes us in our particular part of the world and forces us to think in terms of pure survival – architecture before the architect.

Vernacular architecture is described as a built environment that is based upon local needs; defined by the availability of particular materials indigenous to its particular region, and reflects local traditions and cultural practices.

The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as:

...comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.

Frank Lloyd Wright described vernacular architecture as "Folk building growing in response to actual needs, fitted into the environment by people who knew no better than to fit them with native feeling"

One of the most significant influences on vernacular architecture is the macroclimate of the area in which the building is constructed.

Buildings in cold 🥶 climates invariably have high thermal mass or significant amounts of insulation. They are usually sealed in order to prevent heat loss, and openings such as windows tend to be small or non-existent.

Buildings in warm 🥵 climates, by contrast, tend to be constructed of lighter materials and to allow significant cross-ventilation through openings in the fabric of the building.

Vernacular Architecture
Vernacular Architecture

  • The design is reflective of the climate. For instance, builders might consider what direction the home is facing when positioning windows. Specific materials might be used to help with the winter season, etc.

  • It encompassed 95% of the world's built environment in 1969.

  • Architecture designed by professional architects is usually not considered to be vernacular.



Vernacular Architecture - MINKA HOUSE JAPAN
Vernacular Architecture - MINKA HOUSE JAPAN

Minka = house of the people

Minka was the dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants (i.e., the three non-samurai castes). Minka developed through history with distinctive styles emerging in the Edo period a period of high economic growth and prosperity of Japan.

  • Minka comes in a wide range of styles and sizes, due to different geographic and climate regions and the social status of the Minka owner was indicated by the size and complexity of the building.

Minka Houses in winter - Vernacular Architecture - MINKA HOUSE JAPAN
Minka Houses in winter


Abundant bamboo was used for roofs, eaves, doors and floors.

Roof: the roof is slanting down in 4 sides in more like a pyramidical shape. Miscanthus reeds or wooden shingles were used. On top of that, they were putting rocks for the shingles not to be blown away from the wind (climate requirement). Later on, they were using tiles as it is a more durable material.

Walls were made out of clay.

During the evolution of Minka, the machiya townhouses gradually changed its construction away from perishable and flammable materials to those of a more durable nature. Thatched roofs were replaced with tiles and exposed timbers were covered up with layers of clay plastering.

Structural Concepts

c. Minka's are divided up with primary posts that form the basic framework and bear the structural load of the building; secondary posts are arranged to suit the functional arrangements of the plan.

The 'inverted U' consists of two vertical posts fixed at the top with a horizontal beam; these units can then be joined with side girders. The beam can be fixed to the top of the post either by resting upon it or via a mortise and tenon joint (no nails joint).

These wooden structures were slightly elevated from the ground with either tiled or thatched roofing.

They were constructed with steep, thatched roofs that resembled Buddhist monks’ hands pressed together when in prayer. The architectural design developed through the years to withstand the elements. The gassho-zukuri roofs were timber-framed–made without nails–to allow for a much larger attic space, to cultivate silkworms, for example.


Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER IRAN
Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER IRAN

Aka WINDCATCHER aka wind tower aka wind scoop (approx. 34m high) aka thermal chimney

  • In Iran, a windcatcher is called a bâdgir: bâd "wind" + gir "catcher"

A traditional architectural element used to create natural ventilation and passive cooling in buildings. Windcatchers come in various designs: unidirectional, bidirectional, and multidirectional. Windcatchers tend to have one, four, or eight openings


Most buildings are constructed of very thick ceramics with extremely high insulation values. Furthermore, towns centred on desert oases tend to be packed very closely together with high walls and ceilings relative to Western architecture, maximizing shade at ground level. The heat of direct sunlight is minimized with small windows that do not face the sun.

Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER IRAN
Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER IRAN

When coupled with thick adobe - a natural building material made from earth, shaped into bricks using forms and dried in the sun - that exhibits high heat transmission resistance qualities, the windcatcher is able to chill lower-level spaces in mosques and houses in the middle of the day to cooler temperatures.

Climate-Temperature Control

Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER SYSTEM
Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER SYSTEM

Windcatchers in areas with stronger winds will have smaller total cross-sections, and areas with the very hot wind may have many smaller shafts in order to cool the incoming air.

Windtowers with square horizontal cross-sections are more efficient than round ones, as the sharp angles make the flow less laminar, encouraging flow separation; suitable shaping increases suction.

Taller windcatchers catch higher winds. Higher winds blow stronger and cooler. Higher airs are also usually less dusty. In hotter climates, they are narrower, and the air is cooled on its way in.

Even the thermal inertia of thick masonry walls will keep a building warmer at night and cooler during the day. Windcatchers can thus cool by drawing air overnight.

Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER SYSTEM
Vernacular Architecture - WINDCATCHER SYSTEM


Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY
Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY

General Concept

  • The trulli are entirely composed of stone, including their cylindrical (sometimes square) bases and conical roofs.

  • No mortar required between the stones

  • Load bearing support system: Cylindrical shape means that gravity holds the stones together (as an acting arch will do)

  • Originally as temporary field shelters.

  • Depending on the area, the building material used could be either hard limestone or calcareous tufa.

Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY - CONSTRUCTION
Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY - CONSTRUCTION

Model showing the typical construction technique of a trullo of Alberobello; the cavity between the inside ashlar wall face and the exterior covering of stone tiles or chiancharelle, is filled with stone rubble and the vault is one of the stone voussoirs.

Walls: In Alberobello, the structural walls of a trullo are laid directly on the bedrock, after removal of the topsoil when necessary. Their width varies from 0.80 metres to 2.70 metres (a measure recorded in the Trullo Sovrano). Their height ranges from 1.60 metres to 2 metres. Their exterior facing has a 3 to 5% batter.

Roof: The roofs are constructed in two skins: an inner skin of limestone voussoirs, capped by a closing stone, and an outer skin of limestone slabs that are slightly tilted outwardly, ensuring that the structure is watertight. The roof stones may be taken away without compromising the stability of the rest of the building.

Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY
Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY

Climate control

Owing to the concentration of houses, trulli have few openings except for their doorway and a small aperture provided in the roof cone for ventilation. As a result, it can be quite dark inside.

Some trullo houses have had their perimeter walls raised substantially so that their cones may be hidden from view, making the buildings resemble ordinary houses.

A number of conical roofs have a truncated top with a round hole in it covered by a movable circular slab. Access to the hole is by an outside stairway built into the roof. These trulli were for storage of grain, hay, or straw.

The thick stone walls and dome of the trullo that cool pleasantly during the summer, tend to become unpleasantly cold during the winter months, condensing the moisture given off by cooking, making it difficult to feel warm even in front of the fire. The inhabitants simply leave the doors open during the day to keep the interior dry, and live more outdoors than in.

Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY
Vernacular Architecture - TRULLO ITALY - CONICAL ROOF


  1. The Spruce. 2020. What Is Vernacular Architecture?. [online] Available at: <,can%20access%20at%20the%20time.> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  2. 2020. Vernacular Architecture. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  3. ArchDaily. 2020. Vernacular Architecture And The 21St Century. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  4. KCP International. 2020. The Japanese Minka Homes | KCP Japanese Language School. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  5. 2020. Minka Kelly. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  6. 2020. Solaripedia | Green Architecture & Building | Projects In Green Architecture & Building. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  7. 2020. Windcatcher. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  8. 2020. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

  9. 2020. Trullo. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

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