10 Alternative Words for Vernacular Architecture and Why They Don’t Cut It

You might have heard the term vernacular used to describe language – the vernacular of the region. When I spent a year in England, I had a running list of the vernacular idioms, different from America and fun to compare. Things like knock it on the head, a pile of pants, and take the mickey.

Vernacular is also used to describe the landscape, to classify a specific type of building common to a place, or to denote specific features on buildings or homes. Vernacular architecture is usually described with reference to rural dwellings.

This post explains the many alternative terms used to describe vernacular architecture to help build an understanding around the word. It introduces a lot of the concepts in the field and the scholars who write about it.

Rural landscape of Montana, USA
vernacular architecture in Gujarat India. Painted earthen house
Earthen painted home, Gujarat, India

It’s often called:

  • timeless
  • countrified
  • traditional
  • culturally specific
  • primitive
  • peasant
  • spontaneous
  • anonymous
  • unselfconscious
  • regional

But none of these completely capture vernacular architecture, as explained below.

wooden house in Himachal Pradesh India
Carved wooden home in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India
Woman walking in front of adobe house, India
Adobe house, Gujarat, India

Although vernacular architecture makes up 90 percent of the housing stock of the world, 1Oliver, Paul, (ED) 1997 The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press  those dedicated to the field of vernacular studies struggle or hesitate to form a definition of vernacular architecture. Many attempts at a definition have been somewhat incomplete because the study encompasses the building, but also so much more including the context, culture, use, symbolism, and varied forms.

To call a building vernacular implies that there is a shared understanding among the community that the building belongs to a place. Vernacular dwellings have a strong sense of cultural congruity because they have evolved over centuries to meet the needs of inhabitants.

Vernacular architecture is decidedly not high style, representational designs emulating something from outside a region, or the whimsy of one person that is not repeated within a group. It represents the values and beliefs of the group rather than individual tastes.2Heath, Kingston Wm. 2009.  Vernacular Architecture and Regional Design: Cultural Process and Environmental Response.  Amsterdam; Boston; London: Architectural Press.  3Jackson, John B1984 Discovering the Vernacular Landscape New Haven: Yale University Press 4Rapoport, Amos. 1982. The Meaning of the Built Environment, a Non-verbal Communications Approach.  2nd Edition.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 

Vernacular architecture is culturally specific, built to reflect an ideal, and support daily life and social norms.

vernacular palm building materials in Vietnam, for sale
Local building materials, Vietnam
a vernacular palm frond house in Vietnam
Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Paul Oliver, English anthropologist, who spent about 50 years studying vernacular architecture around the world, provided the following working definition in the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (new edition available in 2024!). It is generally agreed upon in the field and is inclusive of all forms and functions.

“Vernacular architecture comprises 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”. 5Oliver, Paul, (Editor) 1997. The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.xxiii

A Language of the People

Of Latin origin, vernacular refers to native language or dialect. Vernacular denotes the commonly used speech patterns characteristic of a specific place. Applied to buildings, the vernacular expresses what is common and shared in the community, such as a regional dialect.6Bronner, Simon J. 2006.  “Building tradition: Control and authority in vernacular architecture.” In Vernacular architecture in the twenty-first century: Theory, education and practice.  Edited by Lindsay Asquith and Marcel Vellinga, 23-45.  London: Taylor & Francis

Oliver related the linguistic term to architecture as “a language of the people with its ethnic, regional, and local dialects.”7Oliver, Paul. 2006. Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd. p17 In this way the buildings seem to come to life as an “architectural language” which people have built up over generations and that now constitutes a “collected architectural wisdom of a culture.”

Wooden houses in the river edge of Roatan Honduras. vernacular architecture
Roatan, Honduras
Decorated earth house in  Rajasthan, India. two boys walk into the courtyard
Decorated earth house in Rajasthan, India

Architects Stephen Mouzon and Susan Henderson (2004) argued that a commonly understood architectural language is critically important to telling the story of a nation. In traditional cultures it prompts people to recognize the function of a building (e.g. domestic, sacred, or public). At no time in history has a culture ever discarded its entire language; it simply has too much to offer. This is akin to reinventing their architectural system, producing a disjointed communication with place.

Adequate Alternatives?

The term vernacular includes the wide range of typologies (from a granary to a barn to a temple). It is not believed to carry a stigma like other choices such as primitive, peasant, spontaneous, or anonymous.

Because cultures that thrive in vernacular landscapes have been viewed as stagnant, these words act as obstacles to acceptance and respect.

The word unselfconscious for example, has come to imply naïve spontaneity in the designs of vernacular structures. It discounts a wide array of highly conscious symbolism and responses to environment and culture. Vernacular design is unselfconscious only in relation to Western notions of required drawings and written words. In reality, it’s a “systematic method of design, facilitated by a highly structured … architectural grammar” (Thomas Hubka 81986.  “Just Folks Designing: Vernacular Designers and the Generation of Form.” In Common places: Readings in American Vernacular.  Edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, 426-432.  Athens: University of Georgia Press. p428).

The term regional is virtually interchangeable with vernacular (Heath 2009). However, regional can also be applied to high-style variants (Adirondack cabins, Victorian mansions, or Georgian plantations) or the abundance of mobile homes in certain regions of America.

Traditional is considered to be the most widely used of the alternative terms because the process of tradition is so important. 9Oliver, Paul. 1989.  “Handed Down Architecture: Tradition and Transmission.” In Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition.  Edited by Jean-Paul Bourdier and Nezar AlSayyad, 53 – 75.  Berkeley: University Press of America However, this term has limitations as well since it also applies to monumental architecture and architect-designed buildings that embody traditional elements (Classical or Gothic Revival). Traditional also seems to ignore modern interpretations or variants that are not so traditional.

Ultimately, the adoption of the term vernacular as the architectural language specific to a place, encompasses many forms and should exclude high style. But of course, it’s more complicated than that! High style often is included in descriptions that included vernacular.

blue door on an adobe wall. Santa Fe New Mexico USA
Adobe home, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
village housing Norway
Wooden village houses in Norway

Vernacular Architecture Today

When vernacular architecture is discussed it is “hardly ever regarded as relevant” and more often thought of as an “obstacle in the road to progress.” Vernacular dwellings have been associated with the past, a lack of development, and poverty. This perspective is clearly contested in Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century, which makes a strong case for the inclusion of vernacular traditions in future environments.

The contemporary use and value of vernacular traditions, their relevance in today’s context, and their inherent ability to adapt to changing circumstances… is different from the opinion of vernacular architecture as timeless and unchanging (as presented by Rudofsky 1964), and presents a perspective of vernacular landscapes as dynamic, syncretic, and relevant to all walks of life.

The house is the most reliable indication of man’s identity. As cultural values are reevaluated and access to outside building materials increases, communities make incremental choices that eventually have wide ranging effects on the cultural landscape and vernacular home. The process of modifying or abandoning select features of the house remains poorly understood, but if houses, their attached symbols, and processes remain meaningful to the group, the modifications are still within the vernacular.

log cabin in Colorado
Log cabin in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, USA
Roof detail in Kalpa, Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India
Roof detail in Kalpa, Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India

There is a lot more to say about vernacular architecture! And it is not as neat and clean a topic as I chose to lay out here. This is only the definition of the word vernacular. What makes it more complicated is that some new house styles have become ubiquitous to a place over the years. And they start to be considered vernacular. But they started as high style, or conscious design, were architect designed, and often built by developers.

Migration and generational changes further complicate the lines of what is and is not vernacular. I actually have a very open mind to such examples, especially when they develop slowly and reflect new circumstances. I can’t wait to get into that in a future post.

(I’m also building a separate resource page to highlight a lot of great websites and Instagram pages.)

For now, check out ArchDaily for other perspectives. And if you’re REALLY interested in vernacular architecture, there’s Oxford Brookes University. I’ll be coming back to this topic from time to time! For now you can read other posts on Place Attachment and Placelessness.

Below are a couple fun Instagram accounts that often feature vernacular architecture.

  • 1
    Oliver, Paul, (ED) 1997 The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 
  • 2
    Heath, Kingston Wm. 2009.  Vernacular Architecture and Regional Design: Cultural Process and Environmental Response.  Amsterdam; Boston; London: Architectural Press. 
  • 3
    Jackson, John B1984 Discovering the Vernacular Landscape New Haven: Yale University Press
  • 4
    Rapoport, Amos. 1982. The Meaning of the Built Environment, a Non-verbal Communications Approach.  2nd Edition.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • 5
    Oliver, Paul, (Editor) 1997. The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.xxiii
  • 6
    Bronner, Simon J. 2006.  “Building tradition: Control and authority in vernacular architecture.” In Vernacular architecture in the twenty-first century: Theory, education and practice.  Edited by Lindsay Asquith and Marcel Vellinga, 23-45.  London: Taylor & Francis
  • 7
    Oliver, Paul. 2006. Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd. p17
  • 8
    1986.  “Just Folks Designing: Vernacular Designers and the Generation of Form.” In Common places: Readings in American Vernacular.  Edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, 426-432.  Athens: University of Georgia Press. p428).
  • 9
    Oliver, Paul. 1989.  “Handed Down Architecture: Tradition and Transmission.” In Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition.  Edited by Jean-Paul Bourdier and Nezar AlSayyad, 53 – 75.  Berkeley: University Press of America

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