For the people, by the people

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Windcatchers or <em>bagdirs</em> in Yazd, Iran. Ancient natural ventilation, these energy efficient stone structures channel wind down into a shaft which in turn cools or heats the rooms below.

Windcatchers or bagdirs in Yazd, Iran. Ancient natural ventilation, these energy efficient stone structures channel wind down into a shaft which in turn cools or heats the rooms below.

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The Renndølsetra farm in the beautiful Innerdalen valley is an example of traditional Norwegian timber buildings with green roofs made of birch bark, often called sod roofs. These are draught-proof and help retain heat.

The Renndølsetra farm in the beautiful Innerdalen valley is an example of traditional Norwegian timber buildings with green roofs made of birch bark, often called sod roofs. These are draught-proof and help retain heat.

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A traditional floating village composed of stilt houses on Inle lake in Myanmar. Made of wood and woven bamboo, many of these homes are surrounded by floating gardens. Everything here is undertaken by boat.

A traditional floating village composed of stilt houses on Inle lake in Myanmar. Made of wood and woven bamboo, many of these homes are surrounded by floating gardens. Everything here is undertaken by boat.

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Zulu or "beehive" huts, located along South Africa's eastern coast. Known as <em>iQukwane</em>, they are constructed from layers of grass covering a wooden framework, with extremely low doorways so enemies had to stoop to enter.

Zulu or “beehive” huts, located along South Africa’s eastern coast. Known as iQukwane, they are constructed from layers of grass covering a wooden framework, with extremely low doorways so enemies had to stoop to enter.

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A traditional Japanese home was primarily made of wood and other natural materials such as paper, rice straw and clay. Inside, shoji – sliding panels made of translucent paper in a wooden frame – were often used.

A traditional Japanese home was primarily made of wood and other natural materials such as paper, rice straw and clay. Inside, shoji – sliding panels made of translucent paper in a wooden frame – were often used.

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<em>Rong</em> (communal) stilt houses are situated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The thatched-roof structures are shaped like thick axe blades that reach up to 30 metres – the taller the rong, the greater status of the village.

Rong (communal) stilt houses are situated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The thatched-roof structures are shaped like thick axe blades that reach up to 30 metres – the taller the rong, the greater status of the village.

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Cameroon's Musgum shell-shaped huts are constructed with compressed sun-dried mud. The geometric patterns on the exterior provide footholds during construction and maintenance and facilitate the draining of rainwaters.

Cameroon’s Musgum shell-shaped huts are constructed with compressed sun-dried mud. The geometric patterns on the exterior provide footholds during construction and maintenance and facilitate the draining of rainwaters.

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Hand-cut stone buildings in Sana'a, Yemen. These medieval-like towers have high thermal mass and small windows to keep occupants cool. Traditional construction using ancient methods and materials is still widespread in Yemen.

Hand-cut stone buildings in Sana’a, Yemen. These medieval-like towers have high thermal mass and small windows to keep occupants cool. Traditional construction using ancient methods and materials is still widespread in Yemen.

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In southern Iraq, the Madan people live in <em>mudhif</em>, communal houses constructed from bundled and woven reeds harvested from nearby marshes. Some of the mats are woven with perforations to allow light and ventilation.

In southern Iraq, the Madan people live in mudhif, communal houses constructed from bundled and woven reeds harvested from nearby marshes. Some of the mats are woven with perforations to allow light and ventilation.

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The vernacular Malay home responds well to the hot, humid climate with gabled roofs for good ventilation. Often built of timber, these stilted homes also feature exterior decoration, a staircase and partitioned rooms.

The vernacular Malay home responds well to the hot, humid climate with gabled roofs for good ventilation. Often built of timber, these stilted homes also feature exterior decoration, a staircase and partitioned rooms.

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The roofs of the traditional homes on the island of Læsø in Denmark are made from a seaweed called eelgrass and can last between 200 to 400 years. Thatching a roof would generally take the whole community a day.

The roofs of the traditional homes on the island of Læsø in Denmark are made from a seaweed called eelgrass and can last between 200 to 400 years. Thatching a roof would generally take the whole community a day.

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Teli village, Dogon valley, Mali. Villages in the Dogon Country were originally built into the cliffside to ensure their security. Homes are made of rock and mud brick and often boast a flat roof, perfect for sleeping on in the hot weather.

Teli village, Dogon valley, Mali. Villages in the Dogon Country were originally built into the cliffside to ensure their security. Homes are made of rock and mud brick and often boast a flat roof, perfect for sleeping on in the hot weather.

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Church of Panagia Paraportiani, Mykonos, Greece. Mykonos boasts a strong Cycladic identity, with cubic-shaped architecture that provides protection from strong winds, whitewashed walls and coloured windows.

Church of Panagia Paraportiani, Mykonos, Greece. Mykonos boasts a strong Cycladic identity, with cubic-shaped architecture that provides protection from strong winds, whitewashed walls and coloured windows.

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<em>Tongkonan</em>, the striking ancestral structures of the Torajan people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, have a distinguishing oversized saddleback roof. The internal space is small and cramped, but daily life is mainly lived outside.

Tongkonan, the striking ancestral structures of the Torajan people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, have a distinguishing oversized saddleback roof. The internal space is small and cramped, but daily life is mainly lived outside.

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The terraced multi-storey adobe settlement of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, USA consists of dwellings and ceremonial buildings. The modern-day Pueblo Indian people have been living in the thriving settlement since the late 13th century.

The terraced multi-storey adobe settlement of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, USA consists of dwellings and ceremonial buildings. The modern-day Pueblo Indian people have been living in the thriving settlement since the late 13th century.

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Mainly built between 12th and 20thC, and able to house up to 800 people, the Fujian <em>tulou</em> are Chinese rural dwellings unique to the Hakka people. The enclosed circular structures have 3 to 5-storey high rammed earth walls.

Mainly built between 12th and 20thC, and able to house up to 800 people, the Fujian tulou are Chinese rural dwellings unique to the Hakka people. The enclosed circular structures have 3 to 5-storey high rammed earth walls.

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Aït Benhaddou in southern Morocco is an example of an <em>ighrem</em> (fortified village). The village consists of a range of crowded earthern clay dwellings surrounded by high defensive walls, reinforced by angle towers.

Aït Benhaddou in southern Morocco is an example of an ighrem (fortified village). The village consists of a range of crowded earthern clay dwellings surrounded by high defensive walls, reinforced by angle towers.

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Whitikaupeka Wharenui, New Zealand. The <em>wharenui</em>, the Māori meeting house, is considered sacred, and is generally carved inside and out with stylised images of the iwi's ancestors. They always have a specific name, often of an ancestor.

Whitikaupeka Wharenui, New Zealand. The wharenui, the Māori meeting house, is considered sacred, and is generally carved inside and out with stylised images of the iwi’s ancestors. They always have a specific name, often of an ancestor.

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The painted mud houses in Tiébélé, Burkina Faso, are built entirely from local materials and murals are painted on the walls using coloured mud and white chalk, with symbols taken from everyday life, or from religion and belief.

The painted mud houses in Tiébélé, Burkina Faso, are built entirely from local materials and murals are painted on the walls using coloured mud and white chalk, with symbols taken from everyday life, or from religion and belief.

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In Northern Germany, traditional thatched roof houses (<em>Reethaus</em>) are fast disappearing. The roofs are built with a high pitch to keep the water running off, while the homes themselves are generally constructed from red brick.

In Northern Germany, traditional thatched roof houses (Reethaus) are fast disappearing. The roofs are built with a high pitch to keep the water running off, while the homes themselves are generally constructed from red brick.

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The word vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning ‘domestic, native, indigenous’, and in the architecture sense means much the same: functional, community-built structures that take advantage of local materials and resources and respond to the climate, culture and surrounding landscape.

This is architecture before the architect – or as professor Charles Walker says, “some people think that vernacular architecture is an oxymoron – a kind of ‘unselfconscious architecture’ that responds to a place and circumstance and materiality, whereas architecture is a highly conscious activity”.

Vernacular – also known as traditional, folk and popular – architecture is almost by definition both sustainable and energy efficient. The forms of these low-tech structures are heavily influenced by the macro climate and local knowledge is utilised to effectively design them to mitigate these climatic conditions and to create dry, warm and well-ventilated buildings.

Te Oro community centre in Auckland is designed by Archimedia. It draws on different aspects of Pacific culture and features traditional Māori carvings around its base. Image:  Patrick Reynolds

Areas with frequent flooding often feature dwellings on stilts, and buildings in warm climates are generally constructed of lighter materials, with plenty of cross-ventilation to maintain stable interior temperatures. In areas with high winds, buildings will be oriented accordingly for maximum shelter and safety. 

Out of necessity, the use of resources and materials that are located close to the site ensures cost-effectiveness and means that time, effort and embodied energy is not lost in the transportation of goods to the construction site.

The particular set of materials that is easily available in the area governs many aspects of vernacular building, and these can range from timber, mud and stone to more unusual materials such as seaweed or palm fronds. Over time, the architecture of these dwellings, villages and communities often reflect a very specific and easily identifiable geographical locale.

Local culture and way of life are also huge influences on the appearance of vernacular structures. Aspects such as how people interact, religious values, how food is prepared and eaten and the size of family units all have an impact on the form of these dwellings. Often, buildings are decorated in accordance with local beliefs and customs, which can take the form of carvings, paintings, reliefs and the like.

Modern architects have long studied vernacular buildings, taken inspiration from their forms and included various aspects in their designs. In 1910, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote: “Buildings growing in response to actual needs – fitted into environment by people who knew no better than to fit them to it with native feeling – are better worth study than highly self-conscious academic attempts at the beautiful”.

In New Zealand, architects have been interested in the vernacular since the 1930s. Architectural historian and writer Bill McKay says, “Modernists such as Vernon Brown and The Group drew inspiration from structures such as the meeting house and the wool shed – anything not imported – because they saw it as simpler, more truthful and related to landscape, material and climate”.

The primary wing of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngāti Kahungunu o Te Wairoa, designed by RTA Studio. Image:  Patrick Reynolds

In 1951, Auckland’s The Group architects cited Māori precedents when discussing their first two houses with journalists: “The Māori lived here for hundreds of years… they evolved a style of house suited to the climate, and that is exactly what we are doing”.

Today, designs that draw on New Zealand’s traditional architecture are not as popular as they once were in the 1970s or 80s due to the cyclic nature of architectural trends, however Māori vernacular forms can still be seen in various modern buildings across New Zealand, including churches, community centres and schools such as RTA Studio’s kura kaupapa in Wairoa.

The Wairoa kura kaupapa has been designed around the idea of ley lines and the primary wing of the school references the wharenui as an indicator of community. RTA Studio’s director Richard Naish describes the approach as an “interesting way to think about Māori architecture, as containing oral history and stories and along points of lines”.

Vernacular architecture reflects the skills, technology and traditions of local cultures. Although somewhat diminished during the modern era, McKay believes it will still always have a place in today’s world, because “this architecture is created by people who have lived in the landscape for 1,000 plus years, so it has a strong relationship with materials and climate. This is architecture that is of the landscape, of the people and of the society.” 

See below for 20 examples of vernacular buildings from across the globe. 

Windcatchers or bagdirs in Yazd, Iran. Ancient natural ventilation, these energy efficient stone structures channel wind down into a shaft which in turn cools or heats the rooms below.
The Renndølsetra farm in the beautiful Innerdalen valley is an example of traditional Norwegian timber buildings with green roofs made of birch bark, often called sod roofs. These are draught-proof and help retain heat.
A traditional floating village composed of stilt houses on Inle lake in Myanmar. Made of wood and woven bamboo, many of these homes are surrounded by floating gardens. Everything here is undertaken by boat.
Zulu or “beehive” huts, located along South Africa’s eastern coast. Known as iQukwane, they are constructed from layers of grass covering a wooden framework, with extremely low doorways so enemies had to stoop to enter.
A traditional Japanese home was primarily made of wood and other natural materials such as paper, rice straw and clay. Inside, shoji – sliding panels made of translucent paper in a wooden frame – were often used.
Rong (communal) stilt houses are situated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The thatched-roof structures are shaped like thick axe blades that reach up to 30 metres – the taller the rong, the greater status of the village.
Cameroon’s Musgum shell-shaped huts are constructed with compressed sun-dried mud. The geometric patterns on the exterior provide footholds during construction and maintenance and facilitate the draining of rainwaters.
Hand-cut stone buildings in Sana’a, Yemen. These medieval-like towers have high thermal mass and small windows to keep occupants cool. Traditional construction using ancient methods and materials is still widespread in Yemen.
In southern Iraq, the Madan people live in mudhif, communal houses constructed from bundled and woven reeds harvested from nearby marshes. Some of the mats are woven with perforations to allow light and ventilation.
The vernacular Malay home responds well to the hot, humid climate with gabled roofs for good ventilation. Often built of timber, these stilted homes also feature exterior decoration, a staircase and partitioned rooms.
The roofs of the traditional homes on the island of Læsø in Denmark are made from a seaweed called eelgrass and can last between 200 to 400 years. Thatching a roof would generally take the whole community a day.
Teli village, Dogon valley, Mali. Villages in the Dogon Country were originally built into the cliffside to ensure their security. Homes are made of rock and mud brick and often boast a flat roof, perfect for sleeping on in the hot weather.
Church of Panagia Paraportiani, Mykonos, Greece. Mykonos boasts a strong Cycladic identity, with cubic-shaped architecture that provides protection from strong winds, whitewashed walls and coloured windows.
Tongkonan, the striking ancestral structures of the Torajan people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, have a distinguishing oversized saddleback roof. The internal space is small and cramped, but daily life is mainly lived outside.
The terraced multi-storey adobe settlement of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, USA consists of dwellings and ceremonial buildings. The modern-day Pueblo Indian people have been living in the thriving settlement since the late 13th century.
Mainly built between 12th and 20thC, and able to house up to 800 people, the Fujian tulou are Chinese rural dwellings unique to the Hakka people. The enclosed circular structures have 3 to 5-storey high rammed earth walls.
Aït Benhaddou in southern Morocco is an example of an ighrem (fortified village). The village consists of a range of crowded earthern clay dwellings surrounded by high defensive walls, reinforced by angle towers.
Whitikaupeka Wharenui, New Zealand. The wharenui, the Māori meeting house, is considered sacred, and is generally carved inside and out with stylised images of the iwi’s ancestors. They always have a specific name, often of an ancestor.
The painted mud houses in Tiébélé, Burkina Faso, are built entirely from local materials and murals are painted on the walls using coloured mud and white chalk, with symbols taken from everyday life, or from religion and belief.
In Northern Germany, traditional thatched roof houses (Reethaus) are fast disappearing. The roofs are built with a high pitch to keep the water running off, while the homes themselves are generally constructed from red brick.

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