The Important Reason You Should Pay Attention to “Vernacular Architecture”

published Jun 21, 2023
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A shotgun house in New Orleans

In the world of architecture, large glitzy glass towers and gravity-defying cantilevers tend to demand all the attention. But stroll any city street and you’ll notice certain building styles repeat themselves. They become a chorus within a streetscape and create the essence of their location. These are the shotgun houses of New Orleans, the three-deckers (or triple-deckers, depending on who you ask) of New England, and the rowhouses of Philadelphia. These humble structures are ordinary on their own, but as a collective their architectural details and presence are more character-defining than any skyscraper. This is the power of what’s called vernacular architecture — the ability to create the language of place. 

What is vernacular architecture?

Vernacular architecture is a style defined by regional construction; it typically employs local building materials and is influenced by the surrounding landscape and culture. Vernacular architecture is what makes Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Buffalo feel unique. Each has its own look and feel, but certain patterns arise: Vernacular-style homes are often abundant. They were typically built to house a burgeoning immigrant community. Over time, their appearance subtly shifted to blend in with the stylistic tastes of the day. 

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the late 1800s, urban centers saw a rapid rise in population and had to think of solutions to house all of these new people. Buildings had to be constructed quickly and affordably, and land had to be used efficiently. Solutions to these challenges came in many forms; all of them are examples of gentle density. Think of what sprang up as human-friendly neighborhoods.

Credit: Michael Moloney/
Three-deckers in New England

What are some examples of vernacular architecture?

Some easily recognizable examples with similar design solutions are the triplex of Montreal, the Chicago three-flat, and the Boston three-decker. Although they have aesthetic differences, they are all three-family homes, with each one stacked on top of the other. These were designed to supply an affordable housing option to a growing immigrant population, with owners often living on one floor and family living on the others or renting out the other two, generating upward mobility with the additional income. Each version was built with varying levels of architectural detail, and when seen as a series along the street, they supply a pleasant visual cadence.

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A Montreal triplex

Other examples include the Buffalo telescope house. These dwellings were built as workers’ cottages. As one’s family expanded, rooms would be added to the back, each smaller than the previous, making the homes appear like a telescope. Then there is the Philadelphia trinity house, a small rowhouse tucked between blocks on narrow streets. It’s the three-levels with one principal room each that gives them their name. And famously there’s the New Orleans shotgun house. Long and narrow, this slender building style is a charming and efficient use of space. Some say the name was given to the home a century later because a round of shot could be fired from the front door through the back door without hitting any walls, but it’s more likely that it’s derived from the West African Yoruba word “togun,” which translates to “house.” 

When cities saw a decline in population in the mid-1900s, many vernacular buildings were demolished in the name of “urban renewal.” Their decline didn’t last long, because all vernacular buildings have a superpower: They are easily adaptable to meet the needs of contemporary lifestyles. Good design has staying power.

Above all else, vernacular architecture is sustainable and supplies the perfect framework for naturally occurring affordable housing. After all, the greenest building is the one that already exists. Because these forms are common building types, local builders are more familiar with the structure. This, in theory, makes renovation and retrofitting cost-effective by allowing buyers to remove walls to create an open, contemporary feel to adapt them for today. 

Stroll your neighborhood streets and keep your eyes peeled for the architectural details that define your city. Chances are they belong to a humble vernacular dwelling.