What Is Vernacular Architecture?

Front view of a shotgun-style home, vernacular architecture

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

The majority of older homes you see are likely vernacular structures. In theory, a vernacular house is built without an architect. Local builders used what was available to them and pulled from a variety of design styles to create simple homes that became distinct to a specific area. 

What Is Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular architecture is a modest style of building that is specific to a region and period. It relies on the use of local materials and knowledge to construct buildings, and it's usually done without the supervision of a professional architect.

It's difficult to define exact specifications for all Vernacular architecture. Much of what you see is dependent on each area's culture and resources. In this article, we'll explore the history of Vernacular architecture and look at some typical examples in the United States.


Vernacular architecture encompasses cultural building traditions that have been passed down through several generations. While the styles and techniques evolve, each vernacular structure is modest, cost-effective, and sustainable. These homes have been around since people first began building primitive structures. 

Some historians argue that the majority of all buildings built before the mid 17th century are considered vernacular because formal architects did not oversee these builds. Instead, idyllic country cottages were built by local tradesmen implementing locally learned skills. 

The term 'vernacular' became part of building discourse in the 19th century when colonialists would discover new methods of building in other parts of the world. Architects of the time would look down on these more rudimentary and quaint homes, partly implying that their style of building was better and more refined. 

Over time, the term became more widely used to incorporate several styles of homes not only abroad, but also in Europe and the United States. Bernard Rudofsky directed the public's attention to these more forgotten building styles with an exhibition he held in 1964.


Since vernacular architecture is built by the people for the people, the homes tend to be simpler and less definitive than other forms of architecture. Other types of architecture use a deliberate set of rules and materials. Here, there is less emphasis on rules or aesthetics and more on creating something easy and effective without needing to travel far for building supplies. 

Here are some ways you can distinguish Vernacular architecture from other styles:

  • Builders use inexpensive materials and utilitarian design. Materials were generally affordable and locally sourced. The design was intended to focus on function over beauty. 
  • The design evolves. Local builders would learn from their experiences and tweak homes to reflect that experience. 
  • Homes often embody local technology, social conditions, and culture. You will see some common themes among vernacular architecture in a given area. The theme might mean similar materials used or similar design styles that can be a hodgepodge of other more worldly styles. You might also see homes grouped closer together or apartment complexes in areas with a dense population. Some homes might feature religious customs. Homes with poorer residents would be smaller and less elaborate. 
  • 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. 

Types of Vernacular Architecture

Since most homes built today are under the guidance of an architect, it's challenging to construct an authentic vernacular house now. However, you can opt to build a home that is in a vernacular style that's true to your location. 

There are dozens of subsets of vernacular architecture in the United States alone. These are some of the more common examples that have popped up over the past couple of centuries. 

  • Late 1800s Shotgun Homes. This type of home or apartment is very narrow and long, with each room leading into the next. Many of these homes were built in the South in cities like New Orleans. 
  • Early 1900s Sears Homes. These homes were built in the first few decades of the 20th century and were ordered from a catalog. A handful of companies produced catalog homes during this period, but Sears is one of the most popular to do so.
  • 1920s Bungalow Style Homes. The term bungalow can represent several different styles of home. In the United States, they generally encompass a modest story and a half home with a very functional floor plan. This type of house is very popular in cities like Chicago. 
  • 1950s Ranch Style Homes. These homes were built primarily for the middle class and have wide-open, one level floor plans. The ranch is prevalent in many American suburban communities. 

Vernacular architecture might not win prestigious awards for technological innovation or design, but this subset of architecture makes up an integral part of buildings as a whole. These homes and structures are the result of local ingenuity and are significantly more socially conscious and sustainable than some more elaborate builds. There is a lot to be learned from and admired with this more traditional building style.