December 23, 2013

Vernacular Efficiency

Do you know what ‘Vernacular Arts’ is? Until recently I didn’t either. But then I visited a startling exhibition about traditional societies’ housing architectures from all around the world.

A couple of things struck me.  First, vernacular is highly diverse and beautiful.  Today a modern tower looks pretty much the same anywhere on earth – a concrete glass and steel rectangle. Second, vernacular entails a highly efficient energy footprint before and after construction.  In fact, building components are made out of locally available materials with natural heating and cooling properties. Hence, it is argued that only 1% (!) of the modern total building costs are needed to erect and maintain ancient vernacular structures.

Water-wise, most of the models exposed had useful rainwater harvesting features. For instance, rooftops in Central Africa were meant to collect rainwater during the rainy seasons.  In Indonesia, traditionnal houses similar to “pagodas” had self-lifting tsunami-proofed rooftops sheltering from heavy rains. Today, most rooftops in urban areas are covered with cooling units, water tanks or satellite dishes making it difficult to install rain pipes and water treatment units. On the other hand, cement and plastic have become a universal quick-fix relinquishing wood and straw to cooking and heating fuel. 

Although, much more research needs to be done in the face of extreme weather events (typhoons, earthquakes, flash floods etc.), it seems that vernacular engineering matches closely with sustainable development and pro-poor strategies. Its sustainable use and re-use of natural resources should inspire architects and planners around the world.  Also, traditional know-how should be studied more in depth before relying on conventional glass and steel. Surely asbestos does not enter in the list of vernacular construction materials…


(Vernacular housing models from L to R in Indonesia, Japan and Tunisia, courtesy of EPFL Lausanne, retrieved 23.12.2013)