Vernacular Architecture in the Era of Climate Change

We no longer have time for design that ignores the climate crisis. Building and community design must respond to this new context to successfully meet people’s needs.

7 minute read

February 5, 2024, 11:00 AM PST

By Corey Squire

Green u-shaped school building with slanted roof and courtyard in the middle

Art Rutkin Elementary School in Tigard, Oregon, was designed with its context and climate change in mind. | Bora Architecture and Interiors / Bora Architecture and Interiors

Effective architectural design emerges from its context. In warm regions, buildings were traditionally oriented to catch breezes, while in colder regions, building form was compact to keep the heat in. In areas prone to flooding, buildings were built on stilts, and in areas with heavy rain, roofs were designed to quickly shed water. In all of these cases, readily available materials, combined with climate-responsive forms, give a region a unique character, often one that’s celebrated by the people who live there. We call this character “vernacular architecture.” Examples are found all over the world, from adobe pueblos, to New Orleans shotguns, to earth-sheltered Nordic homes.

Vernacular architecture follows a consistent design logic because it works -- it meets the needs of its inhabitants. We don’t see adobe in the rainforest because the material would fall apart; we don’t see shotguns in the arctic because these buildings would be cold and unlivable. Building design, as well as urban design and design more broadly, must respond to its context to successfully serve people’s needs.

But the world is not static, and neither is good design. Buildings designed and constructed today exist in a very different world than that of just a few decades ago, and design must adapt accordingly. Carbon emissions, many of which result from poor design decisions over the last century, have warmed the planet and changed the context in which architects design buildings and other design professionals plan the built environment.

Many aspects of society are grappling with this new reality. Architecture has a unique relationship with climate change since buildings are both a primary driver of carbon emissions and increasingly at risk from their impacts. To be contextually relevant, buildings must both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to changes we know are coming during their lifespan. Just as in times past, there are specific materials and forms that architects can leverage to design effective, responsive, and responsible buildings.

“Climate change vernacular” represents the design language and unique character of buildings that effectively respond to the current moment. Just as stilts make sense in the context of seasonal flooding and shades make sense where there is intense sun, buildings designed for climate change should follow a specific language and aesthetic. These common traits can be celebrated as a meaningful, human-centered response to the greatest challenge of our time.

The language of climate change vernacular in architecture begins with a quality enclosure, including well-insulated, airtight surfaces. It also includes a limited area of high-quality, appropriately shaded glazing (<40%). These strategies, coupled with an East-to-West building axis, will serve three important purposes in every climate: energy efficiency, human comfort, and resilience during times of utility disruption. Energy efficiency means emitting fewer carbon emissions, while designing for resilience acknowledges that increasingly extreme weather will put pressure on the utility grid and likely result in more-frequent power outages. The fact that these two strategies will also provide greater thermal and visual comfort while reducing construction and operating costs only adds to their logic.

Climate change vernacular requires that windows must be operable and able to achieve a tight seal. Operable windows allow buildings to be safely occupied during a power outage, keep air safer from indoor pollutants and pathogens, and save energy when opened during good weather. Windows must also be able to seal during times of wildfire smoke, which is driven by climate change and growing in range and severity. Coupled with a quality ventilation and filtration system, a tight building with sealable windows can provide healthy indoor environments regardless of outdoor conditions. Operable windows also allow for greater occupant agency and a more meaningful connection to nature—showing that climate-smart strategies are not tradeoffs, but upgrades.

When it comes to fuel, the only responsible option is electricity; when it comes to structure, the most reasonable option is wood. All-electric, wood-framed buildings directly address the built environment's historically troublesome relationship with carbon. Rather than release carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, buildings can eventually be powered with clean electricity, and their very structure can store carbon that was pulled out of the atmosphere by trees. As with the strategies listed above, these choices offer value to people as well as the climate. Wood buildings create biophilic environments that connect with people at a deep evolutionary level, calming us and enhancing performance and health outcomes. Similarly, eliminating combustion will result in cleaner, healthier air, both indoors and within cities.

Finally, climate change vernacular avoids doing anything stupid. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, we no longer have time for design that ignores the climate crisis. In architecture, this means no expanses of glass curtain walls, no roof forms that can’t shed water or generate electricity, no turf lawns or removal of mature site trees, no gas-powered appliances, no sealed buildings, and no parking where other transportation options exist. Exotic forms should read as an irresponsible use of resources since the unnecessary cost premium of dramatic curves or deep cantilevers could be better invested in better glazing, more solar PVs, or amenities that directly benefit people, the community, or the local ecology. Applying corrective strategies to rectify unforced errors--such as leaning on extensive shading to cover unnecessarily large windows--should be seen as akin to building an igloo in the desert.

Within climate change vernacular, regional character will still exist. Architects still need to recognize and respond to local conditions as people designing buildings always have. Building materials are not distributed evenly around the globe, so appearance and form will still change from place to place. Glazing will shift to the north in warmer climates and to the south in cooler climates. Buildings will respond to regional climate risks, such as storms and sea level rise by the coast, droughts in arid regions, floods near floodplains, and heat waves basically everywhere. The language of climate change vernacular, while broadly consistent based on widespread effects of climate change, will still adjust to unique local circumstances and create the functional regional character that is so valued in traditional design.

All in all, the design solutions that effectively respond to climate change are simple and straightforward. The recipe does not include dependence on new technologies, risk taking, or going out to the bleeding (or even leading) edge. Climate change vernacular in architecture couples proven modern technologies -- such as solar panels, glulam beams, and weather barriers -- with the tried-and-true designs that have kept buildings functional and people safe and comfortable for millennia, such as geometric forms that provide for daylighting and efficient structural grids.  

To realize this approach, architects—and other urban design professionals—must overcome pervasive misconceptions. The media often mistakes novel design strategies for effective ones, such as geodesic-dome-based disaster-proof homes, 3D-printed suburban sprawl, or resource recycling space suites. Type “sustainable building” into one of the popular AI image generators and the image that appears, typically a swirly concrete building with floor-to-ceiling glass, emerging from the rainforest, will be the polar opposite of what both science and common sense say we should be designing. The fallacy is that addressing climate change requires something new, exotic, dramatic, expensive, difficult, or risky. In reality, it's the recent retreat from time-tested solutions that has led to unnecessary cost and risk.

Architects can effectively address climate change by designing buildings that work. The architecture profession needs to present a vision of simple, proven design strategies that effectively address real problems. Urban design professionals can leverage these same principles to create climate-resilient built environments. At the same time, all design professionals must correct the public’s illusion that impactful solutions are necessarily expensive and weird. As we enter a new era of design, it’s important to remember the lessons of the past. Vernacular architecture uses simple strategies to address the challenges at hand. There’s no reason that climate change vernacular can’t do the same at a global scale.

Corey Squire, AIA is the Sustainability Director at Bora Architecture & Interior in Portland Oregon, and a member of the American Institute of Architects' Strategic Council. He is the author of the recently published book, People, Planet, Design: A Practical Guide to Realizing Architecture’s Potential.

Aerial view of New York City architecture with augmented reality visualization, blue digital holograms over buildings and skyscrapers

4 Ways to Use AI in Urban Planning and City Design

With the ability to predict trends, engage citizens, enhance resource allocation, and guide decision-making, artificial intelligence has the potential to serve as planners’ very own multi-tool.

February 20, 2024 - ArchDaily

View from shore of Sepulveda Basin water catchment basin with marsh plants along shore.

LA’s ‘Spongy’ Infrastructure Captured Almost 9 Billion Gallons of Water

The city is turning away from stormwater management practices that shuttle water to the ocean, building infrastructure that collects and directs it underground instead.

February 25, 2024 - Wired

"It's The Climate" sign over street in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Oregon Town Seeks Funding for Ambitious Resilience Plan

Like other rural communities, Grants Pass is eager to access federal funding aimed at sustainability initiatives, but faces challenges when it comes to meeting grant requirements.

February 18, 2024 - The Daily Yonder

Front view of stone home with severe tornado damage and portions of roof ripped off.

10 States Where Insurance Costs Impact Housing Affordability

Insurance companies are responding to the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather events caused by climate change by raising home insurance premiums in high-risk states, adding another hurdle to housing affordability in the U.S.

5 hours ago - Fox Business

View of small pedestrian bridge in Prescott Preserve Palm Springs, California with palm tree oasis and mountains in background.

Rewilding the Golf Course

How former golf courses are being transformed from manicured lawns to vibrant habitats.

6 hours ago - The New York Times

Red Los Angeles Fire Department fire truck parked on pier in San Pedro, California at Port of Los Angeles.

Safe Streets Ballot Measure Runs Into Unexpected Opposition

Los Angeles's Measure HLA would compel the city to make serious upgrades for walking, biking, and other forms of active transportation, all in the name of saving lives. Its biggest opponent: the firefighters union.

7 hours ago - California Planning & Development Report

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.