browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.


Vernacular architecture – structures made by empirical builders without the intervention of professional architects.

  • Mohenjo daro, India

    Mohenjo daro, India

    primitive or aboriginal architecture

  • ancestral or traditional architecture
  • folk, popular, or rural architecture

People have been making shelter — buildings and other physical structures — for as long as we have been human. We talk about “cave men” because caves contain the best-preserved artifacts. Next come the buildings made of stone.

India’s Mohenjo-daro (right) is one of the world’s earliest (before 1800 BCE – around 4,000 years ago) major urban settlements, contemporaneous with the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete. (Note: It is in the part of India that split off into Pakistan in 1947.)

The other structures that people built from plant material — trees, branches, leaves, vines, etc. — are all long gone.

According to the website, “at least 90 percent of the world’s architecture is vernacular.”

Generally speaking, sculpture fills space and architecture contains space.


Wikipedia’s Architecture of India

village in eastern India

village in eastern India

Indian vernacular architecture

Building material depends on location. In hilly country where rocky rubble, ashlar, and pieces of stone are available, these can be patched together with a mud mortar to form walls. Finer stonework veneer covers the outside. Sometimes wood beams and rafters are used with slate tiles for roofing if available.

  • Houses on hills usually have two stories, with the livestock living on the ground floor.
  • Often a verandah runs along the side of the house.
  • The roof is pitched to deal with the monsoon season.
  • The house may sit on raised plinths or bamboo poles to cope with floods.

On the flat lands, adobes are usually made of mud or sun-baked bricks, then plastered inside and out, sometimes with mud mixed with hay or even cow dung and whitewashed with lime.

Where bamboo is available (mainly in the north and northeastern states) it is widely used for all parts of the home as it is flexible and resilient. Also widely used is thatch from plants such as elephant grass, paddy, and coconut.


Wikipedia’s Chinese architecture

Chinese house in traditional siheyuan style

Chinese house in traditional siheyuan style

Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization

Homes all over China in pre-modern times had a lot in common. The way of laying out a house was similar among the rich and poor, both in earlier and later times. Certain materials and techniques, such as pounded earth foundations, timber framing, and use of bricks and tile were present throughout the country. … Many of the basic principles of Chinese house design, such as the emphasis on orientation, layout, and symmetry go far back in Chinese history.

Siheyuan – courtyard houses

A siheyuan is a historical type of residence that was commonly found throughout China, most famously in Beijing. In English, siheyuan are sometimes referred to as Chinese quadrangles. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by buildings on all four sides.

Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, many remaining siheyuan are still used as housing complexes, but many lack modern amenities.

siheyuan style - diagram

siheyuan style – diagram

Courtyard house

Chinese siheyuan-style interior


Wikipedia’s Korean architecture

Korean Hanok style

Korean Hanok style

Korean Hanok style house at Yangdong

Korean Hanok style house at Yangdong

Historic Villages of Hahoe and Yangdong

Korean Traditional Architecture – Bukchon Hanok Village


Hanok is a term to describe Korean traditional houses. Korean architecture lends consideration to the positioning of the house in relation to its surroundings, with thought given to the land and seasons.

The interior structure of the house is also planned accordingly. This principle is called Baesanimsu, literally meaning that the ideal house is built with a mountain in the back and a river in the front, with the ondol heated rock system for unique heating system of South Korea during cold winters and a wide daecheong front porch for keeping the house cool during hot summers.

Korean Jeonju Hyanggyo (Confucian School) - 1603

Korean Jeonju Hyanggyo (Confucian School) – 1603

Korean hanok-style interior

Korean hanok-style interior

Question: How do you make gently curving roofs without power saws or nails?

Answer: Daemokjang – traditional wooden architecture


Wikipedia’s Japanese architecture

Japanese thatched house shirakawa-go

Japanese minka – thatched roof gassho house

Japanese architecture (日本建築 Nihon kenchiku?) has traditionally been typified by wooden structures, elevated slightly off the ground, with tiled or thatched roofs. Sliding doors (fusuma) were used in place of walls, allowing the internal configuration of a space to be customized for different occasions. People usually sat on cushions or otherwise on the floor, traditionally; chairs and high tables were not widely used until the 20th century.

Much in the traditional architecture of Japan is not native, but was imported from China and other Asian cultures over the centuries. Japanese traditional architecture and its history are as a consequence dominated by Chinese and Asian techniques and styles on one side, and by Japanese original variations on those themes on the other.

Gassho roof construction

Gassho roof construction

universal features

  • harmony – blend the building into the surrounding natural environment.
  • choice of materials, always wood in various forms (planks, straw, tree bark, paper, etc.) for almost all structures
  • posts and lintels support a large and gently curved roof
  • Inner space divisions are fluid, and room size can be modified through the use of screens or movable paper walls
  • The roof has slightly curved eaves extend far beyond the walls, covering verandas

Gassho houses

The Gassho houses are wood and have steeply pitched roofs. In Shirakawa-go, they are thickly thatched. The largest of the houses have several stories, with the top used for silk worm cultivation and production. The interiors are darkened from the smoke from the fires inside, which acts as a preservative.

Minka - traditional farmhouse

Japanese Minka-style traditional farmhouse


Minka (民家 literally “house of the people”?) are vernacular houses constructed in any one of several traditional Japanese building styles. In the context of the four divisions of society, minka were the dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants (i.e., the three non-samurai castes), but this connotation no longer exists in the modern Japanese language, and any traditional Japanese-style residence of an appropriate age could be referred to as minka.

Yoshihiro Takishita, “Mr. Minka” – pics and video

Minka have the same basic structure, roof structure, and roof shape.

Primary posts form the basic framework and bear the structural load of the building. Secondary posts, not bearing weight, are arranged to suit the functional arrangements of the plan.

  • The inverted U consists of two vertical posts fixed at the top with a horizontal beam, these individual units can then be added together with side girders. The beam can be fixed to the top of the post either by just resting upon it or via a mortise and tenon joint.
  • The ladder has a number of post and beam units connected together with larger beams including beams that are closer to the foundation level. The system will allow the irregular placement of posts and therefore allows flexibility in the plan.
  • With the umbrella style, four beams radiate out from a central post. These posts sit at the centre of the four sides of the square rather than the corners.
  • The cross has two beams at right angles to one another with the posts in the centre of the sides. It is often used for very small minka that have no other posts erected within the space.
  • Parallel crosses doubles up the cross structure with two crosses and eight posts.
  • The box structure connects four or more post and beam units to create a box-like structure.
  • Rising beams is a form of structure that enables better use of the second storey. It uses beams that rise from the posts to a secondary ridge that is below the one formed by the rafters.
Japanese shirakawago gassho zukuri

Japanese minka – shirakawago gassho zukuri

The gassho-zukuri (合掌造?) style minka (right) have vast roofs that are a large form of the sasu structural system. Their name derives from the similarity of the roof shape to two hands in prayer. The upper floors of the two and three storey houses are used for sericulture, with storage space for the trays of silkworms and mulberry leaves.


Wikipedia’s Architecture of Indonesia

The Architecture of Indonesia reflects the diversity of cultural, historical and geographic influences that have shaped Indonesia as a whole. Invaders, colonisers, missionaries, merchants and traders brought cultural changes that had a profound effect on building styles and techniques. Traditionally, the most significant foreign influence has been Indian. However, Chinese, Arab—and since the 18th and 19th centuries—European influences have played significant roles too in shaping Indonesian architecture.

Indonesian Toraja house

Indonesian Tongkonan-style rumah adat


Tongkonan is the traditional ancestral house, or rumah adat of the Torajan people, in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Tongkonan are customarily built facing north-south. Dominating the entire structure is the boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof with gables that are dramatically upswept. The internal space is small in comparison with the overwhelming roof structure that covers it. Interiors are typically cramped and dark with few windows, however, most of daily life is lived outside the homes, with interiors simply intended for sleeping, storage, meetings and occasionally protection.

A large tongkonan can take a crew of ten about three months to build and another month to carve and paint the outside walls. Bamboo scaffold is erected for the duration of the construction phase. Traditionally tongue and groove joinery has been used without the need for nails. A number of components are pre-fabricated with final assembly in-situ. Although built on a log cabin-style sub-structure, tongkonan are set on large vertical wooden piles with mortises cut into their ends to grasp the horizontal tie beams. The tops of the piles are notched for the longitudinal and transverse beams that support the upper structure.

Rumah adat

Indonesian Rumah Gadang

Pagaruyung Palace in the Minangkabau Rumah gadang style

Rumah adat are traditional houses built in any of the vernacular architecture styles of Indonesia.

Ethnic groups in Indonesia are often associated with their own distinctive form of rumah adat. The houses are at the centre of a web of customs, social relations, traditional laws, taboos, myths and religions that bind the villagers together. The house provides the main focus for the family and its community, and is the point of departure for many activities of its residents. Villagers build their own homes, or a community pools its resources for a structure built under the direction of a master builder or carpenter.

Google Images: Rumah adat


Stone Age farms

Stone Age farms

What came before drywall construction? Lath and plaster

What came before lath and plaster construction? Wattle and daub

Wattle and daub is a composite building material used for making walls, in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Wattle and daub has been used for at least 6000 years and is still an important construction material in many parts of the world.

The first farms in the Netherlands – from 8800 to 5300 BCE

Stone Age building techniques

Stone Age building techniques