Going local: the key to housing, and to saving the world

Using local materials and skills are key to vernacular homes and have much to teach us about creating a more sustainable future for our planet


We may have thought we had a special relationship with turf. But how about a house made of the stuff? In Iceland, turf has been used for house construction since the Vikings; with a scarcity of native wood and stone, turf houses are an effective adaptation to subarctic environments.

Viking turf houses had the same hall or longhouse shape as timber houses elsewhere in Scandinavia, with curving sides and straight ends. Turf is apparently great at keeping the cold out but not so good at supporting heavy structures, so internal driftwood columns hold up a lattice of birch planks for the roof, and since the 19th century, Icelandic turf buildings such as the farmhouse at Glaumbær, pictured here, have had wood doors and driftwood.

Homes such as this – vernacular architecture – over the world have a dizzying array of forms. Dwellings, first and obviously, offer shelter and protection, and they have for centuries had twin determinants: suiting the climate of the region, and using resources to hand. Thus, in the past, it was possible to place a building in its precise locality because of the peculiarities of construction and materials.

Industrialisation, mass production and easier transport changed all that, local building traditions were lost and today’s replicated western cities, the book Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet argues, are often out of context and overscaled, alienating communities and ignoring social structures and local climate. “Countries need to establish a new paradigm for the expansion of their built environment – one based on the adaptation of their past and the sensitive use of local resources, as well as meeting modern needs and aspirations.”

Editor Sandra Piesik points out “there is a pressing need to rediscover the authenticity and particularity of place” and looks for lessons from the adaptation of tested ideas.

Habitat describes itself as a “landmark publication” and celebrates building styles worldwide that are ingeniously adapted to their cultural and environmental conditions. More than 100 international experts from a range of disciplines contributed to this examination of what international traditions of vernacular architecture and regional craftspeople can teach us about creating a more sustainable future for our changing planet.

Population is bursting

The changing planet bit is crucial to the argument. Our population is bursting – from one billion of us on earth at the beginning of the 19th century, to three billion in the 1960s, and about 6.5 billion today. By the beginning of the 22nd century, nearly 15 billion souls will likely share this planet; can all those people live a peaceful and secure life, asks Tomasz Chruszczow in the foreword, pointing out that nature has always been a home and a reservoir of materials for humanity. But we now stand “at the edge of the great transition from today to the sustainable future”.

Climate influences both the materials available in a region, and the type of building constructed for shelter. The regionally specific content of Habitat categorises the world of vernacular buildings not by continent, but by the five Köppen-Geiger zones: tropical, dry, temperate, continental and polar, so places with related climate but which are geographically distant are grouped. Thus mild, moist and variable Ireland shares our temperate designation with, for example, Chickee, Charleston and shotgun houses of the American south, quincha, adobe and stone buildings in South America, Georgian dwellings in the Caucasus, and Himalayan buildings.

There is here amazing breadth of housing style, with fabulous photographs, authoritative essays and elaborate diagrams and maps. A random selection ranges from humble pitched-roof village houses in Madagascar’s central highlands to the diversity of Malaysian seaport Malacca, a trading base with Japanese, Chinese, Islamic, Dutch, Portuguese and British influences.

It encompasses architecture as diverse as adobe cave houses carved out of a hillside in China; some of the largest plant structures in the world, in the Amazonian rainforest and in the islands of southeast Asia, which still house communities of up to 100 people; the contemporary palm-leaf modular gridshell shelters of Sabla in the Middle East, an example of traditional technologies adapted for today; and a Zulu ‘beehive’ in South Africa, woven from several types of grass and secured with grass ropes. (In summer, the dried material shrinks and creates gaps to release warm air; winter rains cause the grass to swell, becoming an impermeable membrane.)

Irish house styles are subsumed into a section on cob (mud and straw), stone, clay, thatch and timbered buildings of the British Isles, and also share techniques with continental Europe: thatched roofs, used in every European country, were historically the most popular type.

And in the midst of this mind-stretching variety, from tropical chattel houses to adobe in the desert, we come across Jeffry’s House. Architect Thomas O’Brien and artist Emily Mannion’s contemporary shelter in Ards Forest Park is a Donegal County Council/Irish Architecture Foundation/Coillte/Earagail Arts Festival project. Its larch frame and flax thatch (“an unconventional shaggy cladding for a curious folly”) is intended to be a respite from the elements, and the trials of effort and the everyday – “it is imagined as a portal for the irreducible universe of the cosmic”.

Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet (Thames and Hudson, edited by Sandra Piesik, £98)

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