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Bookshelf - Vernacular
  • Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide
    Dwellings: The Vernacular House Worldwide
    by Paul Oliver
  • On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History
    On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History
    by Joseph Rykwert
  • Classic Cracker: Florida's Wood-Frame Vernacular Architecture
    Classic Cracker: Florida's Wood-Frame Vernacular Architecture
    by Ronald W. Haase



Quintessential context-responsive architecture would be vernacular dwellings that developed as civilizations evolved world-wide. By definition, vernacular architecture eliminates any superfluous design elements, limiting buildings to those constructed by the simplest of means, utilizing local materials, and responding to local environmental conditions.

Geographic variations and the attendant local climatology were most significant in influencing design criteria for these early homes, followed by the selective use of locally available materials. Lacking technical skills or explanations for how and why certain techniques worked, the construction methods employed were developed and adapted over time by trial and error.

Varying cultural traditions contributed to differences in design. Family size, personal living arrangements, and food handling practices influenced the size and shape of dwelling units, but the orientation and layout of structures were always in deference to prevailing environmental factors.

Northern Florida lies in the sub-tropical latitudes (roughly between 25-30 deg. and 40 deg. north and south) and southern Florida lies in the tropical zone. Both regions experience hot, humid summers and mild winters, with monsoon characteristics in the more tropical areas. Vernacular dwellings were designed with features that assisted in making living in both zones tolerable.

Florida / Image by Clyde Butcher

If one is to consider the origin of context responsive architecture in Florida, the place to start would be the Chickee, the dwelling of the indigenous Seminole Indians. The open-framed structures were typically constructed of cypress logs and the pitched roof was covered in palmetto leaves or grasses. The lack of walls allowed the breeze to blow through and the raised floor enhanced cooling and kept inhabitants off of soggy ground when it flooded as well as away from animals and insects.

When "new world" settlers made their way south to Florida, they brought with them references to traditional architecture but found them inappropriate for the climate. Accordingly adjustments in design were made that resulted in more comfortable living conditions. The vernacular architecture of 19th century Florida dwellings was known as Cracker.

All Cracker style homes had two key elements which were employed: shade and natural ventilation. Other characteristics employed to various degrees were extending the home into areas immediately surrounding the home to take advantage of additional shading and locating the food cooking area in an outside or separate area away from sleeping and living areas to minimize heat build-up in the main portion of the house.

To reduce solar heat gain, Cracker homes incorporated large overhangs and in many cases an open veranda, or porch, around the perimeter of the house. Floors were typically built above grade, which allowed air to circulate under the house and enhance cooling. Cracks and joints in the flooring were left unsealed to facilitate air flow inside the dwelling. Windows, mostly without glass, provided cross ventilation. Shutters were used to protect the interior from rain and wind damage and were closed at night to keep insects out.

Cypress wood, resistant to rot and termite infestation, was used for structural and sheathing purposes. Being closed-celled, it also provided some insulating properties. Roofing was either tin-coated steel or cedar shingles, depending on availability. Roofs had significant pitch to enhance eliminating warm air from the living areas.

Several categories of Cracker homes were commonly built, including Single Pen, Double Pen and Saddle Bag, Hall and Parlor, Southern, Dog Trot, Creole, and Georgian Plan versions. Styles varied by number of rooms, location of chimneys, layouts, etc.

The most interesting style of Cracker home was the Dog Trot. This home is distinguished by two, symmetrically-opposed rooms ("pens", roughly 16'x16'), separated by a central, outdoor hall (about 8' wide), and joined together by a common roof. This configuration creates an exceptionally efficient ventilation mechanism: prevailing wind pressure builds up on the outside of the house while the negative pressure in the central hall creates a venturi effect, creating a vacuum that pulled air through the house from large windows in exterior walls through doorways that faced the hall. Full length, shaded porches were a typical feature of these homes and chimneys were placed at each gable end, on the outside of the house.

Other comparable, hot and humid tropical and sub-tropical vernacular styles developed world wide include some Asian (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, India, Indonesian), Australian, and Latin American regions.

World Map of Koppen-Geiger Climate Classification / The University of Melbourne


More to come... In the meantime, please visit additional sections, including Defining Moments and Florida...