7+ - How the Simpler Way Works

illustration of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum showing relationships between the classical ideal and architecture of Charleston, the Cotswolds, Nantucket, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Bermuda

Diagram of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum in six places, diverging at the most vernacular end and converging at the most classical end of the Spectrum

   We discussed the Simpler Way recently in this post; now, let’s take a closer look at how it works. The engine of the Simpler Way is the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum. The most classical building in an American state is often the state’s supreme court building or the state capitol. The most vernacular building in the state is a very simple barn. Everything else is located somewhere in between.

   The classical end of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum is the most refined architecture, and is very broad, spreading across entire continents. Europe, North America, and South America all share Western Classicism as their classical ideal. The most refined architecture of Asia, on the other hand, is a very different thing. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at the Classical-Vernacular Spectrums of Europe and the Americas.

   While many cultures of these continents have long shared the same classical ideal for their most refined architecture, the vernacular end of the spectrum is widely varied, as illustrated in the diagram above. The six places shown each once had strong living traditions of place-making and building-making based on regional conditions, climate, and culture.

Regional Conditions

Grand Teton mountains in late afternoon Wyoming light

Grand Tetons

   Regional conditions include things like topography: is it a mountainous region, a coastal plain, or a prairie region? The most sustainable ways of building are different in each. What are the most readily available building materials in the region? This matters more as we try to find closer sources of materials with which to build. And what natural risks does the region face? People living in places frequented by hurricanes need to build in a certain way in order to have a good chance of surviving them, while people living in earthquake zones have different concerns to have the best chances of survival. Some regions face conditions so severe that you can’t build strongly enough to endure them, such as tornadoes or volcanic eruptions. In those places, your only choice is to simply rebuild. But most other conditions are survivable if the architecture is smart enough.

Regional Climate

louvered walls of club villas at Old Fort Bay in the Bahamas

Bahamian cottage

   The region’s climate is the most obvious source of sustainability patterns. Places that are hot and humid need far different architecture from places that are cold and dark, or places that are hot and dry. Some regional green patterns have to do with ways of either welcoming the warmth of the sun in cooler places (or in cooler times of the year in temperate places) or excluding its heat in hotter places (or hotter times of the year in temperate places, of course.) Other regional green patterns deal with moisture: In dry places, they collect water for many uses. In wet places, the bigger concern is getting water of torrential rains away from the building so the building doesn’t deteriorate and so the water doesn’t damage the surrounding landscape. Humidity is another source of green patterns. In dry places, rooms often cluster around enclosed courtyards to protect them against the wind, so that fountains and pools can create a more moist micro-climate than the surrounding bone-dry landscape. The architecture of humid regions finds ways of letting air flow freely through to lessen unhealthy growth of mold and mildew. Daylight is also a concern; places frequented by bright sunshine need shady environments where people can work, while places that are frequently cloudy and dark use many methods of enticing light into the buildings. The wind is another source of green patterns, because a cooling summer breeze is very welcome, whereas a cold winter wind is something to be deflected away. And in some places such as mountainous regions, the wind can be so strong most of the time that homes and workplaces always need to be shielded.

Regional Culture

street in Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala street

   The human culture of the region can influence places and buildings in a number of ways. Some are as simple as color preferences, which help determine whether buildings are loved or viewed as odd foreign objects. Think of how strange a brightly-colored Guatemala courtyard house would look sitting side-by side on the street with the stone houses of a Cotswold village in England, for example. Other regional cultural influences can have a more basic effect. Regional skill sets are a classic example. Some still remain even today. For example, masonry buildings finished in stucco are still fairly affordable in Miami because that’s the way people build there. Even Habitat for Humanity builds that way, because their volunteers know how. But in the mid-South, stucco on masonry is very expensive because few people know how to do it. Once, nearly all the parts of a building depended on regional skill sets, and that may happen again as the Offshoring Reversal moves forward.

the Classical Convergence and Sustainability

   So the regional conditions, climate, and culture create regional vernacular traditions as varied as the regions, but the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum of each region converges on the classical ideal as we move up the spectrum. What’s useful about that?

open casement windows shaded by tree leaves in San Francisco

   There’s at least one highly useful thing about this, from a green building perspective: Most places in the US didn’t have time to develop a robust Original Green living tradition between the arrival of European settlers and the beginning of the Thermostat Age. Native Americans had strong living traditions in most places, but those were discarded by the European settlers, illustrating why the regional culture is an essential part of the equation above.

red stucco town house in the French Quarter of New Orleans with American flag and skull on second level balcony

   The American places shown in the diagram above are some of the exceptions because they were settled so early. But for the others, how do we go about figuring out what the regional vernacular would have been had it had time to develop?

   This is far more of an art than a science, but one way is to look at some of the best classical work in the region. Because good classical work must be done by a trained and thoughtful hand, there’s a good chance that if we look closely, we can see ways that the building diverges a bit from the classical ideal. Does it have more porches than what might be expected? How do its windows diverge in size, proportion, or count? What materials are used in its construction? Every place that the building diverges from the classical ideal is a potential hint at what the non-existent regional vernacular should possibly look like. And when we get to the vernacular end of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum of the region, we’ll find the greenest architecture of the place.

Two Questions

   Here are two likely questions about this discussion: are we saying that highly classical architecture isn’t so green? And if the Native American architecture was so green, why not look to it for inspiration?

aerial shot of white teepee in the Arkansas River Valley of central Colorado

   The Native American traditions of most regions are so organic that our culture, at least for today, would veto them. How many people do you know who would live in a teepee? Or a lodge built of sticks and branches? Architecture of the desert southwest is an exception, as it borrows much from Native American traditions.

   As for the greenness of highly classical buildings, let’s consider this: clearly, they’re not so attuned to the regional climate, but highly classical buildings are usually built strongest of all, able to withstand the harshest conditions. For example, most of the highly classical buildings of the Gulf Coast were built of stone, and were untouched by Hurricane Katrina, even though lesser buildings all around them were demolished. And architecture at the top of the Spectrum is often the highest expression of the culture of that place, so while they respond less to the regional climate, they come through in spades in response to the regional culture and often the regional conditions.

corner of temple at Paestum in Italy shot in early evening light

   Consider these aspects of responding to regional climate: highly refined public buildings such as cathedrals or courts aren’t places that you live, but rather places where you go for a limited time, then return home. Plus, you don’t get undressed there to bathe, change clothes, or to go to bed. Before the Thermostat Age, people would simply bundle up if they were going there in winter. In a Long Emergency of reduced energy sources, they could potentially do so again. Another type of highly classical building is the mansion of extremely wealthy people. No matter what the cost of energy is, the wealthiest people will always be able to power their homes. But there simply aren’t enough of these mansions in most places to make a blip on the energy consumption of the region, so as long as the people inhabiting them are OK with their utility bills, we don’t need to worry about them, either.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is the last part of #7 in the top 10 things we can do.

© The Guild Foundation 2013