To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t given much thought to vernacular architecture until fairly recently. I grew up in New England, surrounded by old buildings, and I suppose I’ve always taken them for granted. One of my childhood homes was a 200+ year old farm house complete with big red barn. I loved its charm, its character, its sagging floors, but from a young age my aesthetic sensibility preferred the clean lines and zen minimalism of modern design.
After college I moved around the country, exposing myself to various vernacular or vernacular-inspired forms. I came to appreciate regional design as an essential expression of place. I understand why modern design and the International Style have proliferated, beyond any financial motivations, and I think that aesthetic diversity sends a message of participation and relevance in a global era. It suggests that a place “gets it.” What a tragedy it is, though, when an intact tradition is wholly supplanted or abandoned to squalor.
The retention of vernacular architectural practices maintains a place’s connection to its past. It also informs the direction it charts into the future. I’m currently living in a small town in Florida—Sarasota—that has had its share of troubles during a growth process that has seen disparate vernacular styles such as Florida Cracker and the Sarasota School emerge, prosper, decline, and slowly reemerge. A new crop of craftsmen/builders are reviving traditional design, including Devin P. Rutkowski, founder and president of Bungalow Builders, LLC.
Devin is a Florida licensed contractor and a member of the US Green Building Council, the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, the Congress for New Urbanism and the NAHB. He is one of a select few to receive the Certified Green Professional (CGP) designation from the National Association of Homebuilders.
Bungalow Builders’ design philosophy, from their Web site:
The “Arts & Crafts” movement popularized at the turn of the 20th century and coinciding with the birth of the classic American Bungalow has been rediscovered at Bungalow Builders, LLC. We trade excess square footage for efficient use of space and include rich architectural details, intimate nooks, character and comfort. Our homes are designed for low maintenance and low operating costs.
Each of our new (old) homes includes a traditional front porch, classic proportions and authentic materials all within an energy conscience compact footprint. We believe in a “less is more” design philosophy that results in an authentic Bungalow home. We respect every future home owner and home site and work tirelessly to create that special place to call home.
I sat down with Devin yesterday to get his perspective on vernacular architecture.
planologie: What exactly is vernacular architecture? Is it design influenced by the local climate? Does it suggest buildings largely built by hand? Does it require local materials?
DR: I think it’s all of those. In general, I think vernacular architecture should respond to the demands of the local environment, and it is typically built by local craftsmen using indigenous materials. But a fourth quality is how it expresses a local interpretation of outside influences. Just as the Spaniards brought Spanish Mission, American vernacular architecture is always influenced by outsiders.
planologie: Do you consider the homes you build to be in a vernacular style?
DR: They have components of Florida vernacular, which is a cousin to a Craftsman style, which is itself a step-brother to the Arts & Crafts movement. It all stems back to just building honestly, building with those three concepts you mentioned. I try to include as many traditional design features as possible, but within a modern envelope. Is it vernacular architecture? It has characteristics. But a pure form of vernacularism? I don’t think that exists.
planologie: What makes a traditional-style house different than other new construction?
DR: An obvious difference is the [lack of attached] garage. As soon as you remove an enclosed room for a two ton piece of metal you change the box. I refuse to build a house with an attached garage, the only exceptions being in situations that allow rear-loading. What are called traditional homes were mostly built before cars, and removing the garage is an immediate step away from suburban-style design and toward something more traditional. Now you have room to add a real front porch.
planologie: Why build traditional-style homes?
DR: Not everybody wants to live in the same house, so by simply offering people a choice you open up the market. We went from living in traditionally designed homes—it wasn’t long ago that all homes were traditional homes, no matter where you’re from—to mass-produced homes that are built as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, and there’s a segment of the population that doesn’t buy into that. They’re seeking an alternative. I try to provide that.
I don’t find typical tract homes gratifying, personally. I gravitate toward older, historic homes that might have crooked doors and squeaky floors, but they have that intangible quality we like to call character. I believe in designing and building homes with character, which is a hallmark of vernacular design.
planologie: What practical challenges do you encounter?
DR: Well, you can’t build in any gated subdivision. Homes with character are excluded, unless you build into a New Urbanist development. Which is interesting. You can basically only build in vernacular styles in two areas: infill in historic areas, or in what some people have criticized as a new form of gated subdivision—a TND—where there is an elevated level of architecture, there is a design code. I have no choice but to do infill on a lot-by-lot basis, or build into a pre-planned community such as are typically associated with New Urbanism.
When you see mass-produced traditional style homes, like in a large scale TND, there is, unfortunately, a loss of finer qualities. Can it be done right? Probably. Should it be? I don’t think so. Most of the homes you find in historic districts were built over a period of decades. We mass-produce houses because of money and time, but it is a challenge to find carpenters who know how to frame a house the way they used to. It’s a challenge to find plumbers and electricians who are sensitive to centering fixtures on openings. The average subcontractor probably has to scratch his head a little bit and think a bit more to build a traditional style home.
planologie: Is vernacular architecture by its nature historic?
DR: It seems like we want it to be, though I don’t think it has to be. Vernacular style can change, it does change, with [changes in] materials and technology. If you look at what Frank Lloyd Wright did…he was a Modernist, but his homes brought nature in. They were exquisite in how they interacted with their surroundings. But modern design is mostly about breaking from history, about individuality. Tradition is an important part of vernacular architecture. Historic homes suggest a community, a connection to the past. They make us feel like we’re part of a neighborhood and a heritage.
planologie: There’s a fine line, though, between inspiration and imitation.
DR: I don’t know if imitation is ever successful. It seems like anyone who imitates—and it can be any style; I’ve seen plenty of poor imitations of modern architecture—isn’t successful in the long run. Imitations give themselves away. Being inspired by the past, by historic design, is different. The traditional style homes I build honor the past by retaining certain proportions and design elements. They’re shaped by the love of a particular kind of character, but they don’t live in the past. Slavish imitations never feel authentic.
planologie: What traditional elements do you emulate, and where do you modernize?
DR: The vertical proportions of windows, the locations of doors and windows, the function of a porch, the overhangs, the trim. These are all exterior details that add up to create a feeling of traditional design, traditional character. On the interior, unless it’s a custom home, you can’t afford to replicate the true Arts & Crafts homes with the stain grade oak and the beautiful materials that were in ample supply a hundred years ago. We have to use sustainable materials. We have to account for air conditioning and plumbing and things they didn’t. Closet space, storage space. For me, the challenge is to include as many traditional details, both large and small, while still making the house sustainable, affordable, and durable.
planologie: What role do you think vernacular architecture will play in the future?
DR: There’s a large scale problem [that needs to be dealt with]. Who knows how many millions of mass produced units have been constructed since WWII [that were not built to last]…there is going to be, I think, a wholesale reevaluation of what we did when we left the cities, in terms of how we designed our communities and how we lived in them. It’s already begun. Obviously, architecture will be part of that, but more important is the urban design aspect. Pedestrianism, mixed-use.
We need to mention the market, too. The market will determine how successful and widespread a style is, which plays a role in the creation of what becomes known as vernacular design. I think that for the most part people will gravitate toward familiar design features, familiar proportions, human scale rooms…I mean, if you have oversized rooms you need oversized furniture, the scale of everything goes out of whack. That’s mostly done with, I think. That era’s over. Already, we’re seeing more people living better in smaller, more beautifully designed spaces.
planologie: Is more widespread building in vernacular styles financially feasible? What is the cost differential? Resale differential?
DR: Resale value’s hard to peg, especially right now. Typically, though, homes in a TND command a premium in both initial costs and resale. But you’re buying more than the house, you’re buying the community and the amenities that come with the community as well. A typical Florida tract house—concrete block, single story—can be built for $80-100 per square foot. A single story, wood frame bungalow can easily be $120-140 per square foot. It does cost more. But again, supply and demand play a role. As we build more [traditional style homes] and fewer McMansions, I can see the costs equaling out at some point.
The trick is to make sure that even if traditional styles become more mass-produced the houses remain durable and more sustainable. We have to move away from our throw-away mentality. We throw away our homes. In so many of these suburban subdivisions, when the homes get five or ten years old people sell and go to the next new house. Vernacular architecture retains significance because it lasts, because it can be proudly handed down through generations. Even in a mobile society like ours has become, if we build according to principles of design that have stood the test of time, if we build houses to be durable physically and aesthetically, there should be no shortage of buyers.