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The Weather Network
Nov. 14, 2019 | Thursday
Editorials and Opinions
ArchiText: Everything old is new again
The new vernacular farmhouse style was popularized in some North American communities in the 1980s. (Brian Marshall/Special)

“Vernacular” is one of those terms that regularly creeps into my conversations with folks when describing their heritage home and it’s not uncommon that the word requires some definition.

Applied to historic architecture, vernacular refers to a building designed by someone with no training in the discipline, generally guided by local community conventions and the functionality of the house, using local materials with little emphasis placed on aesthetic or decorative elements.

Indeed, here in Niagara, many of these relatively simple homes displayed some general Georgian or Regency characteristics consistent with the community norms, but the primary consideration was functional livability.  

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, vernacular cottages were among the most common homes found in Niagara-on-the-Lake. While many were torn down during the intervening years, a surprising number still survive due, I suspect, to that superb livability.

While this type of house continued to be built throughout the 19th century, it became much less frequent as ready availability of plan books, competitive pricing of shipped-in materials and ready access to skilled labour increased.

Interestingly, in the 20th century an increasing client demand for an understated “quiet” house with a highly functional interior caused a small number of architects to begin drawing on the earlier vernacular tradition for their designs.

Then in the 1980s many North American communities instituted Traditional Neighbourhood Development Plans, which essentially required new homes to be built in a style that recalled the area’s architectural heritage, and the demand for new (or “American”) vernacular designs increased dramatically.

However, with the exception of the purely functional and somewhat ubiquitous farmhouse, vernacular houses were products of their community. A New Orleans shotgun house would be just as out-of-place in NOTL as one of our vernacular Georgian cottages would be there. This forced the development of regional specific designs.

Unfortunately, lacking a Traditional Neighbourhood Development Plan, our town has seen only the occasional new vernacular built. Apparently we prefer the current version of the developers’ matchbox house?