A History of Style

Panache, verve, finesse, wit, surprise, celebration, elegance… These make homes memorable. We infuse our homes with vigor in many styles: classical style, mid-century style, Spanish and English colonial revival style and agrarian style – to name a few. And while these styles were trends, or fashion, at one time, they have become enduring languages we can all understand.

We often refer to vernacular style in our homes. What is vernacular? We see it, not as a style, but as the pragmatic environmental wisdom of a specific place. Put simply, it is architecture’s response to regional differences in climate. How did our ancestors build homes in Southern California to provide safe shelter in our climate and terrain? How have houses in other parts of the country – or the world – been built in the past? Let’s explore:

California

The early California structures planned by Spanish missionaries were made of adobe (mud bricks), often rendered with stucco to protect them. If stone was available, this was also used. The roofs were framed with timber and covered with sun-baked terracotta (or “baked earth”)  tiles, often formed on the thighs of the native Americans who built these missions. The mass of these vernacular buildings kept the buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter, using local materials and local skills. They also proved to be resilient to the frequent earthquakes common in the region and were easily repaired.

Santa Barbara Mission Flickr Adam Fagen
The Santa Barbara Mission in Santa Barbara, California is a prime example of adobe and tile construction. Photo: Adam Fagen via Flickr.

The roofs had overhangs to fling precious rain away from the stucco walls. The floors were often made of compacted dirt or flat terra cotta. Windows were small. The sun was so harsh that large openings weren’t needed, and imported glass was precious. Sometimes the windows were made of parchment (stretched, cured sheepskin), or from the bottoms cut from bottles. There were few fireplaces. Cooking, laundry and bathing were often done outdoors. Rooms were only as large as the trees that could be found to frame the roofs above.

When early Americans moved West after the revolution, they brought a few East Coast features with them: two-story homes, often with wood lap siding above the adobe brick first level, and second-level balconies to invite cool air, protected from wildlife below. Wooden stairs, larger windows with more glass, wood floors and a portable tub for indoor baths became commonplace. Today we call this “Monterey Colonial Style”.

Martinez Adobe John Muir National Historic Site Flickr Melinda Young Stuart
The Martinez Adobe in Martinez, California (part of the John Muir National Historic Site) was built in 1849 with sun-dried brick adobe and wood siding, a second-floor balcony and ample windows/doors. Photo: Melinda Young Stuart via Flickr.

Northeast U.S.

In colonial New England, the “saltbox” home was named for its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was kept. Throughout the colonial period and into the early Republic, the style gained popularity as an economic way to expand an existing footprint (by one story at the rear of the home) as settlers’ families and wealth changed. The signature asymmetrical gabled roof combatted roof damage from the weight of heavy snow and was oriented toward the winter winds for deflection. Abundant mature trees in dense surrounding forests allowed for post-and-beam construction, cut and pegged to limit the need for expensive nails, with homes finished in beveled wood plank siding. Floorplans centered around a chimney to provide essential heating and thickly framed, strategically placed windows maximized sunlight.

Saltox Home Woodworking Plans
Features of a traditional saltbox-style home. Image: free.woodworking-plans.org.

Southeast U.S.

In hot and humid climates like the southeastern United States, we find a different type of house. In the mid 1800s, prior to the Civil War, architectural pattern books dictated a Greek revival style yet blended with practicality for southern weather. This style is typically defined by mansions on farms or plantations, but is also seen in urban coastal areas such as Charleston, South Carolina. Large windows maximized ventilation; large overhangs and shutters protected from the sun and rain; light-colored walls minimized heat gain and covered porches/balconies shaded windows while also making for cool outdoor living spaces. High ceilings and gabled roofs with dormers increased vertical ventilation, cooling the rooms downstairs.

Historic Home Charleston South Carolina Libary Of Congress
A historic home in Charleston, South Carolina. Notice the large windows, porches and overhangs. Photo: Library of Congress.

Beyond the U.S.

In England, the storybook Cotswold style has its roots in wool – and practicality. The original cottages were built by sheep farmers and weavers as the industry flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. The rural location of the region limited access to building materials, so abundant hardwood and oolite limestone were utilized. This porous stone is naturally varied, creating the signature “weathered” look. Steep gabled roofs were framed with heavy wooden beams and slate-shingled or thatched with local wheat or rye straw. Stone fireplaces and chimneys warmed these small houses and the small glass panes in the windows were connected with lead, keeping out the elements.

Cotswald Cottage Gloucestershire Filibuster
A cotswold cottage with thatched roof in Gloucestershire, England. Photo: Filibuster via Geograph.

In the Middle East, to survive the intense heat and dryness, massive construction of adobe, brick or stone is still used to act as a “heat sink”, slowing the progress of heat through the walls during the day and delaying the cooling at night. Small windows and light-reflecting surfaces also minimized heat gain. Balconies commonly invited airflow but were screened with carved wood to provide privacy. In places with little wind, wind scoops maximized ventilation. Dating back to ancient Egypt, these rectangular towers were often divided by diagonal walls, creating four separate airwells facing different directions. Rare rains were captured, sometimes with Greek impluvium courtyards, and were used in fountains, pools, rills and other water features to provide evaporative cooling. In cities, streets were purposefully narrow and often shaded with branches or fabric to provide shade between buildings.

Wind Tower Iran Diego Delso Wikimedia Commons
A wind scoop with a water reservoir in Iran. Photo: Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons.

And in the humid summers of Japan, natural ventilation was key. Traditional homes utilized post-and-beam construction to allow lightweight paper wall panels to slide out of the way. Large overhanging roofs protected these panels and also created an outdoor corridor space called an engawa to harmonize with the natural world. The engawa was not only an in-between space between indoors and out, but it also transformed as the weather changed. In winter, windows caught the low winter sun and transferred the heat to adjacent rooms. In summer, it served as a porch-like veranda. The entire home was raised above the ground to keep it dry. The homes often had tile roofs, similar to those in the American Southwest, but glazed to endure the rains.

Japan Engawa Wikimedia Commons
A traditional Japanese house with an engawa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Lessons

As we look back in history, we look for lessons we can apply to our future climate conditions in California and across the world:

  • When sun was precious, we oriented openings toward it. When it was harsh, we shielded openings from it.
  • When rain was rare, we collected it and used it to cool our homes. When rain was plentiful, we raised our homes above the ground and shaped siding and overhangs to throw water away from the foundations.
  • When winds were strong, we deflected them. When winds were weak, we captured and conducted them to cool our homes.
  • When trade outside the area was uncommon or expensive, we built with local materials.
  • When metals were rare, we joined wood without nails. 
  • We have learned to harness building materials that naturally adapt to climate throughout the day to heat or cool our homes. 

The past has taught us the importance of understanding climate – and living lightly on Earth. As a studio, we design modern solutions to these timeless challenges to create a safer, healthier planet for all. Interested in learning more? Explore our process.