vernacular architecture



“If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man – and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages – it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden



–Custom (E–NF–L)… wont or usage (Skeat)… a common tradition or usage so long established that it has the force or validity of law (American Heritage Dictionary)
–Coke, Laws of England 1670-71

wont (ME–S)… used or accustomed (Skeat)

–Roman Law held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with natural reason or a kind of basic common sense. Unspoken yet general agreement, confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group, gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law.
JGA Pocock, Ancient Constitution & Feudal Law, Cambridge 1957.

–Sir Edward Coke, “common law … unwritten, immemorial, rooted in pure reason, sworn to by William the Conqueror.” Laws of England 1670-71

–Blackstone “… high antiquity of common law, twice as old as canon law.” Commentaries 1765-70

“There never has been a British Constitution in the sense of a single written document. It is a set of traditions and practices of government … customs, laws, and usages.” A Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe, Macmillan 1932

Article IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Laws are coldly reasoned out and established upon what lawmakers believe to be a basis of right. Customs are not. Customs grow gradually up, imperceptibly and unconsciously, like an oak from its seed. Laws are sand, Customs are Rock.
–Mark Twain


–Cræft(AS)–Handcræft(AS) a trade, skill, ability
+Croft(E–ME–AS+D) a small field


–Culture… the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population. (synonyms: cultivation, breeding, refinement, taste –Fr. culture: culture, tillage, husbandry –L. cultura: cultivation… cf. Colure, Collect)

–Culture implies enlightenment attained through close association with and appreciation of the highest level of civilization.
–Cultivation usually refers to the self-improvement or self-development by which a person acquires culture.
–Breeding is the development of good character and behavior, and is especially revealed in manners, poise, and sensitivity to the feelings of others.
–Refinement, the highest product of breeding, stresses aversion to coarseness; gentility is synonymous with refinement.
–Taste is the capacity for recognizing and appreciating what is aesthetically superior.

“Culture is made of ideas, Society is made of people.” Henry Glassie


Community – A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. (–ME – OFr – citizenry, –L – communitas – fellowship, communis – common) In English history and law, communities de la terra are mentioned as early as the 13th c.


–Vernacular–native –L
verna– from *ues-ina, dwelling in one’s house, from L root wes–
–Vernal–belonging to spring
–Vert, verde, verdant–green
–Verge –L virga–twig, rod, wand. A staff of office, often a yardstick.

–cular –L to cut, allied to cultus, tilled; pp. of colere, to till
Coulter … the iron blade in front of a ploughshare M.E. culter, colter AS. culter –L culter, knife, cutler, cutlass
Cull … an allied Latin root meaning to gather or collect, to sort out the inferior … root of collegia, college, etc.


The standard definition for ‘vernacular’ –that it means the work of a native slave, is a strictly linguistic derivation that has never sounded convincing to me. It The proposed root word verna or uerna (meaning a home-born slave) is not in common usage, and never has been. As it becomes an adjective modifier of ‘architecture’, the root refers to the nature of the material used, and its meaning changes.
The next entry in every Dictionary is ‘vernal – spring’.
Several words beginning with ‘ver..’ refer to greenness,

My alternative definition proposes that ‘vernacular’ is the pairing of greenness and spring growth with a mature culture of forestry and agriculture, combined with a well-developed building culture. In short, a healthy agrarian community. Traditional building has almost always used green timber, or at least not fully seasoned timber.
–Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, Henry Glassie 1975

Glassie offers this axiom … “The ability to design is intellectually grounded on the geometric repertoire: a set of simple shapes abstracted into entities, such as line or angle or curve.”

Hugh Jones wrote in 1724: “Here [Williamsburg], they build most commonly of framed timber, lined with cieling and cased with feather-edged plank, painted with white lead and oil, covered with shingles of cedar.” Glassie, p. 125

…testimony as to the first homes of Virginia, by Mark Catesby, a British naturalist who visited Virginia in the early 1700’s
“Being obliged to run up with all expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in… they erected each of these little hovels on four only of these trees (black locust) pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound.”
Those early colonists first lived, as Mark Catesby says, in hovels, and when they had time to make themselves houses they laboriously hewed out and tongued and tenoned the structural beams and covered them with clapboards. Peattie, p. 415-16

Peattie also tells us that in the entire party of fortune hunters, younger sons and ne’er-do-wells who landed at Jamestown in 1607, none were axe-men or carpenters. Nor, apparently, were any of them architects. Come into “this Wildernesse of Virginia,” the initial planters set to work in the woods immediately…
A century and a half later, in Paris, Abbe Laugier would illustrate his Essay on Architecture with an engraving of a rustic hut, the primordial precursor, and eventual renaissance, of all architecture.

Glassie builds his entire theory of design on the basis of a yardstick, divided into halves and fourths, and a basic square of some 16 to 17 feet. His one actual concession to the axioms of geometry is the whole number relationship between 12 and 17, and thus between 17 and 24. He alludes to a thirteen-inch foot (12 units?) and allows that the ideal yard might have been somewhat less than 36 inches, possibly 34 inches.

There is an interesting rational basis for a 34 inch yard. “The pace, an important traditional measure,was also employed…part of a system that begins with a 17 foot square.” Glassie
6 x 34 inches equals 204 inches equals 17 feet. [Ars Quadratum]
This line of reasoning is consistent with erecting a perpendicular in the middle of that line, establishing the basis for a king-post truss.

Megalithic Yard [Archaic … natural progression 3•5•8 ]
32 inches = 12 inches (foot) + 20 inches (cubit)
1 pace = 32 inches
6 paces = 16 feet

If one pace equals 33 inches [Ars Triangulum]
6 paces = one rod
= 5 1/2 yards
= 16 1/2 feet
= 198 inches
= 25 links, 1/4 of a Gunter’s chain
1 chain = 100 links
= 66 feet
= 22 yards

In the colonies, where land measurement was undertaken on a colossal scale; English laws, customs, and trade practices would have prevailed. An experienced surveyor, engaged to survey a property, would have located a desirable place to build a house … leveled and measured a square one rod on each side, and left four stakes to indicate the corners. A competent builder could set up batter boards around those stakes, and expand or contract dimensions to suit his “geometric repertoire”. The primary requirements of square and level being easier for the surveyor to achieve to much higher degree of accuracy, than for a carpenter with only a box of tools.

In the United States, Public Land Survey plats are printed in chain units, consistent with a two-hundred-year-old database. Gunter’s Chain was introduced in 1620, contributing a decimal system to an existing fractional system based on the rod, chain, furlong, and statute mile. Gunter’s chain was still in use through the late 20th c. when GPS was developing.

Glassie’s note IV:20, p. 198 –” I worked this problem out using scale models rather than formulas, so these measures are conceptually rather than mathematically accurate.”

“The ability to design is intellectually grounded on the geometric repertoire …”
‘verge’ – a stick, representing authority; possibly but not necessarily a measure. the gable edge of a roof. vergeboard > bargeboard.

I’m assuming that New England was surveyed with rod and chain, but not township and range as is de facto here. And, according to my understanding, New England settlement began with religious dissenters who more or less followed 17th c. English patterns of law and land distribution (town meetings, town commons…).

The same Imperial (empirical) measurement system, would have been custom and law in the Tidewater colonies. Virginia belonged to about a hundred powerful families … the Carolinas to the 8 Lords Proprietors; all Royal charters from Stuart kings.
Settlement in the southern colonies prospered post-1688, and conformed with 18th c. Parliamentary laws regarding ownership of land, specifically enclosure, plantations, tenancy, indentures, etc.; with transportation of excess population as means to supply labor (supplemented by chattel slavery of Africans as well as of indigenous peoples). Common ground was about the last thing that plantation aristocracy would have considered.

For a long time, I thought Glassie had simply overlooked the 16 1/2 foot rod as a common and contemporary unit of measure. On p. 24, he considers multiples of 30” and indicates “16-foot rods” as a possible unit of measure, then sort of goes off on a tangent.

Now… I think that he was seeing pieces of the pattern, that there may have been several plausible measuring algorithms based on an arbitrary choice in the length of a stick, half that length, and half again, divided and expanded in multiples of 3. Rules of thumb.

There may also have been deeper cultural templates for each of those systems of numbers; with roots that were not necessarily English, or even European. Ars Triangulum, Ars Quadratum, Golden Section.

Idiom – a mode of expression peculiar to a language.
Axiom – a self-evident truth.

“It was the billions upon billions of side bets … banks securitizing mortgages, hedge funds speculating on mortgage-backed securities … that put far more at risk than the total value of all the sub-prime mortgages.” Jennifer Taub, Other People’s Houses 2014




About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
This entry was posted in architecture, carpentry, traditional building, woodworking. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to vernacular architecture

  1. Bob Lowe says:

    Thanks Michael. I enjoyed reading this.

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