Southern vernacular housing

On a recent trip to rural Virginia, I was particularly struck by the beautiful simplicity of a few of the typical vernacular housing types. I am not talking about the Georgian-red-brick-with-white-trim nor the more contemporary vernacular of manufactured housing. The simple, white-painted wood framed and sided houses of rural Virginia are so simple and straight-forward that they end up being a bold, clear statement in the lush green landscape.

What I saw consisted largely of two types: two-story, single-room deep houses with or without porches and gable-broken front eaves; and, one-story, four room hip roofed houses with integral porches. Both demonstrate the best aspects of vernacular housing – a continuity of building type and building and material technology, and environmental responsiveness.

It is hot and humid in rural Virginia. In the pre-air conditioned South, establishing and maintaining cross ventilation was paramount. The two-story, flat front houses are usually one-room deep allowing for each room to have front and back windows. A central stair and hall is commonly found running right down the middle of the building maximizing the amount of usable space vs. circulation. Most of these houses sport some amount of front porch, shading lower windows as well as providing for an exterior room to escape the heat of the house.

There are two variants of this type: the flat-front and the gable-front. The flat front houses are as simple as they come, most likely balloon-framed right up to the eave, windows stacked over windows. The gable-fronted versions have a small sense of grandeur lent by the partial gable that marks the center of the house and the location of the front door. This is technically a gable, but as it does not serve an attic space nor even a sloping ceiling in the central stair hall, it is really more of a sign of entry and mark of house-proud.

The other common housing type is the hip-roofed, single-story house that completely encompasses a porch under the form of the hip roof. The porch here is not an after-thought but a real extension of the space of the house to create an outdoor room. Again, this shelters front-facing windows from the sun, provides a shady, outdoor room and establishes a site of social interaction. These houses will sometimes have a kind of low-ceilinged second floor, but most often that little front dormer is used to pull the heat of the house up into the roof and out.

Both of these housing types are of course white – the cheapest paint available but also the best at reflecting the heat of the sun. Except for clearly defined porches, they do not have large overhangs to shade windows. This lack of deep eaves may be a response to the lack of available electric lighting at the period of construction. Deep overhangs protect from direct sunlight but also create deeply shadowed interiors, that along with Southern dampness, would make for long, dank winter days.

I love these houses. They are so simple and frank. They stand up from the landscape, not afraid of being a house, a mark of occupation and maybe even civilization. They are not at all ranches – they don’t ramble or flap large wings, they don’t shirk away from their “house-ness”. And of course like all vernacular buildings, they are not trying too hard for your attention. They are a part of their culture, their society. They are not screaming for recognition or uniqueness or even their owner’s desires. First and foremost, they are of a place.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher

I am sitting in my office in a rare cloudy and rainy day in Boulder.  The flat, whiteness of the cloudy sky reminds me of miserable drippy days in Chicago, cold, damp walks to the subway in Boston and strangely enough, the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Most any architect coming of age in the 1980’s and 90’s is familiar with the stark and beautiful black and white photographs of industrial architecture taken by the Bechers over many decades.  Their frank and almost shadowless images were a revelation, depicting working landscapes and the functional beauty of structures made without affectations.  As an architect I am still fascinated by these images and their books sit on my bookshelf directly across from my drawing desk.  Although these images are of heavy industry and its buildings, they are a far cry from the aesthetic-driven “industrial” look of the late 1980’s with its exposed fasteners, fakey diamond-plate steel, and tricked-out handrails, stairs, and especially furniture.  The Becher’s images are often quite soft, of curving forms and the gentle weathering of time and delayed maintenance.

What is also so notable in these photographs is the blank whiteness of the skies in almost every image.  It makes these industrial, mechanistic objects placeless and timeless, not located on a world with a sun or human beings, not really participants in the world of humans but as the remnants of man’s desires.  Or, the sun is maybe blocked out by the processes and products created by these dreadful and beautiful machines.

Cherryvale Road, Boulder, Colorado

some colors and textures of simple buildings located along rural Cherryvale Road in Boulder, Colorado between Marshall Road and South Boulder Road.  Above, asphalt shingles above rubble sandstone wall.

corrugated metal roofing above red painted clapboard siding (red paint was often used on utility buildings and occasionally rural schools because it was the cheapest to make.  The idea that different colors cost different amounts is quite foreign now.)

rusted corrugated metal roofing above rough formed concrete

composite shingles painted white and green

corrugated metal roofing over raw pine siding

rusted corrugated metal roofing over rough cut stone, heavily parged

Colorado vernacular – log structures

In the wooded mountains, so full of tall, straight pines, making buildings of logs was a simple and clear decision.  In Colorado, these log buildings take a variety of forms and there is not so much a vernacular style of a building morphology as there is the use of logs as a building material.  The variety of building types, forms and sizes of log buildings is striking, ranging from the simple, traditional cabins to large barns and even the prototypical lodge building.

traditional eastern cabin style
log barn outside of Pinecliff, Colorado

As a quick survey can demonstrate, there is not a single, clear log-style that encompasses the use of the raw logs.  The logs can be squared and chinked, more like eastern U.S. cabins or simply stacked, masonry style.  Most interesting may be the vertical log buildings, sometimes rendered in whole logs, more often in half-logs.

The vast majority of log buildings in the Front Range are not what has come to be known as “log” or “lodge” style, although a few notable examples of this can be found.  What is clear is that people’s vision of what a mountain home might be has been kidnapped by this “lodge” style and more contemporary versions can be found throughout the mountains.  These log homes are often kit homes, shipped into the state from Canada or the Northwest.  Or, most commonly they are conventionally framed lumber houses with log siding as evidenced by the building’s corners clearly demonstrating the relative thinness of the siding.

the real thing, Meeker Lodge in Meeker, Colorado

Some strange, romantic notion of the mountain lodge, conjured up by Yellowstone Lodge, has captured the imagination of many newcomers to the Rocky Mountains.  These “lodge” style homes are not really part of the log vernacular in Colorado but seem to satisfy the desire for a woodsy lodge fantasy that can be seen polluting the mountainsides of Vail and increasingly of the rest of the Front Range.  It has not yet reached the epidemic proportions as can be seen in places like Big Sky, Montana or Sun Valley, Idaho, but there seems to be no end to desire to live out some Ralph Lauren sanitized version of the mountain ranch cowboy lifestyle that these log-itecture homes inspire.

the real - Allenspark Lodge, Allenspark, Colorado
the not-so-real - contemporary "lodge" style, in Boulder, Colorado

Most often logs are now used as an accent, as beams or trusses, to fill out the stylistic requirements of a simple gabled contemporary lodge style house.  It would be intriguing to see someone use logs in their traditional sense, as an essentially stacked masonry unit, in a disjunctive take on this version of Colorado vernacular.

Colorado vernacular – stone

Much of Colorado’s early settlement was by Easterners eager for the riches of silver and gold.  The layers of sandstone and granite that had to be excavated and removed were impediments first and building materials second.  Maybe as the first miners realized that sitting through another Rocky Mountain winter in a leaky, fire-prone log cabin was upon them, the stone was stacked and masonry, Colorado-style, was invented.

Most of these early masonry buildings have only the brute material in common with traditional Western masonry techniques and forms practiced in the late 19th century.  These early Colorado miner buildings were dry-stacked, often without mortar at all, and utilized heavy timber for the spanning lintels over doors and windows.

What is most striking is the random collection of stone used to make walls.  The stones themselves were not selected or trimmed for stacking in neat, or even stable, rows or courses.  Rather the walls are rubble-style, combining large pieces placed upon each other and smaller stones inserted to fill gaps.

Later buildings incorporate cut stone or brick lintels, sills and details.  And even later, the massive stones are cut to consistently orthagonal forms allowing for long horizontal bedding planes and consistent coursing.

These early stone buildings are not so much a vernacular that relates to a formal stylistic set of conventions, but rather simple, utilitarian buildings made of local materials.  The forms of the buildings vary widely from tiny miners huts to larger storage sheds and more later to finely crafted houses and commercial buildings.  The rough stone, not self-consciously “rusticated”, but used forthrightly and simply, marks these stone buildings and indicates a desire for a more permanent use of the land, a recognition of occupation, stable and permanent.

Colorado vernacular – mountain Victorians

I’m not really sure if it qualifies as a vernacular building type, but because so much of Colorado was settled from the East at the height of the use of the Victorian style in architecture, there are many older buildings of this type throughout the Front Range and western mountains.  These buildings are so ubiquitous that they are often referenced implicitly and explicitly by new developments all over the state as the only architectural style of traditional building.

What is known here as “mountain Victorian” is not the painted-lady style of high-Victorian residential design you see in San Francisco or even the overly fussy, carpenter gothic style Victorians in my native Kentucky.  The style here was simplified, maybe because of the lack of skilled craftsmen or the paucity of building materials.  However, even though the Colorado version may be “simplified”, these buildings are some of the most ebullient and expressive construction to be found.

Like most Victorian era residential buildings they are not so tightly constrained by a series of rules of style as they are designed to be picturesque.  What is common among most of these buildings, predominantly houses, is the multi-colored paint schemes and variety of siding types.

And of course, all of these mountain Victorian houses display the strongly vertical proportion of both windows and building elements.  Their often complicated roofs freely combine gables, hips and mansards.

What makes these buildings such a difficult fit for Colorado is the relatively small eaves and roof overhangs do not come close to shading the tall windows from the onslaught of the sun.  To their credit, very many of the buildings have white painted wood siding and do not have significant heat gain on their vertical surfaces.

Like so many examples of architectural imperialism, the imported style has little or nothing to do with local building traditions or conditions.  However, over time, and by force of numbers, these mountain Victorians have become a part of the high country landscape and the most copied and bastardized form of vernacular architecture of the region.

Colorado vernacular – mining buildings

Let’s generally define vernacular architecture as that construction that uses locally available materials and building traditions to address site specific needs.  It is not necessarily distinct from a larger architectural culture, but typically its concerns are more local and utilitarian and most importantly it is informed by historical, local knowledge.  I am not an architectural historian or scholar, but as a Colorado architect, these simple structures are particularly interesting in their formal and material properties.

north of Blackhawk

Mining buildings were some of the first permanent structures built in Colorado by non-Native Americans.  Typically these were initially wood structures – cabins, sheds, mine heads and supports.  Over time and with the availability of other materials, most significantly rugged and durable steel panels, there developed a more refined typology of building types unique to each of the extraction, assay and processing methods of mineral extraction.  These were very basic utilitarian buildings and their forms derived primarily from the minimal enclosure required for the process in demand.  I can’t tell you about the necessity that drove the forms of these buildings, only that as artifacts on the landscape, these buildings and especially their dark maroon/black metal panels have a striking presence, severe, mysterious and enigmatic.

above Central City

These metal clad mining buildings are almost always simple sheds with layered flat or corrugated steel siding.  The interior structure is typically lumber framed for the smaller buildings, steel beams and trusses for the larger (and probably more recent) buildings.

south of Central City

Many of these buildings are these large sheds, sloping down with the typography, a kind of artificial hillside as the men inside tear out the natural landscape within.

With the passage of time these panels have variably worn and wrinkled and their now variable layers lend a kind of abstract softness to otherwise rugged and severe building forms.

One can only imagine what these buildings must have looked like with newly installed panels, shining in the high, thin alpine air and stark sunshine of Colorado’s high country.

These panels with their ability to span larger framing bays, greatly reduced the labor required to build, maintain and modify buildings.  Obviously their cost must have made their use preferable over conventional wood siding.

To be clear, these buildings derive from the same mechanistic view of the land that can be seen in massive piles of mining slag surrounding them and the arsenic poisoned creeks that flow below.  So while their forms may be intriguing and mysterious, they may represent some of the very worse and most environmentally destructive processes that mankind can summon.

Sitting now in often high, isolated gulches they are nonetheless striking and fascinating.