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.