Research proposal

Eco-Modernism, Vernacular Architecture and Cultural Change:

How can we learn from local traditional building methods to design culturally sensitive, climatically suitable buildings for the modern world?

Link to full proposal (including case study introductions)

Above is the title for a masters dissertation I am proposing, which will allow me to explore an area, first brought to my attention while studying Part 2 at Oxford Brookes University. It is a subject area of great interest to me and one that has particular relevance to architectural practice today. In order to carry out this research, I am hoping to take 6 months unpaid leave starting October/November 2010. I am planning to partially fund the research by working on organic farms and helping with eco-building projects in return for board and lodging. I am also applying for outside funding. Following this research period, I will write up my masters with some tutoring from Oxford Brookes University.

There has been considerable research into traditional buildings throughout the world - mostly from an anthropological viewpoint but some also with additional architectural perspectives - notably Paul Oliver, Hassan Fathy, Amos Rapponport and Gideon Golany. But there is very little research into how these building methods could be applied to modern day sustainable design.

In his dissertation:
‘Energy Efficiency and Sustainability in Vernacular Architecture of Iran: Traditional Design. Construction Methods and Passive Strategies’ Ahmadreza Foruzanmehr discusses vernacular traditions in Iran that are inherently sustainable and very well suited to the local climate. The problem is that today, many in Iran prefer to live in apartment blocks which suit a more modern, less family oriented lifestyle but do not suit the local climate. This represents an international issue.

There is a tendency to idealize the vernacular and contrast it with modern building (Vellinga 2005). I hope to avoid
this and to refer to genuine examples of contemporary building that have considered issues of climate, culture and environment, in the same way that vernacular architecture has done for many years. Predominantly I will be asking;

How can we translate vernacular methods of building into modern design, as a positive reaction to cultural change, but one that also retains the climatic benefits of traditional buildings?

With the government setting legislation for all buildings to be zero carbon in 2016, there has never been a more important time to gain more knowledge in this area. I am very wary that this will cause a rush of ‘quick fix’ methods with a technology bias that will be built en mass and could create widespread problems, with little regard for the user.

There are already several examples in the UK of zero or near zero carbon housing, and a useful starting point is the BRE innovation park. However, some post occupancy testing of the Sigma house at the park suggests that there are issues with usability and there is a big difference between predicted carbon emissions and actual emissions once people live in the building (Stevenson, Rijal, 2009).

I hope to apply my research findings to a very real issue in the western world of mass produced housing. As Mark
Parsons wrote ‘the contemporary housing estate built as a cell unrelated to its surrounds’ (Parsons,1998). So how can we address this, and prevent the ecohouse movement from becoming a global paintbrush of eco-modernism and instead re-interpret our identity and the future of housing in the UK and worldwide.

There is a great opportunity here for architects to take the lead. There is heavy emphasis in new legislation on relying on mechanical and electrical design to reduce carbon emissions. Architects have a potentially huge role to play in understanding the user, cultural issues, good passive design and respect for the local surroundings. Research such as I am proposing is vital to ensure that architecture and good design is at the forefront of this ‘new wave’.


I plan to locate key examples of low impact contemporary design worldwide that use passive techniques inherited from vernacular architecture to create a building that meets the needs of a modern day user. It is important that the design represents a cultural and/or user identity, that knowledge gained from the study of vernacular design is obvious and used to good effect. But it must not represent traditional design for purely nostalgic or aesthetic reasons. Very importantly, it should suit a modern day lifestyle. Case studies I will be visiting are listed on these pages.