SOM Prize: Adventures in the Vernacular

2010 SOM Prize for Architecture, Design, and Urban Design
Adventures in the Vernacular: Investigative Observations of Residential Climate Mediation

Marilyn Moedinger traveled to countries on four continents to address the global challenge of climate change and identify cost-effective strategies for climate mitigation to add to the canon of contemporary, affordable design methods, and materials. Her research topic is a direct outgrowth of her experience managing the “ecoMOD” House, a design/build/evaluate project at the University of Virginia School of Architecture during her undergraduate studies, her work experiences doing emergency home repair in the coalfields region of West Virginia, and her master’s thesis work on rural affordable housing in Appalachia.

Research, it seems to me, is a sort of trajectory, or more precisely, a meander with a purpose. “Trajectory” implies a known path, those dreaded equations from physics class that provide an explanation, but for me, merely cloud the issue I understand in pictures and observation and instinct.

It is with this mix of planned path and discovered trajectories that I set out on my SOM Foundation travels, along the 103° E, 75° W lines of longitude. The use of the longitudinal line is obviously, and unapologetically, arbitrary. But the link between these sites is not: each presents a rich heritage of colonizing cultures—from the British in Jamaica or Australia to the Russians in Mongolia and the Chinese in Vietnam. All of these places have a large stock of extant vernacular architecture, as well—ideal places to investigate my essential questions:

What happens when people from one climate arrive in another one and begin to adjust their architecture? What do they keep of their own architectural traditions? What do they sacrifice to a desire for climatic comfort? How do they learn from the architecture they encounter? How is this learning manifest in the built environment, at every scale? Most simply: What is the tipping point between climate and culture, as evidenced in the vernacular built environment?

These questions, and their attendant investigations, frame space making in every culture and at every scale—and seem to be the questions some designers have forgotten how to ask, because, perhaps, of a false sense of mastery over these questions. We think we are above these questions, that we can afford to talk about form before [or in place of] site and climate responsiveness, and our architecture suffers because of it. Whether siting a building according to the sun’s position in the cosmos or in relation to a good shade tree, vernacular builders’ sensitivity to, and nuanced interaction with, these considerations of climate and place yield fascinating variations on familiar types, as well as robust urban forms. Combine that with overlays of various cultural building traditions, and the answers to those questions become even more interesting….”

See more, including a preview of Marilyn’s book >>>

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