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  • Writer's pictureVinay Kumar Mora

10 examples of vernacular architecture in North India

India is a vast and a complex country with a pluralistic society composed of religious, geographic, ethnic, climatic and linguistic diversity. Its history is full of intense political, temporal and cultural experiences. It is a land of villages but with a long history of urbanization.

Today’s vernacular and traditional Indian architecture, therefore, have multiple manifestations in layered built environments. The isolated hamlets of Goa, the eloquent wooden architecture of Kerala, hill dwellings of Himachal Pradesh, stilt-raised houses of the North-East, the wadas of Maharashtra, pol houses and havelis of Gujarat, and the typological desert architecture of Rajasthan demonstrate the country’s regional diversity.

India can be broadly divided into the geographies that lie to the north and the south of the Tropic of Cancer. Although the Indian geography, culture and social structures differ largely among these two factions, we have been commonly dividing India as North and South India. It is observable that almost everything from the climatic conditions to the resources available are different between these two parts of the country, and therefore the way that people respond to their immediate environment is also very different.

In our previous article we have seen some of the remarkable built examples of vernacular architecture in South India. Keeping the plurality of the Indian sub-continent in mind, we are aware through many facets of society that social and cultural contexts differ vastly between North and South India. In this article we will see some examples of vernacular architecture in North India.


Aaranya Farmstay Resort / d6thD design studio / Sasan Gir, Gujarat

The concern for climate as well as economical and cultural sustainability has been looked at in the last two decades, without which sustainability does not work in the Indian context, or any local context for that matter.

Based on this ideology, “Aaranya”, an agriculture farmstay, is located in rural settings at the edge of Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary, Gujarat. It was designed by Ahmedabad-based design studio d6thD who work with a pointed philosophy of vernacular architecture in their projects. Gujarat being a hot and dry climatic zone, the cottages have been oriented in order to minimise heat gain, and maximize cross ventilation.

The hip-roofing system that is native to this region has been implemented in the cottages to offset rainfall in monsoon and heat in summer. The vegetation that has been planted on several of the resort’s buildings not only helps with climate regulation but when fully grown, will help the building blend into its natural context.

Older construction techniques using rubble stone packed foundation, load bearing exposed natural sandstone walls, brick dome with china mosaic on top and terracotta clay tiled roof are not only cost effective and time tested, but also generate employment for the locals.


Firodiya Center for Inspiration / Studio Advaita / Ahmednagar, Maharashtra

The Firodiya Center for Inspiration sits as an accumulation of vernacular architectural knowledge both technically and chronologically. The project required the creation of an administrative office space & informative gallery for visitors, shielded visually and acoustically from the industrial environment around it.

Based on pragmatic and environmental needs, the architects evolved the form considering the 15-year old geodesic dome housed in the premises. This project aims to create a highly sustainable campus through application of various strategies like reduction of waste generation by recycling produced waste.

90% of the building uses building material and products available locally. There is heightened utilization of natural light using skylights, north lighting and energy-efficient lamps. The outdoor exhibition space is created by staggering walls in a manner that the outdoor gallery can be used throughout the day. Exterior walls are painted in coloured rough texture, blending with the landscape and surrounding. In dramatic contrast, interiors are painted in immaculate white with natural light.

The brown kota stone used for flooring not only provides a quiet dignity to the space but also helps in keeping the floors cool. Low, massive and with varying volumes, the architecture is boldly contemporary but inspired by its context.


Agricultural Training Center / Studio Advaita / Nimblak, Maharashtra

Description: Syngenta Foundation and Snehalaya Organization, an NGO, wanted to build an agricultural training centre in the rural area of Nimblak for small and marginal farmers’ children.

Studio Advaita hence designed this magnificent training center which can be seen as the ultimate vernacular solution for the agricultural community. It was designed to be a space where the younger generation could learn and attend various courses, while also being an information center of agriculture for the nearby villages.

The Center will also be an exhibition space for students’ research. The basic plan derives from local structures in and around Ahmednagar and the building materials are chosen carefully to aid economic and architectural sustainability. Gray and coloured fly ash bricks are used with cavities for heat insulation for the construction of external walls. All internal spaces are having natural indirect light to reduce consumption of electricity.


Kondan Retreat Resort / PMA madhushala / Pune, Maharashtra

The Kondan Retreat Resort sits on a 30-acre ecologically rich property in Pune, Maharashtra. The project seeks to highlight regional identities and traditional wisdom in the face of common global expressions of rigid concrete and glass buildings. The Retreat only occupies about half the property, with the facilities of the resort itself being restricted to less than 20% of the property’s area.

The Resort is informed heavily by traditional architecture due to which the built form was evolved as a series of public and private spaces accommodating activities reminiscent of the city’s history. The client wanted to create livelihood opportunities and stimulate the local economy, which was reflected through the context and the design populated by a scenic landscape and a series of man-made lakes. Much of the building material was sourced from around the site.

Stones extracted from neighbouring water bodies are employed in an array of vernacular techniques that range from dry pack and dressed masonry to composite boulder concrete. Objects such as stone light fittings were sourced from artisans from nearby villages, giving boost to the local craftsmanship.


KOODAARAM Kochi-Muziris Pavilion / Anagram Architects / New Delhi, India

Description: Every Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a pavilion is constructed to host performance and cinematic art at Cabral Yard, a one acre campus in the heart of Fort Kochi. KMB 2018 saw Anagram Architects commissioned to design the Biennale Pavilion.

While the previous Pavilions served mainly as an auditorium for performances, the 2018 Pavilion envisioned a more inclusive programmatic use of space. This included spaces for workshops, lectures, social performances, conferences and book launches, and included two eateries, a children’s art area and an organic waste recycling unit. To occupy the whole site, the pavilion was deconstructed and activated to perform as an island hub for art with the people.

The structure took its inspiration from the local performance tent - or the Koodaram. By using vernacular materials like wood, bamboo and other surface finishes in combination with modern materials like steel sections and glass, the tent explores the possibility of diffusing its opacity and weight while infusing it with light and accessibility. The structures are designed to sit “lightly” on the site.

The pavilion is designed to completely dismantle into components salvageable for reuse, to allow for the site’s rewilding over the coming two years.


St. Andrews Girls Hostel / Zero Energy Design Lab / Gurugram, NCR

Description: The Girls’ Hostel Block at the St. Andrews Institute of Technology and Management in Gurugram explores the intersection of education and sustainability through the lens of the vernacular.

It has taken its cues from the adjacent boys' hostel block and features the same material palette of concrete and brick. The 25,000-square-foot building, which can house 130 students has used hollow concrete blocks in a red brick color to create an interesting facade.

The double-skin façade creates a semi-permeable layer that helps in shading and regulating the temperature between the exterior and interior environments via a controlled airflow. It spans a height of three floors, keeping in mind structural integrity and earthquake resistance, brought to life through an extensive scaffolding and casting process. The internal landscaped court features dense plantation to reduce heat gain through evaporative cooling.

Other materials used in the construction of this hostel block includes concrete in various forms and steel sections for the circulation support systems. The hostel's design empowers students with freedom of movement within an environment that prioritizes thermal comfort and functionality to become an exemplar of zero energy design.


The Lodsi Community Project for Forest Essentials / Morphogenesis / Lodsi, Uttarakhand

Description: The Lodsi Community Project for Forest Essentials is a manufacturing facility nestled among the Himalayas and the Ganges. Forest Essentials’ philosophy enabled Morphogenesis to adapt vernacular construction techniques to create a contemporary facility.

The architects studied the town’s culture and geography, taking inspiration from the indigenous construction techniques like Garhwali ‘kholis’ and the ‘dhajji’ (split floors) technique. The building is oriented along the East-West axis and the central entry divides the facility into two parts. The functions that require a cooler environment are located on the ground floor, whereas the functions with high internal heat gain are located on the upper floor.

Large openable windows in the high volume spaces that take advantage of the prevailing winds for ventilation provide 80% naturally daylit spaces, as well as moderate indoor temperatures.

A central light well eliminates corridors forming a well-lit communal space for the workforce.The building was envisioned to be a net-zero building on energy, water and waste, and repurposed the existing foundation of the older facility. The passive design strategies give a strong architectural expression to the building and create spaces that generate symbiotic relationships.

The material palette of the building also draws heavily from the immediate geography. The use of local materials, techniques, and labor form the ethos of the facility, making it a truly vernacular project.


Mana Ranakpur / Architecture Discipline / Ranakpur, Rajasthan

Description: Traditional Indian architecture is typically associated with ornamental detailing, and more specifically in Rajasthan, the architecture is resonant of the wealth and culture of the region. The design of Mana Ranakpur, a 65,000 sq.ft. resort in Ranakpur, attempts to demonstrate regional expression within a global context while being environmentally conscious.

The plan is derived from the time-honored 9x9 grid and the site was dotted with points that would then go on to become trees. Normalcy is achieved through the grid, and deviations are used to break the order. Water bodies are interspersed through this loop that create the water loop from the building to the ground and temper the climatic controls whilst creating points of interchange.

Being in Seismic Zone 2, a lean, vernacular method of creating structural stability is adopted that allows for the creation of large spans that are well-optimised by the nature of the space. A minimal palette of stone, glass, steel and vinyl that is not distracted by too many surfaces is adopted to craft an architecture that is intense and bare-boned all at the same time. The local and regional forms of expression are explored as vital resources to create an architecture that engages with the future.


Taj Rishikesh Resort & Spa / yh2 + Edifice Consultants Pvt. Ltd / Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Description: The Taj Rishikesh Resort & Spa is a 1,50,000 sq.ft. property located on a vast and steep site overlooking the Ganges River. The project was developed as a collaborative project between Canada-based firm yh2 and Edifice Consultants and followed the traditional vernacular architecture of Rishikesh developed over millennia.

The site layout is inspired by time-honored Himalayan villages, anchored around a Darbargadh, the traditional residence of local rajas or lords and incorporates a main hotel block and a series of villas within. Blurring lines between exterior and interior, structures cascade down the 12.5-acre plot to provide framed river views from different points. The architectural program of the resort includes a reception, restaurant, lounge, bar, boutique, conference hall, guest rooms and a library.

The materials used are local, except for steel replacing cedar wooden beams due to environmental exploitation concerns. River stones form the retaining walls, slate is used in the roofs and flooring and large wooden frames are used for carpentry. Typical Indian decorative geometries characterize the floors and the jalis made of wrought iron frames.

Combined with the architectural, spatial and landscaping sensitivity of the project, which fosters authentic connections to the context, Taj Rishikesh maximises its monumental setting while affording quiet comforts as well.


Krushi Bhawan / Studio Lotus / Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Description: Krushi Bhawan is a facility developed for the Government of Odisha’s Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Empowerment. The 1,30,000 sq.ft. administrative centre accommodates nearly 600 people, in addition to community engagement and learning spaces - inspired by the architecture of Otto Konigsberger.

The Ground floor is a free-flowing public space that opens out into a Plaza, which is an extension of the street, in addition to accommodating a learning centre, a gallery, an auditorium, a library, and training rooms. The rooftop has been designed to house urban farming exhibits. The perforations in the facade help to naturally cool the building. The distinct visual identity of Krushi Bhawan has been derived from regional materials and vernacular narratives, expressed in a manner that is responsive to the local climate.

Contemporary narratives of traditional Odia craft and traditional Ikat fabric have also played a part in the design elements and brickwork. The architects recreated these patterns with bricks using three different colours of clay sourced locally.

Other materials used in the building include locally sourced laterite and khondalitestone. Krushi Bhawan has thus been designed as a space that facilitates a synergy between the state and its people, and stands as a proud contemporary example honouring the core of vernacular architecture.


Beyond sustainability, vernacular architecture sheds light on another fundamental issue today. It represents the cultural identity of a certain ethnic group and becomes a tool for strengthening the bond between the population and its geographic location, fostering a sense of belonging to the space in which they live.

This bond is so important today that there seems to be a tendency towards the fragmentation of the individual as a result of the ongoing transformations of cultural systems. As a result, these structures emerge almost instinctively, but the techniques have improved over time, and are now also highly sophisticated.

If anything is to be taken from vernacular architecture, it provides a vital connection between humans and the environment. It re-establishes us in our particular part of the world and forces us to think in terms of pure survival – architecture before the architect. These structures present a climate-responsive approach to dwelling and are natural and resource conscious solutions to a regional building need. By applying vernacular strategies to modern design, a structure can ideally achieve net zero energy use, and be a wholly self-sufficient building.

The benefits of vernacular architecture have been realized throughout the large part of history, diminished during the modern era, and are now making a return among green architecture and architects. In order to progress in the future of architecture and sustainable building, we must first gain knowledge of the past and employ these strategies as a well-balanced, methodical whole to achieve optimum energy efficiency.

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