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The Makings of a Unique Southern Home: Inspirations in Design and Vernacular

What makes a home? Why do our homes look the way they look and function the way they function?

Beyond the families that inhabit them and the memories they create, a home is more than a mere, organized collection of wood, metal, glass and tile. It is a way to express something. The problem is that we aren’t often aware of the why behind what we choose – and that can restrict us from finding a true purpose of design instead of merely copying what others have done, without any real reason other than to have what they have.

When designing and building my family’s home, I chose to explore and seek the intent of southern vernacular. In architecture, vernacular is basically the way that someone solves a problem – that of providing shelter, guided by a series of conventions built up in a specific locality – without outside influences and with an eye to function without a strong focus on aesthetic considerations.

In other words, how do we, in the south, solve the problem of shelter that works above all else if we were left to our own devices and were not influenced by what others have done hundreds of miles away decades ago?

To answer that question and provide some guidance for my own home, I did what we typically do here at bDot Architecture: I traveled.

Taking Less-Traveled Roads for Inspiration

I believe a lot of what constitutes our regional vernacular exists in the rural architectural landscape of central Alabama. In this area, off the well-beaten path and away from the expected, status-quo ways of traditional architecture, I sought to look for the whimsical and unexpected.

Throughout the journey, it became evident that vernacular does not accept predetermined ideas, borrowed thoughts, or mimicking form but is instead rooted in process, in construction, and in function.

In other words, people in rural central Alabama have little to borrow from when it comes to how a home should look and function. Instead of living in a suburban neighborhood in which every home looks, more or less, like every other home, those in the elusive back roads in our state have to focus on what works – which is the sole determining factor for how a home should be.

The process of building a home, then, is directed not by the pursuit of a grand architectural form or the replication of “polite” design (that doesn’t offend neighbors but placates them by becoming just like them), but by local, easily-manipulated materials meeting the functional needs of the inhabitants.

Perhaps some of this stems from distance. After all, your neighbor may be a mile down the road instead of a few feet. Perhaps some of this still lingers from the sense of proud isolation that rural Southerners constructed for themselves over the past two hundred years.

At any rate, what many of these homes have in common is a certain trait that is often desired, but seldom realized: uniqueness

Building a Home from What Was Observed

The home that we sought to construct was pulled from these observations and thoughts, using these explorations to wash away preconceived ideas and tendencies (which is often a huge hang-up in design). I did not want to simply copy a home or style found in the myriad of books and publications we have access to in this information age that look “southern”.

The vernacular of this region, of central Alabama – the way people create shelter without being told how to do it – was the blueprint of sorts for my home. You can see these influences in how the wood, metal and stone in the home work together; how the materials used in the home are at home themselves within the surrounding environment.

The porch on the exterior is reminiscent of those that you’ll see while driving through the rural South – porches that were built by necessity to cool a home and provide a shaded place for informal social gatherings and gossip.

The corrugated metal on the exterior in this image should be familiar to those who grew up here: it is the surface of the mobile home, of the tool shed, of the country store on a dirt road. Simple to assemble and supremely functional.

In these photos, there are two particular features that speak prominently to inspiration from our region. The plywood “trees” hanging from the ceiling in the living room is a part of a path of discovery in our home that interprets the wooded landscape so prevalent in our area of the country. Upon passing through the metal-clad entrance, one finds the trees, flanking a modern cast-iron stove, functioning as those used in our region with the help of a hinged “win-door” as we call it, baffling the amount of heat that is allowed into the second floor.

Understanding vernacular and creating a home from its inspirations is not only possible, but something that occurs every day. It may just be something that necessitates a trip away from the city in order to see it in its natural element.

Think about the why of your home and its look, feel, layout, and makeup. What does your home say – and what journey was taken in order to make it what it is today?

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