Track 1: Decline vs. Revival: Tempering the Impulse to Tear Down and Start Over

General Abstract

Unlocking the Technical Mysteries of the Vernacular; Understanding high-performing traditional vernacular building systems and details

Tuesday, September 25
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: BNCC- 101AH

Why do certain highly evolved vernacular building forms, components, systems, and details look the way they do, how can we better understand why they have worked well and proven reliable and durable for decades or centuries, and what can we learn from them today to further the state of the art of both preservation and architectural design?

In long-standing, time–tested vernacular building forms, particularly those in harsh climates, the practical consideration of creating shelter that used the readily available local materials, and that performed in the given climate was paramount. In vernacular architecture these practical considerations were overriding, and typically did not yield to stylistic predispositions or preconceptions (as they often did in high-style architecture), thus making the vernacular a particularly rich laboratory to study, explore, and seek to understand the often profound technical logic and lessons that are embodied in these traditional, often deceptively simple, construction details and systems. Occasionally, their underlying logic is readily apparent, but more often, the logic is not obvious, and highly evolved technical details are mistaken for mere stylistic preferences or local construction traditions.

The highly evolved vernacular forms and details of an English half-timbered, wattle and daub jettied building, the form and foundation details of an Alpine chalet, the passive cooling system of an antebellum Louisiana plantation house, the roof eave of an ancient Roman villa, the walls of an early New England ice house, or the form and articulation of the tower of an austere medieval Italian church, and countless other vernacular forms are like Darwin’s finches and the Galapagos tortoises in that have each evolved to be particularly well-suited to survival in their particular environment.

In this presentation, the author provides a detailed exegesis of over a half dozen common but seldom understood vernacular building details that could be, and often are mistaken for merely stylistic, or merely local building traditions, however, each is a very high-performing technical detail. By better understanding how these details and systems actually work, attendees will not only better understand how to maintain and preserve them, but they will also sharpen their eye toward better understanding and deciphering the hidden logic of other traditional vernacular details not presented that they may encounter in their own work. By better understanding and conveying to others the fascinating hidden technical logic of how these traditional vernacular details, systems, and buildings work remarkably well, attendees will be better able to temper the impulse of others to proclaim these buildings dysfunctional or obsolete, and thereby temper the impulse of others to tear down these buildings and start over.

Learning Objectives:

Matthew Bronski, P.E.

Simpson Gumpertz & Heger

Matthew Bronski, P.E., is a Principal at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. (SGH), where he has practiced for the past 23 years in SGH’s Building Technology Group. He is SGH’s Practice Leader for Preservation Technology across all seven SGH offices nationwide. Matthew has led SGH’s exterior rehabilitation design or assessment projects on numerous highly significant buildings, including buildings designed by HH Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, & Louis Kahn. He has published over a dozen papers, on topics ranging from preservation philosophy and standards, to the evaluation of specific historic building materials, such as slate, clay tile, concrete and Vitrolite. He has served as a guest lecturer or guest critic at numerous universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Yale. He holds an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Tulane University, and masters degrees in architecture and historic preservation, both from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, he became only the second engineer in 113 years to receive the prestigious Rome Prize, which he received in the field of Historic Preservation and Conservation.


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Sue Ann Pemberton, FAIA

Assistant Professor in Practice
University of Texas at San Antonio

Sue Ann Pemberton, FAIA, has straddled between private practice and academia for more than thirty years. She holds a Master of Architecture Degree and Bachelor of Environmental Design from Texas A&M University. Her focus of practice, study, and teaching includes design, materials research and technology, inner city development, and historic preservation of buildings, neighborhoods and communities. Sue Ann leads the Historic American Building Survey program in the College of Architecture, Construction and Planning at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


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Unlocking the Technical Mysteries of the Vernacular; Understanding high-performing traditional vernacular building systems and details

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