Irish Vernacular

Irish Vernacular

Dominic Stevens, an Irish architect, built a house for just €25,000.  He’s a proponent of what he calls the Irish Vernacular, a DIY, back-to-the-basics take on architecture in which decent housing is recovered as a product that resourceful individuals can create through self help and cooperation. Stevens’ is a small house, but it looks like a good deal for the price. (Although, I think I’d go for a more traditional visual effect.) The cost doesn’t include the land, but the footprint is modest. From his web page:

The model that we have become used [to] now places the house as a way of driving the economy – we build houses as a method of making money not in order to house people well. The vernacular tradition produces houses in another fashion, here people build their own house, not with help from the bank, rather with the help of their neighbours. The by-product of house production is an interdependent community, instead of lifelong debt to the bank.

The web page also includes instructions about how to build such a house. My favorite:


It’s interesting how much this concept overlaps with those that drove both the limited-equity (LE) co-op model from New York City in the mid-20th century, and also the prototypical Garden City model that (as noted before) the NYC LE framework so closely resembled. The difference here is that the cooperation proposed here is more organic, and personal, and therefore lacks the formalizing legal framework of the more ambitious co-ops of the past. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be made to work between less-intimate acquaintances with the introduction of certain contractual and property-rights assurances. The BBC also interviewed Stevens as part of a video report on alternative housing frameworks throughout Europe, including land-free boat housing that people have set up in the waterways around Amsterdam, and co-housing-type arrangements in both the youth punk scene and among upper-middle-class professionals in Berlin.

It’s also interesting how much this concept overlaps with the traditional American housing patterns of the 19th century. One thing I’ve learned from watching the Civil War lectures lately is just how much the Free Soil-Free Labor ethos in the Northern states was driven by the idea that — in the absence of slavery and its devaluing effect on labor — the vast expanse of the American continent provided an almost endless set of opportunities for anyone who was willing to work. In that concept, one can see the roots of various interpretations of the American Dream. But to appreciate the original democracy of its promise, in a time long before the New Deal or Levittown, one must also acknowledge that this dream would not be financed by banks or limited by zoning boards or designed by architects and planners with elite credentials. Instead, the small towns and urban neighborhoods along the westward-moving frontier grew because they offered a chance to combine free (or very cheap) building land with abundant, life-sustaining resources (farmland, timber, stone, etc.) and sweat equity — and enough individuals had the building skills to make it work.

A certain amount of this is not so long gone. My mother once told me that when she was growing up in upstate New York, in the 1950s, the men who lived on her block — all World War II veterans — worked together on building projects, taking turns to finish attics into livable spaces, and paving all of the driveways on the block. By the time I was growing up, the only house-skill that most boys seemed expected to learn was lawn mowing. Still, you figure things out. There’s a pretty interesting book called Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture that covers some of these concepts through a diverse collection of writings on folk architecture. I looked at it in the Rutgers bookstore last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it more thoroughly because it seemed to shed some light on the context that allowed for the variety and individuality of structures that characterized American building patterns pretty much down to the Great Depression. When one considers how banks and lawyers have managed to turn simple housing into both a major expense, and a key component of an increasingly calcified economic landscape, one can’t help but recognize the inherent power that exists in frameworks that would allow individuals to recover their housing options on more autonomous terms. And imagine the benefit to the economy as a whole if all of the rent-dollars and interest-dollars were redirected to more productive ends. There are a lot of interesting ideas beginning to bubble up. Stevens definitely has one of them.