A New Architectural Vernacular

Historically, house plans were guided by a handful of traditional archetypes. Today, more contemporary features – such as an open floor plan – may take top billing, but understanding the Island’s architectural heritage can help in designing a new structure at ease in its surroundings.

The following essay, a survey of architectural traditions in coastal New England, is adapted from Heirlooms to Live In: Homes in a New Regional Vernacular by Hutker Architects (Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers, 2010). The book showcases twenty-five properties designed by Mark Hutker and his firm on the Vineyard and Cape Cod, including those pictured here in color.

Design desks at architectural firms are often scattered with images and objects from building sites: lichen from the north side of an oak tree; quahaug or scallop shells whose insides have wonderful mixes of lavender, ochre, or sunset colors; bayberry branches; glass jars of sand; or dried beach grass. When we introduce these native elements into our homes, we feel our house – and even ourselves – blends in with the nature that surrounds us. That deep sense of a house being part of the land evokes strong emotional bonds.

For at least three thousand years, people have lived on Martha’s Vineyard. The Island’s Wampanoags often built round houses eight to ten feet tall with sleeping platforms inside. Easy to construct from available materials, these houses were sturdy and large enough to be comfortable. Strong, flexible sassafras poles formed the arches. Hoops from birch or alder saplings held the arches together. The frame was covered by lashing together sheets of bark for the sides or mats woven from reeds for the dome. Fishing, hunting, and gardening tools would be left outside by the door. Spare building materials for repairs would be stacked nearby.

Since Europeans first arrived on these shores four centuries ago, at least seven other distinct types of structures have appeared here. Collectively, all these building traditions define the architectural vernacular of southern and coastal New England. These styles include, in chronological order of their development: the agrarian style, originating in our region after 1600; the colonial style, which emerged between 1600 and 1700; the cape style, which evolved after 1700; the Greek revival style, popular from 1820 to 1860; the Victorian style, which established itself widely in the period from 1860 to 1890; the shingle style, which followed closely between 1880 and 1900; and the bungalow form, established from 1890 to 1940.

Prior to the twentieth century, every home was custom built. People planned and constructed homes by following traditional patterns – such as a central hearth or gable roof – and tailored the home’s dimensions to meet the needs and budget of a specific owner. Each home was slightly different from the next as a result of decisions the owner made about craft and material. Yet whether colonial or Greek revival, Victorian or shingle, the primary plan of a traditional vernacular home is most often based on small, separate rooms dedicated to single uses.

Family life today calls for space that is both more open in floor plan and more flexible in accommodating multiple uses. We should challenge the wisdom of starting the design process solely with the traditional typologies of specific-use rooms, drawing on the best of these existing traditions with their quality of material and craft. We need more thought put into design as a process; we need a new regional vernacular.

Early on, clients often explain, “I want the home to fit in.” Their first impulse is to begin with something familiar that they can name as a style, whether cape, shingle, or agrarian. Begin by not standing out. If we understand the community within which the home will be located, we can better identify the visual language that the home should speak.

No residence should be larger, either in actual square feet or in visual impact, than essential for the uses intended. Clients often start a design process with a quantity of square feet or number of rooms in mind. As a starting point, choosing quality of space over sheer quantity requires great restraint. The program of how spaces will be used – including the main living areas, master suite, and indoor-outdoor interactions – should give form to the house, not vice versa.

Architects today can borrow freely from traditional styles. For example, individual gable roofs for different spaces of a house can achieve a silhouette reminiscent of the past agrarian and cape forms so common to the region. Naturally occurring colors help a house recede into the natural landscape. Incorporating work by the region’s painters, stained-glass and sea-glass artists, woodworkers, driftwood furniture makers, glass blowers, fabric designers, weather-vane makers, metal smiths, and many more artisans can also add a strong sense of place.

As the ecological footprint of new homes must shrink, so too must the attendant and often hidden costs of their construction or demolition. Can we learn to design durable buildings that we want to preserve rather than replace? Given the embodied energy costs of the materials in a home, the longer each home can serve, the more stable the nation’s housing stock will become. Can we design homes that will be as efficient as possible to maintain and operate? This distinction is the difference between a never-ending cycle of trading up versus trading into. Trading into a community requires an exchange of ideas, forms, and values between the living community and the arriving structure.

In short, learn the local dialect. Fit into the landscape first by not standing out. Smaller volumes of higher quality will stand the test of time.

The evolution of architectural styles


The early agrarian buildings of New England’s European settlers are first and foremost about survival. Farm families cobbled together these structures with minimal materials harvested directly from the land upon which they were built. Stones dug up while plowing became foundations. The framing and trim of these houses, sheds, and barns came from nearby stands of pine and oak, maple, and other hardwoods. The framing relied on mortise-and-tenon joints, because metal for fasteners or brackets was scarce and expensive as an imported luxury. Barn boards with battens, clapboards, and shingles were shaped from pine or cedar, often still clad in bark. Few, if any, surfaces were painted. Low maintenance was a requirement. Basic building forms such as gables and shed roofs offered both easy construction and effective protection. The agrarian buildings contained only those elements with a distinct and vital purpose. They offer little “art for art’s sake.” These simple shapes blend into the rural landscape of our fields, farmyards, and paddocks, and continue to be built today.

Colonial and cape

The colonial and cape styles grew out of a similar no-nonsense approach to shelter. The traditional cape is a one- to one-and-a-half- story home, almost square in plan, with a low roof and gable ends perpendicular to the front façade. The colonial archetype often has a second floor and is usually wider than it is deep. In both capes and colonials, modestly sized rooms gather around a central stone or brick fireplace core. The rooms have low ceilings, both to minimize the amount of wood needed for framing and to keep the he at closer to the inhabitants. Each room has a specific function and is closed off from one another by interior doors to cut down on drafts. Windows are spaced in a simple balance: a single window in the center of a wall, or two apertures set even distances from the edges of a longer wall. On the ext erior, working shutters fend off bad weather, adding the only functional, and yet aesthetic, embellishment to thefaçade. Simple trim boards case the windows, doors, and corners of the house. The best-dressed colonials and capes have painted clapboard siding on the front face and unpainted shingles on the other, less-public sides. Painted surfaces, when present, are limited to the trim boards and clapboards. Both colonial and cape architecture use basic gable forms, such as the saltbox, whose simplicity and essential restraint are beautiful in their own right.

Greek revival

As the nation and its economy evolved, the architectural styles began to communicate the owner’s projected values – and wealth – to the community. The columns, plinths, and fascias of the temples and grand buildings of ancient Hellenic city-states lent their grandeur to the Greek revival style. Americans repeated such details with painted wood in homes, places of worship, and civic structures. The white-painted columns, porticoes, articulated apertures, and cornices of Greek revival architecture are handsome, if beyond necessary. These homes have a beauty all their own and are often found as a collection defining the historic districts of many New England communities. The entire front façade of a Greek revival building is almost always painted white, perhaps reminiscent of stone. The interior spaces remain largely single-use rooms leading from one to another in sequence.


By the latter half of the nineteenth century in the Victorian era, the architectural language of embellishment became even more elaborate in multi-story homes with centrally organized spaces and external ornamentation. Exterior details became more expressive in both shape and color. Exuberant greens, purples, reds, and blues replaced the whites or muted neutral tones. The cottage style also evolved as a variation of the Victorian, in which very elaborate external trim details adorned even smaller-scale homes. The cottage style often called for rounded wooden dowels, posts, and braces, or elaborately cut trim rakes that often served to help a modest home seem visually larger than it really was. Brightly painted trim is common on the exterior and interior to call attention to the adornment. Victorian-style homes require keen craftsmanship plus continuous maintenance of exterior surfaces.


As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the shingle style evolved as an expression of easy summer living in our region. Typically located on large waterfront lots, the new homes did not need to speak the language of the center of town, as a Greek revival or Victorian might. As multiple-story homes, often with many gables and a wide stance, the interior spaces of these shingle-style homes focused more broadly on the views. Their summer porches extended the living spaces toward the landscape, a fundamental change in the sociology of the house. Common shingle forms include gables, hips, turrets, dormers, and sheds – often mixed together on a single home. We sense more freedom in these homes as they articulate the interior spaces outwardly to the exterior elevations and views. This expression includes cedar shingle detailing of the new shapes and combined forms that extended from the foundation walls up to the roof.


In the first half of the twentieth century, the bungalow style emerged to offer families a low-slung home in which broad front porches faced the streets for outdoor living. Bungalow interiors typically offered modest open floor plans for the living and dining room areas, with the bedrooms and a kitchen often assigned rear locations, cut off from the front and from each other. The bungalow style offers clear demarcations between the open, more public and the inward, more private spaces.