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Vernacular architecture is the non-verbal language through which cultures express a shared heritage in patterns of construction of their shelter. It is a term used by the academic architectural culture to categorize structures built by non-academically trained builders. Although modernity should not be cause for exclusion, true vernacular is most apparent in the third world where indigenous populations produce their own shelter based on traditions of using locally available materials. The definition can include a wide variety of structures, though domestic and agricultural buildings are the most common. Another distinguishing feature of vernacular architecture is that design and construction are often done simultaneously, onsite, with non-manmade materials. Also, some of those who eventually use the building are involved in its construction, or at least have direct input in its form. Vernacular building shapes, construction techniques, and other characteristics are often generated from centuries-old local patterns. These patterns continually change and accumulate building craft while perpetuating cultural norms. Vernacular buildings have been praised by many for their sophisticated adaptation to the environment and user's needs.

While academic architecture has tended toward a narrow range of styles and forms historicaly accepted and requested by a wealthy minority of human beings, vernacular architecture shows a variation equal to the requirements and imagination of all shelter producing life forms on the planet. Vernacular architecture is the most common form of construction in the built environment, and comprises the majority of human architecture, as academic schools of architecture are a relatively new invention. Even today architects are involved in only a small percentage of built structures.

Once seen as obsolete, vernacular architecture is now the subject of serious academic study, and is increasingly considered a potential component of sustainable development for its quality of adaptation to the local environment. An early work was Bernard Rudofsky's 1964 book Architecture Without Architects|Architecture Without Architects: a short introduction to non-pedigreed architecture, based on his MoMA exhibition. The book was a revolutionary reminder of the legitimacy and "hard-won knowledge" inherent in vernacular buildings, from Polish salt-caves to gigantic Syrian water wheels to Moroccan desert fortresses, and was considered iconoclastic at the time. The most comprehensive work is the "Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World" published in 1997 by Paul Oliver of the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development. Oliver has argued that vernacular architecture will be necessary in the future to "ensure sustainability in both cultural and economic terms beyond the short term." Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language, attempted to identify adaptive features of traditional architecture that apply across cultures. Howard Davis's book The Culture of Building details the culture that enabled several vernacular traditions.

Some extend the term to include any architecture outside the academic mainstream. The term "commercial vernacular", popularized in the late 1960s by the publication of Robert Venturi's "Learning from Las Vegas", refers to 20th century American suburban tract and commercial architecture. Unlike traditional vernacular, however, the design and construction of these types of buildings is remote from their eventual users, and does not represent long cultural traditions; those who study traditional vernacular architecture hold that these characteristics define a more useful and fundamental partition of architecture into vernacular and non-vernacular, rather than whether or not a kind of architecture is accepted within academia.

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