Every region and culture has it’s own architectural traditions. Building methods, shapes and forms evolved over centuries to deal with climate to create beauty and comfort. There is no one traditional style of architecture. It is infinitely varied, reflecting the history and cultural conditions of each place and each era.

Traditional architecture goes beyond just being a style, or a collection of historic styles; it shows how societies interact with their natural environments, shaped over time by history. A closer examination reveals its lasting importance and the deep wisdom it carries, guiding the designs we build today.

The study of traditional architecture is fundamental to our practice of Wellness Architecture. Learning from centuries of trial and experimentation helps determine appropriate building types, massing and proportions, and details that provide lasting beauty.

What is Traditional Architecture?

Traditional architecture is design influenced by a region’s cultural heritage, using local materials, techniques, and forms passed down through generations. It embodies the adaptation of architecture to specific climatic, environmental, and social conditions, resulting in buildings that are inherently sustainable and rooted in the community’s identity. Traditional architectural forms vary widely across the globe, from Japan’s timber-framed houses to the American Southwest’s adobe constructions, each harmoniously responding to its unique environment.
It is important to acknowledge that we consider architecture to be a ‘Living Tradition,’ as coined by architect and ‘Original Green’ and ‘Living Traditions’ author, Steve Mouzon. In his book ‘Living Traditions: Architecture of the Bahamas,’ he explains:

‘Living Traditions are the best methods ever developed for spreading wisdom across a culture, and they emulate the process of life itself…
Living traditions work in much the same way [as the human genetic code.] There may be a lot of wisdom bound up in a particular pattern of architecture or urbanism, but it is not necessary to understand all that wisdom in order to spread the pattern. If that wisdom is contained within a physical form that we love, it can spread like wildfire across a region without anyone needing to know anything about the wind speeds, sun angles, or other good ideas contained in the patterns.’

Here’s how it works:
For most of human history, traditions were spread orally, without drawings or writings, sometimes with songs, other times with poems or often simply stories. And the heartbeat of a Living Tradition is four simple words: ‘we do this because…’ If every pattern in a language of urbanism or architecture is put in these terms, everyone is allowed to think again, and the tradition can be spread broadly. Living Traditions are the original crowd-sourcing.’

This means that to design traditional architecture is not to copy old architecture—although a ‘period’ building can turn out wonderfully when designed and executed with skill and craft. At its core, traditional architecture can be any type or style that sets out to learn from the history of the area, the culture and to build an appropriate building that applies this knowledge. It reflects the lifestyle and values of the people it serves. It is characterized by a deep respect for craftsmanship, with construction methods showcasing local artisans’ skill and knowledge.

Traditional architecture is the acceptance that the way things were done were done for a reason, whether or not we need to be able to explain it: A roof pitch breaks a certain way because it sheds water better, or holds snow better; a window is build a certain way because it holds up to changes from heat to cold; a building is proportioned a certain way because it just feels better, and we relate at a human level to its scale.

Key Elements of Traditional Architecture

Traditional architecture, characterized by its variety and cultural importance, is supported by fundamental elements that establish its core identity and practicality. While these elements vary across different cultures and regions, they share common themes that reflect the adaptation of architecture to its environment and the heritage of its people.
Here are some fundamental elements to consider when designing traditional architecture:

  • Use of Local Materials: Traditional buildings look and perform best when built from traditional, locally available materials. Historically, some materials would have been transported from afar. Roman marble might have been quarried and shipped to Egypt or France, for example. But generally, logistics and economics dictated the use of local resources. Following this same theory today allows you to apply time tested wisdom of using these materials to get the best performance to handle your climate. Your building will perform better and have a more authentic feel.
  • Use of Authentic Materials: Real, naturally sourced, authentic materials look and perform better. Ie. Actual stone instead of artificial stone.
    Climatic Adaptation: Design features in traditional architecture frequently respond to the local climate. See the above quote regarding living traditions: ‘We do this because…’ This means that design decisions were, and still should be, made for proven, time-tested reasons. Elements like thick walls, courtyards, prominent eaves, and verandas are employed to manage heat, light, and airflow, creating comfortable living spaces with less need for modern technology. Building forms, roof types and massing can be written off as vernacular ‘style’, but in all likelihood were done because they simply worked better.
  • Cultural Symbolism: Architectural details and motifs in traditional buildings often carry cultural or religious significance, reflecting the community’s beliefs, values, and identity. These can include specific roof shapes, carvings, and spatial arrangements. These details also contribute to Biophilic Design, adding richness that contributes to your overall wellbeing.
  • Craftsmanship and Detailing: Traditional architecture showcases the skill and artistry of local artisans, focusing on craftsmanship and detailed work specific to each culture and region. Many of these details are considered as ‘ornamental’ by modern thinkers. In fact they are not frivolous, but help us better understand and connect to our space through symbolism, play with shadow and scale, give a sense of awe and wonder, and, overall, can make a space come alive.
  • Sustainability: Using local materials and passive design principles inherently supports sustainable practices. Buildings designed with time-tested methods of dealing with heat, cold, rain, snow and sun tend to perform better naturally, need less mechanical input.
    Any traditional style is loaded with wisdom, built into it’s ‘genetic code.’ Studying and applying the lessons from these buildings will connect you to centuries of experience and experimentation, allowing your design to contribute the the ongoing ‘Living Tradition’.

What are Vernacular and Classical Architecture?

Traditional architecture covers the spectrum between vernacular architecture—simple domestic and functional architecture—and a culture’s Classical architecture—civic and institutional architecture by master builders and craftspeople. Vernacular architecture is casual. Classical architecture is formal. Vernacular architecture includes cottages, barns and basic rural churches. Classical architecture includes temples, cathedrals, government buildings, libraries, and so on. Vernacular architecture embodies practical solutions, satisfying basic needs. Classical architecture is designed to inspire awe, order, reverence.

Every culture has architectural traditions that cover this breadth. Classical architecture would have been based on the vernacular forms and patterns, but elevated, made formal. Details from innovations made by architects and builders of high-profile classical projects would influence vernacular architecture. This process, repeated over centuries, created a rich and layered history, embedded with deep wisdom.

It is valuable to study all buildings on the spectrum between vernacular and classical architecture to learn how buildings of all types dealt with materials, scale, changing uses, and the elements.

It is important to determine where your project fits on this spectrum. An overly formal building might look out of place in a rural or village setting, while a casual, vernacular building might not work as a key civic building at the termination of an important vista.

Traditional Architecture vs Modern Architecture

It is hard to discuss traditional architecture without comparing it to modern architecture. As discussed earlier, all architecture is part of a living tradition, except for architecture that deliberately tries to ignore or defy traditions.

This was one of the original tenets of what is termed ‘Modern architecture.’ It is a style whose primary focus was to break from tradition. It wanted to be ‘new’. In order to be ‘new’ it had to reject the old. This came about because of an enthusiasm for changes brought about by the Technological Revolution, the horrors of the First World War and political ideologies popularized at that time.

There have been valuable contributions to the ‘living tradition’ of architecture by these attempts to innovate and ‘break the rules.’ There have been many beautiful modern building that have caused us to consider how we enjoy our spaces. But a philosophy that prioritizes ‘originality’ as the primary criteria, rather than ‘quality’ has inevitable issues. First off, thinking that every building needs to be entirely new and different from anything that has come before it is a shallow errand. Second, discarding thousands of years of design and construction wisdom resulted in buildings that didn’t hold up, or quickly looked ‘dated.’ Ignoring local culture, character and embracing mass production in search of an ‘International’ or universal style has had largely detrimental effects on our cities, neighborhoods and our culture of buildings.

It is worth mentioning that much of what is considered to be ‘modern’ architecture designed today is based on the modern ‘style’ that is now over 100 years old. This style has developed it’s own set of patterns and it’s own ‘Living Tradition’ of sorts. Following the quest for ‘newness’ and ‘originality’ that pervades architectural theory and the architectural education system, subsequent styles were developed and continue to be. Examples are Deconstructivism, Brutalism, Post-Modernism, and so on. Some are better than others, but all are subject to the same issues and the original modernists, putting ‘newness’ over quality, and ideas over people.

Traditional architecture, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in history and culture, emphasizing local materials, environmental adaptation, and community-oriented spaces. It is characterized by its integration with the landscape, and creating a strong sense of place. Traditional designs reflect the customs, climate, and craftsmanship unique to their locations, offering solutions refined through generations.

In a sense, all architecture that embraces these values is ‘traditional’, no matter the style, and it becomes part of our living tradition.

Traditional Building vs Modern Construction

Another way of looking at the difference between traditional architecture and modern architecture is to look at how it is constructed. In this categorization, traditional architecture is architecture where the walls are the structural support for the building. The walls hold up the roof, carry the load down to the foundation, and give the building shear or racking strength to resist winds and other lateral pressure. Windows and doors are then ‘punched’ into the walls.

Modern architecture separates the structure from the walls by using a system of interior columns to hold up the floor plates and the roof. This makes it possible to have entire walls of glass, and the roofs can appears as floating planes. Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion from 1929 is one of the first and best examples of this revolutionary thinking. This style lends itself to low, sprawling structures, with open, undivided living space, or glassy office buildings.

Again, there is merit to any of these techniques, but it is important to recognize the differences and deploy them appropriately in your design. Trying to make a traditionally constructed building, with structural walls and punched windows look modern by making it boxy and giving it a flat roof tends to look off; like something isn’t right. Trying to build a traditional style using column grids and a curtain wall is basically impossible. Hybrid designs can be done, but the ‘modern’ elements are best considered with modern techniques, and the traditional elements are designed to be built with traditional methods.


Some might consider traditional architecture to be old and stuffy, without realizing that it embodies the wisdom of generations. It is an ongoing evolution, reflecting a profound connection to our culture, the local climate, and its surrounding community. It offers invaluable insights into sustainable living and preserving cultural heritage through built forms. As we design, it is important to place ourselves within the context of architecture’s ‘living tradition’. Seeing ourselves as contributors to a broad and ongoing history gives meaning and purpose to our work, and answers our questions as to why we design, and why we build.

To return to the words of Steve Mouzon:
‘A dead tradition is a book of rules. Anit-tradition is a book or prohibitions. A Living Tradition is a dance.’