The Digital Divide: Can Technology Support Vernacular Architecture?

The Digital Divide: Can Technology Support Vernacular Architecture? is p

The architecture and construction industry has undergone a transformation with the integration of various digital tools, now indispensable to the design process. The welcoming of technologies has effectively streamlined operations, enhanced efficiency, and elevated design quality. This digital shift, however, has resulted in a digital divide that goes beyond accessibility to tools and software. It also encompasses the crucial aspect of integrating traditional and indigenous communities into the urban development landscape. Can advancing technology support the growth of vernacular architecture? Can indigenous building practices find a place in the vision for a digitalized future?

An industry traditionally slow to adopt technology has been revolutionized primarily with the introduction of computer-aided design (CAD) software. Digital tools have enabled architects to create more precise, efficient, and sophisticated structures, opening doors to new avenues in construction.  While large construction companies leverage advanced technologies like drones, 3D printing, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to enhance project management and efficiency, there is a glaring digital divide. This divide leaves indigenous construction practices and vernacular techniques lagging behind in the march toward a digital future.

The Digital Divide: Can Technology Support Vernacular Architecture? - Image 4 of 6

Bangladesh DESI. Image © Anna Heringer

Tools such as RevitAutoCAD, and Rhino have greatly facilitated digital architectural design and visualization. These tools, however, are tailored for the construction of modern buildings using industrialized materials, rendering them less conducive to the unique material compositions crucial for indigenous construction, like clay, grass, rice husk, and earth. Numerous communities worldwide rely on self-sufficiency in building and expanding their structures, making them vulnerable to the digital gap. Changing building regulations and the lack of access to digital tools force them to depend on external consultants for their design and construction needs. The challenge lies in the complex endeavor of harmonizing traditional vernacular construction with modern technology.

Locally sourced, eco-friendly materials are fundamental to vernacular architecture, but they often fall outside the purview of Building Information Modeling (BIM) due to its standardized material database. Vernacular construction relies on unconventional, region-specific materials not readily available in BIM libraries, requiring custom entries and specialized knowledge for inclusion. The informal, non-standardized nature of vernacular construction knowledge further challenges BIM, which thrives on data-driven precision. To support vernacular architecture, tools need to evolve to become more inclusive, providing user-friendly options for material integration. Consequently, construction projects in rural regions may find digital tools ill-suited to their needs, potentially estranging vernacular expertise in an increasingly digital world.

The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Image © Ruud Zwart

Putucos: pre-Columbian houses made with a mixture of earth and grass. Image © Nicolás Valencia

Analyzing structures constructed through indigenous and vernacular techniques using digital structural analysis tools presents challenges. These methods frequently involve non-traditional materials and construction techniques that do not easily align with standardized digital modeling and analysis software. The intricate, context-specific nature of many indigenous structures resists simple digital representation, complicating the creation of precise models. The absence of formal architectural plans and reliance on local knowledge, often not comprehensively documented, further obstructs the effective application of digital structural analysis.

Vernacular constructions offer significant environmental benefits, including energy efficiency, passive heating and cooling, and the use of local materials. Traditional practices reduce carbon emissions, enhance indoor air quality, and utilize efficient thermal mass properties. Conventional rating systems like LEED may not accurately gauge the eco-friendly aspects of vernacular architecture, as it is designed for industrialized construction methods. Integrating vernacular structures into these frameworks demands adaptation and innovation in digital analysis.

An Inuit village, Oopungnewing. Image via Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux: Being the Narrative of an Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin in the Years 1860, 1861, and 1862 by Charles Francis Hall (1865)

A careful blend of tradition and modernity can have a significant impact in terms of sustainability. Vernacular construction harnesses available resources to not only create structures rooted in their context but also minimize the ecological impact of the construction. To bridge the digital divide, preserving traditional craftsmanship while integrating digital technology is essential. Initiatives like 3D-printed adobe structures and passive strategy analysis have emerged, emphasizing digital construction while safeguarding cultural identities. Bridging this gap necessitates a participatory approach and local expertise. Architects should engage with communities, integrating their wisdom into digital processes to enrich design and preserve vernacular knowledge.

Local construction in the Philippines . Image © SJ

The digitization of indigenous construction methods is essential to foster inclusivity in a shared vision of the future, preventing the alienation of local communities from the evolving built landscape. Democratizing technology ensures that everyone plays a part in shaping this future, resulting in regionally tailored design and construction. Acknowledging the architectural industry’s impact and avoiding exacerbating the digital divide is crucial. Digital tools should empower people to design according to their needs rather than conforming to tool limitations. For Indigenous nations, technology can offer a path to exercise sovereignty and celebrate their unique cultural identities.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Decarbonize Architecture presented by Holcim.


Driven by its purpose to build progress for people and the planet, Holcim is decarbonizing building, while improving living standards for all. Holcim empowers architects and developers across all regions to build sustainably. This series explores how cities of the future can be low-carbon, circular and resilient.