Mihaela Ionela Suciu

Rarely beautiful, but deeply satisfying:

The contested self-build rural vernacular homes of Romania

Figure 1.  Changing window frame preferences of locals, from double tall and narrow windows that the wind whistled through at times, to single long ones, triple glazed, that do not even open.

Figure 2. Collage of homes from two neighbouring villages situated in the area of enquiry depicting the diversity of built form.

Figure 3. The first case study home, is seen from the nearby bridge, as a small river passes next to it. Alike many other villages, this one developed around this source of fresh water.

Figure 4. View from within the third case study home. The neighbouring homes are framed by the unusually long window.

[1]  Alike the homes in most Romanian villages.
[2]  “Ordinul Arhitectilor din Romania”, the Romanian Architects’ Order

“The resultant building, although rarely beautiful, is often deeply satisfying to the homeowner and a source of great pride. ” Samuel (2008, p.8)

The quote above is composed of one seemingly factual statement, “rarely beautiful”, regarding self-build homes, contrasted by Samuel (2008) against the statement the homeowners have expressed to her regarding how they value their own self-build home extensions. This divide in assessing self-build homes has prompted me to question the epistemic grounding and relation of the two views corresponding to professionally distinct actors.

One way to describe post-modernism is as “the erosion of the boundaries between high culture and popular culture” (Kleiner, 2012), a boundary steadily protected by modernists. European Post-Modernist architecture grew from the context and enacted “abstractions of the regional vernacular” (Historic England, 2017), but how often when we read the word architecture do we think of something that was not designed by an architect?

The dominating self-build homes of the Romanian countryside1 were deemed “inadequate” by OAR2, the Romanian equivalent of the RIBA, according to the architecture guide for fitting within the local specificity of the rural environment (2018). For the passerby, they do not match the remaining old homes, which in contrast to the new ones, share a lot of formal and structural characteristics between themselves, depending on the region. The older homes displayed a consistent typology that evoked feelings of order and balance. The homes built recently, however, do not fall under a cohesive formal typology but rather vary in form, materiality, and other physical aspects, thus creating an inconsistent visual landscape, which some, often outsiders of the rural, find to be disturbing and indicative of bad taste. Contrary to this, locals suggest that they are very pleased with what each of them has managed to build.

Considering the intangible heritage attached to rural Romanian homes, this dissertation aims to build an expanded notion of vernacular Romanian architecture and how rural homes are assessed, by revealing how locals and architects position themselves in relation to these countryside homes and each other, consequently reconfiguring our conceptualisation of these “inadequate” homes.

Three case studies were drawn through site visits and interviews with the self-build homeowners, in order to map out how these “inadequate” homes were built in the absence of an architect. Focusing on the Gurghiu Valley, of the historic region of Transylvania, the dissertation follows how shifts in accessibility to building and architectural knowledge steer the shape, function, and materiality of rural homes away from those of traditional designs. Simultaneously, one old building practice was upheld: using easily accessible, low-cost materials, accompanied by the readily available and inexpensive knowledge required to build using those materials. The common denominator of rural homes old and new resides precisely in the involvement of the homeowners, be it in the construction stage, the design stage, or both, rendering this experience deeply satisfying for them, and fostering a life-long care towards the home. This is a consistent part of the intangible heritage of the rural vernacular, while the tangible heritage takes various shapes, materialities, and functions across the culturally diverse and fast-changing rural landscape of the past one hundred years.

OAR’s guide has been used to win law cases against outlandish residential home projects that ignored the local climate and context and is now on a path to becoming part of the legislation itself. However, when applied to the realities of rural inhabitants, the “adequate” models proposed by the guide demand building knowledge and budgets out of reach for many of the locals. To meet the energy performance, materiality, and specific formal features of the “adequate” models, the complexity of the resulting home exceeds the knowledge currently used by locals, so both the design and the building knowledge would need to be outsourced from experts of the built environment, reducing the home owners’ personal contribution to their own home, the one still living intangible heritage of these rural homes. This challenges whether these “adequate” models themselves fit within the local specificity, as they do not meet the one criteria all homes, old or new, deemed beautiful or not by architects, manage to meet: being self-built, with readily available materials and ideas.


Historic England. (2017). Post-Modern Architecture: Introductions to Heritage Assets. Accessed on March 2nd 2023 at HistoricEngland.org.uk/listing/selection-criteria/listing-selection/ihas-buildings/
Kleiner, Fred S. (2012). Gardner's Art Through the Ages.
Ordinul Arhitectilor din Romania. (2018). GHID DE ARHITECTURĂ pentru încadrarea în specificul local din mediul rural ZONA MONOR, VALEA GURGHIULUI ȘI DEFILEUL MUREȘULUI SUPERIOR, pp. 1-23
Samuel, F. (2008). Suburban Self Build, Field, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 111-124.