Re-Generation Architecture

The Scale of Small: Reviving the Shotgun House

The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet wide (about 3.6 meters), characteristically with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War, through to the 1920s.

The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet wide (about 3.6 meters), characteristically with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War, through to the 1920s. The style is often associated to New Orleans; however, such typology has spread as far away as Chicago, Illinois; Key West, Florida; and California. Originally, this architectural structure was as popular with the middle class as it was with the poor, but by the mid-20th century, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty.

Today, opinion regarding the Shotgun House remains mixed; some houses are being demolished due to urban renewal, while others are beneficiaries of historic preservation and gentrification. Settled in such assertion, this paper aims to juxtapose the legacy of the “Shotgun” Style House, the question of residential size, and the attempts to revive, within a contemporary design approach, this architectural style. Can such typology be an answer for the extreme demand of housing?

Los Angels, CA

Most of us were very likely raised in vernacular homes. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the world’s architecture is vernacular, only five to ten per cent having been designed by architects. We may say that Vernacular architecture, as a concept is not a very revolutionary one. To many, it is associated with primitive architecture, indigenous architecture, anonymous architecture; folk, popular, rural, or traditional architecture; architecture without architects; or even, “non-pedigree” architecture. [1] These terms make vernacular architecture seem exclusive to the realm of the exotic and the distant.[2]

Bracket style shotgun | detail

Until fairly recently, most critics have classified vernacular architecture as the antithesis of what they characterize “elite” or “academic” architecture. Vernacular architecture refers to structures made by empirical builders, without the intervention of the professional architect. Although the interest in the vernacular has just grown in relatively recent times, it actually dates back to 1839, when the expression vernacular architecture was used for the first time in England. After that, and for more than a hundred years, vernacular buildings were more objects of ethnographic curiosity than of architectural concern. Architects have become interested in bringing the vernacular to the theory of architecture by the 1950s. By the end of the 1960’s, studies began to emphasize less on the aesthetics of vernacular types and concentrate on the environmental, technological, and social contexts in which they were built. Today, we see a trend, if not an obsession, to implement vernacular technological solutions. Local vernacular types make use of natural ventilation solutions, centred on elements as simple as proportion, dimensions and shape; in other words, based on pure design.[3] Studies demonstrate that when socio-environmental and economic conditions press for alternatives, the vernacular becomes a central concept in architectural theory and practice.

Shotgun house in Savannah

The detached house is the most common of all vernacular buildings in the United States. They were built in all shapes and styles, on open homestead land, on narrow railroad lots, on boulevards and crowded city streets; as speculation houses or as commissions. They were constructed from almost every kind of manufactured construction material produced. These houses also reflect a wide range of socioeconomic factors and numerous responses to climate conditions. Amongst the enriching wide palette of housing types, an extremely simplistic structure has made its way to being recognized as one of the most important African architectural legacy and influential component in the history of the United States of America. I am obviously referring to the shotgun house.

The shotgun house is, moreover, a central building type in the development of an Afro-American architecture.[4] Built as inexpensive worker housing in several sections of the country; the shotgun house type has had an interesting social as well as design history.

Plan of a shotgun house

John Vlach argues in his book, by the work of their hands, that in the development of the shotgun house we find an Afro-American artifact that has been adopted by Whites and effectively incorporated into popular building practices. The shotgun design is a gable-roofed home with all rooms in a line from front to back. To get to the kitchen in the back, you would walk from front porch through the living room, then the dining room, then a bedroom, then into the kitchen. If one opened all the doors and fired a shotgun through the front door, the shot would exit through the back door without hitting anything, or so the story goes. Varieties include the double shotgun, which is a duplex, and the camelback, which has a second story over the back half of the house. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War, through to the 1920s. The shotgun house plays a role in the folklore and culture of the south. Superstition holds that ghosts and spirits are attracted to shotgun houses because they may pass straight through them and that some houses were built with doors intentionally misaligned to deter these spirits.[5] They also often serve as a convenient symbol of life in the south. The style is often associated to New Orleans, and it was as popular with the middle class as it was with the poor, but by the mid-20th century, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty. Today, opinion regarding the Shotgun House remains mixed; some houses are being demolished due to urban renewal, while others are beneficiaries of historic preservation and gentrification.

Colourful photographic collage of New Orleans shotguns

More than the idea of ‘fixing up shotgun houses’, and the effect of historic preservation in action, this paper aims to juxtapose the legacy of the “Shotgun” style house, the question of residential size, and the attempts to revive, this architectural type.


[1] Arboleda, Gabriel, What is Vernacular Architecture? PhD Program in Architecture – College of Environmental Design – University of California at Berkeley, 2003-2009
[2] ibiden
[3] Arboleda, Gabriel, What is Vernacular Architecture? PhD Program in Architecture – College of Environmental Design – University of California at Berkeley, 2003-2009
[4] Vlach, John M., By the work of their hands, p.185
[5] Holl, Steven. Rural and Urban House Types in North America, Princeton Architectural Press (1990) p.34–39

The Scale of Small: Reviving the Shotgun House