The shotgun house is so named because it was said that if you opened all the doors and fired a shotgun in the front door the pellets would fly out the back door without leaving a trace. Today, it provides a model for green building design in hot-humid climate zones.
Vernacular architecture scholars include the shotgun house as one of the primary house types found in America. It is one of the significant contributions of African-Americans to our country’s material culture. Like jazz, it developed as a synthesis of black and white cultures.
. . . black folk architecture in the United States remains, for the most part, a hidden heritage. . . . the denial of this architectural contribution has much to do with the fact that African and European folk housing is similar in several basic ways. . . Only rigorous histories of particular times and places can reveal the specific traditions or the degree of cultural synthesis that occurred. (Vlach 43)
Although the efforts of Afro-American carpenters have blended anonymously into the regional landscape of the South, one building type stands out – the shotgun house. This house is one room wide, one story tall and several rooms deep and has its primary entrance in the gable end. (Vlach 43).
American shotgun houses drive from the fusion of distinct ethnic architectural components: a Caribbean Indian building shape, European colonial framing techniques, and African-inspired proxemics codes, in the United States they should be understood as a contribution of the free people of color from Haiti. Thus, the roots of Afro-American architecture are to be found not only in mother Africa but also in the Caribbean. (Vlach 43-45).
Shotgun houses are found throughout the South, typically in historically black neighborhoods. This building type responds well to the regional hot-humid climate, allowing effective cross ventilation through its one room width. The thin width also allows construction on narrow, low cost lots, enhancing affordability. These traits make it a model for green design.
A number of cities have restored shotgun houses as part of neighborhood revitalization plans. This can create affordable, green housing while preserving the city’s cultural heritage.
Many shotgun houses are endangered by demolition. If viewed as an asset, these can be restored and increase availability of green affordable housing in the community, while saving a cultural resource.
Vlach, John Michael. “Afro-Americans,” America’s Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups that Built America, Dell Upton Ed. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1986.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013