How can you achieve the look and feel that only comes with the passing of many years if you choose to build a vernacular style house from scratch? Only the patina of time and later additions and alterations will provide the organic feel possessed by old vernacular properties — you are in some ways attempting the impossible. However, there are certain things you can do to achieve a vernacular style home, and material choice and design go a long way in giving a new home an aged aesthetic.
One of the first is avoiding, where possible, the use of the wrong materials. The use of brick, for example, should respect the local surroundings. If you are building in the south avoid using smooth, dark bricks common to the Midlands. Likewise stone cladding should resemble that used in old stone houses in the area.
Generally, traditional materials will weather faster and produce more interesting finishes. The best example of this is render. If you intend to use render, use lime. It keeps the elements out just as well as cement, it is more pliable than cement and – most important of all – it’s what would have been used traditionally in the past.
Another means of achieving the vernacular style is to use reclaimed materials that lend the aesthetic of age. Be careful here. Few self builders creating a vernacular style house would either wish or be able to use exclusively reclaimed materials on the exterior. The challenge is to use a combination of new and reclaimed materials tastefully to produce the effect you desire.
Many self builders wish and need to build rapidly, but with a new cottage there is always the danger that the build schedule will allow far too little time for the hunt for materials that look consistent with local vernacular properties. In addition, some natural materials require time to install. Take lime again — it’s not a material to be used hastily. Unlike Portland cement it never really sets hard. It certainly shouldn’t be used externally during heavy frost, so your schedule needs to reflect this.
So there are areas of conflict here and there will be an element of compromise. After all, few people nowadays could reasonably be expected to build using aggregates obtained a few hundred yards away, and lime obtained locally and slaked outside the back-door-to-be. When writers state that all vernacular buildings were built using entirely local materials they usually fail to mention 19th century properties were roofed in slate that came from Wales and the glass used for the windows was probably brought in from some distance away.
There is usually some level of ‘fakery’ too when it comes to construction. Modern standards of comfort achieved by cavity walls or perhaps a system such as SIPs (structural insulated panels) will make this inevitable — not to mention complying with Building Regulations.
Vernacular Style Design
Handmade roof tiles, an oak framed porch, timber weatherboarding and lime render all help give instant antiquity to this oak frame cottage.
If you want a house that has the look and feel of a traditional cottage and that truly respects the character of the local surroundings, then you won’t automatically be able to enjoy all the benefits of modern living (i.e. there’s no place for expansive glazing in a cottage style home, particularly not on the front elevation). That is not to say all this is impossible. The key lies in the design — and in having someone to mastermind the project who understands precisely what you are trying to achieve. If it is to look authentic your home should, within a few years of completion, look as if it has always been there. Quite a challenge!
Most people want maximum size, but this is often not consistent with the style and proportions of a traditional cottage. The key thing about cottage style is that to be in any way authentic the building must be narrow, otherwise it will reach a height that is out of proportion with the genre. The classic example is room widths. Most historic cottages are one-room deep, simply because of the problem of span. Few builders of these traditional homes were able to put their hands on a beam that would span a room more than around 18 feet.
This won’t suit all self builders — and ultimately some will be more at home in houses rather than cottages. Some also often want height (and room height) that’s inconsistent with the traditional one-and-a-half storey design.
Most historic cottages have evolved however. More often than not they have had wings added — and this could be a means of gaining additional space. If you therefore adopt a design that has several joined sections, all slightly different, and all with traditional roof pitches of say, 48-55°, and also stick to traditional proportions, the house will begin to look ‘right’.
One thing that is apparent from all this is that such attention to detail is perhaps going to cost more than a more conventional new build. The reasons for this are pretty obvious — more design input, more work by hand, more roof, less standardisation, and (hopefully) more searching for interesting ‘traditional’ materials.
In addition, you will have to pay much attention to the myriad of traditional details such as roof pitch, window and door openings, and overhangs and verges. These will stand out a mile if they are not just right. Details such as this do not necessarily cost a great deal more, but it is perfectly true that the devil is in the detail. It is the cumulative effect of all these details that makes all the difference.