If you are going to build a new cottage in the manner of times past, you will incur the scorn of the cognoscenti if you produce nothing more than a bad fake. Indeed, you will probably be damned in their eyes if you do it at all. The whole business invokes a great deal of pseudo philosophy, ethical heart searching and general derision for the innumerable bad precedents to be seen on every hand. However, the entire history of architecture is shot through with pastiche, imitation and disguise and there’s nothing wrong with continuing this tradition.
Methods and styles of cottage construction have scarcely varied for at least two hundred years and those whose life is spent looking at old buildings may find the greatest difficulty in assessing whether some abandoned hovel was started in 1735 or 1835. Building traditions were passed from father to son, materials came from local sources and were worked in much the same ways. The present day argument put forward by many experts is that a building should include the materials and technology of our own period. When it comes to plumbing, electricity, damp-proofing and a host of other practicalities, that will always be so. The Building Regulations alone will see to it. All the same, personal taste and freedom should not be over ridden by other peoples prejudices, unless the proposals are gross in the context of landscape and unneighbourly when seen in conjunction with other buildings close by.
All this leads back to the notion that a cottage which claims to be, in what planners often refer to as the traditional local style, must be created with a thorough knowledge of what the style embodies. The average planning committee member will have no idea whether the four-pane Victorian sash windows in a stone terrace are original and, because so many cottages have them, will totally fail to spot the one authentic twelve-pane sash that has survived.
If you are constructing a new cottage that is meant to look like an old one, it is necessary to pay the most meticulous attention to detail. The first principle is to establish exactly what the overall scale and volume of the cottage must be. Too often, designers fail to realise that you cannot just seize upon a cob and thatch example down the lane and enlarge the concept like a photographic print. It may well dawn upon you that what you want is not a cottage but a substantial villa or a rambling farmhouse. If you crave big rooms for entertaining, numerous bathrooms and a billiards room then the size and style of what you are doing must be totally adjusted. Try something like an early Victorian rectory.
A cottage should look as though it has grown out of the ground. Normally, it will have low rooms, open-joisted ceilings, ledged and boarded doors, flag-stoned floors, small windows and at least one big open hearth. The staircase is likely to be quite narrow and winding, defying the Building Control Officers essential demands. How to get that staircase to look the way it should and still meet the regulations is where the skill lies. Anyone devising a new cottage would do well to plan the layout of ground floor rooms in such a way that the stairs, the kitchen and the laundry/cloakroom can be approached without going through rooms which are in use.
Depending upon the locality, e.g. Herefordshire with timber-framed cottages or Gloucestershire with stone; Buckinghamshire and its brick and flint or Devonshires cob and thatch, the local scene will be central to your design. If you are building in a stone area, it is no good forming cavity walls with a stone-facing and blocks inside, if you don’t take account of the overall thickness required to provide deep interior splays at openings. In Cornwall, for instance, the average wall thickness is 560-610mm. A concrete block cavity wall is 250mm. A modern cavity wall with a stone facing might be hardly any thicker, depending on what stone is being used for the outer skin. The only answer is to make the inner leaf of the wall from much thicker blockwork or to form false splays and jambs at openings where the thickness can be seen, filling recesses with shelves or cupboards. Walls without openings can be thin.
The cost of traditional walling materials will vary considerably; rubble stone may be salvaged cheaply but finely jointed ashlar could prove very costly. Timber framing requires a great deal of oak in substantial sections and this, in turn, involves labour-intensive carpentry to form endless mortice and tenon joists, scarfings, halvings and housings. Timber framing with slate, tile or board cladding is fairly easy to construct but the cladding itself may be very expensive. Brick and flint is a specialist study. Where to get all those flints? How to knap them? Cob is perfectly feasible if you are prepared to dig a clay pit, mix in chopped straw and get around the Building Regs, but its use does have complications. See Gordon T Pearson’s Conservation of Clay and Chalk Buildings (Donhead Publishing).
The most effective and easiest cottage to build is one with brick walls. Bricks are readily available. Some of the best new ones are of good colour and texture. Old bricks or bland new ones may be painted or, better still, lime-washed. This disguises the visual harshness. It also means you don’t need to be so clever with your pointing. Brick pointing for this kind of exercise should normally be flush, flat and about a couple of millimetres back from the arrises. There is no space here to deal with the intricate subject of pointing suffice to say that lime mortars should be used and as little cement as possible.
Remember that openings need discernable support, so brick cambered arches, timber lintels, stone voussoirs and stone lintels will be the rule. Avoid, at all times, the horrid soldier arch of upright bricks which sits on a concealed steel section and looks as though it is about to collapse. Exposed timber lintels must be projected enough to take account of any external plastering. Nothing looks worse than a lintel sunk back in a sea of plaster. This may also be said of timber framing and the plastered infill panels.
The next external element to think about is the roof. To some extent the pitch will be governed by the covering material. Thatch and heavy stone tiles will be steeply pitched (in most localities), while large, thin slates in even courses can be laid to quite a shallow pitch. Clay tiles may also require a steep roof structure but all will be governed by local custom and the period at which you are aiming. One point to remember is the method of forming the juncture between two slopes of a hipped roof. All too often, people march rows of ugly red hip tiles down a slate roof, when the more subtle and frequently more authentic method is to mitre the slates together over lead soakers.
It is essential that you know whether the local custom was to reduce the margin of the courses as you work up towards the ridge. Are slates or tiles wet-bedded in lime mortar, hooked onto laths with pegs or nailed to battens? At an early stage of the operation, you must know if your design is to include trimming, like wavy Victorian barge boards, and how much to overhang the verges and eaves. What sort of fascia is required, if any? Look out for the visually repugnant fittings which modern developers will try to use if given half a chance. These include eaves ventilators, which can be avoided by forming a warm roof construction where the insulation is within the structure of slates, battens and rafters, thus pre-empting condensation.
Builders today have a passion for laying slates with patent tail clips, thus nailing and holding down the tails of the slates in one operation. All your expensive and beautiful slates will be disfigured by row upon row of little tail clips. Plastic gutters and downpipes may be made less obtrusive by a couple of coats of dark grey emulsion paint but when you are going to such lengths it would be better to use cast-iron or perhaps aluminium.
Chimney design will reward attention. Most cottage chimneys after about 1750 were of brick, except in areas where good quality stone masonry was de rigeur on almost every sort of building in places like Gloucestershire. The trick is to make sure your chimney doesn’t look Victorian, with many fretful courses of oversailing brickwork, when it is meant to have a capping with two projections and a blocking course. Don’t fall in love with elaborate Victorian chimney pots when the simplicity of 1800 is your true destination. This also applies to tiles. However, it may well be that you are working to a date of 1870 and feel justified in letting rip with such fancies.
Now for a very important matter which many architects totally ignore. It is assumed that if you have a damp-proof concrete floor, the next move is to lay a nice level mortar screed and, after that, acres of fitted carpet will follow. Apart from being more expensive than a boarded floor finish, fitted carpet will kill dead any remote suggestion of authenticity and age. So at ground floor level the rule must be flagstones, bricks, tiles, boards or conceivably thick, institutional wooden blocks. When you enter a nice old building and trip over a timber threshold, the welcome has been soured from the outset. What you should do is close the front door against the exterior step. Inside, where any driven rain may drip off the bottom of the door, you set a further 150-200mm piece of stone, tilted outwards and drained by a modest tube under the step.
Avoid like the plague any stone floor finish which involves jointing and patching with masses of crude mortar. Flags should be butted close together and, where mortar must be used, it should be matched in colour so it is unnoticeable. This is not easy, but will repay that effort.
It is better to lay flags in some kind of slightly uneven stretcher bond, to avoid tram lines running in two directions. Floor boards may be ordinary tongue and groove softwood, discreetly stained and sealed with wax polish. This operation requires trial pieces, since it is never certain what the result of the stain will be until it is tested. Make sure you wax the trial timber as well.
Everybody will insist you seal your stone floors with various obnoxious preparations. Such measures are entirely unnecessary. The floor will be dry and most sealants look awful, whether on stone or wood. I have seen acres of lovely elm floorboards ruined with these ghastly gunges.
Where you employ stone or brick floors it is usually best to plaster walls straight down to the floor without skirting boards. However, you may decide to have a stone or brick floor in the kitchen and timber in the parlour. The latter would have 150mm skirtings with a simple top moulding, like an ogee. Upper floors will usually be open joisted but more sophisticated buildings, like villas, may require cornices and plastered ceilings.
The rule with open joists are these place the joists as far apart as Regulations permit. This may involve up-sizing the sections to provide sacrificial timber in the event of fire. On top of the joists, which may be edge-moulded or chamfered according to the period, lay 12mm flush beaded boards treated for fire spread. Over those go sheets of 9mm plasterboard and, finally, the 22mm tongue and groove boards you actually walk upon. Original cottage ceilings would just have had boards over joists but regulations insist on all this palaver and it has its merits as far as sound-proofing and fire risks are concerned. The real trouble will be getting the joists far enough apart. History shows that they were often spaced with terrible disregard for structural stability but might still endure a couple of hundred years before somebody has to deal with the problem. Remember, cottagers did not own the weighty furniture and appliances that we do now, although the number of residents crammed into one bedroom could be cosy!
Walls & Ceilings
The treatment of walls and ceilings is fraught with difficulties. Your builder or architect will doubtless assume that ceilings and partitions will be of plasterboard and skim. Not so. These smooth and mechanical looking finishes must be avoided. If you are keen, stud partitions with laths and lime plaster will do nicely. But remember that cottage door openings did not normally have architraves least of all the kind you get off the shelf at the builders merchant. Instead, substantial door frames or linings can be projected to meet the plaster. It does not matter that a hair-line crack may develop between lining and plaster, especially if you rebate the former.
The second wall treatment to consider for partitions is the use of vertical or horizontal painted matchboard with flush beaded edges. That works really well. The only time you should contemplate plasterboard and skim is in rooms which are intended for pretty cottage wallpapers.
Ceilings upstairs may also be matchboarded and some downstairs rooms can authentically have 1-1.2m high boarded dados again with fine edge beads and simple bull nose cappings. The advantage of this system is that it breaks up the wall surface for plastering. Too much rather boring internal plaster is a nuisance.
Masonry walls can be soft lime plastered and lime washed or painted, preferably with a substance which breathes, like distemper. Our critics will cry fake if we blunt and wobble the arrises of window openings but personally I care nothing for their protests. All the same, wobble must be fairly minimal or it will look affected. Corners should not be rounded or they will look like something from a 1930s cinema.
Internal angles can also be given a very slight degree of movement and this applies equally to the wall plaster in general. It is one of the most difficult things to get right all that is needed is a little gentle swell and fall to the surface. Nothing should be used which smacks of fake texturing. It is arguable whether you should finish smoothly with a steel trowel or bring up the grains on the surface a bit with a wood float. If you fear the wrath of your angry, Bauhaus-loving friends, form external angles to window and door openings with timber angle beads and plaster up to those. Definitely no metal angle strips. Remember that any door or window lintels must project enough for the plaster to finish flush with their surfaces.
Cottage doors are normally made up of boards and cross ledges, three or four in number. The boards should be wide, edge beaded and the door hung on pins and strap hinges. Interior ones are often hung on T hinges. Latches may be of the Norfolk type or of wood with draw strings. Avoid part-glazed doors by putting in windows where they are needed. Stable doors, in two sections, are convincing if properly detailed.
The answer is simplicity. The vast majority of cottages have plain timber treads and risers housed into conventional strings. They ascend between partition walls and, more often than not, display little or no open balustrading. A handrail on the wall is enough. If you must have some balustrade, the least controversial one is formed of square stick balusters under a very plain handrail with a slightly rounded top. There is no space here to discuss alternatives, like splat balusters and period newel posts. Unless you are going Vicwardian, forget heavily turned newels and acorn finials. Winding brick or stone steps are often a good idea and, since you are designing this building from scratch, you can probably fit them in a likely corner between the back wall and the chimney breast.
This brings us to fireplaces. Here the rule is one big hearth and a smaller, more civilised parlour fireplace. The important factor is to make the big hearths lintel sufficiently high above the floor. The interior must be deep and dark. There should be a tall and generous gather into the main flue and the latter needs wide diameter linings if logs are to burn satisfactorily.
Every open fire is a special problem and what will work in one situation will smoke horribly in another. The main focus of most rooms is the fireplace and care should be taken to ensure that what you do fits the character and purpose which would be expected in a building of its type. The large down-hearth in most old cottages was associated with a combined living room and kitchen. Cooking would be carried out over a log fire, which was kept burning all the time if fuel could be procured. Fire-dogs helped the circulation of air, while a pot would be suspended over the heat from a pot hook or chimney cranes. In a genuine inglenook, you could sit inside the hearth in niches with elm or oak board seats. The lintel was high and most early ones will be found to be charred at the back. Such fires depended on a good updraught but always smoked in certain weather conditions. Any attempt to hermetically seal your house from draughts will prohibit the use of a big open fire, although you can provide an underfloor vent pipe.
Infrequently used was the parlour usually situated on the opposite side of the entrance passage. Here, in late l8th and early l9th century cottages, you would find a lower and smaller fireplace containing a coal fired grate, with a simple painted timber surround and bracketed shelf. The grate itself would be cast iron. Hob grates were the earlier pattern and these gave way about l850 to the conventional hoop register grates, which may be seen everywhere. When kitchen ranges became generally available in the 19th century, most cottages had separate kitchens which remained the main centre of family life. Older buildings had ranges fitted into the former down-hearths. With a new cottage today, you would probably want a parlour, a working kitchen and a big hearth in the sitting room.
If your cottage is to succeed, the worst thing you can do is create a fitted kitchen. Nothing looks more modern. Kitchens should be furnished, not fitted. Avoid rows of matching cupboard doors under counters. A mixture of different putting down surfaces and varied cupboard doors is the answer, some with plainly moulded panels while others might have boards and ledges. All should be painted.
A Belfast sink on twin stacks of painted bricks looks the part. Then a pine table and various interesting chairs, a dresser and assorted shelves with lots of china and utensils in sight. It is not necessary to always put the sink under the window, which precludes a draining rack. Even the top quality kitchen firms Victorian and Regency cupboards and dressers, although authentic in design, give an off-the-peg look if you indulge in too many pieces together. A kitchen must have a fireplace or it will look modern. The rule is to make an opening high and wide with a plain board surround and bracketed shelf over.
The fenestration of the typical cottage, as related in song and story, has been left to the last because discussion of the niceties overpowers all other considerations. Authentic window detailing is vital to your success and the pressures for you to skimp or bowdlerise this element are immense.
You do not need double glazing, although it is worth considering internal shutters. You must not have fake bullion panes of glass. It is quite unnecessary, if not anti-productive, to make all the windows match. The differences in pattern and proportion will give that look of organic growth to the building and stop the cottage having the smart air of an expensive reproduction.
Your main choices of window pattern will be twelve and sixteen, or even twenty pane, double hung sashes, usually without horns on the stiles. Thin (16mm) glazing bars are a good bet because few cottages retain thick, early mouldings and many got by with some meagre lattice lights with lead glazing. Small panes set in lead cames are right for some cottages but are best avoided in these circumstances, since they often make a building look like a 1930s stockbrokers dream.
The second type of window is the two or three-light set of casements. Some are divided by mullions and others close against each other; or an opening light closes into the rebate formed by a fixed one. It is essential to give casement windows a sense of substance by providing fairly heavy frames with dowelled joints. The dowels should be left about 2mm proud so that they can be seen when they have been painted. Although occasionally in 9 pane format, the majority are arranged vertically as sixes or eights. If you really want to fool the historians, hang them on pin hinges. A splendid all-purpose small window for bathrooms, laundries, halls and stairs is the nine pane casement.
On no account place windows next to gable chimney breasts on the ground floor. They will kill the impact of the fireplace by providing an alternative focus in the room and shed natural light where there should be mystery and flickering flames. Also avoid windows of roughly equal size and light-shedding propensities on opposite walls of a room. It makes for a sense of insecurity. You dont know which way to look, there is too little wall space for furniture and the light levels become too bland and even.
The fourth commendable pattern for cottage windows is the horizontal sliding sash. This is like a vertical one set on its side without the boxes and weights. It is normally of twelve or sixteen panes in all. There is little point in both sashes sliding, since the maximum opening aperture will be the same.
Relentless and uninformed friends will demand that you have insulation strips in your windows. Ignore them, they are creepy and suburban I mean the draught strips of course. Building inspectors will try to force you to have trickle ventilators in your beautiful and, alas, expensive windows. They cannot do so, provided you devise another means of permanent ventilation, which should scarcely be a problem. Just vent the walls, where necessary. Pay attention to exterior sills, which should be contrived in the most convincing local manner slate slabs, stone, brick or whatever is the tradition.
Remember also to have window seats in many of the rooms. It would be comforting to think that all this advice wraps up the matter of authentic cottage building, but of course it does no such thing. However, it may help to set some people on the right path.