Cottages retain their perennial appeal, not least because they are low, homely, rugged, rural and welcoming. But why do so many self-builders fail when it comes to recreating the look? Clive Fewins explains how to get it righ, including advice on details such as roofing and interiors.

Ask any architect specialising in cottages and you will be told that they are straightforward in their plan. The problem is that modern self-builders demand too much of the design.

“Very often they start with a floorplan and somehow think the roof will just fit over this,” says Oxfordshire-based architect Peter King, who specialises in cottage-style properties. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as this. A traditional cottage takes its shape from the past: the technology that was available at the time, and the spans that could be achieved by oak beams. In a normal, say 17th century, cottage this was rarely more than about 16- 18ft (5m), so the whole house was constructed on this basis. The rooms were as deep as the spans of the beams permitted, and if the house was extended, it was usually a simple matter of adding an additional bay.

Today, most people wanting a cottage do not find the one-room-deep formula convenient. They prefer bigger rooms that will accommodate two huge sofas, a wide-screen TV, and other elements of modern living.

This soon strays away from the basic cottage shape. Todays technology allows them to have any shape of room they like, and soon it ceases to be a true cottage and becomes something much squarer, because modern self-builders inevitably want a full-height upper floor, and this means the concept of the traditional one-and-a-half storey cottage height, with the upstairs rooms in the roof, disappears.

Because of this there is very little chance, for reasons of height and massing, that they will be permitted the conventional roof pitch of approaching 50 degrees. The roof, therefore, gets flattened out and the result is that the building looks like a modern house only built with cottagey materials.

Vernacular Buildings

No historic cottage was designed. So to replicate the remarkable variety of historic cottages that characterise rural Britain, and to give a new cottage a sufficiently rugged look is difficult. All too often builders do not have the expertise. If they do, the client does not have the money to afford the time it takes to undertake some of the processes involved in gaining this authentic look.

The conclusion is that if you want a cottage that will look right, and not a pastiche, you will have to work hard. You will also have to make a strong mental effort to resist altering the basic form low ceilings, small windows, steeply pitched roofs and low eaves, all of which result in a lack of headroom.

Design Features

There are several ways in which you can achieve a three or four bedroom cottage-style house that is not too tall in proportion to its narrow plan.

The usual solution is to opt for an L-shape. A T-shape is also possible but more expensive because there will be more work involved. A T-shape also inevitably means there will be an area of constant shadow.

Another technique is to use a catslide. This is when a steeply pitched roof in a vernacular building sweeps down from the top ridge to a low eave that can be reached at arms length from the ground.

This is a means of giving your cottage another 2-2.5 metres of width by extending the main slope of the roof at the rear, down from eaves level to the height of the ceiling on the ground floor. It will provide a depth of about eight metres long enough for a good long lounge or dining room. The whole effect from the outside will be of a cottage that has been extended. Above, you can use the space for storage or a childs bedroom, if you add a dormer or a rooflight.

Wall Construction

Nowadays, most architects specialising in cottages will be happy with timber frame. This is especially the case if you want relatively thin walls that will conform with the increasingly tight demands of Part L – the thermal insulation section of the Building Regulations.

“Personally I favour timber frame, and have done for many years,” says architect Stephen Mattick. “It is no more expensive than brick and block, achieves better insulation levels, and is much more adaptable.”

You can clad timber frame with virtually any material. In a traditional cottage, renders should avoid cement, and bricks and stone should be laid in a lime mortar. Despite aiming at authenticity in this way, Stephen Mattick concedes that some features will only arrive with age. “Nevertheless,” he says, “on roofs and northfacing walls it is amazing what a good brushing of yogurt will do in terms of ageing. But as always, good workmanship is vital.”

With dual-skin blockwork walls, the Building Regulations will demand a thickness of at least 300mm, probably more if you want an area of unfilled cavity, or if the cladding is stone.

If you want a much thinner wall, such as traditional wattle and daub infill panels in timber framed cottages, then to achieve the required U-values you will have to go for modern materials and conceal them. Package companies like Border Oak are still able to conform with the thermal demands of the Building Regulations with an infill panel of urethane sheet that is only 95mm thick. In most of their cottages, however, they now use a system based on SIPs panels that gives a U-value of 0.18 and a total wall thickness of 175mm. With the latter system, the oak frame shows on the inside but not the exterior.

If you opt for SIPs panels in the cottage walls of your own design, be sure to check out the means of joining the panels to the oak posts, as this can be a weak point.

Roofs

“Spend the money on the roof,” says Stephen Mattick. He favours large expanses of roof, often using reclaimed clay tiles. He also likes steep pitches often as steep as 52 degrees. The minimum usually recommended for cottages is 47 degrees. Varying the pitches is a useful device, especially if the building is to appear as if it has evolved over time.

An exception to this is the brick cottage with slate roof reminiscent of a 19th century workers cottage. In this instance the slate, being a comparatively light material, usually takes a lower pitched roof.

Thatch, on the contrary, is very heavy and demands a very steep roof (the steeper the better) for run-off purposes.

A steep sweep almost down to ground level on one side of the building will also form a dramatic feature. This is traditional, but it is a feature that was refined and exaggerated by the Arts & Crafts architects of the early 20th century. It is important to remember that cottages built in the main Arts & Crafts period usually looked vernacular, but strictly speaking were not, because they were designed. Arts & Crafts architects, such as Voysey, derived a great deal from traditional buildings, but by definition Arts & Crafts cottages must have some Art and some Craft in them i.e. artistic touches not applied but built into the building to form the highly attractive and rustic features that so characterise them.

When a steep sweep, or catslide, occurs it was often the practice to flatten it out to around to around 40 degrees at the edge, and this still takes place in some parts of the country. It is a technique that both slows the water run-off and extends headroom beneath.

Another idea is to introduce a ripple into your roofline by using a counter-battening system above the rafters. If the ridge of your cottage sags a little in the middle and the extensions look just that – as though they have been added at various stages – then this will add greatly to the overall effect.

Many architects lean dormers slightly outwards. Likewise gable ends. “If you don’t do this they look as if they are leaning in,” says Stephen Mattick.

On rendered exterior walls East Anglian cottages are probably the best examples an angled board (pentice board) above the window head in gable ends and on the ground floor is a traditional detail that will help throw off the rain and create a pleasing shadow line. Sometimes these angled boards stretch right across the gable end and form a notable feature. Beads exterior mouldings incised into the plaster will also add to the traditional effect of your new cottage self-build.

Bargeboards and eaves details are other features that you should be keen to get correct in accordance with the local vernacular. Both, if detailed correctly, are good means of adding interest to your new cottage.

Cottage Interiors

Low houses demand low ceilings. About the lowest you can go to accommodate reasonable-height doors, and to avoid scar tissue on your head and that of your visitors, is 7ft. Low ceilings matter so much to the appearance of a cottage design, says Stephen Mattick. They help to keep the ridge height down, and that is extremely important. It also helps if they are broken up by beams. This will make the ceiling even lower in places.

Flooring: Many people building traditional-style new homes opt for as much oak as possible, plus flagstones or terracotta tiles in at least one downstairs room. However, in a traditional cottage dont forget that traditional flooring bricks were often used. They can look very effective.

Inglenooks: They are as popular as ever, and many people think they are a key feature of any cottage because, besides being a traditional focal point, they house a valuable source of heating. In a modern cottage it is wise to install a standard-sized flue that provides an opening that you can be sure will conform with the increasingly stringent demands of the energy-saving sections of the Building Regulations. This may well mean installing an enclosed stove rather than an open fire. With a large central chimneystack with two flues, the ideal arrangement is to have an open fire on one side and an enclosed stove on the other.

Staircases: Stairs can be difficult in new cottages. They must be placed where there is sufficient headroom upstairs. They are a good justification for building in an L-shape because this is a good way of avoiding corridors upstairs.

The Right Building Materials

Your local planners will almost certainly want something that fits in with the local vernacular. Vernacular means built from local materials in a traditional style and unpretentious fashion. An alternative and useful definition is architecture without architects. No architect or designer was involved with the variety of cottages that characterise rural Britain.

To get a good finished effect, familiarise yourself with the local building styles and materials in your immediate area in the early design stages.

Cottages are traditionally the work of many generations of local builders working with the most readily available materials and using them in the style familiar to that particular place. This might involve oak frame, or stone, or lath and plaster or even wattle and daub, cob, or flint.

All these materials derive from the surrounding landscape and it is important that your new cottage fits into this as well as possible if it is to sit well within its surroundings. Even if your planners do not seem to be overly bothered about this, you may regret it for years afterwards if you do not get it right.

5 Steps to Success

1 Be sure you are committed to the cottage formula and the lifestyle it would entail. If you feel this would cramp your style and you would be unhappy with a house one-room deep, albeit with an L-shaped wing at the rear, opt for a different style.
2 Try to keep the building to one-and-a-half storeys. The floor-to-ceiling height on the first floor must be low and the roof steep.
3 Make sure at the outset that the cottage will look right in its setting.
4 Avoid pastiche. Pastiche is defined as: from various sources. For example, it is easy in a cottage to go over the top and adopt features from other architectural styles. You will do this at your peril.
5 Try to use reclaimed materials in appropriate places.

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