Most self-builders hoping to create a contemporary home are familiar with shadow gaps — those tiny ‘flash gaps’ or ‘controlled gaps’ designed to replace skirting boards and allow for movement between the two planes of the wall and the floor.

When carried out correctly they can look wonderful — the perfect example of the ‘controlled joint’, the finishing touch to a beautifully crisp, clean-looking white-walled room.

shadow gap

“A shadow gap allows the junction between different materials to breathe, and it also allows one element to float over the other,” says architect Andy Ramus, director of A R Design Studio.

However, getting them really correct can prove extremely difficult.

“While shadow gaps can look striking, it is a costly and time-consuming addition to achieve the requisite crisp and accurate detail,” says architect Neil Turner, director of Howarth Litchfield.

If they do not look right it can ruin the whole internal effect, and many architects argue that shadow gaps are so labour-intensive that they are hardly worth the expense in private houses. The other argument against shadow gaps is that they do not prevent damage to the bottom of the wall.

So does this herald a return to skirting in some shape or form? This is certainly an attractive prospect, particularly because there are so many products available on the market, notably short upstands in slate, tile or stone — or even aluminum or polished stainless steel.

However, if you are really dedicated, the concept of introducing new materials at the junctions of floors is unacceptable. The strict Modernist approach is to keep the wall and floor plane strictly at right angles.

Recessed Skirting Board

If you omit shadow gaps there is one solution that keeps the two planes at right angles: it is to have a skirting that is flush with the wall. If you can achieve this without adding a new material, so much the better (see image below; photographer Bruce Hemming).

recessed skirting

Again, at least two layers of plasterboard are required with the skirting mounted on the first board. A plaster bead is positioned on the outer board to create the shadow gap above the skirting. In this example, the skirting should be simple with no detailing. The shadow gap between skirting and wall becomes the ‘decoration’ in reverse.

Stone or Brick Walls

But what if the walls – or at least one wall – are not absolutely flat, but irregular stone or brick? Many architects like the idea of an exposed stone wall in a sitting room if part of the house is a conversion of an old stone building.


In this project, the stone wall sits flush with the flooring, while a shadow gap is used for the plastered wall (right)

“Stone walls go well with oak floors,” says architect Howard Nash (020 7229 1558), who has retained some of the original brick and stone walls in his old house conversion in Suffolk, to which he has added a highly contemporary one storey rear kitchen/diner. “In this instance I would advise not using a skirting. The best option is to leave a 10mm expansion gap and fill this with cork.”

However, with straightforward plaster walls and free-floating timber floors, a skirting board effectively doubles the ‘cover space’ afforded to allow for the expansion and contraction that will inevitably occur.

Other options

Modern skirting board

Modern Skirting in a Traditional Home

Simple modern skirting can be used in more traditional homes, as this image above shows. Photograph: Tim Crocker

The old skirting board is not dead yet, and creating a modern version is fine. There is no need for the expense of double layering the plasterboard. Design a simple profile using square routed shapes, and a contemporary board is the result. Follow the theme through in the architraves to the doors. If the boards are painted the same colour as the wall then they disappear into the wall. If a varnished timber board is used the skirting becomes more prominent.

Traditional skirting board

If the project is a renovation or if you hope to create an impression of an old building then getting the proportions right is an important element. Designing a grand dining room and putting a 100mm skirting board on is going to look wrong. The skirting should be large (300mm) and with detail to mimic the era. Colour is important — the Victorians used maroons and browns, grained to look like wood. These colours are not popular now, but a neutral white to contrast with coloured walls works well. Varnished wood would not have been used as the timber was intended to have a paint finish, but can work in cottage-style interiors.

The Essentials

  • Shadow gaps probably look best but are tricky, labour intensive and a nightmare for keen vacuumers
  • You could expose a brick or stone wall and leave a small expansion gap
  • Another good option is a flush skirting with a tiny gap in the wall

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