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. However, getting them really correct can prove extremely difficult. 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 for most self-builders in this style, 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.

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.

You can do this by using oak if you have an oak floor. Any other timber that matched the floor would also be acceptable. You can also do it using plaster if you use a very hard form. A product such as Vicat Prompt, which is in fact an extra-hard natural cement, will prove more than adequate to the attacks of the most vigorous vacuum cleaner.

If you use this technique, should it have an ‘upper level’ shadow gap to distinguish between the skirting and the upper part of the wall? Most architects would say yes — but it should be very tiny. A gap of 2mm will also assist the decorator. With a flush wooden skirting the same effect can be achieved by having a small rebate machined into the top edge.

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. “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.

One man who favours a return to the skirting board is Will Hunter, editor of the specification supplement to The Architects’ Journal. He rather likes flush timber skirting up to 450mm high, with the tiniest of gaps machined into the timber. Hunter defines the skirting problem as “managing the architect’s disappointment between what he can imagine and what he can actually build.” The challenge for the self-builder is in making the choices and decisions that will limit that disappointment.


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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