Protect our vernacular buildings

by Declan Cahill


Stone cottage in the Peak District

Over the past five months we have travelled across most parts of England and have ventured into Wales and Scotland, which has shown me the variety of the vernacular buildings we have been lucky enough to inherit. As my favourite type of building, I love to see how these buildings vary from each other, how little details have been ingeniously introduced, how the building has developed with time and how the building sits within a landscape.

Vernacular buildings are those that are typical to a locality, that are made from local materials and by local craftspeople (and sometimes even just local people without a craft) and usually have no input from a surveyor, architect or engineer. After reading the various studies by Clifton-Taylor, Brunskill, John and Jane Penoyre and the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working group I have started to feel that the gap between traditional construction and modern construction is ever-increasing.

Criss-crossing the country, we have been able to visit and see how buildings change in their form and materials. From the use of different stones, timber, brick, earth, lime, metal and glass on a building to the different forms of the timber frame, the stone farmsteads of Wales, Cumbria and Scotland, to the brick buildings in Cheshire and Shropshire and the earth buildings of the Solway Plain to suggest just a few. The variety of buildings that we have encountered has been truly remarkable.


Field barn of the Peak District

However, one thing has become apparent to me over the last couple of months, our vernacular buildings and culture of building vernacularly is under threat. If we are going to save our traditions and our vernacular buildings we need to look into why they are at risk.

The knowledge and skill of the local craftspeople is being lost. This is partly due to the generation of local craftspeople retiring and their knowledge not being passed on. The current education system is also partly to blame for not providing opportunities to learn traditional building methods and only teaching modern construction skills. Modern cavity-based construction has become the norm whilst solid wall construction a rarity.


Clay dabbin of the Solway Plain

In some respects the demand for traditionally built buildings has decreased. This is due to previous generations growing up in these vernacular buildings that weren’t properly maintained and stigmatising them as cold and drafty places to live. Those that take on our vernacular buildings do not always fully understand the materials and requirements of the building. The ventilation and breathability that are fundamental to a traditionally constructed building mean they are often mislabelled as drafty and inefficient. The movement of moisture through solid wall construction is perceived as a damp wall and inappropriate materials are used.


Clay tile and lime render of Essex

The building regulations and our current standards of construction have been built on modern building methods, completely dismissing traditional construction. This has lead to unbefitting extensions to our historic buildings that aren’t constructed traditionally and use inappropriate materials. Modern buildings built in the countryside are often constructed and designed inappropriately. These buildings are being classed as vernacular when all they really do is use a local material for one aspect of the building.

We have become detached from the materials within our local geography and geology. The importation of materials from further afield is apparent on the majority of construction sites today. Recently at the annual Building Limes Forum conference Ben Bosence talked of the use of local aggregates and how he had researched what aggregates were available 100m, 1Km, 5Km, 10Km and 20Km from his house. The presentation was a timely reminder of how we need to reconnect with our locality.


Timber frame and thatch in Oxfordshire

On our travels we have seen signs of hope for our ability to conserve our vernacular buildings and hopefully construct traditionally. From Richard Jordan teaching traditional construction skills in Derbyshire, to the projects we have visited in North Wales, the Peak District, Cumbria and Scotland. I can only hope that the meticulous attention given to our cathedrals and country houses is applied to the vernacular buildings that make our countryside so rich and unique.


Scholars head north

by Gethin Harvey

Vernacular Buildings
Since the last post, the Scholars have headed north to Cumbria and into Scotland to study the effect of changing geology and wetter climates on vernacular buildings and the accompanying variations in construction techniques.

Solid earth wall construction

In such areas the detrimental effects of water ingress and damp can be exacerbated if not addressed; with increases in average annual rainfall over recent years, it also poses questions on how well equipped historic buildings are to deal with the amount of rainfall seen today and associated repair philosophies.

One vernacular tradition is the construction of buildings with solid earth wall structures which go by different names dependent on the regional variations in construction and local dialect. These are known locally in Cumbria as ‘clay dabbins’ and following a guided tour of Burgh by Sands by 2014 fellow Alex Gibbons it became apparent that they are often difficult to spot, hidden behind protective lime renders.

This not only leads to uncertainty in the exact amount surviving in the UK it also means that they may often not have the statutory protection they deserve. We subsequently joined local craftspeople and volunteers to progress the construction of a newbuild clay dabbin building in the RSPB sanctuary on the Solway Plain. The experience of working with the material revealed the practicalities which determine the methodology of construction; the walls are formed of lifts only a few inches in height, contrasting with, for instance, cob buildings in Devon where the drier material allows lifts of up to 2 ft. It was a great example of how traditional crafts may be used to provide sustainable opportunities for building using nothing outside the immediate context of a site. Surviving examples serve as great precedents for this and their maintenance is crucial, one of many topics which will be covered at Clay Fest 2016 which will provide opportunities for further explanation and hands-on experience at the RSPB Campfield Marsh Reserve in Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria on 18 – 23 July 2016.

For more information please see the Earth Buildings UK website.

Scottish Working Party

Balmerino Abbey, Scotland Working Party

Despite predictions of thunderstorms, the weather was glorious (with a minor exception – the typically soggy British BBQ on the final evening).

The weather enabled the volunteers to throw themselves into the work at Balmerino Abbey, a ruinous masonry structure in Fife. This included raking out cement pointing in a boundary wall and repointing with lime mortar; soft capping trials and preparing the materials for repointing and soft capping.


Lime has been a constant theme throughout our visits and it was a great asset to have Bill Revie, Andy Bradley and Duncan Strachan from the British Limes Forum to guide us. For the lime pointing a hybrid mix of quicklime gauged with NHL 5 was used with local sharp sand. This was a combination we had not previously seen and was designed to provide an initial chemical set to prevent the mortar being damaged by frost and/or wind before carbonation. Their interactive demonstration of the lime cycle and the ‘3-minute kiln’ (for construction, not burning!) was of great benefit to all present and provided us with a better understanding of its use in more severe climates.

Kiln at Scottish Working Party

With a similar range of repair methods as those proposed for the SPAB England Working Party which will be held at Greatham, Hampshire on 3 – 9 July 2016, it was great to have the experience of Alison Davie Construction Ltd to supervise the works. Aside from the practical experience it was a brilliant social meeting with many partaking in their first official ceilidh and we would like to convey our thanks to Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust for Scotland and all others involved in an incredible few days.


Looking and listening

by Charlie Wellingham

As part of a whirlwind tour through Tewkesbury and Worcestershire (taking in churches, abbeys, bridges, barns, and even a particularly historic Wetherspoons pub), the Scholars were privileged to spend a day learning about medieval timber framed structures with Nick Joyce of Nick Joyce Architects; an expert who has spent his career developing an analytical eye for assessing their condition and required repairs. Nick explained that the traditional methods of constructing timber frames is very much like a language – daunting if you don’t know the dialect but significantly simplified when you establish the rules of the grammar and a few key bits of vocabulary.

The first thing to remember is that every cut made by the carpenter’s chisel has a purpose. Framers were not in the habit of carving additional mortices just to amuse their idle hands. Any vacant pocket or open slot is evidence of an adaptation; be it a loss or addition, demolition or extension. Similarly there has been much academic research undertaken about the evolution of timber framing design and technology and as such the crudeness or sophistication of a particular joint can usually give a good clue to the century in which the carpentry was undertaken. After briefing us on some of these ground rules, and a few other tell-tale signs of aging timber structures, we were taken out to the Worcestershire countryside and introduced to a classic example of a well-used and well-loved timber frame building, and invited to tease out its seemingly incomprehensible former lives.

St Cuthbert's Chapel

St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The original structure on this site was in fact religious – note the low masonry walls of St.Cuthbert’s Chapel, most likely erected in the 13th century, but recorded as being deconsecrated in the 1380s (when the population it supported re-located to a newly constructed river crossing nearby). The only surviving remnant that explicitly indicates this phase of life is easily overlooked; the moulded jamb of a former east window, hidden in a lean-to store room and long since blocked up.

St Cuthberts Chapel east window

St Cuthbert’s Chapel east window

Agricultural use occupied the barn for the next 400 years as farmland engulfed the isolated structure. Adaptations included the removal of the original roof and the construction of the timber framed upper stories directly off of the chapel masonry walls (Dendro dating of the timbers indicating they were felled in the 1520s). Many windows and openings were added and removed, and animal stalls were laid out in what would once have been the nave. Carpenter’s marks in the exposed trusses indicate which were original to this period and which have since been modified; they also indicate the order in which they would have been erected and the way they were temporarily supported as they were raised – having first been joined with oak pegs laid out flat on the surrounding fields.

The final use of the former chapel came in the mid-19th century, when the barn was overhauled to create a drying house for the hops that were being cultivated at the farm. The roofline was altered to accommodate the ventilation cowls, and a magnificent rolling first floor structure on iron casters was installed to allow the crop to be loaded and unloaded, sliding back and forth across the ovens below. Further lean-tos and openings were added, providing covered space for the sacking of the hops and loading directly onto carts.

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert's Chapel

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The resultant structure that has survived these adaptations is so rich with history and character that it is almost overwhelming. The decision to reuse rather than rebuild has resulted in a unique building alive with the documentary evidence of over 600 years of the working countryside’s society and culture in its fabric. Reading these clues and interrogating those former lives is an aspect of conserving historic architecture that I find endlessly fascinating. Thanks very much to Nick for introducing us to this hidden gem and for sharing his extensive expertise that gave us the language to understand and appreciate it fully – rather than being deaf to its quiet secrets.

St Cuthbert's by Dearbhail Keating

St Cuthbert’s by Dearbhail Keating