Vernacular architecture

The mass of the population before the Industrial Revolution worked the land. Until c.1500 most lived in houses not expected to last more than a lifetime. Few small houses date back to the Middle Ages. Styles vary by region, reflecting local materials and and needs. Timber was the usual material for small and medium-sized houses in areas where good timber was available. Dating timber buildings is notoriously difficult. Since the same techniques were used for centuries, the safest approach is to get a dendro-date for a main timber that does not appear to be reused. General bibliography for vernacular building in Britain and Ireland.

Earth building

Cob-built house (© Reader's Digest) Mud or turf provided the cheapest kind of walling. Cob - unbaked clay with organic material to bind it - is durable if plastered over and kept from damp at top and bottom. The earliest standing examples in the British Isles date from around 1300, but these are exceptional. Earth houses generally have a life-span of 150-200 years, though this could be prolonged by casing the walls later in brick. Cob was popular in Devon up to the 19th century and also used in Cumbria, the East Midlands, Hampshire and Ireland. The flexibility of the material permitted rounded corners. Another clue to cob construction is the thickness of the walls.


Cruck-framed house (© Reader's Digest) Distribution of true cruck houses. Click to enlarge in pop-up window Cruck building starts from a simple principle seen in many parts of the world. Pairs of timbers - straight or curved - prop each other up, when tied together with wall plates and a ridge-piece at the apex. Over that main frame can be laid purlins, rafters and thatch on the roof, and timber panels filled with wattle and daub for the walls. (For a simpler predecessor in Britain, we can look to the Saxon Sunken Featured Building.)

Crucks were most used for houses and barns no more than 6m (20ft) wide, put up for smallholders, parsons and, most of all, peasants. The earliest survivals date from the 13th century and most must have been built before 1600, when the rising demand for two full storeys made crucks obsolete. They are found mainly in Wales, western England and Devon.


Box-framed house (© Reader's Digest) The box-frame overtook the cruck in popularity, for it permitted two (or three) full storeys. Another advantage was the easy addition of wings. The term 'box-frame' is pretty well self-explanatory: the main vertical posts are held in place by horizontal beams. The upper storeys often overhang the lower; this is called 'jettying', and can be seen in the Wealden house below.†

Piling storey upon storey, with upper storeys jettied, made the most of the limited space in town centres.†A good example†is the Merchant's House at Plymouth.

Wealden house

Wealden house (© Reader's Digest)

This striking type of box-framed house was revolutionary in the high quality of its construction. A hall ran through the centre of the house from ground to roof. At either side were two stories, jettied all round. Large brackets supported the eaves over the hall. The whole is covered by a hipped, tiled roof.

These sturdy late medieval and early Tudor homes were built by yeomen, emulating the plan of the manor house. In the prosperous south-east of England even comparatively small farms provided the means to build houses of comfort and craftsmanship. Having evolved the type in the Weald of Kent and Sussex, carpenters carried it to counties north of the Thames, though with gabled rather than hipped roofs, and to Coventry, Newark and York.

Long house

Long house (© Reader's Digest) The long house sheltered animals at one end and their owners at the other. This arrangement suited a peasant or smallholder with a few animals in a climate with long, hard winters. Long houses were†common in the Middle Ages over much of the British Isles, but the poor survival rate of peasant housing, combined with the rising affluence and enclosures that led to more complex†farm buildings in the English lowlands, means that surviving examples were mainly built c.1650-c.1750. They are found in Cumbria, Dartmoor, the Hebrides, Northern and Western Ireland and South Wales. The Welsh version is the ty-hir. Surviving examples are all byre-houses, where the agricultural end sheltered cattle.†

Cotswold house

Cotswold house (© Reader's Digest) The twisted spine of southern England - the Jurassic limestone belt running from the Lincoln Edge south-west along the Cotswolds - yields an abundance of easily-worked building stone. There masonry building flourished in the 17th century.

Walls are of ashlar or coursed rubble, while roofs are of local stone slate. Door-frames and mullioned windows are cut to mouldings. Over the windows are hood-moulds to throw off the rain.



Also see villages,†dating, recording and interpreting fabric and materials.