Designing a Cottage-Style Home

Creating a traditional-style house that looks like it’s been in existence for centuries isn’t easy, especially when it also has to conform to modern building standards. Julian Owen explains why the details matter
Build It expert Julian Owen
by Julian Owen
14th January 2016

Compared with other western countries it seems that as a nation we in the UK are in love with heritage, cottage-style houses. When created with care and respect for the past, traditional or ‘vernacular’ buildings do look pleasant and familiar. But where a few formulaic rules have been used without ingenuity to dress up an otherwise standard house plan, they can appear bland or even ugly.

Rather than being planned and designed by an architect and constrained by government rules and regulations, traditional buildings just ‘happened’. They were created by craftsmen who used skills, experience and knowledge handed down over centuries.

So, if you want your house design to reflect faithfully all that is best in our architectural heritage, here are some general principles to consider.

A sense of place

The most important influences on the appearance should be the location of the house and the period chosen. Historically, the construction of traditional cottages was very closely linked to their geography and every area has building techniques and materials that are in harmony with the surrounding countryside.

For example, a half-timbered yeoman’s cottage from Kent or a cob house from Devon will look artificial and out of place if built in Cumbria, where timber was less available and local stone has always been prevalent.

Innovation used to happen slowly in building techniques, so the appearance of ordinary homes in the countryside remained broadly unchanged for centuries. New technology and construction materials were introduced gradually – eventually resulting in changes such as the introduction and manufacture of bricks and tiles, larger window panes, and improved jointing methods for timber beams and posts.

Knowing when these changes happened may help you to select a period of history to copy. Pantiles did not become generally available in England until the 17th century, for instance, and bricks were not used widely for ordinary houses until the 16th century – before this, other materials such as timber frame, cob and stone had to be used.

new build SIPs cottage

Barbara Butterfield’s oak frame house near Milton Keynes picks up on many features found locally, including a steeply pitched roof, deep window reveals and thatching. The 500mm-thick SIPs panels used to infill the frame are highly insulating, ensure that it is far more thermally efficient than a historical home would be

Photo: Jeremy Phillips

A Comfortable Cottage

Drawing on proportion

One of the main reasons that many attempts to reproduce the charm and character of traditional cottages fail is because they are designed in only two dimensions. An elevation drawing, which shows the front plane of a house, may look authentic, but when built it can look like a standard modern house with an external ‘wallpaper’ of traditional features that could easily be swapped for other styles without having to change the shape and layout of the house.

The effect of a roof’s pitch and span, which is not immediately apparent on many elevation drawings, is crucial to achieving a well-proportioned house. Modern tiles allow pitches to be 30º or lower. Combining them with a wide span using trussed rafters is an economical way to build, because it allows very deep plans with a narrow frontage. However, such houses never look convincingly traditional because this sort of modern construction method was not available until quite recently.

Before the widespread availability of steel and concrete beams, traditional builders were limited to the maximum span of an ordinary timber joist that is about 6m or so. Pitches were steeper than 30º because shallow pitches needed larger, heavier tiles to stop them blowing away in strong winds – and these were unwieldy and expensive.

Meeting modern standards

Building Regulations have a noticeable effect on modern house design. They are essential and well-meaning but can make recreating a style from several hundred years ago problematic. Our forefathers, for instance, only used glass in single, quite small sheets, and the timber glazing bars that supported these panes were thin and elegant because that’s all that was needed.

Modern standard double glazed window panes that satisfy the regulations and reduce heat loss are too heavy to be easily supported by such thin bars, but if the timber is made thicker the authentic appearance is lost. A solution to this problem is to pay the extra cost of non-standard windows with super-efficient double-glazed units that can be made much thinner.

For similar reasons related to heat loss, the thin lead ‘cames’ that were used to divide and support individual squares of glass will never comply with Building Regulations unless they have a proper double-glazed window behind them as secondary glazing.

extension with reclaimed clay roof

Architect Nigel Begg designed a new two-storey extension to the front of his turn-of-the-century house in Somerset. Reclaimed clay roof tiles help to give a sense that the building has always had its current appearance

Photo: Jo Sheldrake

A Fitting Extension

How to create an authentic cottage design

  • Study local vernacular architecture and find out why particular materials and construction methods were used – and then employ these local techniques and building traditions, rather than picking one that belongs elsewhere.
  • Source materials locally, if possible. Look for claypits still in operation for making bricks and tiles, and for quarries if you wish to use stone.
  • Pay attention to scale. Most cottages were relatively modest and the larger ones were often gradually added to over a long period of time. A skilled designer can break up the massing and bulk of a big dwelling to recreate the feel of a traditional farmhouse. If you want the interior to have large, spacious rooms then a cottage-like low ceiling will look odd. Raising the ceiling height to suit bigger rooms will make small cottage-sized windows seem incongruous inside, but if they are made larger they will look out of scale from the outside; it takes careful design to strike a balance.
  • Details count. Ensure that the junctions between roofs and walls are built with the right overhang and construction. Windows are very important: for cottages these are usually set back by around 100mm from the outside wall, the deeper reveal protecting the gap around the frame. Windows that are fitted quickly by setting them only 50mm back will always look modern, however carefully they are made.
  • Handcrafted materials are relatively expensive, so be prepared for the extra cost. However, there are a few acceptable alternatives, such as highly realistic glass-reinforced plastic rainwater goods instead of lead, and PVCu windows with thin profiles that can fool a casual observer into believing that they are timber. Moulded, reconstituted local stone can look great, although it will not weather in the same way as the natural equivalent.
  • Try to use local craftsmen if you can afford it, and if you are working with stone, thatch, cob or similar materials it is essential to use a specialist. Traditional practitioners tend to work mainly on historic buildings but they can be a useful source for new builds, too.
  • Just because a feature is old it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s a good idea. Planners sometimes insist that chimneys are essential in conservation areas, but open fireplaces and chimneys are bulky, inefficient and unnecessary for modern living, forcing builders to use dummy chimneys that have no structure below the first-floor ceiling.

Photo (top): John and Sue Sumner loved their old cottage but wanted to downsize into something more manageable: the answer was to build a new, smaller house on their Shropshire garden plot that retained a traditional look. The green oak frame (from Border Oak) echoes the ancient timber houses found locally, which helped the couple secure planning on this sensitive rural site

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