What is vernacular architecture?
Traditional buildings made from local materials are known as vernacular. They are typically not designed by architects or built for high-status occupants.
Vernacular buildings originally made up the vast majority of the structures that ordinary people lived and worked in.
The buildings are usually made of local materials. They vary in construction across the country depending on what was available nearby and cheap to use.
Many of these buildings are now considered highly desirable as homes, and can command high prices on the property market – somewhat at odds with their more ordinary origins.
What are the earliest surviving vernacular buildings?
The earliest surviving examples of vernacular buildings are from the late 12th or 13th centuries. These tend to be much altered, with only parts of the early structure surviving.
Vernacular styles continued to be built until the 18th or early 19th century when the advent of mass-produced materials and standard designs brought on the demise of regional building traditions.
But although newer buildings have moved away from traditional materials, today, surviving vernacular buildings often still provide the dominant character of a town or area.
For example, the limestone of the Cotswolds, the timber framing of the Sussex Weald, and the cob (earth) of north Devon.
How to identify vernacular buildings
- They are usually ordinary, everyday structures, such as houses.
- A very broad category, they are less defined by precise architectural features than by the materials used to build them – timber, stone, cob, earth, mud or brick – though these materials are sometimes concealed.
- Vernacular buildings were not just used for housing. Early industrial and agricultural buildings are also likely to have been built in the local vernacular style.
Examples of vernacular architecture
The examples below show the range of building types and materials covered by this broad term.
Buildings made from timber
The traditional timber-framed cottage is a common vernacular building type. It characterises much of the Midlands, East Anglia, the South East and parts of the South West.
Across the regions, there are varied traditions in the form of the timber framing.
A public building | The Old Grammar School, Ledbury, Herefordshire
The Old Grammar School in Ledbury is a 15th-century building in the heart of the town, close to the church.
It may have originated with a public function, as it does not have a traditional house layout. It was later used as the town’s grammar school, with the schoolmaster living at one end of the building.
Its box framing is typical of timber-framed buildings in the West Midlands.
Along the front of the building, the first floor projects out over the ground floor. Known as a jetty, this feature is seen in many timber-framed buildings, mainly in towns but in some rural areas as well.
A wealden house | The Yeoman’s House, Bignor, West Sussex
The Yeoman’s House is a 15th-century timber-framed building. It’s called a wealden house because this type of building was first identified on the Weald (the high area on the border of Kent and East Sussex).
Wealden houses can be seen across England, but the greatest concentration is in the South East.
The style typically features projecting first-floor wings on either side of a recessed central area – the hall – with the roof line continuous over all three elements.
The hall provided the main living area, rising to the full height of the building with an open hearth at its centre.
Buildings made from stone
Where good local sources were available, stone was one of the most obvious sources of building material. In vernacular buildings, it was often used in rubble form, without any working to form it into regular blocks.
Stone buildings often characterise upland areas of England – from the sandstone of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland to the granite of Dartmoor.
The expense of transporting such a heavy material often meant that stone was extracted close to the buildings it was used in. This led to a lot of variation in stone buildings, even in small areas.
A bastle house | Low Park, Alston Moor, Cumbria
Low Park was built in the early 17th century. It’s an example of a stone building type seen on both sides of the England/Scotland border – the bastle house.
Bastle houses were built to protect farmers and their animals from frequent raiding across the border. On the ground-floor there would be a cattle shed (known as a byre), with accommodation for the farmer and his family above.
For security, the byre usually had narrow ventilation slits rather than windows. They were built of local sandstone, with larger pieces of stone on the corners (quoins) to help to make the buildings strong and fire-proof.
When border raiding came to an end, these buildings fell out of use or were adapted into farmhouse buildings with domestic accommodation on the ground floor.
A water mill | Malvern Mill, Blockley, Gloucestershire
The village of Blockley in Gloucestershire is notable for its high number of water mills. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were over 10 sites, remarkable for such a small settlement.
Water mills were used for corn milling and early textile production, in particular silk weaving.
Malvern Mill is a 16th or 17th-century building, now a house, which appears to have been used for cloth production. Its form is typical of Cotswold vernacular buildings, with sandstone walls and a stone slate roof.
Buildings made from cob, earth and mud
Earth or clay was probably originally used as a building material across the country. However, in many areas there are few, if any, surviving examples.
The use became associated with specific areas. Notable examples including the cob of Devon, the mud and stud buildings of Lincolnshire and the clay dabbins of the Solway Firth in Cumbria.
Whatever the local earth-based material, it generally needed some form of stabilisation to help build it up to a useful height. Mixing it with straw or small stones helped to give it a stronger binding.
In some areas, using it together with timber-framing provided greater stability. The material can last for centuries, as long as it is well sheltered from the elements.
It is usually given a stone plinth and is often rendered with plaster to protect it. This means that many buildings built of the material are well concealed. Sometimes its use only becomes apparent when the building is demolished or altered.
A farmhouse | Westacott Barton, North Tawton, Devon
Westacott Barton is a late 15th or early 16th-century cob-built farmhouse with a thatched roof.
The structure of the cob (mud) is given stability by a timber frame, formed of jointed-crucks. Crucks are curved timbers which run from the base of the wall line right up to the tip of the roof, and are usually found on the western side of England.
Westacott Barton originally had an open hall at its centre with an open fire, proved by the roof’s timbers being blackened with soot.
While the upper level of the thatch roof has been regularly replaced, the lower levels have been left since the building was constructed 400 years ago, which shows how long vernacular materials can survive.
Buildings made from brick
Brick was used from the 14th century onwards, although in some regions of England it was introduced later, more widely from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Locally made bricks took particular characteristics and colours. Regional variations became established, such as the ‘London stock brick’, a pale, yellowish colour in London and surrounding areas, through to the stronger reds in brick produced in the Midlands.
A brick house | Church House, Wormgate, Boston, Lincolnshire
Church House in Boston is an example of a brick building from the 17th century.
The house uses a style known as ‘artisan mannerist’, particularly found in the eastern part of England. Moulded bricks were used to imitate the Classical style that was becoming popular in larger houses of the time.
The distinctive gable is sometimes called a ‘Dutch gable’. Trade with Holland and the low countries, led to some stylistic features of Dutch buildings being copied in the east of England.
An almshouse | Almhouses, Ewelme, Oxfordshire
Almshouses emerged as a building type in the 15th century. They typically formed groups of cottages, which could be arranged around a central courtyard.
They were sometimes provided to house the elderly, often under the sponsorship of a wealthy individual or family.
The almshouses in Ewelme, Oxfordshire were built in the early 15th century, sponsored by the local landowners, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk.
The surviving building is one of the earliest brick buildings in Oxfordshire, and the brick is used in conjunction with timber framing, and in decorative patterns.
A school was also provided as part of the complex. Both the almshouses and school are still in use for their original purposes today.
The role of Historic England
Many of these buildings are protected as listed buildings. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.