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Traditional Building Materials

Traditional Building Materials

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Traditional Building Materials

212 pages
4 hours
Jul 20, 2012


Although steel and glass dominate modern cities, Britain boasts innumerable beautiful examples of more traditional construction methods. Many date from the period before easy nationwide transportation, when materials were usually grown or extracted locally, and as a result Britain has a varied legacy of vernacular buildings that reflects its multitude of different landscapes. They display a rich and colorful palette of materials, from the honey-colored stone of the Cotswolds to the red earth of Devon and grey granite of Aberdeen. In this book, buildings historian Matthew Slocombe looks at the range of materials used for walls and roof coverings, explores the processes involved in their extraction, production and manufacture, and outlines the diverse range of skills required for their use in construction.
Jul 20, 2012

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Traditional Building Materials - Matthew Slocombe



THE EARLIEST HOUSE so far discovered in Britain is around 10,500 years old; archaeologists found it at a site near Scarborough. It represents the first point at which a settled domestic existence can be identified for people living in the British Isles. Like much traditional British housing, the walls of the Scarborough building had a structure made from a material close at hand: timber. This has been, and continues to be, a staple of domestic construction, even though the ways in which wood was used have changed and developed. Building with timber occurred in nearly all areas, though traditions were naturally much stronger where woodland was plentiful. Sparsely wooded areas, like the Scottish islands, inevitably used timber more selectively. Where timber was not the primary structural material, a different method of constructing walls was required. Building with earth or stone was the usual alternative, though brick grew in popularity as production methods developed. Common approaches to construction exist across Britain, but the materials available locally and the craft traditions involved in their use have shaped the character of regions and localities.

This book offers an introduction to the wide variety of materials and techniques used for the construction of Britain’s traditional buildings. It focuses on housing, and specifically on its most fundamental elements: walls and roof coverings. All building materials, however innovative at first, become ‘traditional’ if they are used in similar ways over a considerable period. For the purposes of this book the term is applied to walling and roofing materials in well-established use before the twentieth century. The period around 1900 was a transitional point in construction before new materials and methods, such as concrete blockwork, cavity walling and damp proof courses became widespread. Although materials such as brick and stone have continued to play a role in modern cavity walled buildings, this book looks at earlier traditions where earth and masonry formed solid walls, and substantial timbers were used to create a structural framework. For much of the past, thatch was the material normally used to cover house roofs, with stone slates or lead sheets reserved for the buildings of the wealthy or where manufacture was local. Fired clay tiles and materials like Welsh slate took off when production and transportation allowed.

Pembridge, Herefordshire, c. 1900, with a rich mix of brick, timber framing, thatch, stone roofing tiles, plaster and limewash.

A large team of builders from the early twentieth century, wearing flat caps not hard hats. Note also the use of timber scaffolding.

Traditional masonry walling involved solid wall construction, without damp proof courses or deep foundations (left). From the mid-late nineteenth century, modern cavity wall construction began to be introduced (right). The arrows indicate the movement of rainwater and ground moisture.

The ways in which traditional building materials have been used across Britain are often as recognisable as a regional accent. The steeply pitched thatched roofs of East Anglia are distinct from the shallow sloped, stone slate coverings of the Pennines. The softly rounded earth walls of Devon contrast with the crisply cut sandstone of Edinburgh. But whether Upland or Lowland, rural or urban, inland or coastal, all areas have made practical use of the materials to hand, with little waste. Thatching materials were the by-product of the harvest, and in rural areas field stones, which were a nuisance to agriculture, could be removed and recycled for house walls or for the plinth at the base of earth or timber buildings. In all areas the basic purpose of housing was to offer shelter from the variable and sometimes hostile climate. As one rental book of 1698 from Warwickshire noted, ‘the Great Lord of Heaven and Earth hath reserved such a power in his hand that he can and doth att his pleasure send a cold winterly season in the midest of the Spring.’ Provision for heavy rain was made in most parts of Britain, with the roof overhanging the walls at the eaves and materials like earth and timber kept off damp ground. Richard Carew noted in 1602, in his Survey of Cornwall, that ‘as for Brick and Lath walls, they can hardly brooke the Cornish weather, and the use thereof being put in trial by some, was found so unprofitable, as it is not continued by any.’ Traditional construction might almost be viewed as a form of natural selection. Builders around the country evolved techniques that allowed the materials available to be used in ways that could withstand local environmental conditions. On the west coasts of Wales and Scotland straw ropes weighted with stones helped keep the thatch in place against fierce winds; and lime or clay renders were frequently applied to protect exteriors.

A sixteenth-century carved oak bench end from north Devon depicting builder’s ladder and axe.

Sydney R. Jones’s depiction of England’s geology and the materials used for building, 1912. Jones accepted the drawing worked only ‘roughly and broadly’. It does not indicate use of earth in building.

An owner’s inclination was naturally to build as well as possible within available resources, but good building practice might be undermined if other factors had an influence over the construction process. Among them were speculative building and tenancy agreements with short lease periods. As John Smith said in his 1798 General View of the Agriculture of the County of Argyll ‘the landlords, without giving sufficiently long leases ... are disposed to throw all the burden on the tenant, except giving him, perhaps, the timber for the roof.’ There was clearly no incentive to build well, at your own expense, if the results might be removed at the landlord’s whim.

Houses required substantial quantities of material for their construction and repair. It was not uncommon for timbers or masonry to be recycled from earlier buildings. Reused timbers are often betrayed by the presence of redundant joints; slender, salvaged Roman bricks are sometimes found in Saxon and Norman structures. If reusable materials were not available, new materials would have to be obtained. Today, a global market is provided through every local builder’s merchants, with materials like slate and stone available cheaply from India or China. This easy supply has inevitably eroded the degree of local distinctiveness that traditional building materials once brought. In the late seventeenth century, when visiting a town in an unfamiliar part of the North, Celia Fiennes ‘thought its buildings were all of brick, but after found it to be the coullour of the stone which I saw in the quarries ...’ Local distinctiveness was inevitably more marked at the lower end of the social spectrum where the cost of transportation could be afforded least well. Poorer builders in rural locations would make use of any cheap and serviceable material on their (potential) doorstep. Heather or ferns, for example, might be acquired from common land and used as a roof covering. Despite the limitation of road transport before the twentieth century, for wealthier owners there was always more scope for obtaining building materials from further afield. Stone might even be brought from places like Caen in France for the most prestigious commissions. Those able and willing to bear the cost often used waterways as the most practical means of transport and this use grew with industrialisation. There was a tax on slate carried by sea until 1831, yet despite this it has been estimated

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