Last edited 12 May 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Understanding vernacular architecture

Many of them having survived for hundreds of years, and with close links to our varied landscape, our rural vernacular buildings must be understood if they are to be conserved.

A granary at the Weald and Downland Museum (Photo: Alexandra Fairclough).

The rich and varied geological heritage of the UK is the foundation of the stunning rural landscape and the traditional buildings we see today. Our rural vernacular buildings have survived for hundreds of years, whereas many old, traditional buildings in towns and cities have been lost due to urbanisation. Buildings were still being traditionally built until as late as the 19th century, until a time when transport and mechanisation allowed for the economic and efficient movement of materials, and technology allowed for the standardisation of construction resulting in a common form of building.

Vernacular architecture can be described as buildings that reflect local traditions using locally available materials such as earth, timber, stone or brick, built for the ordinary person. These buildings vary according to the use of the building, the geology, topography and climate of the region in which they are built, and social, technological and construction concepts. The result is a very varied architecture, even within the same locality, which contributes positively to the character of the countryside in terms of local distinctiveness by appearance, layout, construction methods and materials, and use.

In the past, the generally smaller, simpler, less showy buildings were not understood or appreciated. As early as 1857, the architect George Gilbert Scott described such architecture as ‘spontaneous productions of our builders, where no external influence is brought to bear on them’. He is said to have been the first to refer to such buildings as ‘vernacular’.[1] He wrote that he wanted to call attention to the meanness of our vernacular architecture, referring to ‘architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings, rather than essentially monumental’.

The writer, social commentator, and critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) raised the level of interest in our vernacular heritage as a response to the mechanised processes of construction during the 19th century. He inspired the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877), the National Trust (1895) and the arts and crafts movement to return to craftsmanship through materials and traditional methods.

It was not until the 1950s, when the Vernacular Architecture Group in England was founded, that the term vernacular became fixed when referring to buildings constructed by local tradesmen using local materials and building traditions. The group formalised the previously ad hoc study, categorisation and recording of buildings of the UK.

During this time, the art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) was referring to traditionally constructed buildings when he wrote that ‘nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal’.[2] It was the American writer and architect Bernard Rudofsky (1905–1988) who first promoted the great value of vernacular buildings on the international stage, in terms of their artistic and cultural richness, and functional importance.[3]

Today vernacular architecture is recognised as an important part of our heritage by international conventions, national laws, policies, standards and guidance. But is it understood by construction specialists or the owners of such buildings?

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)[4] succinctly describes the importance of our vernacular heritage:

‘The built vernacular heritage occupies a central place in the affection and pride of all peoples. It has been accepted as a characteristic and attractive product of society. It appears informal, but nevertheless orderly. It is utilitarian and at the same time possesses interest and beauty. It is a focus of contemporary life and at the same time a record of the history of society. Although it is the work of man it is also the creation of time. It would be unworthy of the heritage of man if care were not taken to conserve these traditional harmonies which constitute the core of man’s own existence’.[5]

One of the essential tools in the UK heritage specialist’s knowledge toolkit is a thorough understanding of the history of our built heritage, including both polite and vernacular buildings. That equates to at least 1,000 years of building. Vernacular buildings are the most varied, all of them being different, which makes understanding them a little more difficult. They provide information about the living conditions, local traditions, skills and customs of our ancestors. They are a tangible link to our historical interaction with the land and its materials, demonstrating a record of traditional construction techniques and craft skills. This makes them individually important. These elements constitute the heritage values referred to as evidential, historic, aesthetic and communal, which together contribute to significance.[6]

The conservation professional must be able to identify vernacular buildings, and their importance in relation to the locality and the social context in which they were built. They should be able quickly to survey and analyse a building to establish the materials used, the form of construction, its condition, and any maintenance requirements. They should recognise alterations undertaken since the property was first built and often assess any new development proposals, including design, and especially the impact on the host building.

It is crucial for the heritage specialist to understand ‘significance’, including the uniqueness and fragility of our traditionally built heritage as we approach the biggest challenge of this century: that of climate change and the objectives of achieving a target of net zero for greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2050. Given that the UK has one of the oldest and least efficient housing stocks in western Europe, such improvements will require alterations to many vernacular heritage assets, whether designated or not.

Clusters of rural vernacular buildings contribute significantly to the character of many of our conservation areas. While some of these are listed as buildings or structures of special architectural or historic interest, many are unlisted and vulnerable, and require careful attention. Age and rarity of a building is a consideration in the listing process, and all buildings erected before 1700 that contain a significant proportion of original fabric should be listed. However, vernacular architecture was not as well understood at the time of the early listings as it is now. In addition, many of the later listing surveys would not have included internal or rear inspections, and those located off the beaten track may have been missed.

Both the British Standard 7913: Guide to the Conservation of Historic Buildings (2013) and the PAS (Publicly Available Specifications) 2035/2030:2023, which set out specific standard requirements for retrofitting dwellings, are intended to ensure best practice in the management and treatment of historic buildings, whether listed or not. However, this does not ensure that all practitioners have a thorough knowledge and understanding of traditional buildings, or that they can adequately identify their significance. Moreover, heritage statements relating to listed buildings submitted as part of works to or development of or relating to a listed building cannot always be relied on, as they can vary in quality and accuracy, despite all the guidance available[7].

Vernacular buildings vary in type and form, depending on their function. They include dwellings, farm buildings and small industrial buildings. To understand these buildings and define significance, the heritage specialist needs first to gain an understanding of each building type; the geography, social history and geology; and, related to that, the palette of walling and roofing materials used in each region, subregion and area.

The study of vernacular architecture has been developed by archaeologists, academics and professional and amateur enthusiasts over the last 70 years. Many accessible regional groups study traditional buildings and have useful archives. There are many resources to aid the understanding and interpretation of vernacular buildings of all types, including scholarly books and excellent guidance from the government agencies[8], the IHBC and the national amenity societies. The Vernacular Architecture Group has an extensive bibliography.[9] A handbook with approximate dates and identification tables to assist when looking at vernacular buildings is the authoritative text by the late RW Brunskill, the Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture.

In terms of repair and maintenance as well as retrofit, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings provides an extensive online knowledge base. There are also building masonry databases for England[10], Scotland[11] and Northern Ireland[12], and one in the pipeline for Wales[13].

A good knowledge of vernacular buildings will help to ensure that any alterations will be sensitively executed. It will provide the basis for understanding how the structure and materials of a building relate to its environment, to prevent building failures and to ensure that any retrofit proposals for energy saving will be effective. The significance of each vernacular building and its capacity for change are based on many different but interlinked factors. By understanding the UK’s vernacular heritage and the close links to our varied landscape, people begin to value them and care for them ensuring their survival for future generations.


This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 178, published in December 2023. It was written by Alexandra Fairclough, a conservation officer in Cheshire, who studied with RW Brunskill at Manchester University’s school of architecture. She lectures on architectural history, building conservation and heritage law, including vernacular architecture, as a visiting lecturer at Birmingham City University. She is a member of the Vernacular Architecture Group.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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