the thing about vernacular architecture is it comes from within, it doesn’t come from a slide rule or a calculator, its a feeling thing, a feeling that only experience can give you, there are no shortcuts. its also building from a set of parameters, or needs that are often outside the kinds of dictates most modern housing is subject to. its the sort of feeling that suggests you’ve done it before. if i built a kind of house called a stone ender in rhode island in 1693,
i wish i’d remembered better how i’d done it before, maybe i could have remembered some things that might have eased the way, as i can’t say it was any easier this time, but then maybe it wasn’t supposed to be easy, maybe the very nature of the difficulty of building it (this current home) has imbued the house with something, spirit, something you don’t get from effortlessness.
although it goes against what i would generally advocate in terms of building, sometimes (there are moments, and the more you build the more capable you can become at this) when you have to dispense with your level and tape measure, and trust your instincts. principally here, i’m talking about scale and proportion, and to an extent a sensitivity toward different materials, how they go together, how they relate, as much as join. not everything is measurable, some things have to be gauged, and possibly the better a builder you are the more you are likely to be able to just gauge things, and gauge them right. what i would consider good building practice is having the good sense to know when that is, when to put down your tools and just look at what you’re doing. long ago, an art teacher of mine recommended walking round the thing you were trying to draw, to see it from other points of view, and not get stuck only looking at it from one fixed position, and when you are making something 3 dimensionally, this advice could not be more useful. sometimes with building you need to walk away from the thing to see it in a broader context, not just how it sits in the landscape, and sometimes i should listen to my own advice.
after finishing framing and roofing, the next stage was to infill between the posts and beams. like always there were not only a bunch of choices, but a bunch of considerations, mostly about availability of materials and time, and generally this boiled down to trying to continue to build in a vernacular way. for me, this whole build has been about using the traditions i have learnt and grown up with and by employing the materials that surrounds us, timber and stone.
vernacular architecture begins out of the need to be somewhere and build a house. often the reason to be in that place is because of an activity like farming which is often place specific, which limits the kind of building and structures you can realistically construct. this area specificity inevitably governs the choices that you will have access to, to an extent how you can use them, and your knowledge and background influences will decide how able you are to do anything. vernacular architecture has to begin somewhere, even, i realised, if it begins with me.
after rejecting the initial idea of miles of glazing, i considered hand splitting my own chestnut laths, and rendering over them in lime motar, but, the process of riving them out i found was even more time consuming than splitting shakes, and since i needed to cover something in the region of 200 sq meters worth it was going to amount to a monumental quantity of lath (thousands of linear meters), aside from nailing up (and countless thousands of nails). time, patience and my body all shouted no.
so i chose to clad part of the frame in stone, and part of it in timber weatherboard, in the same manner of vernacular buildings in rhode island, known as stone enders.
i’m sure some will wonder why the hell i did it this way when it appears not tp relate to other existing buildings in this area, where was my sensitivity? and i would say it was more to the place and the environment, to the material choices. those homes in rhode island, were built by men like me, from england, whose knowledge was carpentry and who had the benefit of some natural stone lying around, which required little or no shaping, and whose cost, unlike brick, was minimal.
it was people investing in their knowledge, ability, and tools, and making rather than buying materials, that created in that area at that time a crafted approach to that kind of architecture. and although this isn’t the answer for everyone, it might be the answer for some.
since the 16th century, weatherboarding became a popular way of cladding the outside of timber-frame buildings, particularly in the south east of england, where there is also little or no natural stone to build with and where brick’s were an expensive commodity. often on the face of the building most exposed to the worst of the weather, generally those faces south and west, were covered in boards, hence weatherboard. historically, either riven oak or elm boards were used untreated and left to weather grey, but, by the 18th century and the increase in baltic trade, sawn pine became more widespread, as it was cheaper and easier to produce than riven hardwoods.
i bought sawn pine boards (local, not baltic) and ran one side through the thickness planer, hand planed the leading edge, and nailed them over the breather membrane at 5 1/2″ gauge (allowing a 1 1/2″ head lap out of a 7″ board)
historically, protective finish varied from pine tar or coal tar, to lime wash with or without ox blood, then lead paint. in the end we elected to use a flax oil stain a blue grey colour as close to naturally weathered boards as we could get.
all of the stone for the cladding came from the pre-existing buildings i demolished. it was re cut by hand (with a brick trowel if you really want to know) and laid in a lime mix. the whole thing went up with only a level, and sometimes a string line, the process was slow enough not to need mixing in the mixer but just in the barrow. the calmness of this approach allows for more care and consideration, however on the other hand if you are paying someone else to do it you would question its economic viability.
sometimes the answers we are looking for don’t lie waiting for us out there in the miasma of the future but lay in the past, they lay in our own traditions, and understandings, and sometimes we only have to look within to find those answers, and it is all the builders i have ever worked with and whose work i have observed that i have to thank for my understanding and knowledge.