for People with a Passion for Period Property

Do's and Don'ts of Cottage Restoration

By Greg Stevenson

1930s Home As the standard housing unit of the rural poor for centuries, the cottage home is in many ways the most traditional building type in Britain. Certainly historic cottages have endeared the romantic hearts of many with their 'chocolate-box' rustic charm.

Many people tackle a cottage restoration as the compact nature of the building means that the total restoration cost is often not too great. Renovating a cottage can be very rewarding as even un-skilled hands can easily do so much of the work. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

Don't:

  • Don't rush into major works! Live with the house and the space before making big decisions. You will be amazed how many times you change your mind as you learn to live with the house during different seasons.
  • Don't tackle the whole house at once. Renovating one small area at a time makes the whole project more manageable, and means that you learn skills as you go along. It may take three carpenters or blacksmiths before you find the one that works well with you, and employing tradesmen on small projects gives you the chance to try them out before you are committed to a large outlay.
  • Don't extend the house more than 25%. If you really need that much more space then consider moving home, and selling the cottage onto someone who is looking for living space of the size that is offered. A cottage with a huge conservatory and granny-annexe is no longer a cottage!
  • Don't worry about spending more on a property than its commercial value if you really love it. After all we spend thousands on our cars in the full knowledge that they depreciate. If only more people saw their homes as their prized possession, rather than a 5-year investment plan, then we would see much better renovation work! A decent restoration can significantly enhance the value of a property, but even if you don't make a profit you can take pleasure in the knowledge that your efforts have been worthwhile.
  • Don't forget that cottages were the homes of the poorest members of society. Don't over-modernise the interior or make them too luxurious. Ankle deep carpets and gilded mirrors aren't cottage style, and won't look good.
  • Don't expect every room in your house to be constantly warm and dry. Cottage life was a hard-life - it was the Victorians who romanticised them. Leaving one room that is only heated by an open fire (and no central heating) will be rewarding as you 'snug up' in winter and learn the skills of fire making.
  • Don't feel that you have to strip every room back to expose original details. Consider keeping later additions if they add to the history of the room. A 1920s fireplace retained in what was originally a Victorian chimneybreast is a lot more honest than a replacement reproduction Victorian grate. Cottages changed over time, and we should recognise this.
  • Don't be scared of using modern fittings where they are being added as new. Simple modern electrical fittings are a lot more honest than many brass reproductions. Most cottages didn't get electricity until as late as the 1950s, so don't start adding Edwardian reproduction light switches which would only have been seen in the richest of homes.
  • Don't replace what you can repair. An honest and visible repair is better than a fake reproduction.
  • Don't use modern building and decorating techniques that will trap moisture in the walls. Few if any cottage were built with damp proof courses. Walls and floors all need to breathe. Use lime instead of cement, distemper instead of plastic-basic paints etc.

Do:

  • Do approach the house as if you are its guardian. In the history of a 300-year old cottage your residency is but a short event. So if a few things about the house don't suit your requirements, be prepared to put up with them. Houses can be more important than people!
  • Do read as much as you can. Search out the best texts in libraries and bookshops. Get your name on the mailing lists of specialist bookshops that sell architectural books. Then you will have the first chance to buy the many useful books that are out of print when second-hand copies become available. Join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (http://www.spab.org.uk/) who organise courses, and publish great leaflets and publications.
  • Do research the vernacular traditions of your area. Find out as much as you can about local building materials, styles, and building types. If you see a well restored example then pluck up the courage to congratulate the owners. You may make a valuable new friend who can help provide useful contacts. Join local building preservation trusts and the Vernacular Architecture Group. VAG produce newsletters, a journal and have two conferences a year (http://www.vag.org.uk/).
  • Do be prepared to compromise. Old buildings weren't designed for modern living. Space and light are wonderful things, but you may have to compromise on them if you want to enjoy the benefits of a traditional cottage.
  • Do remember your legal obligations if your cottage is listed or in a conservation area. Find out exactly what you can and can't do, and don't forget that all the buildings within your curtilage are usually listed. That may include the garden walls, railings, sheds, garages etc.
  • Do remember that cottagers would have made use of whatever materials were available. Practicality often came before aesthetics! Being too 'precious' about details has 'killed' the atmosphere of many an interior.
  • Do source reclaimed materials whenever possible. Get old window glass from skips, ask builders to look out for items, or place a small ad. As a last resort go to a reclamation yard - but don't be tempted by the fancy fittings that were designed for larger and richer homes.
  • Do consider buying appropriate antique furnishings. Read up on country furniture. Enrol on a course to make your own Windsor chair! Shire produce a couple of great guides to English Country Furniture and Welsh Country Furniture for under 5. Remember pine was virtually never stripped - this fashion began in the 1960s. Also join the regional furniture society http://www.regionalfurnituresociety.com/
  • Do consider establishing a traditional cottage garden. There are several books on this. A good introduction is Geoff Hamilton's Cottage Gardens published by BBC Books. Join the cottage garden society (http://www.thecgs.org.uk/).
  • Do enjoy your home. Tell others about your work and encourage them to learn more about their own homes. Evangelism is what we need!

View Greg's own cottage restoration at http://www.underthethatch.co.uk where you can enjoy a Winter or Spring break from as little as 90!

Further Reading:

Bebb R. Welsh Country Furniture Princes Risborough: Shire

Brunskill R. 2001 (new edn.) Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture

Traditional Buildings of Britain

Timber Building in Britain

Houses & Cottages of Britain

Hamilton G. 1997 Geoff Hamilton's Cottage Gardens London: BBC Books

Harris R. Discovering Timber-Framed Buildings. Princes Risborough: Shire

Powell C. Discovering Cottage Architecture. Princes Risborough: Shire

Reid R. 1977 The Shell Book of Cottages London: Michael Joseph (Out of Print)

Wiliam E. 1988 Home-made Homes (Out of Print)

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