Cottage Orné:   Construction

Over the last two weeks, I have posted articles here on both the style and the philosophy behind the popularity of cottages orné during the Regency. It is time to conclude this series with a discussion of how they were actually built and to consider some of the materials used in their construction. There were practically no building codes during the Regency, and the few that had been enacted were seldom enforced, particularly in the country, the location where most cottages orné were constructed. Therefore, builders could use just about any materials they pleased, unless the owner of the new cottage had some objection. Honest builders used the best quality materials the cottage owner could afford, but there were always a few dishonest builders who tried to save money by using inferior materials.

Shall we construct a cottage orné as it might have been done during the Regency?

We will begin the same way a cottage orné would have been constructed, from the ground up. Literally. Before construction could begin, even before plans would be drawn, the ground upon which the cottage would stand must be chosen. A wealthy landowner with a large property would typically retain the services of an architect to design his new cottage orné. Even before the architect put pencil to paper, he would first visit the property where the cottage was to be built. The architect, and perhaps an assistant, would walk the entire ground in order to familiarize themselves with the area, what during the Regency was called the genus loci, which translates from Latin as meaning "the spirit of the place." A good architect would want to soak up the ambiance of the property, which would help him design a cottage that would harmonize with the location. On a more practical level, the architect, or his assistant, would make rough sketches and take notes on the topography of the area, particularly the elevations of the land and the quality of the soil, any available water features, significant areas of forestation and any existing roads or paths. In addition, he would study the various vistas which could be had from different points on the ground, as well as determining the directions of both the rising and setting sun. If the architect was not from the area, he would also investigate any local sources of building materials, such as stone, brick, lumber or thatch. By designing a cottage which would take advantage of these local materials, a responsible architect could reduce the construction schedule with the use of local materials, as well as keeping costs down with reduced transport charges. There were always some clients for whom money was no object and the architect was free to design a cottage orné using any materials which pleased him or his client, regardless of the distance from which they must be transported to the construction site.

Upon his return to his studio, the architect would go over his notes and sketches to be sure he had a full understanding of all aspects of the property, its genus loci, and only then would he begin to design this new cottage orné. He must first choose its exact location on the ground. This decision may or may not be made in consultation with his client. Some clients chose to be fully involved in the entire process of construction, while at the other end of the spectrum, some clients hired the architect, directed them to the property and wanted to hear nothing more until it was time to collect the key for the finished cottage. Most clients fell more toward the middle of that spectrum, and wished to be consulted on major decisions, such as the siting of the cottage, and its general appearance, but left the details to their architect. Considerations for siting a cottage, such as the views which could be seen from the windows of its principal rooms, and the sun exposure which specific rooms should have were certainly of great importance. However, more practical considerations would also have an influence on the exact placement of the cottage. It must be built on stable, dry soil with good drainage to ensure the cellars were not damp, but it must also be built in reasonable proximity to a sufficient and steady supply of clean water. It should not be built on rising ground where it would be exposed to harsh prevailing winds, nor should it be built too close to any existing trees with large branches which could damage the windows, walls or roof during storms or high winds.

Once the site of the cottage was determined, its design could commence. Most architects would concern themselves first with the principal rooms of the cottage, those that would be occupied by the owners, rather than their servants. At this point, the architect would refer back to the notes he had taken on the path of the sun over the property, for one of the most important considerations in the placement of these rooms was the time of day during which they would receive the rays of the sun. On this subject, the well-known Regency architect, John Buonarotti Papworth, in his pattern book, which included designs for cottages orné as well as other rural buildings, Rural Residences, consisting of a Series of Designs for Cottages, Decorated Cottages, Small Villas and other Ornamental Buildings; … wrote, "It is therefore desirable that the house should be so placed as to be benefited by them [healthful breezes], and also that the sun may visit the apartments according as his presence may be wished for at the different periods of the day. … Thus the rooms of frequent use command a variety of temperature from the morning and evening …" Papworth advised that no house or cottage should be placed so that any exterior wall faced a cardinal direction, rather the corners of a cottage should do so. He suggests that morning or breakfast rooms should face southeast, to ensure they get plenty of morning light, but not full sun, and sitting and drawing rooms should face southwest, again so they have afternoon light, but never full sun. You may remember the very disparaging remark which Lady Catherine de Bourgh made in Pride and Prejudice, when she paid her visit to Elizabeth Bennet’s home at Longbourn. She imperiously surveyed the sitting room into which she had been conducted and said, "This must be a most inconvenient sitting-room for the evening in summer: the windows are full west." Certainly an architectural faux pas, and, in Lady Catherine’s eyes, clearly a social one as well! Papworth goes on to advise that dining rooms should face the northeast, to ensure they are not overheated, especially in summer, by the time the family sits down to dinner. He relegates the "offices," by which he means the food-preparation areas, to the northwest, less so for the servants’ convenience, since it was usually the least desirable direction, but would be in proximity to the dining room. Once the placement of the principal rooms had been decided, the secondary rooms, like bedchambers, would then be placed, usually in consultation with the client.

The placement of the principal and secondary rooms was only the first part of the design for the more luxurious cottages orné. Though by definition a cottage should be small, wealthy men of commerce who chose to live in one still wanted all the amenities of a larger house. They wanted sculleries and laundries, still rooms and dairies, pantries and wine cellars, and they also needed to provide housing for all those who served in their household. The solution to this dilemma typically went underground and away from the cottage. Literally. Many grand cottages orné included outbuildings, also usually in the cottage orné style, which both ornamented the grounds and provided housing for servants and staff. The same building might be large enough to provide utilitarian spaces such as the laundry, still room and the dairy, but in other cases, yet another building was constructed for those purposes. Such a cottage orné complex would also include very extensive cellars for wine and food storage, as well as a network of underground tunnels which provided access between the main building and the important outbuildings. Thus, the servants could go about their work without disrupting the view of the cottage residents, though they would certainly have to walk a much greater distance each day than might servants in a house which included the utilitarian areas under the same roof.

Now, while the architect is engaged in drawing up the plans for this new cottage orné, let us consider those cottages which were constructed without the necessity of a professional architect. As I noted last week, there were many people of modest means who also wished to enjoy the healthful benefits of life in the country in a cottage orné, but could not afford to hire an architect to design their new home. Most of these people would scour the available architectural pattern books which included plans and elevations of a selection of cottages orné, and, once they found the one they liked best, they would hire a local builder to construct it. Most experienced builders were able to work from the simple plans published in such pattern books, as houses built during the Regency were significantly less complex than houses of today. They did not have to worry about ductwork for heating and air conditioning, laying pipes for natural gas, or running wiring for electricity, telephones, internet connections or dish or cable TV. Walls, windows, doors, chimneys, a pipe or two for incoming and outgoing water, and the roof were the primary requirements and plans were not all that difficult to prepare. Some clients might have found features of more than one cottage orné in the pattern books they consulted which they wanted the builder to incorporate into their new cottage. Most experienced builders had the necessary drafting skills to be able to prepare simple plans which incorporated all the features their client wanted, as well as slightly increasing or reducing the size of the finished building, as desired. Such clients also typically had much smaller properties, so the decision to site the cottage was usually fairly straightforward. Either the builder, the client, or both, would decide the location and how the new cottage should be situated in terms of the quality of the soil, the main water source, the path of the sun and the views from the main windows. The builder would also usually consult with the client to discuss the substitution of any building materials, as those called out in the pattern book might not be readily available in the area where the new cottage was to be built. By substituting materials available locally, it would be possible to keep construction costs down and reduce the time needed to build the cottage.

Whether drawn by an architect or the builder, the plans for this new cottage orné are ready, and it is time to begin actual construction of the cottage. Naturally, the first step is the excavation for the foundations and then the laying of the stone walls. Foundation stone is one building material for which there was no substitute. Neither brick nor wood had the strength or longevity necessary to provide foundational support for a building. Though concrete had been used since Roman times, it was not yet in common use for building foundations in Regency England. The walls of the foundation for the new cottage would have had to be constructed of stone, and, if it was not available locally, it must be brought to the construction site, regardless of the cost. Fortunately, stone was quarried in many places throughout the British Isles, so, unless a client wanted a specific type of stone from a distant location for their cottage foundation, the cost of the stone and its transport to the construction site would not be prohibitive. Once the stone foundation was in place, the first floor could be laid and then it was time to erect the exterior walls.

The exterior walls of a cottage orné could be constructed of several different materials. Stone was typically the most expensive, but it was preferred by some, as it was seen to be one of the more "natural" building materials and it was certainly, by far, the most sturdy. But on the other hand, it was also rather cold, particularly in winter, so not everyone wanted a cottage with stone walls. It must be noted that seldom, if ever, were cottages meant to house servants or staff built of stone, but a cottage orné which was built as a dairy typically did have stone walls, where the cool stone would serve to cool the room, a distinct advantage in a dairy. Brick was a more affordable building material, that is, some brick. The preferred brick was yellow in color, " … but this kind being generally dear, is seldom employed in the construction of Cottages." So advises William Atkinson, in his Views of Picturesque Cottages, with Plans, of 1805. He goes on to say, "Bricks, for the most part, are of a fiery red colour, which is very disagreeable to the eye." In addition, bricks could only be laid up in regular courses and regularity was most certainly not a desired feature of the cottage orné style. Yet, the majority of Regency cottages orné were constructed of brick, almost always red brick. But the twin drawbacks of their color and the regularity of their courses was overcome by the application of other materials.

Once the brick walls were laid up and the mortar was dry and cured, one popular treatment was to cover the walls with a compound called rough-cast. Rough-cast was a blend of quick-lime, sharp sand, and a coloring agent which gave the mixture the appearance of stone. All exterior walls would be coated with this faux stone material, and, if properly applied, it would result in a permanent surface which could not be distinguished from stone. The rough-cast would only improve with age and weathering as it acquired stains from lichens, mosses and storms. Another popular treatment by which to disguise the brick walls of a cottage orné was to cover them with stucco. Like the rough-cast mixture, the stucco would be colored to resemble stone and would be applied with a rough, uneven surface to further maintain the impression the walls were made of stone. Some architects and builders went so far as to have small pebbles, up to the size of hazelnuts, stuck into the wet stucco mixture immediately after it was applied to the exterior walls of a cottage orné. Very small pebbles could be mixed into the wet stucco, but the larger pebbles were to be pressed, by hand, into the wet stucco once it was on the walls. This wall treatment was called paretta work, after the Italian word paretta, which meant a small net, since the pebbles were placed in a net-like pattern. In his architectural pattern book, Rural Residences, consisting of a Series of Designs for Cottages, Decorated Cottages, Small Villas and other Ornamental Buildings; …, 2nd edition, 1832, which was a collection of rustic and rural building patterns he had published in Ackermann’s Repository in 1817 — 1818, J. B. Papworth wrote of paretta work:

… as in this case the plastering has pebbles of a larger size pressed all over it, and which are not afterwards covered by lime-wash, or colour, but exhibit their own surfaces, and the whole becomes enriched by the white reticulations of the plastering in which they are set. The colours of the pebbles should be selected with taste as much of the beauty of the whole will depend upon their fitness to harmonize with those hues by which they are surrounded.

Occasionally, these pebbles might be collected by the owner of the cottage and/or their family, in preparation for the construction of their new home. But in most cases, the builder would acquire the necessary "tasteful" pebbles. Though the paretta work wall treatment certainly enhanced the rustic appearance of the cottage, it was very labor-intensive and thus did raise construction costs, even if the family had gathered the pebbles and unskilled laborers were employed to do the work of placing them.

Typically, both the windows and the doors of the cottage would be made by craftsmen while the walls were under construction. Casement windows with diamond-set panes, similar to those which had been in use since the Middle Ages, were considered the most appropriate type for a cottage orné. However, those early windows had been made of metal, usually iron, and were never well-fitting. Therefore, most window frames for cottages orné were made of wood, which meant they could be made to fit tightly into the window frame, thereby excluding most draughts. Typically, lead glass was used for the panes of these windows, usually hand-blown, crown glass. Crown glass was clear and regular near the outer edge, and the window panes cut from that portion were usually used in the front of the cottage, in the principal rooms. The panes cut from the areas near the center were more irregular and tended to be used in windows for less important rooms. The glass from the very center of the crown, where the pontil rod had been attached, was known as the bulls-eye. These very irregular panes were most often used for cellar windows and other locations where completely clear windows were not necessary. Like the windows, the doors of a cottage orné might be in a medieval style, but there were just as many cottages orné which had doors of the same style as was made for other houses of the time. Nearly all doors were made of wood, hung on metal hinges, usually brass.

As soon as the exterior walls of the cottage were completed, before the doors and windows were installed, the roof must go on. There were a few cottages which had shake roofs, that is wooden shingles. Another few cottages were roofed with red tiles, which were acceptable because of their undulating silhouette when installed and the roughness of the tiles themselves, which were in keeping with the concept of rusticity. There were even more cottages which had slate roofs, and slate was certainly the most durable roofing material available. But slate had a significant aesthetic disadvantage, it was stone and looked like it. When the walls of most cottages orné were made of stone, or made to look like stone, and one of the primary requirements of the picturesque was the juxtaposition of a variety of textures and colors, slate offered no real contrast against the walls of the cottage. The single most preferred roofing material for cottages orné was thatch. Though not as durable as slate, a properly-installed thatch roof can last at least a score of years, if not longer. Thatch looked rustic and it contrasted well with stone walls, both of which were important requirements for the desired appearance of a cottage orné. In addition, it had the added benefit that it was a good insulator, which helped to keep the upper rooms of the cottage warm in winter and cool in summer. Though many people believe that thatch was flammable, it was actually less so than a wood shingle roof. But poor quality thatch had a very serious shortcoming, it was a vermin magnet.

Reed was recommended in most pattern books and other Regency sources as the best thatching material, due to the neatness and durability of the resulting roof. But thatching reeds were more expensive because there was a smaller supply than the alternative, wheat straw, and it usually had to be transported over greater distances. However, a wise homeowner would pay the additional costs for reed thatching to avoid the inconvenience of having to share their home with a multitude of small creatures. No matter how thoroughly wheat straw was threshed, at least a few grains of wheat remained in the straw, which became, in the words of J. B. Papworth:

… a temptation to birds, mice and many kinds of vermin, and accordingly they assail the roof often before the work is finished, for it is known that mice are frequently carried to it even in the materials with which it is composed; thus in a short time it becomes damaged, and eventually destroyed as a perfect covering by the havoc that these little creatures make both on its surface and in its substance, and when once established in their comfortable quarters, they are not easily dispossessed …

Reed had the advantage that it held out no such temptations to vermin, it contained nothing they considered edible. In addition, it was much more rigid than straw, so it was not a preferred nesting material for either mice or birds, and the ends tended to be cut at an angle, making them very sharp and difficult to burrow into. Reed also had an aesthetic advantage as the preferred roofing material for a cottage orné, it would darken more quickly than straw as it weathered, and resulted in a color which was found especially pleasing, both in contrast to the cottage walls, and the foliage which usually accompanied a finished cottage orné. Reed was even less flammable than wheat straw, so from a safety perspective, is was a very good investment for the new cottage orné roof.

In many cases, while the roof was under construction, if the cottage orné was to have a porch or verandah as part of the design, it would be constructed at this time. Most cottages orné did have an attached outside space, a simple, single-level porch for a modest cottage orné to a two-storey verandah for the more substantial and ornate cottages. The upright supports for these exterior additions were often a set whole tree trunks of about the same height and circumference, usually stripped of their bark, though there were a few that were used with the bark still on them. Wooden lattices were sometimes used to screen in these open areas and served as the support for climbing plants which would be trained to grow over them, adding to the rustic and natural appearance of the cottage. At this same time, many flowering plants, shrubs and trees would be planted around the new cottage to soften its silhouette and ensure it nestled naturally into the surrounding property.

When the roof was finished, the exterior doors and the windows were installed. Then the interior walls, the second storey floor and the staircase were all built and finished. Once all the construction was completed, it was time to furnish the cottage. Those who had built a large and commodious cottage orné for themselves would be able to furnish their new home just as they might furnish any other type of house. But those of more modest means who could only afford a smaller, more compact cottage orné might choose to have their builder or a local cabinet-maker construct a number of built-in, space-saving furnishings. Wash-stands, dressing tables and beds which could fold up or slide into walls would help save space in a small bedchamber. Various space-saving features were commonly built-in to the kitchens of cottages orné of modest size, like work surfaces which could fold up or down or built-in storage units which kept floor space clear. The principal rooms of a small cottage might have built-in features, such pocket doors, a set of mirrors which could cover the windows at night or compact, free-standing pieces which could serve multiple purposes. Some rooms might have a combination of both. Once the cottage orné is furnished, it is ready for its new owners.

As I noted above, not all builders were on the up and up. Some would try to cut corners by using inferior materials which could cause problems for the residents of the cottage later. Sub-standard bricks or mortar could begin to crumble within a few years. Rough-cast or paretta work made with poor quality materials, not mixed in the correct proportions or not applied under the correct conditions could peel off the walls under severe weather. Low-grade or improperly installed wooden shingles could result in a leaky roof and the use of wheat straw instead of reeds could easily result in a roof populated with mice, birds or other unwanted creatures. The quality of the various plants which were provided to impart a natural setting for the cottage orné must also be of good quality, and must be planted correctly according to their needs for sunlight and moisture. Otherwise, the trees and shrubs would fail to thrive and might even wither and die within a few months. Flowering plants poorly placed or of inferior quality would not flower, denying yet another aspect of natural beauty to the new cottage. But when a cottage orné was carefully built, with good quality materials, it could be a snug and attractive home which would shelter its inhabitants for many years. With wise and careful plantings, it would soon be fully incorporated into its natural setting, providing a picturesque and healthful atmosphere to those who dwelled within it.

Now that you know how a cottage orné was constructed, do you think you would like living in one? Would you want to live in a large, grand cottage orné or a small, compact one with lots of built-in and fold-away furnishings? And, from which materials would you most like your own cottage orné to be constructed? Would you keep an eye on your builder to ensure the best quality materials you could afford were used? Would you demand reeds for thatching or would you accept wheat straw and is accompanying feathered and furry multitudes? Would you gather your own "tasteful" pebbles for paretta work on your exterior walls, or would you prefer the smoother faux stone look of rough-cast? Would you want your whole cottage covered in vines and crawlers, or would you prefer just a few, here and there, to contrast with the stone walls and thatched roof?

Dear Regency Authors, might a cottage orné figure in one of your upcoming novels? Will it be finished or under construction? Will it be large, with outbuildings and underground tunnels, or will it be small, cozy and compact? Will the rooms be carefully placed to take advantage of the sunlight, or might some arrogant and imperious relative make a disparaging remark about the location of the drawing room or the dining room in relation to the sun? Will one of the residents of the cottage be a hypochondriac, waiting for the picturesque setting and the rustic cottage orné to make them well? Will the builder be a dishonest knave, cheating a young widow building a home for herself and her young children? Will a neighboring landowner keep an eye on the knave to ensure the young widow gets a well-constructed cottage? Will the architect of a grand cottage orné be a gentleman spy, investigating the unsavory and suspicious activities of his client? What other aspects of a cottage orné might serve your story?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Cottage Orné:   Construction

  1. lots of opportunity for murder mysteries in underground tunnels I must say!
    What about Coade Stone? I know it was mostly used to cast classical scenes for the Corinthian sort of building, but was it ever used as cladding to look rough-cast and vernacular? [and will you be doing a follow up to this on Coade Stone and its uses!]
    I have to say I’d demand reed thatching myself but then I’m near enough reed country to know what a good insulator it is…. it’s definitely superior to mere straw as well as not harbouring quite as many tenants. It also cuts to better [sharper] patterns for a decorative roof. It was a dying art but it’s being revived, I’m glad to say, with young apprentices being taken on.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You must be clairvoyant! How else could you know I am indeed planning an article on Coade Stone soon? However, all the information I have found on it to date indicates it was used mostly for building and garden ornaments and seldom for actual building construction. I found no indication it was ever used to clad the walls of any cottage orné, at least not during the Regency. I have a couple of books on request from Inter-Library loan which may shed more light on the use of Coade Stone. Once I have gone through them, I may know more about this fascinating material.

      Like you, I was also very pleased to learn of the revival of thatching during my research. Apparently, especially in England, it is seen as an environmentally-friendly roofing material, which is making it fashionable again. I also discovered that England has, by far, more buildings with thatched roofs than any other country in the world. It has been around since before the Middle Ages, so it is nice to see that it has survived into this second millenium!

      I was thinking along the same lines you were, in terms of those underground tunnels. Who knows what could happen there? 😉



      • Fortunately thatching never died out – and with listed buildings that are thatched, it’s required that they be maintained with new thatching as appropriate [the Government can insist a home owner does this sort of thing with their own home if it’s listed because although an Englishman’s home is his castle, if it’s a heritage building it also belongs to the public kinda sorta]. Sometimes the pattern is actually specified as there are regional variations. I keep meaning to get the Shire publication on it…. so many books on my wish list, so little money in the kitty, lol. It maintains the reed beds too, which keeps rare birds and wildlife populations healthy which is one thing that helps it to be seen as environmentally friendly, and many of the reed beds too are part of the neolithic and bronze age landscapes that are retained as heritage sites for people to visit and understand the early settlers. There are often people prepared to live for long periods in replica round houses as living history.
        I very much look forward to your piece on Coade stone which will be as erudite and well researched as all your excellent posts – and yes, I mean it, it’s not smarm – I know a little about it [there was a brief piece on TV only the other day which brought it to mind in passing, as you might say, on an antiques program] and I had read about it in the past.
        I was thinking there’s also the opportunity to use those tunnels too in a later era when they’re not generally used to break an alibi and when the detective discovers that they exist this opens up whole cans of worms…. not to mention, back near their initial inception, their use for smuggling with the addition of other, unauthorised tunnels running, say, from a false tun of wine in the wine cellar for ‘run’ goods, the lurking of persons up to no good; this is a whole warren full of plot bunnies!

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Thank you for sharing all that great information about thatching. It really is integral to the environment, no wonder it has been around so long. Though I must admit, I won’t be queueing up anytime soon to live in one of those replica round houses. Much as I love history, I also truly enjoy my modern conveniences! 😉

    You have put me to the blush regarding the Coade Stone article. I only hope I can live up to your expectations.

    Now that you mention it, smuggling and cottages orné with underground tunnels were practically made for each other. One of the most popular places to build cottages orné was at the seashore, so they would not have seemed at all out of place, while the plot bunnies ran back and forth in their tunnels.



  3. Pingback: Rural Residences by John B. Papworth | The Regency Redingote

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