The value of vernacular, by Jeremy Spencer of Janine Stone

When planning a new house or transforming an existing one, local architectural styles offer a rich seam of inspiration that will ensure it blends beautifully with its surroundings. Jeremy Spencer of Janine Stone shares the secret of getting it right with Country Life’s Executive Editor, Giles Kime.

Britain boasts a richness of vernacular architecture that ranges from medieval oak-framed buildings to handsome stone houses, reflecting local heritage, materials and craft. This offers inspiration for new houses, as well as additions and interventions to existing ones. As Britain’s leading specialist in beautifully designed and crafted homes that combine the best of classic and contemporary, Janine Stone has decades of experience in employing vernacular styles to create timeless properties in harmony with their setting.

What is your definition of a local vernacular style?

The vernacular style of an area tends to be driven by the materials that were locally available, particularly in the construction of functional buildings such as stone, timber, clay and slate. These are what lend an area its distinctive appearance and also create a sense of place; think of the difference between the timber-framed buildings in areas such as Sussex and villages in North Yorkshire that were constructed almost exclusively of stone. Construction methods also contributed to these differences; techniques such as stone carving, weatherboarding, pargeting and decorative brickwork all have an important part to play in these regional distinctions. Employing these techniques is a great way to preserve these skills. In many areas, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the rail network allowed builders to work with a wider variety of materials from all over the country and, since then, these differences have become less pronounced.

The use of vernacular style ensures houses fit seamlessly into their surroundings. Credit: Shutterstock

What do you regard as the importance of vernacular styles in the context of a new or extended house?

You only need to look at the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens to see how the use of vernacular styles can ensure that new houses slip seamlessly into their surroundings. Significant examples of these are Great Dixter in East Sussex, which combines a 15th-century house with new additions, and Deanery Garden, which Lutyens designed for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life. The same is true of extensions and ancillary buildings, which are hugely enhanced by vernacular styles. These can take many different forms, including a loose interpretation of the principal house or a completely different approach.

How is it possible to balance contemporary styles with local vernacular?

The two sit very happily side by side, complementing one another beautifully. It’s important that they are joined in a way that functions well and looks coherent. When considering a mix of vernacular architecture and contemporary interventions, using traditional local materials to create the modern elements can be extremely effective, especially when they are used in a surprising way. Glass is a wonderful material for extensions, but there are plenty of others, particularly brick, flint and lead, that add richness to a building. Whichever material is chosen, however, it is vital that it’s trimmed and finished well to avoid issues such as staining.

Vernacular marvel: The ancient flint building of Pulls Ferry in Norwich, Norfolk. Credit: Shutterstock

How important is research when considering vernacular architecture?

Research is vital both for determining the nature of vernacular styles and understanding the reasons that buildings are the way they are. An environmental survey will reveal why a building has evolved in a certain way—crofters’ cottages that are hunkered down into the landscape or houses that have been weatherboarded to protect them from  weather conditions specific to the area. These findings aren’t merely useful for informing the design of buildings and interventions in a vernacular style, but also for contemporary ones. Over the course of the centuries, people have erected buildings that reflect their setting and often these responses are as much about function as they are about aesthetics.

Janine Stone & Co specialises in building and renovating great houses, incorporating architecture, interior design and construction management, and has been providing Country Life with insights and expertise on different elements of newbuild and renovation projects through this regular ‘Masterclass’ series. To speak with Janine Stone & Co, please telephone 020–7349 8888 or visit