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Pastiche Free Zone

Contemporary Vernacular Architecture should never be about ‘Pastiche’, here’s why…

Pastiche free zone - Mole Architects

Above: Broadland Housing by Mole Architects

What is Pastiche?

There is much stigma around the term, but what exactly does ‘Pastiche’ mean? To put it simply, pastiche in Architecture refers to the imitation of style or character of other buildings. The term is not negative however it often has negative connotations, with the belief that the use of ‘pastiche’ within architecture produces unauthentic reproductions of the past.

Why do housebuilders use ‘Pastiche’?

There is something comforting about old things, this goes with old buildings too – it is a common fact that people like historic buildings. They have some sort of warmth about them (even if they can be very cold!), a sense of mystery and unknown, provoking us to use our imagination to conceive what was, how it was used and how it was built. Form, details, and embellishment presented within the architecture convey care and skill, speaking of another time and telling stories which teach us about our history, cultivating pride in our past and heritage. The problem is that:


British volume housebuilders offer their own warped version, at scale, arguing that we all like the ‘traditional’. But this is wrong…. We all like vernacular architecture because it speaks to us of our home, of our place or our people. But the same brick box applied numerous times whether you are in Norfolk or Devon has nothing to do with ‘traditional’. (quote from Clare’s book)


Not only this, but architects in Holland (FARO architekten) initiated a taste test to establish what people want from housing design:


The ‘Smaaktest’ 6 (taste test) …. discovered that both architects and ordinary people agreed that this new third way [Contemporary Vernacular Architecture] was better than a pastiche of the past or the complete disassociation found in Modernist design. (quote from Clare’s book)


Why housing design should learn from but not imitate the past

We can’t recreate the past

All these wonderful things about historic buildings however, cannot be authentically reproduced. We cannot truly recreate or replicate what has already been done, and attempts to do so can often end up as untruthful and unconvincing imitations of the past leading to a superficial echoing of historic character.


Contemporary architecture can learn from vernacular principles without resorting to pastiche, creating high-quality buildings that ‘fit’ in the same way that vernacular architecture does but reflecting a very different time. (quote from Clare’s book)


HHbR Copper Lane cohousing terrace

Above: Copper Lane by HHbR

Originality does not mean outlandish

It is true that it is almost impossible to design something completely unique that has not been done before. However, architecture does not insist on absolute newness or creating a bold statement, it just needs to have a sense of originality. We should always be learning from vernacular and historic architecture, and they should undoubtedly influence our judgement but should not impend our innovation and inspiration for new ideas and design. It is important to consider that one day, the building which we design will be old too, and in the future will represent and speak of our time today.

Lessons from our past

It is quite incredible what our ancestors have accomplished architecturally and we can learn a great deal from them. For many architects, it is hard to imagine a world without CAD, emails or even without a tape measure. Some of our greatest and oldest buildings, were built without any of these.

Clare’s Book

In Clare’s new book, ‘Contemporary Vernacular Design – How British housing can rediscover it’s soul’, she discusses how architecture ‘should learn from the past’, emphasising that successful contemporary vernacular does not use vernacular architecture for aesthetic inspiration only (as these can end up as naïve attempts to replicate originals), but also from the traditions used, whilst keeping in mind that new designs should deal with the kind of homes we need today, which will continue to evolve as our needs and available resources change.


At CNA we aim to learn from our surroundings and context, from the traditions, history and cultures to the physical environment (important views, materials and building methods used, textures, massing and landscape etc.), preserving our heritage where possible, however adapting designs to evolving ways of life and technologies.

CNA visits Brackley Town Hall restoration project

brackley town hall restoration

The first floor – where dances would have taken place!

Insight into a piece of local heritage

Clare, Jaina and Julia from Clare Nash Architecture Ltd got the chance to take a tour of Brackley Town Hall, which is currently undergoing restoration.  It was fantastic to see how a project team undertakes the extensive work necessary on a Grade II* listed building such as this, and how they have approached adapting a historic building for a modern context, while preserving its charm and character.  We visited every floor of the building, including the very top of the bell tower, affording us a wonderful view over Brackley and beyond!

We can’t wait to see it finished and opened as a rejuvenated community venue!

If you are interested in the restoration of Brackley Town Hall, please visit their fantastic blog to keep informed and updated.

brackley town hall restoration

The bell

brackley town hall restoration

The very top of the bell

brackley town hall restoration

View of Brackley from the top of the bell tower

August 18, 2017
CNA visits Brackley Town Hall restoration project

The Old House Eco Course

The Old House Eco HandbookOn Saturday I attended The Old House Eco Handbook Course in Coventry  which covers the principles in the book of the same name. It was run by the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and some really interesting research and findings from actual case studies were discussed and shared. It was presented by the authors Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt. Cathie Clarke from Heritage Skills Hub was also there tweeting about the course throughout the day. The following points are some of my notes from the course:

  • A Natural Building Technologies study showed that a wall insulated with 100mm internal insulation had the same u value as a wall insulated with 80mm of insulation but which included 20mm in the window reveals – so often this is left out and it is so important for saving energy.
  • Using lime mortar allows bricks to be re-used – cement mortar does not
  • Single glazed windows with secondary glazing and shutters (glazed shutters can look lovely) have as good a u value as modern high performance windows (1.8 W/m2K)
  • A good website for conservation glazed shutters.
  • You should always use breathable insulation and breathable lime or clay plaster when renovating old buildings as this allows water vapour to pass freely from one side to the other (this is something I always do on refurbishment projects).
  • It is very hard to have a vapour control layer that will truly stay vapour impermeable in walls. This is due to picture nails, electrics, shelves and anything else that may cause a punctuation in the wall. This is why breathable insulation is so important as it eliminates the need for a VCL.
  • There are many ‘quick wins’ to draughtproof your home before you resort to expensive alterations.
  • If a front facade has beautiful details and is mostly windows, internal wall insulation is not going to make the most difference, but upgrading windows should be first priority, while maintaining the original character.
  • u values are not the only way to measure efficiency in walls. Decrement Delay is the time lag from heat passing from one side to the other. Obviously this is longer (and more efficient) the wider the wall is.
  • There is up to 40% heat loss through the roof, so definitely worth insulating the loft! However with too much insulation (over 300mm) the weight of the insulation itself will reduce the air pockets within the material and it will not be so insulating.
  • For the same reason, don’t tamp down hemcrete in a shuttered wall as it will also lose the air pockets that make it so insulating.
  • Good rule of thumb – the more you insulate, the more you ventilate.

Jonathan Garlick from SPAB concluded with 3 things he learned when he first joined SPAB:

  1. Live in the house for a year before doing anything
  2. Work on the garden and look back at the house, working out what to do
  3. If you are poor you will likely be a better custodian of an old building as you will not throw a lot of money at a project, potentially making poor decisions


June 15, 2014