One of my first tasks when training to become a Land Surveyor was to identify and annotate the names of individual tree species.  This was not the most rewarding of assignments and I would have much preferred getting to grips with the latest theodolite in the office.

It was late springtime; the trees were in full foliage and I was even provided with a ‘Collins Tree Guide’.  Nevertheless, every leaf, bark, bud and blossom looked exactly the same to me.  How anyone could differentiate between Beech and Birch during the stark, leafless winter months was beyond me.

With the promise of a turn on the theodolite spurring me on I persevered.  Eventually, and as with all things that at first appear difficult, I began to find it easier to distinguish one tree from another.

From the Oak tree with its sturdy branches and open canopy to the aromatic and regal looking Cedar, I started to appreciate the vast variety of trees.

Walking with the dog in the countryside no longer meant trudging from one field to another.  With my new found knowledge of trees I was now starting to take much more enjoyment in my strolls.  I’d also discovered the ability to identify species such as the Sweet Chestnut, Hazelnut and Walnut where edible rewards were on offer!

When my career path changed from Land Surveying to Building Surveying, I experienced a similar revelation, but this time with architecture.

Unfortunately, there were no edible rewards on offer for identifying a particular style or period of architecture; but the sheer variety of styles and building methods caught my imagination.

Unravelling all these characteristics to obtain some historical context or even to be able to hazard a guess at the date of construction was going to be difficult.  However, as with my problem of tree identification, I found that a little research and time is all it takes.  Soon I was able to distinguish individual aspects of a buildings appearance that helped me to narrow down its age.

What follows in the tabs below is brief summary of the buildings and materials that I have encountered and studied during my time as a Chartered Building Surveyor.  Categorised into ‘architectural periods’, my intention is that they give an insight into some of the main building styles, explaining how they developed and helping you to establish the age of similar properties.  Although, if they simply give you the incentive to occasionally look up from the your mobile phone whilst walking down the local High Street to enjoy the wonderfully varied architecture then I will be delighted!

How to date buildings - The Tudor Period 1485 - 1560

Our time line of architectural history will begin with the Tudor Period.  This is mainly because all but the grandest of houses built before this period were constructed to such a basic quality that they tended to last no more than a single generation.  The materials used comprised predominantly of sticks, straws and mud which have long been lost to the earth.

Henry VII was the first of the English monarchs with the Tudor surname.  It was a time of relative peace across Europe which increased commercial trade and helped to improve economic prosperity.  This new found affluence was further increased, although mostly only for the landed gentry, when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church.  He seized the Church’s property and assets through the dissolution of the monasteries and passed the land and buildings to his court favourites.

This wealth and land enabled the construction of more permanent family homes including large estates and manor houses.  The more impressive of these include Hampton Court, commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey to host the King Henry VIII and his royal court.  Henry was; however, so impressed that he eventually took Hampton Court for himself!

The largest Tudor structures were generally of brick and stone construction with distinctive long and slender, light-coloured bricks.  These lighter bricks were sometimes interspersed with darker burnt bricks in a cross formation which created a ‘diaper’ pattern.

However, it is the characteristic ‘black and white’ timber framed urban building which best exemplifies Tudor Architecture.  With narrow street frontages, these properties occasional have timber jetties overhanging the ground floor (which were more a status symbol than an attempt to provide extra floor space).  Many of these timber buildings are still standing today and can be seen in our historical market towns such as Faversham, Hitchin and Ledbury.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire.  Patterned timbers have been used to infill to the main framework – a none too subtle sign of the occupant’s prosperity.

Details to look out for on timber framed Tudor properties include the material that has been used to fill the gaps between the main framework of the building.  Most would have a ‘wattle and daub’ plaster comprising a mixture of clay, dung, sand and horsehair.  This would be smeared (or daubed) onto woven sticks known as wattles.  However, some of the more affluent owners would fill most of the gaps between the main framework with more timber; using either close vertical studding or decorative patterned timber pieces.  At the time, there was a serious shortage of wood and this exuberant use of timber was therefore another opportunity of providing a clear sign of the occupant’s wealth.

How to date buildings - The Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods 1560 -1660

The Elizabethan period saw continued prosperity and a rising population; factors which caused a massive increase in construction and which is now referred to as the ‘Great Rebuilding’.   For the lower classes this probably meant simply introducing a chimney or a glazed window to their property for the first time.  However, at the upper end of the class scale, wealthy property owners were revelling in the availability of cheaper glazing and the possibility of adding more natural light to their homes.  One particular property, Hardwick Hall, had so much glass installed that it led to a well-known local saying “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.”

The use of cheaper glass and chimneys helped to create cleaner and brighter houses.  Homeowners could therefore start concerning themselves with the internal fabric, leading to more elaborate furnishing, fixtures and decoration.

Architectural styles in the Elizabethan period were also starting to be influenced by the Renaissance (a ‘rebirth’ of classical art, science and literature originally developed by Greeks and Romans).  This movement began in Florence, Italy over 150 years before the Elizabethan period but in these times, styles were relatively slow to spread.  This is because the protestant Queen’s legitimacy to the Throne was not accepted by the major European Roman Catholic powers causing Britain to become isolated.

Attempts to replicate renaissance architecture in Britain were therefore, at this early stage, mostly conducted without any real background knowledge of the mathematical proportions which are a key part of classical architecture.  Details such as columns and pediments were used but without an understanding of the visual effect between objects and spaces that make up the structure, both to one another and to the whole.  It would not be until the Georgian period, when another classically inspired movement known as Palladianism entered the British shores, that a deeper understanding of proportions and symmetry would be adopted.

Aside from the classically inspired architecture of the Elizabethan period there are also a great deal of hidden religious messages that can be found in the buildings of this period.    Religious intolerance, particularly against Catholicism, was rife and many royal subjects who failed to renounce their faith could fall foul of this prejudice and face imprisonment.

Queen Elizabeth went so far as to pass a Royal injunction, requiring ‘all signs of superstition and idolatry to be removed from places of worship so there remain no memory of the same’.  However, despite this injunction, one way that supposedly loyal courtiers could try to remain on the right side of the law but still celebrate their faith was through covert architectural symbolism.

A building that goes further than any other in symbolising one man’s homage to his faith is the Triangular Lodge in Rushton.  Although imprisoned for his faith, Sir Thomas Tresham designed and commissioned the Triangular Lodge from his cell in an attempt to celebrate his faith.

In Catholicism, the Holy Trinity refers to the idea that God is one but can also be experienced in three different Persons.  The number three together with the triangle therefore have a deep symbolic meaning in the Catholic faith.  From being shaped as a three-sided triangular prism over three floors to its Latin inscriptions which are 33 letters long, Triangular Lodge has been designed to represent the Trinity in every aspect.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

Sir Thomas Tresham’s Triangular Lodge in Rushton – A Covert Expression of Catholic Faith Through Architecture 

Some historians also believe that Queen Elizabeth’s protestant followers added symbolism of their own in order to show an allegiance to the Crown.  This supposedly includes the layout of their buildings in the shape of an ‘E’ for Elizabeth.  This is, however, contentious and the three shorter lines of the building are likely to have been formed only because the weight of the heavy roofing materials precluded the ability to span large distances and therefore prevented buildings that were more than one room deep.

Wall carvings, known as ‘strapwork’ became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.  This ‘strapwork’ comprised interlinked patterned bands, usually seen higher up on parapet walls or pediments.  Occasionally it is also possible to see strange looking animals carved into the wall surfaces.  These would be inaccurate representations of the exotic animals first encountered and described by sailors involved in the oriental spice trade.

Architectural features that were introduced during the reign of James I (known as the Jacobean period) include Dutch gables.  These were gable parapets whose sides have a shape made up of one or more curves and a pediment at the top.  Cupolas were also becoming popular and comprised small, mostly dome-like, structures that sit at the apex of roof and were often used to provide a lookout or to admit light and air.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

The Jacobean Guildhall in Plymouth displaying prominent cupolas and Dutch gables.  Constructed in 1606-1607 for £794 and demolished in 1799.

How to date buildings - The Restoration Period 1660 -1714

The Restoration period refers to the reinstatement of the monarchy after Charles II was brought back to the throne after years of exile in France, Holland and Spain, during which the country was governed by Parliament under the direction of the Puritan General Oliver Cromwell.

A particular feature of the Restoration period to look out for is an increase in Dutch styled architecture.  This was partly introduced by followers of Charles II during his exile in Holland and includes typically Dutch features such as bright red bricks with contrasting white cornices  and raised corner stones known as quoins.

Six years after Charles was restored to the throne, the Great Fire of London occurred, burning the heart out of the capital’s architecture and forcing in new legislation which put controls on the structure and materials of new houses.  Gone were the timber framed houses to make way for less combustible stone and brick houses.  The new Act stated: “No man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, whether great or small, but of brick or stone.”

At the time of the Great Fire of London, there was no such thing as ‘fire insurance’.  Accordingly, small bands of fire brigades began to form; each one with its own individual plaque that customers would display above their doors so that the fire brigade would know which fire to put out.  A neighbouring property which caught alight would be left to burn if it did not have a plaque above the door!  Occasionally these plaques can still be seen today above the door of houses and are a reminder of the events that led to the modern insurance industry that we know today.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

This fire plaque was spotted whilst I surveyed a property in Pury End, Towcester.  The markings on the plaque depict Britannia and was adopted by County Insurance Company which has now been absorbed into the Sun Alliance Group.

As the century wore on, French styles began to find their way into British architecture, again probably as a result of the contacts made by Charles II during part of his exile in France.  This included a passion for the grandiose, and sometimes over-the-top Baroque styles, typified by Louis XIV at the palace of Versailles.  One very famous example of British Baroque architecture is St Paul’s Cathedral by Christopher Wren who was also commissioned to help redesign London after the Great Fire.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

St Paul’s Cathedral, a Grade I Listed building designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren.

How to date buildings - The Georgian Period 1714 - 1790

There can be no mistaking the Georgian style of housing. Characterised by symmetry and proportion, it was not simply a slavish reproduction of the classical architecture but instead a faithful representation of the geometric rules developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. To some, this was a welcome replacement to the extravagant and grandiose Baroque architecture of the earlier Restoration period. This style was referred to as Palladian architecture, in acknowledgement of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) who believed that in nature there was a perfect symmetry, the proportions of which could be reflected in a standard set of design rules.Architectural features to keep a look out for in a Palladian building include:

  • Plain exteriors based on simple rules of proportion
  • Highly symmetrical fenestrations (window and door openings)
  • Temple frontages with columns and pediments

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

A typical example of Palladian Architecture of the Georgian period is Chiswick House, located in Hounslow, London. Built between 1727 and 1729, it embodies the rules of symmetry with Palladian ideas of perfect Greek and Roman proportion.

One of the porticos to the house even includes a bust of the Roman Emperor Augustus (the first Roman emperor). The Georgians liked to refer to their era as the Augustan Age, being akin to the illustrious golden age of the Roman empire with prosperity and enlightenment. Other examples of Palladian inspired Georgian architecture include the many terrace houses in Bath. Although the examples shown below are devoid of columns and entablatures, they are unmistakably symmetrical with mathematically proportioned fenestrations.

Classically inspired Georgian terrace housing

Classically inspired terrace housing in the Georgian era

There were, however, some architects who did not want to be restricted by such rules and, although they followed the general principle of Palladian style by adopting symmetrically proportioned columns, pediments and window openings, they also gave themselves leave to add decorative elements such as ornamental motifs, swags and garlands consisting of stylized flowers, fruit and foliage carved into the stonework.

How to date buildings - The Regency Period 1811 - 1820

The Regency era spans a period of the early 19th century when George the IV was Prince Regent. Architecturally speaking, it is similar to the Georgian period as many of the buildings adopted the same neoclassical proportions. Look closely though, and you will find many aspects of Regency architecture that set it aside from any other period.

War with France restricted movement abroad and brought an end to the ‘Great Tours’ of Europe which were so much a part of the Georgian era. This led to a new appreciation of the local countryside and nature. Some architects and developers encapsulated this by rejecting the rigid symmetry and constructive proportions familiar with Georgian properties. They harked back to a rustic and more organic form of design and this became known as the ‘Romantic Movement’. It is typified by the ‘chocolate box’ cottage with deep overhanging thatched roofs. Although, having been built by wealthy estate owners, these cottages tended to be much larger and elaborate than a typical rural workers home. They are generally referred to as Cottage Orne, meaning decorated cottage.

Regency Cottage Orne

Regency Cottage Orne – Rosser1954 / CC BY-SA

Looking closer to home for inspiration, there also developed a newfound appreciation for old medieval buildings and Abbeys which had previously been left to decay.  Architects revived some of the Gothic styles found on these structures including the distinctive pointed arch which can be seen on the above property.

The Napoleonic wars and a threat from France encouraged a subconscious desire to adorn buildings with sham fortifications. Battlements along parapet walls became a common feature of Regency buildings, although I very much doubt that these were ever used as fighting platforms from which to launch arrows.

HOW TO DATE BUILDINGS

Regency Battlements

After the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, war with France ended. This led to a sustained economic boom and an increase in construction. Although the general principles of neoclassical architecture still endured, there developed a more laissez faire approach to the previous strict adherence to proportions and symmetry.Increasing wealth following the end of hostilities with France reinvigorated British globalism into Asia. This led to ‘oriental flavourings’ being added to the neoclassical style including Chinese style pagoda roofs, commonly seen above balconies. Prince Regent himself also commissioned the Royal pavilion in Brighton which imitated Indian domes and arches on the exterior but with extravagant Chinese interiors and furniture.

Regency Architecture - Brighton Royal Pavilon

Regency Architecture – Brighton Royal Pavilion

Spa towns such as Leamington and seaside resorts such as Brighton became very popular in the Regency period. This was due mainly to a belief that the sea air and mineral waters provided a cure for ailments such as skin disorders and rheumatism. Improvements in transportation helped fuel mass travel to these locations and this in turn created a need for additional housing.A lack of local stone to quarry in these areas coupled with the introduction of the 1784 Brick tax, led to the elevations of buildings being rendered with a new patented material know as Stucco. It was often scribed with fine horizontal lines to imitate the joints of expensive Ashlar stonework and is now a very familiar aspect of the street scenes in Leamington and Brighton.

Stucco Render

White Stucco – The hallmark of the Regency terrace

© David Cosby Chartered Surveyors 2019