An introduction to building types

Abbey Lodge, Banwell. Victorian whimsy.Buildings are usually created for a specific purpose, which influences its design. Form follows function is seen as a Modernist credo, yet the concept is purely practical and centuries old. So the first clue to use is simply what the building looks like. Some types have a characteristic form which is hard to mistake, for example castles or dovecotes. But certain plan elements, such as the rectangle and the quadrangle, are so practical and versatile that they crop up again and again in different building types. In that case functional details may provide a clue, or the setting may be revealing.

Then again buildings may be whimsical, incorporating features for the fun of it, rather than any practical necessity. Perhaps the architect wanted to experiment, or the patron wanted to gaze out upon a romantic scene. So a summer house might be disguised as a Greek temple or Chinese pagoda, or a Victorian lodge may look like something out of Disney World (see right). Taken to extremes this tendency produces the folly - a class of building so eclectic that it almost defeats description. (Carl Curtis provides an online gazetteer of follies in England and Wales).  

Here we focus on more commonplace structures. Each type is explored separately. Yet so often buildings can be adapted for a new purpose, or serve more than one purpose simultaneously. For example an 18th-century town house could have had a shop, restaurant or bank on the ground floor, while today the whole building has become offices. So it is important to understand the original use of an historic building and how changes of use may be linked to alterations in the fabric.

Researching the use of a building from the 19th century onwards is usually straightforward, with maps, plans and planning permissions, directories and census returns to guide us. In earlier centuries building use may appear in deeds, rentals and various other sources mentioned here under specific building types.

But what happens when long gone occupants had something to hide? Shady uses may surface only in court records or gossipy letters and journals spilling the scandals of the day. Some hidden uses are the delight of local legend, such as smuggling. In that case the professional approach has to be one of hard-eyed scepticism unless clear evidence presents itself in the fabric or primary sources. (Talk of hidden tunnels almost invariably leads to nothing, except possibly medieval stone-lined drains.)