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CASE STUDY - the restoration of sigford hall, dartmoor

sigford Hall is a remarkable medieval hall house. Its origins may date back to the 14th century or even earlier.

for 130 years it was a cow shed, protected only by the tin roof.

careful analysis led to a design which is part reconstruction and part new.

the attached C19th barn, is relatively unimportant. It will hold uses, inappropriate for the medieval house.

it is a cross passage hall house, but lost its rear entrance in a recent agricultural phase.

there is a fantastic medieval plank and muntin screen.

the screen has been preserved by the lime, most likely applied in the 17th-18th centuries.

layers of history cover the walls. It took forensic analysis to unravel the full story.

this house was built by hand - and is being restored by hand..

MSc Students from plymouth university have done most of the work - repairing the original cobbled floor.

mixing up cob to repair the walls.

cob is applied, in places as a repair.

earth and straw - known locally as cob, is used to rebuild a gable wall.

the straw for the thatch has been grown and harvested by the students.

timber has been harvested from local woods.

much of the timber has been squared using hand adzes and side axes.

timber is finished with a draw-knife.

Even the original floorboards were cut and finished using axes and knives.

new floors were from low-grade oak, as knots and splits were desirable.

mortars were mostly clay based - here being cut and dried prior to crushing.

clay being crushed in vintage agricultural machinery.

the original lime was very coarse. we could not buy it, so we made our own.


the first layers of clay plaster are thick, with plenty of straw for insulation.

new oak floors are finished.

and the fire is lit.



This dwelling at Sigford is a 500 year old hall house which fell into complete dereliction at the end of the nineteenth century. For around 50 years it stood empty, until around 1930 it was converted into a cow barn, with a tin roof. It was rediscovered around 2002 when the farmer that owned it applied to convert it into a house.

The work was not carried out until Apse architects became involved. The brief was not only to restore the listed building to full use as a dwelling but also to be 'ecologically sound' in its approach.

Working with Plymouth University

Apse architects held training workshops, offering paid work experience with students from the Plymouth University MSc Architecture course. They were employed over consecutive summers, and used this project to explore the very challenging issue of how to combine top quality conservation practice with a strong green agenda.

The key to this approach was to understand that the original building was made entirely by hand, using the most local materials available, and any high-carbon materials (glass and lime, for example) were expensive, so used in minimal quantities. So many buildings today are simply an assemblage of factory produced materials, that getting back to using our hands, and our hearts, was a joy.

At the start, the building was on the edge of collapse, and over six tonnes of hand-mixed clay mortar was pressed into the open joints in the walls. Much of the clay had to be dug from the stream bed on site. It was mixed with about 1 part lime to 10 parts clay and sand. This closely matched the original mortar. In order to match the lime, a kiln was built in the back garden and fired local limestone. All commercial lime is again factory produced and far too finely sieved to be a match for the coarse grainy limes available in the C14th (which would probably have also been produced on site).

Internally the walls have been lined with 50mm of clay plaster. The backing layers have as much straw in as they can accommodate, in order to provide some insulation value. This material has worked extremely well, and there are no signs of damp, even where the internal wall is over 1.5m below ground level.

Historic timbers were carefully cleaned and repaired, and new timbers were cut from local woods and worked green by hand, using side axes, adzes and drawer knives. Floorboards were replaced using wide oak planks - from a tree cut by the previous owner. The first floor is almost unique in that each board runs with the joists, not across, and forms a single panel, with no exposed joints beneath - a sign of the high status that this house had back in its day. (note that the main floor was inserted in the seventeenth century, as the original hall would have been open to the roof to allow the smoke out from the central fireplace).

Thatching wheat grown organically on site is ready for combing and threshing. Next summer should see the completion of this fantastic project.



The Farmhouse In 2010


The house is nestled in the Dartmoor countryside and at first site looks like an old barn, which is exactly what it was used for after it was abandoned as a dwelling.


But a closer look reveals Medieval stonework and a pattern of openings more typical of a domestic building.



Most of the rear wall of the building was rebuilt when the tin roof was put on. There is evidence of former windows and a rear door to the cross passage. It is hoped that some rear openings can be reinstated to provide more natural light, natural ventilation and means of escape (in case of fire).



Inside, the house is remarkable. It has been practically untouched since the eighteenth century. There has been some decay, but most features have been preserved with care. The large central fireplace has a stone bread oven still intact, but with no door.


The fireplace and flagstone floor are possibly fifteenth century. Before the chimney was built, the fire would have been an open hearth in the middle of the floor. The first floor above the hall is relatively modern, having been inserted into an open hall around 1680. 

There are many interesting features, like the oak plank and muntin screen (pictured), that is around 600 years old. Parts of the walls are early Devon cob made of clay that was probably dug from an adjacent stream. Clay for the restoration works is also being taken from this location.


Upstairs there is a second, smaller fireplace that is eighteenth century. It is of granite, set within cob walls.


There is evidence of 600 year old smoke blackening on roof timbers, but sadly the former thatch is all gone.


A medieval window survives in a good state of preservation, despite having been blocked up for many years.