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In all the UK homes I remember, the skirting boards (baseboards) are designed to collect dust by exposing a horizontal or sloping surface. See a cross-section on the left of this image:

Skirting boat collects dust

Surely we could fit a rectangular profile piece of skirting to the walls before plastering, and make the plaster flush with the front face. See cross-section on right above. A bead of flexible caulk would bridge the join to conceal the crack (you often need this on normal skirting anyway).

I'm not about to demolish my house to fit new skirting boards, but why didn't some genius think of this 100 years ago? Or is there a flaw in my design?

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There are recessed skirting boards around, but most of them leave a little notch at the top of the skirting, which is even harder to clean than standard skirting! – Peter K. Jan 29 at 12:57
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I think you're trying to reinvent the wrong thing. Instead you should invent a vacuum cleaner, that vacuums the top of the skirting at the same time as the floor. – Tester101 Jan 29 at 13:55
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Good-looking flush joints are difficult to achieve in any craft, and especially so with something as imprecise as drywall or plaster. – isherwood Jan 29 at 14:32
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On reading just the title, I thought people in the UK put the angled top of the base molding the other way around to specifically create a V-shaped dust channel. – JPhi1618 Jan 29 at 15:17
    
I've got skirting boards with a triangular cross-section here. You can clearly see the line where the top of the boards meet the wall, but the horizontal portion is so narrow it can't catch much dust and you certainly can't see the dust. – alx9r Jan 29 at 15:41

Wikipedia

In architecture, a baseboard (also called skirting board, skirting, mopboard, floor molding, as well as base molding) is a (generally wooden) board covering the lowest part of an interior wall. Its purpose is to cover the joint between the wall surface and the floor.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseboard

The purpose of a baseboard is to easily cover the joint so that it does not have to be seen. It's much easier to finish the plaster and then tack on the board that take the time to ensure everything is flush and not get any plaster onto the board. I don't believe that they are "designed" to collect dust, that is simply a side-effect of using them.

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Wood and plaster also likely expand and contract different amounts, and at different rates. So fitting plaster and wood together at a tight joint, would likely not work out so well. – Tester101 Jan 29 at 13:52
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Also, plaster is installed before the finished flooring (for obvious reasons if you've been on a work-site). Recessing the baseboard in the plaster would either require installing the flooring before finishing the wall or an absurd amount of work to trim it afterwards. – Comintern Jan 29 at 14:05
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The skirting board is also used to hide any gap between flooring and the wall. Particularly important for laminate flooring where an expansion gap is required. – DavidPostill Jan 29 at 20:41
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@Comintern this (build order) feels like an answer, and I recommend you make it one. In fact, it feels like THE main answer. – Dewi Morgan Jan 30 at 3:18
    
@Comintern I guess you are referring to the way the skirting board needs to conceal the join between the end of the wooden flooring and the wall (which would collect dust!). With carpets, this wouldn't be an issue. – MerlinMags Feb 1 at 18:19

Trim in most all forms (window casings, baseboards, even crown moulding at times) is primarily there to make the finishing between two different surfaces easier.

Done well, they also add detail, of course, but for the most part, it's a practical solution first and foremost.

You could certainly do what you propose, but some of the challenges you will run into would include:

  • Houses are rarely square. Overlapping the baseboard makes that a lot easier to deal with. With your design you'd have to work hard scribing both the wood and the plaster/plaster boards to accommodate even the slightest bit of out-of-squareness

  • details still matter. You likely will still need some sort of reveal (gap) between the baseboard and wall simply for aesthetic reasons. This is done, but typically costs more in labor, as it's a finicky thing to deal with.

  • maintenance/remodel. An overlapping baseboard is easy to remove/replace anytime in the future, while an 'embedded' one would require a lot more finesse and limit one's options.

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Well said. Having a 150+ yr old house in the US with baseboards butted under the plaster, I can confirm that your third point is a real pain. (All my outlets are set in the baseboards.) – Steve Fallows Jan 29 at 17:25

As others have pointed out, the two main reasons are practicality and aesthetics. It is much easier to build with a baseboard. But also, you are fixing cosmetic imperfections that will look incredibly jarring to the eye if they were left exposed.

Notice, for example, that baseboards often times also have a "quarter round" attached to them (example). The reason for these is because the tall section baseboard will have a very easy time "hugging" the wall imperfections, whereas it won't be able to readily hug the floor imperfections. So in many houses, simply slapping a rectangular baseboard without the quarter round will result in an unseemly gap underneath it. Floors, while straight, will vary by more than a few mm per 10m, and a 2mm gap under a section of baseboard is very clearly visible.

The quarter round solves this problem.

Once again, as others have pointed out, there is also the order of construction. Generally speaking you do not want to put your finished hardwoods floors on before you have built the walls. Workers, tools, wet plaster are all things that will damage your beautiful (expensive) finish surfaces. Which means that when you put the sheet rock on the wall, it will go down all the way to the subfloor.

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