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How to design housing schemes that are at home in their place

Words:
Andrew Matthews and Stephen Proctor

How do we make developments that belong? Andrew Matthews and Stephen Proctor look at how design codes can encourage deeper investigations into a narrative of place

Grounding place can start with the topography as written into our place names which Proctor & Matthews used for St Albans and Dacorum’s Strategic Sites Design Guidance.
Grounding place can start with the topography as written into our place names which Proctor & Matthews used for St Albans and Dacorum’s Strategic Sites Design Guidance. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architects

The UK’s housing crisis remains a major challenge and barely a day goes by without statistical-laden articles warning of the grave dangers our dysfunctional housing market poses for the future.

The government still relies heavily on the private sector and particularly volume housebuilders for the supply of most new housing. Operating primarily on greenfield and edge-of-settlement locations, these developments tend to attract significant local opposition which stalls supply. A new way of thinking about design codes could help.

Not surprisingly, successive local and national governments have launched policy initiatives to address the dilemma, including local design codes and supplementary guidance, while advisory bodies like The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and the NPPF attempt to influence what is hoped will be a more appropriate design response. 

Despite this many communities still feel that one housebuilder’s model looks much like another. There are many reasons why local people resist these developments. It is not all about design of course; road congestion, local services and air quality all play a part, but design is still a significant factor with many feeling new development does not ‘belong’.

 

The build-up of urban grain for Ridgeway Village in North West Cambridge, based on an archaeology of enclosures and tracks.
The build-up of urban grain for Ridgeway Village in North West Cambridge, based on an archaeology of enclosures and tracks. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architects

The wider place

We have always felt that context and settlement form lie at the heart of the problem and often quote Gordon Cullen, who observed in a 1974 design report for a new settlement in Maryculter to the southwest of Aberdeen: ‘People live in houses, but where do the houses live? If they are homeless, then all we are left with is the typical endless, featureless suburbia.’

Cullen’s concerns ran deeper than what we might think beautiful, or what prescriptive planning and design code guidance might offer. He reminds us that new settlements need grounding in place, not in a superficial way (pantiles, porches and bargeboards) but in a manner that interprets topography, boundaries, landscape, settlement morphology and local typologies. He precisely illustrates this in his design narrative for Maryculter – a reinterpretation of historic Scottish kale yard enclosures. There is a kind of authenticity about housing design that, like this, invests time in considering these characteristics. While the public might not understand how designers manage this process (why should they?), they certainly seem to recognise it when they see it, and in our experience the result is a proactive, rather than antagonistic engagement.

 

Houses at Abode, at Great Kneighton in South Cambridge, turn gable ends onto green lanes, reflecting historic burgage plots.
Houses at Abode, at Great Kneighton in South Cambridge, turn gable ends onto green lanes, reflecting historic burgage plots. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architects

Design codes that really help

We must confess some scepticism about the format of many design codes. They tend to be formulaic, illustrating anonymous street sections and prescribing built form configurations that lead to new neighbourhood plans with repetitive layouts of perimeter blocks and continuous terraces of back-to-back gardens. This type of layout is often a poor response to context and so when asked, first by Ebbsfleet Development Corporation and then St Albans and Dacorum Councils to help create a design code for their areas, we asked ourselves what would really help architects, urban designers, and planners to create meaningful places.

How could we create a new form of design code that encourages investigations into a narrative of place? 

Our work often begins with a thorough investigation of the immediate local physical context. It may start with an analysis of the existing topography, built fabric and landscape patterns as a way to understand the nature and configuration of any strategic landscape and how it informs any proposed site layout. 

We also find the potential for spatial connectivity to existing neighbourhood streets and parks by studying the patterns of pedestrian, cycle and vehicle movements. This ensures future schemes are not designed as isolated, introverted, and disconnected estates.

Examining historical records – old maps, archaeological surveys, and local place names – can reveal patterns that suggest contextual design narratives. This might be a structured hedgerow or historic field pattern or archaeological remains, such as at Cambridge University’s Eddington site where evidence of Bronze Age, Roman and Medieval enclosures were recently discovered. These became a principal influence on our winning commission for the Ridgeway Village masterplan competition in 2015.

Defining a strong end with interconnected houses and garden walls in the original walled garden.
Defining a strong end with interconnected houses and garden walls in the original walled garden. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architect

Response to the vernacular

In addition, an examination of many historic settlements (mostly pre-industrial) may reveal a more localised response in building layout. The linear forms of ancient burgage plots, or the distinctive garden walls that connect dwellings in some of Britain’s historic villages, are examples of the UK’s defining regional vernacular architecture – as are regional farmsteads or vernacular farmyard configurations. All these may trigger a specific design response to the clustering and orientation of new homes in an exposed and windswept landscape. However, regional vernacular should not precipitate thoughtless replication of agricultural structures, projecting bays, dormers, and bargeboards. This devalues the original typology and ignores the needs of 21st century living.

Certain locations have distinctive spatial characteristics: the collegiate and monastic courts of Cambridge; the wynds and closes of Edinburgh Old Town; the twittens of Hastings, Brighton and Hove, Kent’s gridded orchards and hop field landscapes and the snickets of Oldham. Others have hidden or less obvious defining characteristics requiring a more forensic approach to contextual analysis.

The nature of existing settlement edges needs to be clearly understood and it is often the precise configuration and celebration of boundaries that form the defining characteristics of existing neighbourhoods. A contemporary example of this is the edge of the new neighbourhood at Abode, in Great Kneighton, Cambridge, which is defined by a strong profile of house gables and connecting garden walls at the plantation edge, reflecting the scale and grain of historic fenland burgage plots. 

Designs for Inholm at Northstowe in Cambridgeshire take ancient settlement banks as an important threshold.
Designs for Inholm at Northstowe in Cambridgeshire take ancient settlement banks as an important threshold. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architects

Edge houses

A similar strategy is adopted in a more recent proposal for a new village, Little Impney, set within the grounds of the Impney Hall Estate in Droitwich, Worcestershire. Interconnected houses and garden walls define a strong silhouette to the landscape edges while the orthogonal layout and footprint of the original walled garden (demolished in the latter half of the 20th century) inspired a new defined quarter of ‘parterre’ houses and gardens. In these locations opportunities exist to create new dwelling types which help to define a strong transition from built form to landscape. ‘Edge houses’ were similarly explored in studies for Inholm, a new neighbourhood of around 400 homes at Northstowe, Cambridgeshire, which was inspired by the form of ancient settlement embankments discovered during local archaeological investigations. These help to define the settlement edge – a clear threshold between landscape and built form for the new quarter. 

The design narratives that grow out of these studies should be reinforced by a similar approach to the development of a specific architecture and use of materials. While modern manufacturing and transportation allows mass produced goods to be deployed across the country, this does little to anchor new housing developments in a local context. These investigations allow an insight often squeezed out of fast track design, and gives homes a better chance to belong. 

Andrew Matthews and Stephen Proctor are founder directors at Proctor & Matthews Architects

 

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