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How can architects get the best out of Design Review Panels?

Neal Morris

From early engagement to tips on presenting information, learn more about this important process

Those who sit on the panels are looking to help with the development team.
Those who sit on the panels are looking to help with the development team. Credit: Image by katemangostar on Freepik

Would your scheme benefit from some fresh thinking, some expert input, some specialist placemaking or landscaping advice? All this or more can be found through the Design Review process.

Design Review panel member, architect and urbanist Robin Machell, who sits on the not-for-profit Design Yorkshire panel, says despite the Design Review process being a well-established corner of the planning landscape, it is still misunderstood by a lot of architects and their clients.

“Design Review is not like a planning committee, which will give a definitive yes or a no answer,” Robin explains. “And it's not like being judged at a crit at a school of architecture. Panels comprise interested local professionals, who work as you do in practice, trying to give you the opportunity to develop your scheme.”

How have Design Review Panels evolved?

Machell remembers the days of the Royal Fine Art Commission, when its chair Norman St John-Stevens would proclaim on the design merits, or otherwise, of projects judged to be of national significance. There were early London-centric Design Review panels populated with ‘starchitects’ and then those that were promoted by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment).

This demonstrates that the concept of Design Review Panels has evolved down through the generations.

Nowadays, says Machell, Design Review Panels are far more like a constructive, expert workshop where selected practitioners with relevant experience will suggest how architects' design problems should be tackled on a difficult or sensitive site.

It’s important to remember that those who sit on the panels are looking to help with the development team. Members are practitioners themselves and will understand what the developer can afford, what the site limitations are, and are often able to say things that a local planning officer would not be allowed to say, he explains.

This is backed up by Sarah Jones-Morris, Director of Bristol-based Landsmith Associates and Design Review panelist for Design West, who adds that conversations are generally open and objective. 


This multi-disciplinary approach is recommended.
This multi-disciplinary approach is recommended. Credit: Image by on Freepik

Why early engagement is always better

When it comes to engaging with a panel, Machell suggests that the earlier it can get to see a pre-application scheme the better. This way, panelists’ recommendations can be considered, hopefully avoiding later-stage troubleshooting and wasted design work.

Panels are not just architects, so a small practice might be able to benefit from the input of urbanists and public realm specialists, landscape architects, or highways engineers. ‘It’s the full gamut of design professionals chosen for whatever review we are doing,’ says Machell.

With this in mind, Jones-Morris says that when attending a panel, architects should try to relax as much as they can.

‘Panel members are not there to interrogate,’ she says. ‘However, I do think that attendees need to be fairly open to different perspectives on things.’

When it comes to presentation of information, Jones-Morris says that an emphasis on being short and succinct is always the best approach. She also recommends being as multi-disciplinary as possible.

‘I've seen a lot of people in presentations where it's just the architect and sometimes the planner present,’ she recalls. ‘But because aspects of landscape, nature and biodiversity are much more on the forefront than they were maybe a year or so ago, attendees need to try to build that into their review panel and be aware of that. Otherwise, questions get asked and it can look weak if an attendee is not able to answer them.’

This multi-disciplinary approach also extends to the presentation itself – she recommends trying to keep it as visual as possible in order to maximise engagement.

Design Review Panels and local planning authorities

Local planning authorities usually see the advantages of engaging with Design Review panels. Many authorities, including several of the London boroughs, actively promote their own local panels. Jones-Morris reports that engagement with authorities in her local area is generally high.

The role of Design Review panels is recognised in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as a tool that can improve design outcomes, and a panel report can be a material consideration in a planning application.

Design Yorkshire (formerly Yorkshire and Humberside Design Review Panel) is part of the Design Network, which covers England with seven independent, not-for-profit organisations that support local authorities, public sector bodies and developers to design high quality and more sustainable places.

Developers are most likely to approach a design panel, says Machell, and will see it as an opportunity for a constructive dialogue. Architects may also nudge their clients towards Design Review if they privately see problems ahead, or where the client has unrealistic ideas.

The most important thing is that panels see all the relevant information: the project’s context, its wider setting, any access issues it might have, and public realm.

‘Architects sometimes forget that the red-line site boundary is not the boundary that counts in planning,’ Machell says.

‘It's not the boundary we're looking at, but the wider connectivity issues. If someone comes to the panel with a large scheme on a sensitive site, we will tell them to give us a view from five miles away. It’s that sort of mindset.’

Thanks to Robin Machell, and Sarah Jones-Morris, Director, Landsmith Associates

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