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News catch-up: Government issues design code for ‘beautiful’ new housing

Simon Aldous

Government aims to end ‘ugliness’ with new housing design code – but its PDR free for all undermines such aspirations. And advice to cut overheating by reducing window size also sounds at odds with today's aesthetics. On more earthy matters, who should ensure architects fire safety training

Can design codes prevent ugliness or ensure beauty? Codes played a strong part in the design of Poundbury, Dorchester.
Can design codes prevent ugliness or ensure beauty? Codes played a strong part in the design of Poundbury, Dorchester. Credit: Blackbeck Istock

Exactly a year after the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission published its final report, the government has responded by publishing a draft national design code with the stated aim of preventing ‘ugliness’.

The code provides a list of key design principles, including street character, building type and facade, but also takes into consideration environmental impact and wellbeing.

It will now be piloted in 20 communities, with councils invited to apply to take part. Those selected will each receive around £50,000 to create their own version of the code in consultation with local residents.

They will be assisted by a newly set-up Office of Place chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith, who co-led the beauty commission along with the late Roger Scruton.

As well as emphasising beauty, the code includes other elements that directly relate to the Living With Beauty report , such as an emphasis on planting trees, and giving councils more power to reject ‘ugly’ or poor-quality planning applications.

But many will ask how these powers can have any meaning when councils are so strapped for cash. £50,000 isn’t going to go very far in ensuring that new developments adhere to them.

Architect Russell Curtis of RCKa was quick to critique the proposals via Twitter. While he said he was happy for design codes to cover such criteria as height, massing and access to daylight, he was against them covering ‘beauty – as defined by an aesthetically prejudiced yet vocal minority’. 

He added: ‘Many beautiful places are such because the buildings in them are varied and diverse’ – something that is unlikely to emerge from a design code.

Many will regret that the government has chosen to disregard two important recommendations of the beauty report that didn’t chime with its own agenda.

It has ignored criticism that VAT should be reformed to no longer give a tax incentive for new-build over renovating existing properties; nor has it flinched at the report’s criticism of permitted development rights (PDR).

The PDR system – which will be exempt from the design codes – allows commercial properties to be turned into housing without going through the planning system and has resulted in some of the most criticised – and indeed ugly – housing to be produced in recent years.


Let there be less light

One concession the government did make last year with PDR was to no longer permit housing without windows – and yea, did the people bow their heads and show their gratitude to their truly benevolent leaders.

But, it seems you can have too much of a good thing – especially in London.

A consultation document for new building regulations proposes that new homes should not have a window area greater than 21 per cent of their floor area – unless they’re in the capital, in which case make that 13 per cent – around 60 per cent smaller.

The rules are part of efforts to control overheating through solar gain, a phenomenon only set to get worse as climate change takes its hold. Government research shows that London is particularly badly hit by overheating.

The regulations would also insist that London homes have external shutters, overhangs or high-performance solar gain glass on all elevations except for the north.

The new rules could be frustrating for those who find the best way of avoiding their homes getting too hot is to open the windows, the larger the better.

And those heavily glazed modern houses so beloved of Grand Designs could be very much on the way out.

But they should be welcomed by housebuilders. Solid walls cost less than glazing, with the changes set to save more than £5,000 in the cost of building the average home.


Fire safety training, who should be responsible?

Following findings from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, architects' regulations are set to be overhauled and the two organisations are jockeying for position over which one gets to oversee professional competence. 

Last July, the Building Safety Bill suggested the Arb would be responsible, with the power to remove architects from the professional register if they failed to undertake whatever new training was deemed necessary.

Now the RIBA and its Scottish counterpart the RIAS have argued that the task of mandatory monitoring and assessment of competence should instead fall to them.

In a submission to the government, the RIBA points out that next year it is introducing a new training framework, and will test its members every five years to ensure they have a mandatory level of health and safety knowledge.

Such wrangling has been a recurrent spectacle ever since the Arb was set up in 1997 to keep a register of all qualified architects, with the board making periodic attempts at mission creep, notably in the area of architectural education. 

Some have argued that the Arb is unnecessary, that RIBA is the name the public know, and consumers are generally so unaware of the Arb – and the subtle differences between an ‘architect’ and an ‘architectural designer’ – that its protection of title is largely meaningless.

Others, who baulk at the RIBA’s higher membership fee (£399 compared with Arb’s £119) and question its benefits, are grateful there remains a lower-price option; a Primark, perhaps, to the RIBA’s John Lewis.  Though since Arb registration is compulsory, it would be as if – to stretch the analogy – you had to wear a pair of Primark trousers before you were allowed to shop at John Lewis.       

Reacting to the RIBA's and RIAS’s latest bids, an Arb spokesperson said: ‘When the government decides how to take their proposals forward, we will work with the RIBA and other key stakeholders to consider how any changes may be applied.’


Pompidou closed for refurbishment.
Pompidou closed for refurbishment. Credit: Emmanuel Thirard / RIBA Collections

Pompidou pipes down 

Paris’s Pompidou Centre, the library, gallery and research centre designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, is set to shut for four years from 2023 to carry out essential renovations.

The two architects won the commission in 1971, beating 700 other entries with their innovative approach which put the mechanical service pipes on the outside, meaning the inside could be far more flexible.

It is this arrangement, however, that has partly necessitated the repair work, expected to cost some £170 million, because of the services’ continual exposure to the elements accelerating their deterioration.

The services are colour-coded with green water pipes, yellow electrical casings, red lifts, blue air-conditioning ducts and white ventilation funnels – though it turns out these haven’t functioned for some years now and are purely decorative.

The complex is the fifth most visited cultural venue in Paris, with 3.2 million visitors in 2019, yet the French government nevertheless chose not to pursue a repair programme that would have kept the building open, saying that it would have taken longer and cost slightly more. 

The Pompidou certainly helped cement Rogers’ reputation as well as drawing the world’s attention to the high-tech style that he was championing at the time. However, Rogers revealed in 2017 that he hadn’t even wanted to enter the competition. He said he only did so after being outvoted by other members of his practice, and recalled it being an ‘immensely difficult’ project.

The Pompidou is also an expanding international brand, though this is not a journey it has shared with its original architects. David Chipperfield Architects created its Shanghai outpost while a forthcoming Brussels Pompidou is being designed by Sergison Bates after it won a competition in which a submission by Rogers’ practice RSHP failed to make the shortlist



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