Ever wanted to build your own home in the open countryside? How about a home that would not only be the envy of your friends but also an architectural icon? For so many, the dream of a new home in the countryside is merely that, with planning laws making it all but impossible to gain approval. But that caveat – the ‘all-but impossible’ – is at the cutting edge of self build, and is where an exemption clause in planning law offers some hope.

Since 1997, Planning Policy Guidance 7 (PPG7) along with its successors, firstly Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS7) and now, since 2012, Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), do precisely that. They offer an exemption from all planning constraints for individual houses that meet specific criteria, not least of all that they should be architecturally outstanding.

Architects get excited about any piece of planning law that lets them build what they otherwise could not. The fact that the unassuming few words of planning law allows them to push the boundaries of their profession and create something truly outstanding encourages them all the more. Of course, they get paid regardless and can be proud of their design whether it gets approval, or not. Whether this excitement should be replicated on the part of the client (you, the self builder) who is paying, regardless, is the issue.

In a way, as self builders we all want what Paragraph 55 offers. Who after all wouldn’t want a really cool new house in the countryside? Who wouldn’t want to feel like they are building a new home in a long line of historical country houses? Who wouldn’t fancy the potentially huge uplift in value that could be brought to a plot of land?

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it. And that’s because it is. We’re talking here about the chance to be the top of the self build class, the patron of fine architecture, and create the dream lifestyle in a brilliant home for you and your family. So what’s the problem, and why aren’t more people doing it? Well, let’s establish some key rules upfront.

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Rule one: it’s not the easy solution you might think to building on that dream rural site

“This is not a back door to getting easy approvals on otherwise undevelopable sites,” says Rob Hughes, a Planning Consultant who is quickly gaining a reputation as a PPS7 specialist (many in the industry still refer to these types of projects by this legacy tag – it’s a bit less Orwellian than Paragraph 55). He’s got four successes under his belt and is currently working on another four, and got the first approval under the new NPPF in 2012.

Rule two: it hardly ever happens

Significantly less than 100 homes have been self built (by the nature of the project PPS7 houses are not suited to speculative projects) in 15 years or so since the exemption was introduced. That’s six a year.

Rule three: it’s monstrously difficult to do successfully and a huge risk

You’ll be tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket, with nothing to show for it, no route back, if you fail. It’s notoriously difficult to meet the specific criteria of the clause, and even if you feel you have met it, the decision lies in the hands of first a local planning committee and, probably, an Appeal Inspectorate to judge whether you have met it, in their eyes. (And by the way, appeals will add to your huge bills).

As Hugh Petter of Adam Architecture – who have a huge reputation for, amongst other things, designing PPS7-approved classically-styled individual homes – says, “this is a serious commitment for clients. You need to be willing to spend up to £100,000 in the design and planning process and it all ultimately hinges on the opinion of an inspector.”

Rule four: you probably haven’t got the site

And you almost certainly can’t just buy it in the hope of getting PPS7 approval one day. “It’s impossible to generalise as to why one site might have a chance of approval and another one won’t,” says Rob Hughes. “I’ve had success on all different types of land, in different landscapes, but you can just get a sense for it. After all, the PPS7 house should be a house that can only be achieved on that particular site. Buying a bit of land in the middle of nowhere in the hope of it is usually not the best route.”

Rule five: relinquish control

And self build is all about control, isn’t it? That’s why you’re doing it, probably. You want to be able to specify not just the number of rooms and so on, but also have a decent influence on the look of the thing too. And you’ll probably want to be able to choose your own builder (not to mention architect). Well, if you’re interested in pursuing this PPS7 thing, you can forget all that. You’re ceding control of your project to a team of specialists – that’s the only realistic path to success. According to Kevin Brown, whose firm Sadler Brown won approval for PPS7 house Gyllheugh in Northumberland, “clients must be prepared to compromise.”

Rob Hughes says that “not all clients are willing to accept the flexibility, ambition and financial implications” of going down this route. Richard Hawkes of Hawkes Architecture, has a 100% (5 out of 5) success rate (he uses Rob’s planning nouse as a fundamental part of the design team) on PPS7 applications but, he happily admits, “that’s because I’m quite choosy about what we say yes to. You get a feel for the site having the right ingredients, and whether the clients are prepared to commit.”

Rule five (a): you’re not choosing them – they’re choosing you

Rule six: you can’t learn from others

“There is no template for this,” says David Liddicoat of Liddicoat + Goldhill (just gained approval for a glorious PPS7 house in Essex). “The client in this case appreciated that they would have to take the plunge. As long as you can accept the premise that we have no idea where we are headed, then it’s fine.”

The point, of course, is that every new house approved under what is now Paragraph 55 should be innovative and, as a result, according to Richard Hawkes, “raising the bar – they need to be landmark buildings.” And, of course, it can’t raise the bar if you’re copying what has been done, albeit successfully before. This is one of the great conundrums of this route and ultimately a real banana skin for self builders. You have to reinvent the wheel time and time again.

Tom Emerson, from 6a Architects (PPS7 approval for large house with two staff dwellings on a 39ha site in Cambridgeshire) says: “We intentionally didn’t look at the other [successful] schemes. If you are looking to other architects for a trick, it’s almost the worst thing you can do.”

Put off yet?

(MORE: Click Here to View David Liddicoat & Sophie Goldhill’s Stunning Self Build Home)


The Site

A significant proportion of the successful PPS7 homes that have been designed by Adam Architecture, according to director Hugh Petter, are in the place of long-derelict country homes. They’re not replacement dwellings in planning terms (the original houses having been long since taken down through choice, accident or neglect and therefore in planning terms they are virgin sites) but, says Hugh “the fact that the principle of a dwelling has been long established certainly helps — not least with establishing that feeling that ‘a house belongs here.’”

And it is that feeling that the perfect PPS7 site should have — a kind of X Factor that it is notoriously difficult to pin down and impossible to prescribe. However the site in the case of a PPS7 house is far more important to its chances of success than for an ordinary house — it’s a fundamental part of the argument, in fact, and therefore hugely important.

Architect David Liddicoat describes how the site on which Thousand Trees House is planned (it gained approval in March 2013) is in the middle of woodland (the name rather gives it away) “and you come to a clearing where you almost assume a house is going to appear. We met the planning officer on site and he completely agreed — it was only when he saw it in person, rather than on plan, that he could buy into it.”

Thousand Trees House by Liddicoat + Goldhill

Thousand Trees House by Liddicoat + Goldhill

Obviously, planning officers don’t always buy into that approach. Paul Acland, of Paul+O Architects, describes how the (again wooded) site on which they designed the PPS7-approved Wilderness House in Suffolk had been owned by their client for some 20 years. “She’d done the first thing that most people would do in that situation, which is to call the local planning officer, who gave her a resounding ‘no’. But when we saw the site, we could see a clearing that just looked like it deserved a house.” Richard Hawkes is calling one of his live PPS7 projects “the site with the missing house.”

Sound rather unscientific? That’s because it is. This is all about interpretation and feel rather than formula. Kevin Brown from Sadler Brown says “not all sites have opportunities. Many are hopeless, actually — boring bits of land, old paddocks and so on – almost completely featureless.

He’s currently in the middle of an application for a new house in an old stone quarry in Cheshire (spectacular, if not exactly natural). The Gyllheugh scheme in Northumberland was in the grounds of a large country house of its own. The new house was designed around the ingenious hydro-electric scheme designed by the (now National Trust-operated) home’s owner, Victorian inventor Lord Armstrong. The new lakes are a fundamental and very special part of the design.

Another Richard Hawkes project that has approval is an underground scheme within the Bigbury Camp Scheduled Ancient Monument in Kent (the site is currently on the market).

The underground scheme at Bigbury Camp by Richard Hawkes

The underground scheme at Bigbury Camp by Richard Hawkes

Robin Hamilton’s outstanding – in every sense – The Dumble, which won approval under PPS7 in the Derbyshire Dales, used to own and live in the farm adjacent to a 1.5 acre site which was “a hole in the ground” as he puts it [dumble being an old local word for the same]. “It was probably an old marl pit or quarry, and looking out over it most evenings I kept coming back to the feeling that it would make a special site for a new house. So I sketched some drawings, acquired an adjacent field to accommodate suitable landscaping, and went from there.”

The Dumble designed by Robin Hamilton

The Dumble designed by Robin Hamilton

Sites for this type of project are not just special, but often large – anything from 1 acre (the smallest, we think, which is the Hawkes-designed Crossway, featured on Grand Designs) to 39ha. They’re not infill plots and they need to be impressive, and, according to Kevin Brown, “beautiful, with some drama.”

Local planning policies will to some extent have an influence on the chances of approval but, as PPS7 specialist Planning Consultant Rob Hughes explains, “every submission under PPS7 will of course contradict local plan policy in that it is a new house in the open countryside – but one of the keys to [his successful approach] is to look elsewhere in the plan for policies that might offer some support.”

It’s not the case that some areas are more PPS7-friendly than others, either. Whilst many of the earlier houses approved under these clauses happened to be based in the South, that’s probably a reflection of the nature of where the wealth lies rather than a reflection of the progressive nature of local authorities in the area. Some local authorities might be more educated than others, and some might be more amenable to an application under Paragraph 55. From Northumberland to Devon, Herefordshire to Kent – it can happen anywhere, if the individual circumstances are right.

One of those circumstances that is far from clear is how the site’s proximity to existing settlements affects the way any approval might be considered ‘isolated’. You wouldn’t expect to see new ‘country homes’ at the end of a row of existing houses, adjoining farmland or not.

However, that’s not the case, says Rob Hughes. “A PPS7 application on a house in the Nottinghamshire Green Belt [this is the Mapperley Plains house, designed by Marsh Grokowski] was rejected not because of the design, which the planning officer agreed met all the criteria outlined in PPS7, but because the house was directly adjoining houses in the Greater Nottingham conurbation (literally across the road from the edge of the settlement) and therefore could not be deemed to be isolated. This argument was overturned on appeal, meaning ‘isolation’, or perceived lack thereof, was in itself not a viable consideration for PPS7 houses.

“Of course, a large amount of the open countryside that we think of being perfect for PPS7 houses is in the Green Belt — an absolute no-go area for local planning authorities as enshrined in all local plans. However, the good news (depending on your point of view) is that PPS7 ‘trumped’ Green Belt designations. In the same appeal decision for Mapperley Plains in Nottingham, the appeal inspector conceded that the new house would sacrifice part of the Green Belt, but that the exceptional design outweighed these concerns.

“The proposal would be readily visible and accessible and as such, it would act as an exemplar of regional and national, and possibly international, significance. In my view, these factors represent significant benefits. In my experience, opportunities to secure a design of this architectural and landscape quality, and potentially far-reaching importance in environmental terms, from a patron who is clearly committed to it, are very few and far between.”

The Impact on the Design Style

Early country houses were, thanks to the very real chances of them being impounded by an invading mob, defensive in their nature — full of escarpments and moats and more about protecting the occupants, and their gathered wealth inside the walls, from attack. As things began to settle down during the 17th and 18th century, the new country house of the era became more externally focussed. So homes began to be showier, bigger, and more open to the outside, taking into account their setting rather than trying to shut it out. This began to feed into the importance of landscape design into the overall design scheme, things all synonymous with Capability Brown.

This emerging interest in the country house as a plaything of the wealthy continued throughout the industrial revolution. This is exemplified by houses such as the Palladian Witley Court in Worcestershire (effectively rebuilt in the 19th century by William Ward, who made his fortune in the iron industry in the Black Country), and its Arts & Crafts styled near-neighbour Beau Castle, built by the industrialist George Baker in the 1870s.

The point was, the style of these houses is a good indication of the socio-economic climate of the times. Residential architecture in this niche is all about grandeur and being imposing — or at least it was.

To an extent the change has happened because of the times — less money around, therefore fewer big mansions to build (and those that do are more apologetic about showing off their wealth). This is also because of the sustainability agenda that has become implicit in these clauses since PPS7 and is obviously a fundamental part of the NPPF although not mentioned in Paragraph 55.

And, more importantly, according to Paul Acland from Paul+O, sustainability has become a way to get projects through — a way to claim innovation. “The balance has gone too far,” he says. “And, as a result, sustainability is becoming a pre-eminent part of the consideration and an excuse to get through. So while it’s very common for these projects to have a sustainability consultant, the danger is that the designs almost become excuses for themselves, rather than being bold or brave, which of course PPG7 originally intended. Sustainability has come over and resulted in bunkers in the ground.”

‘Bunkers’ may be a harsh way of describing them, but the point is that in some cases, the country house has come full circle, from defensive, to grand, to defensive again. Architects are using factors like sustainability to justify itself rather than just saying, ‘I’m big, I’m bold, and I’m brilliant’.

Sustainability certainly has been a cause for celebration at Adam Architecture, however, whose classically-inspired designs in some eyes struggle to meet the criteria of innovation. Robert Adam’s new design for Grafton Hall in Cheshire (the 43 acre site originally was given approval for a very radical ‘starfish’ design by Ushida Finlay but, due in part to the fact that it would have taken £10m+ to build, the site was finally marketed with a scheme for a Robert Adam classical mansion in place) used its compliance with Code Level 5 as a justification for its approval (it worked).

Which brings us to the greatest point of friction within the world of the PPS7 home – between the traditional and the contemporary; the revivalist and the progressive. There is little question that there has been a natural evolution in this type of home from traditional to contemporary – although it is equally true to say that in the early days of Gummer’s Law, interpreted to favour grand country manors, a fair few were radically contemporary in style. Today, with the usual interpretation of PPS7 and 55 to favour modern designs, a significant number of traditional styled designs still get approved.

The bits of PPG7 that mentioned ‘need to demonstrate that proper account has been taken of the defining characteristics of the local area, including local or regional building traditions” and “each generation would have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the Country House” were taken at the time to favour the large classically-inspired homes designed by the likes of Adam Architecture and Julian Bicknell (some 30% were modern).

The replacement PPS7 removed all these terms and replaced them with ‘innovative’ and ‘ground-breaking’ — “loaded words” according to Hugh Petter at Adam Architecture. And, not surprisingly, more modern designs gained approval (something like 75% of all approvals). The current situation under 55 removes the ‘ground-breaking’ requirement and, says Hugh, “is a lot more design neutral.” In a way, at long last it removes from the Minister the role of design police.

So what does it encourage?

Quite simply, 55 will consider all-comers but the imperative requirement is for this:

  • ‘be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas’;
  • ‘reflect the highest standards in architecture’;
  • ‘significantly enhance its immediate setting’; and
  • ‘be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.’

“One of the key differences between 55 and PPS7 is a very subtle change in word,” says Robin Hamilton, the engineer owner of The Dumble, a PPS7 house in Derbyshire that is currently under construction (he also runs a PPS7-specialist design team, Home Revolution). “Previously it was ‘exceptional quality and innovative’ whereas now it’s ‘exceptional quality or innovative.” Architect Ralph Carpenter (Modece), who recently won approval on appeal for a new straw-bale contemporary scheme in Suffolk, agrees. “The NPPF is fractionally more favourable, and it’s all in that word. It’s a little difference in wording, but it is actually quite important.”

It is this that at least tips the balance in favour of design neutrality and has to an extent encouraged more to go down the innovative route in engineering terms – more of which later.

Looking at the houses that are currently gaining approval under 55, there is no denying that the balance is strongly in favour of what might be called a contemporary interpretation of the country house form. But look at the key characteristics of these houses and you’ll get a sense of how the old Gummer phrase – ‘adding to the tradition of the country house’ – continues to influence.

Many of the houses are grand in scale – the smallest one we’ve come across is some 300m² and many are in excess of 1,000m². Size equals grandeur, regardless of style and many designs seem to view size as an important aspect of their justification – Robin Hamilton’s Dumble is 1,000m² “largely because at that size the eco technologies I’ve included begin to scale effectively, but also there’s no doubt the size of it helped to prove its credibility.”

Home Revolution’s other PPS7-approved scheme, The Craves at Little Howden, is around 650m² – smaller but still way in excess of the average self build (at around 220m²).

Paul Acland from Paul+o describes how The Wilderness “was designed to look austere and grand – to look bigger than it actually is.” This is the country house in full ‘show’ mode. Conversely, some of the other approvals for underground houses seem to indicate that, in terms of country house tradition at least, they follow the line of the defensive schemes of the pre-renaissance era, although obviously with a very different motivation.

Interestingly, a relatively high number of PPS7 houses have never been built which could, in part, be due to the owners of the sites wishing to cash in on their newly-valuable sites, but is more likely to be because the scale and build costs of the intended scheme were so astronomical that it became impractical to proceed. Indeed a couple of PPS7-approved sites have been marketed with alternative, ‘smaller’ schemes ready to go too.

Regardless of style, however, these PPS7 houses need to pay ultra-close attention to their setting – meeting the last two of the four parts of the 55 clause. It is a fundamental part of the architectural assessment of any scheme pursuing this route to approval and prioritised by all the key architects – a key link ensuring modern, angular, contemporary schemes mesh well with their soft, English, often bucolic landscapes.

‘Critical Regionalism’ is not a term that the typical self builder would usually need to be aware of but, according to David Liddicoat (of Liddicoat + Goldhill), it is a fundamental part of the approach that allowed their remarkable Thousand Trees House to gain approval (10-4 at Committee, natch). This school works against an internationalist form of modern architecture and standardised pattern of building materials to reinject a sense of regionalism and site-specific considerations in design.

So no off-the-shelf modernism – no copybook work from across the pond. The key is the locale and the site itself and, therefore, it fits in beautifully with the wording of Paragraph 55. There is no requirement to look to the past and the present is reinvented every time in a specific response to the site’s unique characteristics. In many ways 55 is a manifesto for critical regionalism (a term used since the 1980s. Check out Kenneth Frampton’s Towards a Critical Regionalism for more).

Closely tied into the concept of accounting for the locality is the landscape design. And this isn’t just landscape as an afterthought – this is landscape design as a fundamental aspect of the whole scheme. Paul Acland from Paul+o says that, for The Wilderness, “we had a full landscape assessment. The position on the site is absolutely critical, to the point where to move it just 30cm would have been disastrous.

Ralph Carpenter’s Lavenham scheme, he says, “worked because it was presented on the basis of the whole holding rather than just the house.” According to David Liddicoat, “It was important for [the Thousand Trees House scheme] to have groundedness. It had to take into account the vernacular, and to be contextual. Throughout the design is a consistent grain of reference to the locality.”

Richard Hawkes takes it further. “There are effectively three types of house that meet the tests. ‘Gummer’ style large traditional mansions; spaceships; and houses that take the last two tests of Paragraph 55 seriously, in that they relate to the site and are well-mannered.”

PPS7 specialist Planning consultant Rob Hughes agrees. “Landscape design is critical – it’s not just about a good design, but about a reaction to the individual site.” Most architects include a landscape architect as a part of the design team from day one, and, according to Kevin Brown of Sadler Brown, it is as critical as the house. Their design for Gyllheugh incorporates a natural swimming pond formed from the former hydro-electricity-powering lakes on site. “It shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be a key part of the whole thing,” he explains.

If there’s one criteria in terms of design style under Paragraph 55, however, it is that the design should be ‘exceptional quality’ and of ‘the highest standards in architecture.’. There’s no getting around that, regardless of style. That is, of course, at the heart of the issue and why pursuing this route for 55 houses is so risky – as Hugh Petter from Adam Architecture says, “the difficulty is in assessing subjective terms in objective ways.” And it’s this issue, and providing ‘exceptional’ which plays an overriding part in the design process itself.

The Design Process

For a start, be careful who you to choose to work with. The good news is that, thanks at least in part to Paragraph 55, this is becoming less of a closed shop than it was before. Many new names are becoming first-time successes at gaining approval; the bad news is that it’s very difficult to know how much your architect comprehends the implications of a 55 process until you really begin to engage with them – and that involves commitment.

An interview process should take place and be based around the way they might approach a project of this sort. You’ll want to hear evidence of an understanding of the importance of not just creating an impressive large house, but how they will square off the criteria of 55 and what arguments they might use to justify their scheme. The use of a team will probably be fundamental and might well include landscape specialists, sustainability consultants and of course planning consultants.

Do they have an understanding of the use of design and peer review panels to get some evidence for proving the ‘exceptional’ nature of their scheme? And can they display an understanding of the local landscape and vernacular issues that will have such a huge influence on the scheme’s success or otherwise. Are they at least conversant with schemes that have gained success and, in their previous work, can you see any evidence of them being able to raise the bar again for your project? Also – and this is not critical but certainly helps – can they display a pedigree in terms of education, career development and previous projects?

The simple fact is that it is easier for an appeal inspector or design review panel to take seriously the scheme put forward by someone who worked for, say, Daniel Libeskind than it is someone who isn’t a RIBA architect. It’s not impossible, but it just adds to the hurdles you’ll have to deal with. And, don’t forget, the ability of an architect to call on Richard Rogers for a letter of glowing recommendation (as David Liddicoat from Liddicoat Goldhill did) is highly desirable.

Having chosen your architect, it’s time to throw away your usual conceits about what a self build process should be. As David says, “It’s completely different to other design processes.” “It’s intensive,” agrees Hugh Petter from Adam Architecture. “Clients must be prepared to compromise,” says Kevin Brown from Sadler Brown.

According to Richard Hawkes from Hawkes Architecture, “the design process for these types of houses is colosally more involved. We are turning every stone throughout the process. These houses should be the crème de la crème, and quality needs to be apparent in every aspect of the application. Most of all, we need to be in control of the arguments.”

One of the things you’ll need to get your head around is that while this is very much your project and your house that you’ll be enjoying if it ever gets built, to get it built you’ll need to hand over control to the expert drivers. For a start, don’t expect to be giving too much of a brief. Perhaps specify a general size, hoped-for build budget and the key rooms. But don’t start bringing in scrapbooks of things you’ve seen and liked, for the project is going to end up looking like it will because of the combined will of the architect, the planners and the policy they are interpreting, the landscape and other specialists who will have an input, and so on.

To get something like this through, don’t expect to have much of a say in how it looks. As David Liddicoat so smartly puts it, “the client appreciated they would have to take the plunge. There is an unlimited approach to the design process, although budget is of course critical.”

The planning process is of course critical and knowing how to play it – it is, after all, a partly political process – is important to the chances of success. It is often a highly complex, involved and time-consuming process. Ralph Carpenter describes his experience: “the scheme was thrown out by the officers in the first instance. We then came up with a different scheme, which we submitted to a local design review panel but was still turned down by the planners. We appealed and were granted approval by the inspector.”

Richard Hawkes has had five successes. “The longest process we had was two years. One of the schemes got through 10-1 at Committee stage and two have been approved under delegated powers.”

“One consistent theme,” says planning consultant Rob Hughes, “is the need to educate the planning committee about PPS7, and what it is there for, as part of the process. The difference in understanding varies hugely between one local authority and another.”

Robin Hamilton’s Dumble was so radical that the local authority, Derbyshire Dales, commented that they liked the scheme but would have to pass it on to a Design Review panel for recommendation about whether it actually could achieve the sustainability standards it claimed. Both CABE and OPEN returned the application saying that it was beyond their understanding, and Robin had to use reviews by a university professor and environmental engineering consultancy Max Fordham for recommendation. This was then accepted by the local authority and led to the approval.

Another important issue is to ensure that the scheme is not simply rejected flat out by the case officer – submitted as a PPS7 scheme, it should go forward to committee. And that committee can be educated about the scheme and have a site visit – all of which makes it a process that is much more possible to engage with.

Hugh Petter takes up the story. “In our view you want, if at all possible, to try and get the project through planning at the local level rather than the appeal route. The costs are obviously much lower and, if it is possible to find officers and members of a council who are excited about the idea of an unusual project of this kind, close collaboration with the local authority can help to keep the numbers of experts required down whilst also improving the chances of success.” [See here for appeal decisions on rejected projects and what you can learn from them].

As Hugh points out, appeals can take the length and cost of the design process to an even higher level but committing to this route is a huge financial commitment. Most estimates from architects specialising in PPS7 houses suggest that it is likely to cost between £30-100,000.

Proving Innovation and the Rise of Engineering

One interesting development of the subtle changes in wording over this clause’s history is the increasing emphasis on the innovative nature of the scheme. The fact that under 55 schemes can now prove innovation instead of being deemed of ‘exceptional quality’ has allowed greater flexibility for designers without necessarily making it easier to achieve. The point, however, is that innovation in itself can be a justification for approval although, according to Kevin Brown, “many local authorities are still in practice looking for both’.

Innovation can be interpreted in a design context, of course. Innovation is something that fits in more naturally with contemporary schemes, of course – some houses just look different and therefore ‘innovative’ but it doesn’t mean that traditional schemes can’t use it too.

“It has been done and succeeded on appeal [referring to Lowther Park in Cumbria, by Craig Hamilton]” explains Hugh Petter. “You can show how a design evolves a classical style or even a particular innovation in a design feature, e.g. column design. In a traditional scheme you can also prove innovation through use of materials and floorplan layout.”

Innovation can also be interpreted in terms of the home’s engineering – “the house as machine” – and it’s this area which is seeing a significant trend in PPS7 schemes. The most obvious of which, of course, is Robin Hamilton’s Dumble, the bulk of which is set on a rotating bed which moves through 180 to benefit from the sun throughout the day. Robin’s an experienced and inventive engineer himself. Likewise, Kevin Brown at Sadler Brown is currently involved in a scheme seeking 55 approval in Devon where the client is engaging with Jaguar Land Rover to see if building techniques can be brought in from the car industry. All clearly innovative.

The problem with innovation, of course, is that it requires constant raising of the bar. Done once, by definition, it cannot be replicated. Indeed Modece’s Lavenham scheme was originally rejected by the local authority in part because the (for the mainstream) highly forward-thinking natural building techniques and features designed in “have been deployed on other buildings designed by Modece Architects”.

This was a point accepted by the appeal inspector, who went on: “I agree that no single element of this scheme on its own could be regarded as ingenious or inventive. The significant point about this development, however, is the opportunities it would provide for an integrated approach to sustainable, low energy, environmentally-friendly style of living and working. The house and outbuilding are designed as part of a wider sustainable and mutually dependent system involving home, landscape and farming methods using best environmental practices. The concept is linked to an agricultural setting and landscaping scheme designed to provide for the needs of the occupants.” So – broadly – it was innovative in the way it married living and working aspects.

Proving innovation is not just difficult but, according to Robin Hamilton, eventually self-defeating, with the risk of creating a generation of prototype houses that exist in isolation, rather than improving the standards of the wider housing stock. “Every job that we take on makes the subsequent jobs harder – innovation is a major flaw in the system because in my view, once innovation has been proven it should go into the mainstream rather than be discarded.”

Of course, the whole point of 55 is that these houses are the exception rather than ever becoming the rule, but you can see his point.

Conclusion: Being a 55 Client – the 5 Golden Rules

Give up control:

The criteria needing to be satisfied in order to achieve approval for a new dwelling in the open countryside are so tight that they will have to trump the individual needs of you, the self builder. The project is steered by a team of design experts and specialist consultants and your involvement, though important, is far from a key factor. Compromise is critical and you should be prepared to end up with a house that is nothing like the one you had initially imagined – this is a process that gets as close to the self builder as patron of architecture as you can get.

Get the right site:

A brilliant design will not be sufficient to gain approval without the right site – and no-one seems to be able to give a sense of what that site might be. If it has a long-demolished house on there it might help; also, a significant proportion of recently-granted schemes are on woodland plots. But there is no formula to ensuring a suitable site – and appeal decisions appear to contradict each other: if the site is too beautiful, the new house could be deemed not to ‘enhance the setting’. Likewise, a scrubby bit of land might not be deemed worthy of a house of exceptional quality. The good news is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘isolated’ away from existing settlements, however.

Be prepared for an intensive, high-risk and expensive process:

The rewards of this route are huge. However the design process is so exacting that it is inevitably going to be very time-consuming and probably very expensive too. You need to commit to this project wholeheartedly and be willing to pay for the services of consultants and experts you might not necessarily consider essential – all part of signing the project over to your lead architect. And, of course, you may well end up with a refusal.

Use the right designer:

It’s a bit like choosing a manager for your football team – no-one comes with a guarantee of success but there are some who can display previous experience of achieving success, and some who have little experience but display all the facets needed for future success. However, they will be the driving force behind the project. Many work in informal teams, incorporating sustainability experts and planning consultants.

Get every argument covered:

Go through as many appeal decisions as possible (four are listed here) and work out where the main areas of weakness in the applicant’s arguments were. Make sure that you and your architect have strong cases in these areas. You can’t change a planning application between it being refused and going to appeal (i.e. the appeal has to consider the same scheme that was rejected) so make sure your original submission is perfect. And make sure it is presented well in the first instance, with attractive drawings and concise, well-argued supplementary statements.

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