It may sound a little harsh but the designs proposed for the majority of new houses in the UK are boring, at best unadventurous, and normally just dull. They are often variations on the Victorian vernacular or neo-Georgian theme and more or less mimic the houses that surround them. Even the houses built and designed by self builders are often very similar to those produced by volume housebuilders. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
What is Modern Architecture?
In design terms you can argue that the 1930s, 50s and 60s explored every imaginable combination of flat roofs, steel, glass and concrete, and that no design today can be described as truly new. But this is wrong.
Contemporary design is that which makes the best use of the most up-to-date materials and ideas in both the technical and aesthetic sense. The fact that some of it may have been done before is not relevant.
A contemporary design can either involve new materials and technology used in a traditional format or the use of traditional materials in a new and innovative design or it can be a combination of both. In any event, it enables both originality and utility and the house is unlikely to look much like its neighbours.
Present it as a Local Landmark
Where adventurous new designs have been tried they can become local landmarks and be the subject of positive interest in the national press.
The energy saving features now available and smart home technology can transform the experience of living in such experimental or technologically advanced homes.
There has been more than one occasion when people have had to fight tooth and nail to get planning permission for an interestingly designed modern house, against major local opposition then the local authority have had the nerve to give it a design award.
Don’t Fear Planning Permission
A key reason for sticking to neo-traditional design seems to be an expectation that it will be very difficult to get planning permission for anything that could be described as modern or contemporary.
This fear is, on the face of it, quite reasonable, as planning committees appear to look for any reason to refuse developments that are unpopular. Planning is seen as a difficult enough exercise anyway without provoking further problems by using unusual and untried design ideas.
It is hard to criticise anyone if they go for a safe design option, particularly when there is a limited budget, tight timescales and such a shortage of building plots. But having said this, the door to good modern design is not as firmly closed as it once was.
The planning system is capable of being far more open and flexible than people give it credit for. Even planning committees have the capacity to accept The New provided their own fears and prejudices can be overcome. Mention modern and many people think 1960s and all that went so horribly wrong with cheaply built houses and concrete tower blocks. If you can overcome that negative image there has never been more opportunity to get planning permission for a well-designed new and contemporary individual house.
Justify the Difference in Design
As with any planning application, traditional or modern, the relevant planning policies are critical. Many recent central and local government policy pronouncements actually support and encourage modern design, but there is an ingrained planning mantra that says development should blend in with its surroundings.
In long-standing development control speak, new dwellings must be in keeping with the character of the area. This implies that if buildings match the existing ones then that is a good thing regardless of how mediocre or nondescript the existing area might be. It is difficult to separate planning judgements about bad design from personal taste and so the character of the area argument gives ample opportunity for planning officers and planning committees to oppose something just because it is different.
The way round this is to have a planning argument that justifies something being different an argument that has more weight in planning terms than the principle of design conformity for its own sake.
Use Government policy
Perhaps the strongest government statement that supports contemporary design is made in Planning Policy Statement 7 (which later became Paragraph 79), in relation to exceptional circumstances that might allow the development of individual dwellings in the open countryside. In paragraph 11 of this document it states:
‘Very occasionally the exceptional quality and innovative nature of the design of a proposed, isolated new house may provide this special justification for granting planning permission. Such a design should be truly outstanding and ground-breaking, for example, in its use of materials, methods of construction or its contribution to protecting and enhancing the environment, so helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas. The value of such a building will be found in its reflection of the highest standards in contemporary architecture, the significant enhancement of its immediate setting and its sensitivity to the defining characteristics of the local area’.
This sets the tone for the Governments support for contemporary architecture and high environmental standards in design. They give great emphasis in all their planning documents to sustainability and this concept includes energy efficiency and the effective use of land.
Contemporary design and architecture can be used to maximise the use of a site whilst minimising visual impact and also to incorporate the very best in energy efficient technology.
Local Planning Policies
Every local planning authority has some kind of development plan which will contain policies that encourage energy efficient building. This means that if you have an innovative and original design and you can demonstrate convincingly that its form reflects its function in terms of energy efficiency in the context of its particular site, then you have strong arguments in favour of your proposal. To reject your design is to reject the importance of energy efficient technology and they will not want to do that lightly, whatever the character of the area.
This said, it should rarely be necessary to ignore the surroundings of a site in design terms. The colour of local materials, the scale and massing of the best of local buildings can all be reflected in a good contemporary design. So you should always have more than just energy efficiency to support what you want to do.
Know your Friends and Enemies
Support for modern design can come from unexpected places in the planning department. It is ironic that one of the most likely allies will be your conservation officer. They often have an interest in architecture and perceive historic environments in period terms; as such they are usually open to good examples of what they see as the period architecture of today.
This means that new designs are possible in Conservation Areas, as extensions to listed buildings and wherever a design argument can be put in purely architectural terms. If the council uses an in-house (or consultant) architect then they could also help you shift the focus of your planning application away from the subjective personal taste and prejudices of the members of the planning committee, and onto discussions about architectural innovation.
Of course not all planning committee members are blinkered and some may well want to be seen to be embracing new designs, especially if they are green.
Your enemies are likely to include neighbours, but their objections will be the same as always: a mixture of objection to anything new and fear of harm to property prices.
Understand Design Guides
A more significant threat is a local authority planning officer who has had no design training, lacks confidence in design issues and bearing in mind the local opposition, will want to play it safe (from their point of view) by refusing anything that isn’t in their local Design Guide. This is planning guidance issued by the planning department to encourage people to build in the local style and meet minimum privacy distances, and so on. The danger is that your application ends up being processed by a junior officer and is refused under delegated powers in acquiescence to negatively worded polices and the local NIMBYs, so your design never gets as far as the planning committee.
Presentation is Everything
Presenting your proposal with the specific intention of raising current architectural issues should take it beyond the negative knee-jerk reactions of unimaginative planners. The crucial thing is that your wonderful contemporary home looks wonderful on paper. Planning authorities grant permission for pictures so the better presented the picture the more likely you are to see it approved. Contemporary designs, more than any other, can be misunderstood and the plans misread. Models can be used to good effect. CAD software can produce stunning realistic virtual images that put a proposed house into a photograph on its intended plot. With a bit of luck you will be able to take a picture of the real thing and see how accurate the image is.
5 Ways to Improve the Chances of Getting a Contemporary Home Through Planning