Most self builders and renovators are justifiably pretty suspicious of ‘concept’, ‘theory’ and the more intellectual, ‘arty’, element of architecture. However, contextualism presents a clear solution for people who don’t see much point in recreating the past through a pastiche form of traditional architecture, but fail to warm to the white-rendered, slightly brutal, clinical form of modern architecture we see as the alternative.

What is Contextualism?

“For me,” says architect Darren Bray, “contextualism is all about an architecture that is a response to its surroundings and respects the locality — unlike so much architecture that is style-driven. There is much architecture around which deliberately works against established geometries and fabric. Contextualism is all about the site.”

New York architect and contextualism advocate Steven Holl describes it thus in his book Anchoring: “The site of a building is more than a mere ingredient in its conception. It is its physical and metaphysical foundation. The resolution of the functional aspects of site and building, the vistas, sun angles, circulation, and access are the physics that demand the metaphysics of architecture.”

Why Should Self Builders Embrace the Concept?

The main reason is that it provides a smart answer to that traditional/contemporary dilemma. Contextualism bridges the gap between pastiche old and clinical new. It means there is a solution that might well be the best of both worlds, allowing us to have modern spaces and the benefits of modern shapes (for example flat roofs are a great way to maximise space on sites with ridge height restrictions), while at the same time not building something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Very few people want their new homes to look like a spaceship has just landed — they would much rather that it adds to the beauty of the local landscape, both natural and built.

What is equally interesting to take into account is that these are homes that are not, as Darren Bray from PAD Studio says, “driven by style”. Houses that are overly stylistic are, by their nature, highly unlikely to feel part of the particular site’s context. In a way, contextualism really is the only way to be truly ‘authentic’ in design terms.

As Darren explains: “The site is everything in contextualism.”

Examples of Contextual Design


This coastal self build, which was the overall winner of last year’s The Daily Telegraph Homebuilding & Renovating Awards is a masterpiece in contextual design, responding to its site on many levels. The first floor living space has been designed so as to enjoy the beach views and light, and features a sheltered balcony


Meanwhile the cladding – gabion walls, constructed of stones sourced to match those on the adjacent beach – reflect the surroundings


This award-winning home, designed by Stan Bolt: Architect, was designed to have minimal impact on its stunning surroundings, nestling down low on its plot, and with its shingle-covered planted roofs following the form of the coastal slope. The exterior cladding means the house also disappears into the rocky coastline


Darren Bray from PAD Studio designed this new house in a national park, with a structure that clearly integrates with its surroundings

What are the Practical Benefits of Contextualism?

  • Better living – Working with the site means that you’ll get better views, and a nicer ‘outside’ living experience by way of garden space. Liveability definitely improves when the site is central. The contours of the house will work with the way you use it, rather than in spite of it. You’ll get better natural light, and you will connect with your new environment better.
  • Improved appearance – We all aspire to homes that are more pleasing to the eye. In most cases, people don’t like their new home to be a statement, or to look like it was simply plonked there out of the sky. Contextual homes will look like they deserve to be part of the landscape, and will be better appreciated for it.
  • Getting planning – Planners like the arguments around consideration of place, and they tend to like the look of new homes that please, rather than surprise. If a planning application, particularly in a sensitive area (such as a Conservation Area), can make a case for using local materials, drawing on the immediate natural environment, and considering the history of the site, it is more likely to gain consent.

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