What did we learn from Design Review in 2013?

MADE’s design review service continued to experience strong demand throughout 2013.  This was despite the fact that, with the last Government subsidies disappearing in March, we had to start charging customers the full cost of the service.  Where a clear message comes from the local authority that design review is a requirement, developers have no problem paying the fee, and at the end of the process usual feel it was money well spent.  To find out more about how design review works and to book a scheme in see our design review pages.

MADE reviewed 27 schemes in 2013 from eight local authority areas throughout the region.  Reflecting current development activity almost half of these were volume housing schemes.  There was also a big growth in design reviews of single private houses, often seeking planning permission under paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework.  An authoritative view from MADE is often vital to reassure local planning authorities that a proposal is of exceptional quality or innovative, as paragraph 55 requires.  Education, retail, office and mixed-use schemes made up the rest of our design reviews.

So what advice did our experts give to the schemes they saw in 2013?  We have analysed the letters that we send out after every design review to summarise our experts’ feedback.  Here are the top ten typical comments in design review letters.  Because of their very specific nature we have left out comments we made in response to proposals for single private houses.  A separate article and list of comments about these will follow soon.

1.  Create safe and legible walking routes

Whether we are considering a housing layout or a new educational building we need to consider pedestrian desire lines and make sure they are simple, legible and safe.  In many schemes pedestrian routes seem to have been drawn in after everything else has been considered which means they can be convoluted and not overlooked.

2.  Avoid over-dominant parking

Where to put all the cars is a challenge for architects and urban designers.  When designing large retail, public or commercial buildings “put the car park round the back” is a good rule to follow.  When it comes to housing layouts a mix of parking solutions; on plot, on street, small courts is usually needed to stop car parking dominating.  Planting can help break up big areas of car parking but it needs to be well designed and maintainable.  

3.  Create a network of streets

This one is particularly for housing layouts and masterplans. So often we see schemes with convoluted vehicular routes.  The problem starts by designers drawing a spine road, then taking roads off that spine, and roads off those roads.  A much better approach is to draw a simple grid of streets across the development and then consider whether that grid needs to be modified (for example to take account of topography, access points, views, trees, etc).

4.  Be more ambitious about resource efficiency

One thing we can be sure of is that energy is going to get more expensive in the long term and that we face more extreme weather events than we have been used to.  We are constantly urging developers and designers to make their buildings more energy efficient and embrace sustainable urban drainage systems. 

5.  Make fronts face fronts and backs face backs

It seems like urban design rule No. 1.  The public fronts of homes and other buildings face each other across the street.  It creates better, more convivial streets and keeps all the messy private stuff hidden round the back.  We don’t want fronts to face the backs and sides of buildings, but its remarkable how many schemes we see where they do.

6.  Address the main road

Perhaps as a relic of late 20th Century highways thinking, there seems to be a reluctance to have houses directly fronting, and having vehicle access to, main roads.  We are not talking about major dual carriageways here, but ordinary A & B roads in rural and sometimes urban areas.  They are seen as far too busy to have direct access, even though a few meters away there may be historic properties that do precisely that.  Instead we see proposals for rear access or houses set back behind service roads.  Land is thus wasted with excess tarmac where more homes could be built.  Having direct access helps to transform the perceived status of a road.  It becomes a street, part of the town or village, rather than just a highway; speeds are reduced as a result.

7.  Get the entrance to the development right

Sometimes developers and their designers are trying to create a ‘gateway’ to a new development, perhaps marking out the new neighbourhood as special, a step up in quality. Occasionally this may be justified, but in most cases you want the new to integrate with the old.  Entrances to new developments with over-specified junctions, houses set back and wide visibility splays, undermine this sense of integration.  Often we find ourselves advising designers to ‘tighten up’ the entrance.

8.  One access road is not enough

We see many schemes, some with as many as 200 houses, with only one road in and out.  This puts a lot of pressure on this single access, reduces choice for residents and leaves them with convoluted routes out of the development.  If we are going to well connected cities, towns and villages each development has to play it part in making connections.

9.  Respond to the topography and other landscape and heritage features

A number of our feedback points related to responding to the landscape.  Making sure streets followed contours, making the most of distant views, arranging houses to cluster around significant protected trees or heritage features.  It is something that should be part of the early analysis of any designer, but often opportunities are missed.

10.  Act to reduce speeds on main roads near housing developments

Not necessarily in the gift of the developer, but we have seen a number of housing proposals which are extensions to villages and towns.  As the settlement grows, the 30mph limit should also grow, but more important than speed limit signs is making sure the new street is designed to reduce speeds (see point 6). 

As in previous years it is urban design issues that predominated our discussions.  It is not that our panel members do not make comments about architecture, but they are less frequent and more varied.  Where we do talk about architecture it tends to be to advise people to keep it simple, avoiding the use of too many facing materials and to keep it honest so that the building can be ‘read’ from the outside.