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Planning Committee Image by ZR

Planning Committee Image by ZR

Teach a man to plan – and he will know nothing about good design

This third blog by local architect, Ken Davis about his project, The Fish House, will deal very briefly with design/layout issues and planning: the latter being so called ‘Town Planning’. 

It is definitely a good idea for me to be brief about planning, because I could easily slip into a thesis on all the ways it goes wrong! Over the past 100 years, we have constructed for ourselves a planning system trapped by its own bureaucracy – and unfit to serve the needs of the 21st century.

Quality v. quantity?

Most obviously, we all know about the failure to deliver enough homes, but more importantly, the real failure is not to deliver homes and places to work of the right quality. This is significant and somewhat ironic for a planning regime born out of the health needs of workers in Victorian factories, because our greatest need now is to create places that not only improve our local environment, but that of the wider world too.

The latest central government guidance on planning policy places sustainability and good design as ‘golden threads’ that run through planning policies. However, we not only have no agreed definition of either of these two key objectives, but also very few people amongst the supposed guardians of the planning system, who are either trained or experienced in them. Adding insult to injury is that the Building Regulations (controlling much of the technical requirements of buildings) are not an integral part of the planning system, so it is perfectly possible to gain planning permission for a building, which cannot be built under the Building Regs. Also, planners have no real way of assessing sustainability of a submitted scheme other than vague statements about achieving certain targets.

Planning cartoon by Rob Cowan

Planning cartoon by Rob Cowan

Design optional

And then of course, there is design. These days, planners can have pretty much any degree and gain a place on a one year Masters planning course, only to find the subject of design is one optional module. Note the word ‘optional’. Good design, now recognised as a vital part of the planning system, is not considered important enough to warrant even one essential module on a Masters course – and so newly qualified planners can arrive at their desks having to find established design assessment skills from within the workplace i.e they look at what is usually done in that office or, even worse, apply their personal prejudices. No wonder then that there is precious little consistency in the application of vague planning policy to design reality.

Perhaps enough of a rant on this topic because, once we had cleared the ‘when is a shop a house?’ issue, I only really had one absurd comment on the design of The Fish House, although I have had plenty more on other schemes.

The ‘feel good’ effect

Architecture is thought by many people to reside in extreme, wow or wacky buildings like The Shard or The Gherkin in London – or at the other extreme, only in historic buildings where there may be some original architecture, but so often it has been from a pattern book. Yet, for me, the very best architecture is where the hand of the designer has a subtle almost subconscious ‘feel good’ effect on the way you experience the building. This, of course, is hard to measure – and harder still for councillors and planners, who may not be able to read the key elements of good design in a set of drawings.

So, while architecture is often seen as big, impressive or old stuff, modern/contemporary architecture is often assessed on a purely aesthetic or visual impact scale to do with personal taste (prejudice?). However, in my view, it is small buildings, usually housing, where a little piece of architecture with a big A is most difficult to achieve, though we do now have many fine examples.

Ken's Tardis Effect with Infinity Mirror

Ken's Tardis Effect with Infinity Mirror

The ‘Tardis’ effect

The space limitations at The Fish House have enabled me to (hopefully) create something of a ‘Tardis’ effect (larger inside than appears from the outside), helped by a long view through the house as you enter the front door, a sense of light and hence airiness achieved with the use of top light from the upper and lower roofs – and also some quirky local distinctiveness with the fish coming out of a beach hut on the roof facing onto the street.

There will also be some better than average quality materials to aid visual richness and durability (a key component of sustainability). Layout and floor plans were quite simply decided on the basis of no habitable rooms towards the noisy road, living/dining/kitchen on the ground floor with access to some outside space and one generous bedroom and bathroom on each of the two upper floors. Small sections of glass floors and infinity mirrors will provide some ‘wow’ factor. 

One problem with the planning system is that it still does not pursue participative consultation…

… others are that it lacks pro-activity and is too bureaucratic i.e. does not engage with imaginations and promote or encourage vision.

Posted 15:55 Wednesday, Apr 29, 2015 In: Energy Wise

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