IN FOCUS | Architects sceptical about Govt design code 

The code unveiled last week is unlikely to achieve its goal of creating more beautiful developments, the region’s designers have claimed.

Launched for public consultation earlier this month, the National Model Design Code is aimed at providing local authorities with a baseline standard of quality and practice to take into account when considering development proposals. 

For example, it urges councils to consider elements such as development layouts and street patterns; building façades; how landscaping would be approached; the environmental performance of place and buildings, and whether or not developments have taken local vernacular and heritage into account in their architecture and materials.

The final code is to be published alongside the Government’s planning reforms later this year.  However, designers and architects told Place North West that the code could struggle to succeed in its aims.

Defining beauty

“I am suspicious of design codes and trying to quantify something like ‘beauty’, which, in its purest form, is unquantifiable,” said Ewen Miller, director of architecture firm Calderpeel.

Additional design rules shoehorned into the planning process could “stifle creativity”, Miller warned. 

Design Code Diagram Urbed Feb 2021“It is a sad reflection that we feel the need to do this. Some great architecture has been produced without such documents. My concern is that it all descends into a one-size-fits-all blandness.”

Despite his doubts, Miller said that the code, drawn up for the Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government and other departments by Manchester-based practice Urbed, could be useful in providing local authorities with a “skeletal framework”, or point of reference, when creating localised design codes. 

Trying to create an overarching design code for a country with numerous distinctive and disparate character areas and city districts is an almost impossible task, noted Phil Doyle, director of 5plus Architects. 

How would you deliver the Northern Quarter through a set of design codes? It’s impossible. It has grown up organically over time. That is how cities develop,” he said. 

Specific design codes for masterplanning particular areas of a city or town could work to “generate coherence” locally, but the success of such frameworks relies heavily on how they are used and interpreted, Doyle added. 

“You need good, talented people designing the buildings and good, talented people assessing the applications. It doesn’t matter if you have design codes or frameworks or supplementary planning guidance, it just needs good people.”

The climate change question

One of the key features of the Government’s National Model Design Code is its insistence on the importance of tree-lined streets, an approach that Pete Swift, director of landscape architecture firm Planit-IE, considers overly simplistic.

“It’s a nonsense and an insult to the profession to say ‘there is a dead easy answer to all this – just plant a load of trees,’” he said.

Swift was also critical of the lack of guidance in the design code relating to how developments consider climate change. “It’s silent [on the issue]. If I looked at this document in a Scandinavian country, everything would be referenced to climate change [considerations].

“Every piece of design thinking and policy, down to how the public is engaged with the process, would begin with the million-dollar question of climate change.” 

Salboy Castle Irwell 2 Park Jpg

Miller’s Calderpeel Architects designed Salboy’s Castle Irwell scheme

If the design code is adopted, it will be down to councils to interpret and apply it at a local level, but common practices within construction could impact its effectiveness beyond the planning process, according to Swift.

Beyond planning 

For instance, the process of value engineering – where a contractor tries to claw back the cost of a project by replacing specified materials for similar, cheaper ones – cannot always be controlled by councils once planning approval has been granted. 

“The country is full of planners who think they are approving a beautiful scheme only to find that in reality, after the value engineering process, [they are not],” Swift said

“You can think you are doing absolutely the right thing by writing a really tight planning condition, but if a contractor wants to save a chunk of money, it will find a way.” 

While much of the criticism of the design code has been levelled at the Government, the industry does need to ask itself why such a framework was deemed necessary in the first place.

The need for innovation

Paul Jones, founder and managing director of Preston-based developer Kingswood Homes, said national housebuilders play a significant role in the deterioration of quality in developments, by failing to innovate and “using the same house type for two decades”.

Kingswood Blackburn

Kingswood’s Green Hills scheme features 40 different house types around two village greens

“We need the housebuilding industry to be more like the car industry, which is driven by innovation, efficiency and desirability – all to the benefit of the customer.

“[The industry] has been allowed to offset not just affordable housing but the green space that is so vital to enjoyment and placemaking. Paying to upgrade some play equipment half a mile away does not create a neighbourhood of character,” Jones said.

Your Comments

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Very well-written article and points of view. It’s impossible to legislate or even to provide guidance that’s always suitable in the complex and changing world of development.

We need good designers working with good, assertive planners in a process that puts climate change first on its agenda.

By W

No architect or town planner sets off to deliver an ‘ugly’, poorly insulated building or unsustainable development. The National Model Design Code will become a useful checklist but won’t prevent developments and projects being value engineered under construction. This tends to reduce all those things that make a great development – spacious avenues, the very best materials, more open density, green spaces – they all come at a price. Hopefully post-Grenfell (and post-Covid) we will have learnt the lessons that shift the balance of power further away from ‘cost cutting’ to real ‘value’ and instill a great sense of sustainability, craftpersonship and pride in places we construct.

By Jane Harrad-Roberts

Interesting how the illustrations show few, or like the top illustration, no cars. This looks to me like a standard low-density spec estate where every house will have 2-3 cars and their movement, parking and other demands will totally dominate the layout. We need a proper conversation about design before it is too late for yet another estate.

By Peter Black

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