Design – what is good design?

I have always thought the idea of sub splitting site plots into several small ones with different designers addressing the overall guidance is interesting as a way to create diversity of design responses.

‘Local distinctiveness’ of say a village is another story: in maybe  eight centuries of buildings how can something constructed in the 21st century reflect them all? I think we have to stick to our century: look how popular Span homes became, and they are really 20th century style. Our Civic Trust Award research indicated their resilient popularity was very much linked to two factors:

  1. landscaping was not the first aspect to be sacrificed as costs rose, it was a USP and therefore the last aspect to be cut back to meet cost constraints.
  2. the maintenance regime on Span estates, i.e. how they are governed and managed by the residents adds a lot of certainty and value.

Almost no current major housebuider thinks along these lines. This commitment by a developer to quality of landscaping and general estate maintenance over a long time period cannot be legislated for. In London managed places such as the Cator Estate in Blackheath and the Dulwich Estate in Dulwich Village ensure these are oases of higher value than their surroundings.

How do you think LPAs can best encourage design diversity and local distinctiveness?

LPAs have hardly any urban designers on their staff, and the jobs assigned to the urban design teams that do exist are usually around public space design, necessary but not influential in major housing areas.

Almost none can capture “good” design effectively using the appeal system: a tool entirely unsuited to getting a good design outcome. Good design needs both discussion – tension even – and a clear leadership prepared to make consistent design decisions, and only the very best management continuity can deliver the outcome of a good attractive viable scheme. Often the early phase submitted and built in a major scheme is very good.  Senior LPA officers and councillors are concerned to ensure a strong LPA design input is available.

As the resource needed for overseeing the subsequent phases is often not available, designs often start well and go downhill under a barrage of mediocre decisions, compromises and funding constraints. Housebuiders sell on land, taking the land value uplifts in the process, and higher densities creep in, so early plans for landscaping, proper transport, water management and even respect for the topography are often lost. I have some horror stories on this aspect.

So what about using Design Guides? The guide can be useful but many are so similar and vague: perhaps all copied each other in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and all rehash the original work, and many look suspiciously like the original Essex Design Guide!!  Add to this samey superficiality the house-builder “gob-on”, a ‘delightful term! It refers to dressing boxes of a totally standard design with some claddings to imitate “local styles”. to give homes with the correct county moniker – the Hampshire, the Cheshire or the Rutland, and voila, you have a recipe for where we now stand in terms of design: the unqualified leading the unconcerned.

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