In early 2014 The Design Review Panel was asked to provide a design review panel session for a paragraph 55 house being proposed to be built in the Blackdown Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The proposed site was also designated as a County Wildlife Site.
Four years later the Design Review Panel members, who reviewed the original scheme, were very kindly invited by the owners, Stephen and Elizabeth Tetlow, to visit, the now constructed paragraph 55 house, to see to what extent the completed building had managed to successfully meet the aspirations set out at the design and planning application stage.
Background & Site Location
The proposal presented to the Design Review Panel was for a new house at North Grays Farm, which followed a three-year journey by Stephen and Elizabeth Tetlow to realise the creation of an exceptional and innovative new house on their land in which they intended to live.
The process undertaken by the applicants was a very long evolutionary design process involving a multidisciplinary design team including: Architects, Landscape Architects, Ecologists and Engineers, and including consultation with key stakeholders and liaison with organisations such as the UK Green Building Council, the Building Research Establishment and The Design Review Panel.
How was The Design Review Panel instrumental in achieving planning for this NPPF Paragraph 55 house in Open Countryside:-
Due to the location of the proposal site within open countryside, in order to obtain planning permission, the proposals would need to meet the policy criteria set out with paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the relevant part of which, for this project, states:-
“Local planning authorities should avoid new isolated homes in the countryside unless there are special circumstances such as:
the exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design of the dwelling. Such a design should:
be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas;
reflect the highest standards in architecture;
significantly enhance its immediate setting; and – be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.”
The applicants planning consultants felt that, in order to demonstrate compliance with the above policy requirements, it would be necessary to seek independent, impartial, multidisciplinary and expert review and input from The Design Review Panel.
The local authority planning department gave the feedback from The Design Review Panel significant weight within their case officer Planning Committee Report, in particular stating: -
“In terms of being truly outstanding this is necessarily a subjective judgement, however, in an aim to apply some measure of objectivity the scheme was presented to the local Design Review Panel.”
Furthermore, the Local Authority Planning Committee also gave the Design Review Panel’s feedback significant weight, treating the Design Review Panel feedback as a material consideration. The Planning Committee Minutes state: -
“It is accepted that this is always going to be a subjective assessment and will polarise opinions and further that this is an exceptionally high benchmark to meet. However, in this case the applicant has gone through an iterative process of design and had this assessed and reviewed (through earlier design review panels) before arriving at the current proposals again these have been rigorously integrated by other design professionals and it is clear from their comments that they feel this benchmark has been passed.”
A Summary of The Design Review Panel Feedback After the Initial Review Session
It helped the applicant and their design team that they engaged with the design review panel process at an early stage of the design process whilst the design was still fluid, and they felt able to amend the proposals as necessary in response to feedback given. Notwithstanding the above, at The Design Review Panel session it immediately became evident to the Panel that already a huge amount of work, care, sensitivity and multidisciplinary expertise had gone into to both the contextual, ecological and landscape analysis as well as the design proposals as a response to the clients brief.
Furthermore, it was felt by the Panel that the high level and quality of detailed information provided in advance of the Devon Design Review Panel session was extremely thorough and was helpful to the Design Review Panel process.
The Panel was encouraged to see landscape and ecology being the driving force behind the project and that the proposals had been designed from the outset to respond to both the local and wider environmental context. The presentation demonstrated an informed understanding of the site, among other aspects, in terms of landscape and visual impact, ecology and topography as well as its constraints and opportunities.
Paragraph 55 of the NPPF states that proposals should be ‘truly outstanding or innovative’. In this instance the Panel considered the design to be both truly innovative and outstanding. It was felt that the proposals were innovative for the reasons of its sustainable and energy generation credentials, building management system, proposed construction and physical form. The projects innovative credentials were further supported by the specific legacy and educational aspirations of the proposals, that it was felt demonstrated how the project may help to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas.
In terms of design it was felt that the proposals represented a design that was exceptional and that demonstrated a great deal of creativity.
There were of course aspects that the Design Review Panel felt would benefit from greater detail and clarification. One such concern was in regard to the building footings and the detail of how it would sit within its meadow context. The Panel was encouraged that the applicant was extremely keen to protect the meadow in both the short and long term. Therefore, the Panel suggested that there should be no direct access from the proposed dwelling onto the meadow on the southern or western elevations. The reason for this was to minimise, as far as reasonably possible, the likelihood for future potential occupiers creating a domestic amenity garden with hard landscaping on the meadow.
Concern was also expressed regarding the proposed car parking and gravel forecourt. It was felt by the Design Review Panel that the vehicular access should be extended to be from the rear of the property and a gravel forecourt to the meadow side of the south elevation should be removed. The reason for this was to prevent potential future owners/occupiers from extending the currently proposed gravel forecourt area, which may in turn have a detrimental impact upon the meadow and setting of the house within its landscape. This would also reflect the traditional pattern of access to a farmyard or rear courtyard for isolated dwellings within the landscape character area.
The proposed materials were generally supported by the Panel; however, it was suggested that careful consideration should be given in regard to the positioning of the various proposed cladding materials so as to ensure ease of access for those materials that may require greater maintenance and or early replacement. In regard to the proposed mix of organic and non-organic materials it was recommended that careful consideration was given to ensure even weathering and prevent unplanned patches of non-organic cladding
becoming evident in the future.
It was also suggested that consideration should be given to potential glare from the proposed PV panels. It was felt that any such glare/reflections may not be in keeping with the stated aims in terms of the organic design and that matt finished PV panels should be used.
The Panel was encouraged by the confirmation that the ecological benefits presented would be empirically measurable on an ongoing basis. The Panel was also supportive of the access lane not being lit. It was felt that the impact upon the meadow and the surrounding site ecology would need to be carefully considered and monitored during construction on site and suggested that a detailed methodology statement for the landscape management during construction should be provided and agreed with the local authority prior to commencement of works on site.
In regard to landscape impact, it was felt that the proposals would be enhanced if views into the site were filtered to reflect a key characteristic of Landscape Character Type LCT3. In order to achieve this, whilst maintaining the meadow, it was proposed that the hedgerows/earth and stone walls between the meadows be reinforced with additional planting of native species trees.
How Successful do the Panel feel the As Built Is Compared to the Pre - Planning Proposals Presented to the Design Review Panel?
During the pre-planning application design stage, due to the location and nature of the proposals site, the Design Review Panel had identified landscape and ecological considerations as being crucial aspects to be successfully addressed for this project, in order to demonstrate compliance with paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy (NPPF), which required the proposals to be: truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas; – reflect the highest standards in architecture; – significantly enhance its immediate setting; and – be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.
From a Landscape Architect’s perspective, the visit to North Grays Farm did confirm the Panel’s expectation that the new building would enhance its immediate setting and be sympathetic to the local landscape character of the Blackdown Hills.
The location of the house reflects an established pattern of isolated farms on the flank of hills above the valley floor, discreetly approached by a narrow lane lined with hedge banks. Views to the house from across the valley and in its more immediate environs are filtered by hedgerow trees. The texture, colour and organic form of the building complemented the natural grain of the local landscape, particularly the timber cladding, when viewed through a canopy of trees on a winter’s day. The juxtaposition of house and meadow on the southern elevation has created a dramatic contemporary landscape, that certainly sets high standards for design in rural areas.
It was most encouraging to see that feedback which came out of the Design Review Panel process had been incorporated it into the final design of building and landscape. In particular, the removal of a proposed parking area on the south side of the building, and its discreet relocation to the rear of the building. This amendment has benefited both building and landscape and reinforced the local vernacular tradition of farm yards approached by discreet lanes to the rear of the main house. The arrival sequence to the house along the new track, skirting existing hedge lines, and with a new hedge bank, is a great success, providing an uninterrupted view to the house in its meadow setting.
The Design Review Panel has looked at a number of P55 projects in recent years and one area that does require greater consideration is that of domestic curtilage, its definition and treatment. At North Grays, the domestic amenity garden is restricted to an area behind the house and within the corner of the field. There is however the potential risk that future occupiers may use this area to create a formal garden with hard elements. in hindsight, it may have been more sustainable to establish a buffer between the hedge banks and the garden area to prevent the amenity landscape from encroaching on this key landscape element of the character area.
Having visited the built project, the Panel feels that Mr and Mrs Tetlow are to be complemented on both their thorough and committed approach to this project and its final realisation. At the outset their design team stated the wish to create the ‘new country house’ set in its domain and that is what has been achieved. From a landscape perspective, it is a remarkable example of sustainable development in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Part of the land at North Grays Farm had been identified as a County Wildlife Site (CWS) in 2007, a non-statutory designation, identified for its species-rich hay meadow, traditional orchard and small areas of marshy grassland. The designation process had been encouraged by the owners during their attempts to gain information on how to appropriately manage the land which had come into their stewardship. Whilst such a site has no legal protection, Local Planning Authorities have a duty to consider them during the planning process. Therefore, it was of some considerable ecological interest when an application was proposed to construct a new dwelling house within part of the meadow at North Grays Farm, and the Devon Design Review Panel considered the potential impacts on the meadow and wider ecological interest of the site during the review process.
Hay meadows have become an increasingly rare site across Britain. Estimates suggest lowland meadows have declined by approximately 97% in the 50-year period up to 1984 (JNCC). These declines, coupled with the fact that many meadows support a wide diversity of wildlife have resulted in many remaining traditional hay meadows receiving designations to assist in their protection. Some receive legal protection in the form of ’statutory’ designations, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), while others may have ‘non-statutory’ designations, identified by local authorities or Wildlife Trusts as having local wildlife value and being designated ‘County Wildlife Sites (CWS), Sites of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) or other similar titles. Of course, there are also many more sites which may not have been identified by third-party organisations at all.
The Design Review Panel was presented with a comprehensive and detailed ecological survey of the site, which informed the production of an ecology and landscape management plan. The aim of the plan was to achieve ‘significant enhancements’ to biodiversity at the site and give measurable targets over an initial five-year period to monitor its success. The objectives of the plan included increasing the amount of species-rich grassland by 25% (0.5ha), to exceed that being lost during the construction of the dwelling, as well as enhancing the orchard, reinforcing existing (and creating new) hedgerows, creating a wildlife pond and installing an array of wildlife boxes, suitable for bats, dormice, barn owls and other bird species.
Whilst the management plan addressed likely impacts and identified ecological enhancements, it was the mechanism for ensuring the delivery of the plan which was more unusual. Rather than simply seeing it made a Condition of a Planning Permission, the applicants were proposing to create a Conservation Covenant (a legal agreement) to ensure the management plans implementation, review and monitoring.
As many non-statutory designated sites do not have legal protection, they are potentially vulnerable to changes in management regime. Indeed, many such sites have lost or seen their ecological value decrease, due to often subtle (and legal) changes in management practices, sometimes due to agricultural improvements or recreational pressure. The creation of a Conservation Covenant would mean that the continuation of management practices which had shaped and created this hay meadow would not only be enforced by Planning Condition, but by legal protection. Not just for the current owners, but for all those that may come after.
During our site visit to the completed build in November, it was clear to see that the meadow has been a key consideration during the design and construction of the new dwelling. Construction procedures were guided by Construction Environment Management Plans to ensure spoil, compaction and runoff did not impact the meadow, and the house has been designed so that access and recreational use happens away from the meadow itself. But far from being fenced off and separate to the house, the meadow extends right up to the western boundary of the property, offering close-up views to those ground floor rooms which have a western aspect. Artwork within the house has been inspired by (and created from) grasses and flowers from the meadow and it is clear the owners have gained a deep personal interest (and knowledge) in the stewardship of the habitats around them. However, the real success of the project from an ecological perspective will be determined by the longer-term ecological monitoring of the meadow (and other habitats), and the effectiveness of the Conservation Covenant which has been created.
Will the ecology and landscape management plan achieve its aims of protecting and enhancing the species-rich grassland and will the Covenant be a real force of protection if future ownership is not as passionate, sympathetic and knowledgeable? These questions can’t be answered yet, and many of us will observe with interest at the effectiveness of these mechanisms for positive land management and ecological protection into the future. The effectiveness will hopefully allow others (at the right time of year) the opportunity to experience a grassland rich in knapweed, yellow rattle, corky-fruited water-dropwort and all those species of invertebrates, birds and mammals which benefit from it.
Applicants Perspective on Engaging with the Design Review Panel Process
The Design Review Panel very much enjoyed visiting the completed house and are grateful to the applicants Elizabeth and Stephen Tetlow for inviting us back to view the project as-built. The Design Review Panel feels this continued sharing of knowledge and learning outcomes represents a genuine integrity and determination to comply with the requirement of paragraph 55 of the NPPF, in terms of helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas. Hopefully future paragraph 55 houses may be able to learn from Stephen and Elizabeth in terms of their approach to the design and planning process as well as on going site stewardship.
Of his experience engaging with the Design Review Panel during the pre-planning application stage of the project, the applicant Stephen Tetlow said:
“As lay people, our first experience with the Design Review Panel was daunting. We felt we were doing the right thing with our unique concept, but had not much idea what to expect. We did not know if we had just a pipe-dream or a something genuinely special and unique to the landscape. The experience proved highly constructive. The [South West Design Review] Panel clearly understood what we were trying to do. They were critical of our original proposal, rightly so in retrospect, but gave us constructive advice and encouragement. That first experience spurred us on to be even more imaginative and innovative. Our second experience gained the Design Review Panel’s unequivocal support. It was a highly constructive and engaging experience which gave us, and we believe our planning officer, the confidence that we really could achieve something of outstanding architectural merit. The Panel’s endorsement was a defining moment in our journey. In the end, our home, our valley, and the AONB, were all beneficiaries of the process.”
Article written by: -
Adam Bratt, Ecologist, Design Review Panel Member & Principal Ecologist at Blackdown Environmental (www.nbcenvironment.co.uk)
Kim Gray, Design Review Panel Member & Chartered Landscape Architect at SCG Associates (www.scga.co.uk)
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