Rural Housing Handbook ~ Ch2c~ Legibility and Visual Appropriateness

I introduced the concept of legibility in the last section; that is, what it is that makes a house look like a house; this concept is concerned with legibility of use and legibility of form. Whether we as designers want to or not, everything we design is ‘interpreted’ by different people in different ways. When buildings are legible in both use and form they support responsiveness and are said to be visually appropriate. The idea of a building being visually appropriate is fine for those seen and visited by the public on a frequent basis and I feel that it is therefore more of an urban concern than a rural one. For those interested in reading further about legibility and visual appropriateness should read the excellent book ‘Responsive Environments’ by Bentley,Alcock,Murrain,McGlynn & Smith ISBN 0 85139 967 3 Responsive Environments on Amazonwhich was required reading (and written by the tutors) at Oxford Brookes University.

This book is primarily concerned with the urban environment (as the book was effectively the course handbook (Bible some would say) for the leading Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University.

But what about the rural landscape ? shouldn’t people be entitled to build what they like ? I frequently hear of problems between planners and home builders where arguments have developed over individual house elements such as bay windows (frowned upon), dormers (only if done in a specific way), landscape format windows (see earlier sections). If we are saying that houses such as Mimetic House are acceptable in the landscape then what’s wrong with a few bay windows or dormer windows between friends? Although not seen in the same way as a building in the public realm, we still have a responsibility to the public to create an architecture that is in some way pleasing to the eye. As a starting point the general rules given by the Design Guides (such as that for Cork and Mayo) form an excellent basis for those not architecturally trained; but we as architects and designers should be able to push the boundaries further in ways such as Mimetic House by Dominic Stevens.

I controversially posed the question on my blog a while back that maybe only architects should be making planning applications. Architects aren’t normally employed for houses in Ireland; I don’t have the statistics but I would estimate the majority would be done by either engineers of some type or other types of draughts people – ie those without a specific architectural training. Generally the time spent on the briefing and design aspect of a house construction is very small; frequently houses are taken or adapted from those found in the various house plans books. Resulting designs don’t take into account the way the occupants live, the way they would like to live, the orientation, topology and all the other aspects that make up an individual and personal response. The result (although appearing to be well considered) is generally poorly designed (i’ve even seen north facing sun rooms as the house chosen had it that way!) and frequently the resulting drawings are also good for neither one thing nor another; too detailed for the planning application and not enough information to build from. I have discussed this dilemma frequently on my web site with the problem compounded by the poor public understanding of the difference between planning requirements and those of satisfying the Building Regulations and Building Control. It’s beyond the realm of is book to discuss this further but it is a common misconception that Planning Permission drawings have automatically passed the Building Regulations, nothing could be further than the truth.

Ireland is a beautiful country and we have seen it raped by poor design and planning over the years; especially so over the last few years where the decisions made by politicians, planners and financial institutions have ruined the country. At least the architects cannot be blamed for Irelands’ disastrous ghost estates problem as very few architects were used at any stage in the design and construction of the typical estates across Ireland. Let me recount two stories of my involvement of the rare occasions where I worked on private, developer led housing:

1. I was employed by a design company to help out with alternative designs for an estate layout and house designs for an estate (in County Donegal if I remember rightly). I worked through different design principles, solar paths, orientations, local features etc… with the resulting design having a few curves and a few curved roofs in a barn-like style. The design was presented to the planners with their response being “ah, yes, this would be great in xyz (can’t remember where) but I don’t think they’d be suitable here. What we want are bog-standard 3 bedroom semi-detached houses that are the same as everywhere else”. No wonder Ireland is in the state it’s – this is what we had to deal with !

2. I was approached by a developer to give a price to an extend a housing estate not far away from where I’m based. The basic brief was to add a few more houses on the end of an estate, ie to change the site layout plan and produce drawings for the individual houses for design, planning, Building Regulations, site inspections and certification. Well I worked out a price that I thought was reasonable to adequately perform such a service and submitted my price. In no uncertain terms I was told that I was way too expensive as the previous ‘engineer’ did the whole service (described above) for €400 per house. In my opinion any architect (or engineer for that matter) would be severely compromised trying to give a professional level of service at this price. Again, no wonder Ireland is in the state it’s in; engineers were paid peanuts to design estates and houses with either poor levels of design or simply copying another poor layout from a similar layout somewhere else.

It is this antipathy towards a professional fee that we as architects need to get clients to understand; all the other trades that go into a house such as plumbing, plastering, even guttering all charge more for their services than an architect but the design of the house ( the one aspect you’re going to live the longest with) seems to be of the lowest consideration.

So where do we go from here, I’ve discussed the idea that the Design Guides give us an excellent starting point for design but a more innovative design approach is needed to give us an architecture more suitable for the 21st century; but how do we decide what is good or bad design ?

I think we need to took to the UK for their approach to well designed housing in a rural environment where contemporary design has fulfilled planning requirements under the Exemption clause PPG7 where:

‘An isolated new house in the countryside may also exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.’

But who can judge whether a house is of ‘the highest architectural quality’? The answer lies in employing more architects in the planning departments. There are very few architects in full-time employ in any of Irelands’ Council Planning departments that assist in the planning application process. In the counties I work in, there are no architects involved at all in the planning process, so it is up to poorly trained (architecturally) planners to try and give design input based on the outlines given in the design guides. Frequently the ‘rules’ given in these guides are either incorrectly or poorly misconstrued and acerbate the antagonism between planners, clients and architects. I’m not even talking about an individual architect ‘helping out’ the planners – what is needed is a balanced view of several architects (and other professions) in a committee to give opinion and input on whether a design is of the ‘highest quality’ and ‘outstanding’ architecturally. A policy of this type would get the thousands of unemployed architects across Ireland back to work in and will improve the architectural quality of Ireland into the bargain.

What I am saying therefore is that the Design Guides are good as far as they go but architects need (and deserve) more flexibility in terms of design that may go beyond the simple rules of the past. I’m not talking about unrestrained madness but instead allowing exceptional, high quality architectural design as decided by our peers.

The next chapter will introduce the importance of the site in our design…

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