KEY LEARNING POINTS
- Design Codes are particularly useful for developments involving ten or more homes
- They should not be overly prescriptive – private homebuilders want to have a say in the design of their home, so Codes should not micro-manage their designs
- A good Design Code should allow for design variation, creativity, innovation and originality; it will also specify what is mandatory and what is optional. Where possible they should be style neutral so they can deliver contemporary or traditional architecture and they should also allow for advanced methods of construction
- Councils should promote Design Codes through the neighbourhood planning process – communities that want to encourage private homebuilding through neighbourhood plans can employ a Design Code to ensure homes are well designed and fit into the local area
- ‘Plot Passports’ have a role to play alongside Design Codes – they are a simple way of helping private homebuilders understand what they can build on a site
INTRODUCTIONDesign Codes can play an important role on private homebuilding sites. They reduce risk, provide certainty, drive-up design quality and give the private homebuilder flexibility to design the home they want by permitting freedom of design within some high-level rules. Councils and developers are increasingly using them when they bring forward new policies and projects. They are widely used internationally and are also encouraged by the UK Government as a useful tool to help deliver design quality. Their use is also likely to feature as part of the new ‘Right to Build’ policy, when this is finalised.
WHAT ARE DESIGN CODES?Design Codes are a well-established, voluntary, tool to help achieve consistently better quality development. They vary quite a lot, but they typically consist of written and graphic rules that establish, with some precision, the two and three dimensional design elements of a proposed development. They can also advise on the preferred form and layout of new development across a wider area. Given these characteristics, Design Codes are not policy documents, and they should not be confused with design briefs, masterplans or ‘Plot Passports’. Neither should they be confused with land use, area-wide, zoning regulations, which characterise many planning systems in Europe, the United States, Australia or elsewhere. Design Codes can be applied to single plots, but are most useful for larger multi-plot projects. They can be produced by either the local planning authority, or by a developer/landowner and they can be implemented through planning permissions, and Local Development Orders, as well as through neighbourhood planning. Design Codes are becoming increasingly popular and are actively encouraged by the Government. More than one in three councils have had Codes produced, either through commissioning them (or requiring them as part of a planning application), or through developers voluntarily submitting them. Many councils also actively encourage their use in their Local Plans. Design Codes have, to date, been mostly associated with larger development projects, to support masterplans. They are now also starting to be used for private homebuilding projects to help improve their design quality while still giving private homebuilders the ?exibility they want to build an individually designed home to suit their needs. They can also help reduce the workload on a council planning department because compliance with the Code can be easily assessed using a checklist approach.
Policy ContextNational planning policy and guidance proactively encourages and sets the framework for the use of Design Codes, including their use for private homebuilding projects. The key elements are summarised in Annex 1 at the end of this Briefing Note. The Government’s consultation on the ‘Right to Build: Supporting Custom and Self Build’ proposed that sites that come forward should at least have outline planning permission and be serviced with basic infrastructure in place. It set out several approaches councils could employ to do this, including the use of Local Development Orders to streamline planning permissions. To avoid each private homebuilder needing their own detailed planning application the Government has said that, in such circumstances, local planning authorities should use a Design Code on multi-plot sites to clearly set out what form of development is preapproved. Further details on the Government’s ‘Right to Build’ are set out in our Briefing Notes on Registers and assessing demand and How the planning system can generate opportunities.
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DefinitionsFor the purposes of this Toolkit made the following definitions: –
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- ‘self and custom built homes’ are properties commissioned by people from a builder, contractor or package company (this is known as ‘custom build’ housing). When people physically build themselves, sometimes with help from sub-contractors, this is known as ‘self build’ housing. We call all these people ‘private homebuilders’
- ‘serviced building plots’ are shovel-ready parcels of land with planning permission, laid out and ready for construction with access and utilities/services provided to the plot boundary. Some private homebuilders just purchase a plot; others opt for a ‘shell’ home (that they then finish off), or they select from an extensive menu of options offered by developers/builders
- ‘group projects’ mean homes built by private homebuilders who work as a collective
NOTEThis Briefing Note will be revised when the Regulations to support the commencement of the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 and the Government’s Right to Build policy are finalised.
WHY USE A DESIGN CODE TO HELP MANAGE PRIVATE HOMEBUILDING?
“75 per cent of people would not choose a home built in the last 10 years”From ‘The Case for Space : the size of England’s new homes’ (RIBA, 2011) Research suggests that many people don’t like the majority of the new build homes available on the market. A key reason why people want to build their own homes is to be able to have real influence on the design and layout, and to have the ability to create a home to suit their individual needs and aspirations. One in three people say that design flexibility is the most important reason for building their own homes, and 82 per cent list it in their top three reasons. Most private homebuilders also find it challenging to engage and understand the planning system. Councils should recognise that when areas are identified for private homebuilding they should be transparent about the acceptable forms of development. This gives the homebuilder greater certainty, minimises risk and assists with project financing. It also facilitates the use of advanced or highly sustainable construction techniques. Councils will want to be able to ensure that homes are well-designed to comply with their Local Plan, and will be keen to see a design vision for the site that ensures the new housing is well-integrated into the surrounding area. Councils will also want to avoid needing to determine large numbers of detailed planning applications for individually designed homes – particularly on larger sites – as this can have a big impact on resources.
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR PRIVATE HOMEBUILDING DESIGN CODES
Scope and contentTo be effective a Design Code should be prepared in response to an agreed design vision for a site. For smaller sites this might be a design statement; for larger sites a masterplan or other form of development framework. This will ensure individually designed homes fit into the surrounding area. Unless the development is located in a sensitive area (for example designated conservation area or local area of special character), a Design Code should be as light touch as possible, so that it does not stifle the ability of private homebuilders to build innovative and creatively designed homes. Overly prescriptive Codes will be resource intensive to prepare. They can also add to the costs of new development and undermine viability. Some private homebuilders may also be put off purchasing a plot if their scope for an individual design is too limited. Generally speaking, the more restrictive the Code, the more challenging it can be to sell plots. Design Codes for private homebuilding often focus on the design parameters of individual plots, though they should also deal with the design of any public realm, highway treatments and the servicing of a site by a contractor, developer or other third party. Councils should therefore look to strike a balance between prescription and flexibility when Codes are prepared. Although this balance can be challenging to achieve, five key principles should be considered when deciding the scope and content of a Code: –
- Focus on the basic design requirements that are essential to get right. Design Codes cannot address every eventuality. It is important to prioritise and avoid controlling too much detail. Key design considerations typically focus on the site/plots and the acceptable form of development (for example scale, massing, materials, height, layout and landscaping)
- Be clear about what is mandatory and what is optional, and how these apply to the plot and/or wider site.
- Include a menu of alternative design solutions for specific elements (for example range of render colours, roof tiles and brick colours)
- Avoid too many aspirational statements, ambiguity and don’t repeat yourself (the shorter and more precise the better)
- Codes can define process considerations,if needed, to help clarify requirements (for example how construction traffic will be controlled, plant and material storage and whether prior-approval is required before commencing development)
Design Codes should be light touchDesign Codes should not be overly prescriptive – private homebuilders want to have a say in the design of their home, so Codes should not micro-manage their designs. They are particularly useful for developments involving ten or more homes The box below outlines the design considerations that typically inform a Design Code for a private homebuilding development. These considerations are best presented in a short document and schedule, possibly including illustrations of indicative designs or materials, linked to a codified plan of the site and its building plots.
ImplementationThere are various ways Design Codes can be implemented to support private homebuilding. Codes linked to planning applications are common, particularly where sites are in private ownership and projects are initiated by the landowner, developer or custom build enabler. Codes can also be formally linked to development plans, Local Development Orders and neighbourhood planning. Deciding which option to pursue will depend on who is promoting the use of the Code (for example, the council, community, developer or private landowner) and their objectives. A key consideration will be how much weight the Code should have in the decision making process. Based on our analysis it is recommended that councils: –
- Ask for and be open to the use of Design Codes as part of planning applications, and use planning conditions to control their use
- Set out a clear policy on when Codes will be required in their Local Plans and related guidance; they could also consider the use of Local Development Orders for larger sites, or when land is sold for private homebuilding
- When applying Codes, adopt a simple checklist approach to testing compliance and use delegated decisions on reserved matter applications (where required) in accordance with pre-agreed timetable
- Promote Design Codes as part of the neighbourhood planning process when they engage with their local communities
Codes should allow for variety, creativity and innovationA good Design Code should allow for design variation, creativity, innovation and originality; it will also specify what is mandatory and what is optional. Where possible they should be style neutral so they can deliver contemporary or traditional architecture and they should also allow for advanced methods of construction
WHAT DO PRIVATE HOMEBUILDING DESIGN CODES LOOK LIKE?Several English councils are actively encouraging the use of Design Codes and are introducing policies and guidance that sets out their preferred approaches. Some are also bringing forward Codes when they sell sites, either as part of a planning permission or in the form of a Local Development Order. Design Codes for private homebuilding vary widely. Several examples are identified below to illustrate current practice across England. De Brus Park and Middlehaven Park, Middlesbrough – at De Brus Park, Middlesbrough Council prepared a Design Code to support the sale of five single plots for executive homes. The 0.79 ha (1.95 acre) site is open grassland and adjoins an existing housing development. Plots are being sold by open tender to individual buyers at a guide price of £150,000 plus 3 per cent for legal and surveying fees. . The Code supports of an outline permission with access and siting committed, and is secured by a planning condition (Ref: M/OUT/0554/14/P). It includes a brief written description with a site context plan and a Design Objectives statement. The Code specifies building heights (max 2.5 storeys); building lines; roof design considerations (gable ends preferred to hipped roof); plot coverage (23 per cent specified, including garages); boundary treatments; means and location of access; parking, landscaping (including tree retention zone) and sustainable urban drainage considerations. At Middlehaven Park, Middlesbrough Council prepared a more detailed Design Code to guide the development of part of its ‘Urban Pioneers’ site – a new mixed use and residential neighbourhood. The Code covers two serviced parcels of land for 14 plots and sets out: –
- How land can be sub-divided on the plots
- Permitted uses and building heights
- Access and servicing arrangements, including entrance location, bicycle storage, bin storage and car parking
- Building lines, including set-backs, projections, extensions and balconies and relationship to neighbouring plots
- Fenestration, appearance and boundary treatment
- Site parameters – plan showing the plots
- Plot parameters – coverage, building lines, side spacing, boundary treatments, gates, corner plot treatment, plot layouts, access/parking/garages, landscaping and amenity space provision
- House parameters – building footprint, massing, height, roof scape
- Elevation parameters – appearance, fenestration, doors and windows, roof and chimney treatment, materials, walls, internal layout and daylight/sunlight considerations
- Consult the landowner at an early design stage, and to submit designs and materials to them for approval within three months of plot purchase (a consultation fee is payable). They also need to apply for full planning permission to the council within six months of purchase
- Ensure construction materials, plant and site accommodation is stored within each plot. They have to start building work within 12 months of purchase, and they have to submit a construction programme to the landowner to reassure them that the build will be completed within nine months
- Ensure shared avenues and roads are maintained in clean condition with construction waste and litter stored in a controlled manner
- build zones
- maximum building heights
- boundary heights
- vehicular access
- waste management
PLOT PASSPORTSAlthough Design Codes set out what form of development is permissible on a site, they can be quite technical, and sometimes they are difficult for private homebuilders to understand. ‘Plot Passports’ were developed to overcome this challenge.
Who can draw up a Design Code?Design Codes can either be drawn up by the council, or by the developer/landowner. There are various ways to do this, such as by including a Condition as part of a planning permission, through the introduction of a development plan policy, a supplementary planning document or Local Development Order A Plot Passport is a simple and succinct summary of the design parameters for a given plot. They add value by acting as a key reference point for the purchaser, capturing relevant information from the planning permission, design constraints and procedural requirements in an easily understandable and readily accessible format. Most are between one and four pages long and form part of the marketing material available for the plot. The passport clearly shows the plot location, the permissible building lines and side spacing requirements, proximity constraints to neighbouring buildings and the part of the site where a new house can be constructed (ie. the developable footprint). There is usually also a building height restriction. Passports are very clear about the number dwellings that can be built (generally only one) and any other pertinent details, including car parking and access location etc. The choice of finishing materials, fenestration and roof shape is usually left to the plot owner. Most are kept as simple as possible so that people can evaluate the various potential plots and work out which suits them best. Although they are widely used in the Netherlands they are not prescribed by the Government under planning law. Some English councils are now also starting to use passports. For example: – Teignbridge District Council – is asking developers to supply at least 5 per cent of dwelling plots for sale to private homebuilders where sites are larger than 20 homes. As part of this policy the council is actively promoting the use of Design Codes and Plot Passports. On developments of more than ten plots the council asks for a Design Code to be prepared in partnership between the council and the provider or the plots. The council also asks for Plot Passports for all private homebuilding plots on larger sites. The council’s Custom and Self Build Housing Supplementary Planning Document includes a ‘template’ for a typical Plot Passport. Cherwell District Council – is preparing Plot Passports for all the plots it is selling at Graven Hill.
INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE OF DESIGN CODESDesign Codes are widely used in Europe, Australia and the United States. In Germany and the Netherlands, they are seen as a key tool for managing development via the planning system. The German Bebauungsplan (B-plan) is internationally recognised because it consistently delivers high quality housing. It is a legally binding development plan that is widely used to support the release of building plots, and it is normally prepared when new areas are designated for residential use. The B-plan is similar to a design coded Area Action Plan. The B-plan is usually prepared by the council or by a third party (such as a consultancy) on behalf of the local authority. It must be developed in accordance with a ‘preparatory land-use plan’ (Flächennutzungsplan– FNP) which all German councils have to prepare, and which cover the whole of the council’s territory. FNPs outline the future use of land to meet the needs of the community. B-plans are design coded and their content is prescribed in Government legislation. They set out the mandatory design requirements in plan and text form, and are supported by a written justification. Drawings may accompany a B-plan but don’t form part of the legal document. There is considerable flexibility over how they are applied locally. They typically set out permitted uses, acceptable building heights, spacing between buildings, building lines, plot ratios etc. Sometimes the plans also identify the type and slope of roofs and details like parking and plot access. The same scales, colours and symbols are used consistently. For example different colours identify certain land uses and particular line styles identify where buildings must, or may be located. The advantage of this approach is that B-Plans are easily understood.To enable architectural freedom and reduce costs for private homebuilders councils increasingly keep the design specifications in the B-plan to a minimum.
A B-PLAN IN ACTION – ERKHEIM, GERMANYThis new private homebuilding development in the village of Erkheim, Germany was facilitated by the council through the use of a B-plan. The plan controls the building heights, the plot widths, and the building line relative to the street, along with environmental requirements, such as the use of photovoltaics. It shows how private homeowners have been able to create an attractive residential neighbourhood with a distinct character while building a wide variety of high quality homes of varying styles
The Netherlands has a similar system where a ‘Bestemmingsplan’prescribes the design considerations that apply to specific sites and areas.
Design Codes are also widely usedin Australia. In many cases they form part of Residential Design Codes (R-Codes) prepared by councils as part of their ‘Local Planning Schemes’ (local zoning plans). R-Codes typically include standards for plot sizes, required set-backs from boundaries, private open space provision and the proportion of built form permitted on each plot (plot ratios), among other things. Special provisions are also included for multi-unit developments. In many cases design guides and Codes are prepared by landowners as part of new estates.
B-plans are design coded and their content is prescribed in Government legislation. They set out the mandatory design requirements in plan and text form, and are supported by a written justification. Drawings may accompany a B-plan but don’t form part of the legal document.
There is considerable flexibility over how they are applied locally. They typically set out permitted uses, acceptable building heights, spacing between buildings, building lines, plot ratios etc. Sometimes the plans also identify the type and slope of roofs and details like parking and plot access.The same scales, colours and symbols are used consistently. For example different colours identify certain land uses and particular line styles identify where buildings must, or may be located. The advantage of this approach is that B-Plans are easily understood.To enable architectural freedom and reduce costs for private homebuilders councils increasingly keep the design specifications in the B-plan to a minimum.
AUSTRALIAN DESIGN CODES IN ACTION– EYRE, ADELAIDEThe Code, which follows the masterplan for the estate, ensures that each home adds to the quality of the neighbourhood. It also protects other private homebuilder’s investments. The Code encourages individuality and the use of all styles of architecture by setting out a simple envelope plan (the area a house can be built on – see above). Alongside this there is an extensive register of approved colours and materials. It also gives guidance on the approval process and council planning requirements.
ANNEX 1: POLICY CONTEXTThe National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) asks local planning authorities to use Design Codes where they could help deliver high quality outcomes (Para 59). However, it also says that design policies, and by implication Design Codes, should: –
- Avoid unnecessary prescription or detail and should concentrate on guiding the overall scale, density, massing, height, landscape, layout, materials and access of new development in relation to neighbouring buildings and the local area more generally. (Para 59)
- Not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes and they should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative through unsubstantiated requirements to conform to certain development forms or styles; it is, however, proper to seek to promote or reinforce local distinctiveness. This also applies to planning decisions. (Para 60)
- In determining applications, giving great weight to outstanding or innovative designs which help raise the standard of design more generally in the area. (Para 63)
- Refusing permission for poorly designed developments that fail to take the opportunity to improve the character and quality of an area, and the way it functions.(Para 64)
- Not refusing permission for well-designed buildings or infrastructure which promote high levels of sustainability because they may be incompatible with the existing townscape. (Para 65)
- Secure well-designed places where affordable housing is not distinguishable from private housing by its design or banished to the least attractive part of the site
- Give careful consideration to the storage of bins and bikes, access to meter boxes etc. to ensure they are discreet and can be easily used in a safe way and avoid damaging the visual amenity of an area
- Consider the approach to car parking design