At InsideOut, we firmly believe there is a need in new-build residential development to focus on the design of community-centred external space as much as the buildings themselves.
Why do we think external placemaking is such an important consideration and ultimately, what value does it bring?
From a simple cost perspective, reducing the amount of hard surfacing, increasing planted areas, communal parkland and play spaces all lead to reduced infrastructure expense. The ecological and sustainability benefits are also significant.
In addition to this, the setting in which buildings sit and the space that people are going to share outside of their own homes are all very important factors that can differentiate a scheme from a generic suburban housing development. You are creating kerb appeal; a place where people want to be and want to buy. There is inherent value in that.
Design can also foster social interaction and a sense of community.
Proximity and use of buildings and spaces can be used to create that sense of place through providing semi-private space in between buildings. It is however often a challenge to carve out semi-private space out of developers’ ambitions to maximise habitable gross internal area.
In most traditional housing developments, residents won’t have a sense of ownership over the communal areas which often causes them to fall into disrepair or results in hefty ongoing maintenance costs for the freeholder, housing association or developer.
If everybody takes a sense of pride and ownership over communal amenity areas, they are much more likely to become usable space (eg. Summer fairs, block parties, barbecues, etc). Empowering residents to customise some of the spaces through their own planting, furniture and other installation contributions enables the use of these spaces to create a community.
In denser schemes, there is merit in questioning the traditional idea of private front gardens and what value they bring when compared to the more private rear gardens. In most urban or suburban contexts, front gardens are hardly ever used as private spaces because they often get reduced to a bare minimum in terms of privacy and outlook from the street, thereby rarely offering much value to the street or the residents.
Should we therefore re-think the front garden space as something that is offering more to the public space?
This is something we have applied to several of our recent projects where we have introduced a shared surface approach to make roads and infrastructure much more efficient. By taking cars away from the fronts of the houses and putting them elsewhere, we create much larger communal amenity space in between units that can be used by everybody in a safer way and without taking up more footprint. Such an approach is very efficient and can even result in greater density, as you can in fact get the houses closer to one another and introduce a sense of character to the space.
It is now common knowledge that the old 18-21m rule between units is no longer seen as a good way to create a sense of place as it can often result in quite sterile environments. Proximity between buildings can be optimised alongside very effective interventions, such as planting trees between units, offsetting windows, articulating the facades and orientating buildings slightly differently to one another.
There is a reason that places we protect in our built environment tend to be the older ones that have stood the test of time. Looking back at those places and thinking what gives those places that inherent character, none of them would conform to modern urban design space standards!
With a willingness from the Developer to step outside the status quo and challenge the norm, the Design Team are empowered to finely balance placemaking with accessibility, privacy, amenity, servicing and other modern urban technological requirements.
Only then can one discover the opportunities to create added value and result in long-lasting built environments that positively impact the people who inhabit them.
Building better, with correct detailing, rigour and workmanship quality is the most cost-effective method of achieving CO2 reductions.
Taking the simplest starting model of traditional masonry construction as an example, there are some straight forward improvements that can be implemented to achieve new fabric and air tightness standards.
Increasing the cavity width and thermal insulation performance, applying a parge coat to the blockwork for increased air tightness, and upgrading to triple glazing are all simple and cost-effective improvements that go a long way in closing the current performance gap that is experienced in construction.
This initial small step of getting contractors and developers to aspire to build better leads to a giant leap for our collective Net Zero ambitions. Embracing it as a possibility, pursuing it and realising it in the simplest application, using the well-known traditional masonry construction techniques that UK-based contractors are so familiar with.
Beyond this simple initial approach, developers and contractors can then start assessing their schemes more critically in terms of embodied energy and consider other methods of construction to achieve leaner build-ups where density needs to be maximised.
In terms of the spaces between the buildings, adopting a sustainable, landscape-led approach that minimises areas of hard standing and encourages the planting of native species that rely on water and fertilizer that are naturally available, with little or no additional support or maintenance.
Native planting can be self-sustaining over long periods of time and if a mix of locally prevalent and locally sourced material is selected, exist in harmony with its local ecosystem and should be diverse enough to remain resilient through climate change, and productive indefinitely.
There are not only ecological but significant financial benefits to be had from creating a sustainable landscape in the long term.
The simple acceptance that surface water can be piped off-site is now regularly challenged in favour of on-site management and controls whereby, if possible, surface water is managed on-site. There is better understanding of the opportunities and benefits that can be gained from good surface water management, be those aesthetic opportunities, increased biodiversity, a reduced impact on the nation’s sewer infrastructure or the potential economic savings.
Client and consultant collaboration in the design process can add significant value by establishing what is viable and buildable from the early stages of a project.
The traditional, more fragmented design phase can be a recipe for disaster. Late stage ‘value engineering’ often involves quick decisions and changes on a design that has taken a considerable amount of time to develop, allowing insufficient time to consider the implications and that is very often to the detriment of the project.
Getting a full design team on board pre-planning and having that intelligent conversation straight away allows the team to be in a stronger position to create something that works better from a design and buildability perspective and make big savings early on.
From an architectural perspective, this involves frontloading decisions and ideas about the design that then feed into a planning scheme. Only way to figure out these key details is to understand the servicing, MEP, structural and build strategies, rather than taking a speculative planning scheme and retrospectively trying to make it work.
From an infrastructural perspective, it is fundamental to work with the existing site, not against it. A comprehensive site analysis is essential to fully understand a site’s existing topography, constraints and opportunities.
Benefitting from civil engineering input at planning stage allows a scheme to aim to minimise unnecessary and costly earthworks as well as adopt a sensible and buildable sustainable drainage and retaining wall strategy.
It is this collaborative and proactive approach to development, one that focuses on buildability and efficiency while creating a sense of place, that results in long lasting built environments that provide future-proofed, desirable, dense and cost-effective housing.