Who wouldn’t want a beautiful home in the middle of the countryside?

Of course, most houses wouldn’t be permitted but, under Paragraph 55 of the National Policy Planning Framework, homes of exceptional design are occasionally approved to be built in rural areas. So far, Greengauge have been involved with the design of seven of these special houses. But just how special do they need to be in order to pass planning?

I am going to concentrate on one key word in the clause in this blog: Innovation. This text is a version of a presentation I gave for the Green Register last week, alongside David Austin of Austin Design Works, with whom we have been designing ‘Greenlanes’, a house which has been granted planning permission under Paragraph 55.

Paragraph 55 is a section of the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF), and is the current evolution of a policy that has been generally present in one form or the other since the mid 1990s. It was originally referred to as ‘Gummer’s Law’ after John Gummer, who introduced it. The general intention is to continue the tradition of ‘the grand country house’. David Austin presented a fascinating history in our joint presentation, which I hope he will publish more widely. My theme for this article is sustainability and innovation in the current planning policy.

It’s interesting to first consider the role of sustainability in the clause, which begins:

“To promote sustainable development in rural areas, housing should be located where it will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities.”

This implies two points. One is that the default position is that new homes should be part of a community as opposed to isolated (as the traditional Country House is), and the second is that all developments should be sustainable, and if you want to be excepted from the default position, you’d better make sure its going to be as sustainable as possible.

In our experience, the approval or rejection of a scheme more often than not turns on a key phrase in the fourth bullet point of the paragraph: “… Such a design should…be truly outstanding or innovative…”. One of the things we grapple with as mechanical and electrical engineers on these projects is the drive for innovation. There is a danger of this pushing us towards bolt-on innovations such as the Flemish-underfloor-solar-biomass-graphene-drone-3D printed gadget.

What is the purpose of requiring innovation? What even is innovation?

One perspective is to make Paragraph 55 houses like NASA, a hotbed of ideas where the greatest designers of the time tussle with the thorniest of technical challenges. But, we know how to build houses that use very little energy, minimise impacts on ecology and health and make use of sustainable materials.

Is this an appropriate mechanism to drive innovation? When it comes to getting new products onto the market, it leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, any R&D department worth their salt will pop their 3D-printed-graphine-drone in the boss’s house long before the marketing department are allowed out of their box, and the number of Paragraph 55 houses that get built is small, with such long lead times that it’s hard to imagine a less useful test facility. On the other side of the fence, a design team specifying a gadget in 2017 and claiming innovation will probably find by the time their project is complete in 2020, such devices are ten a penny on eBay.

Another interesting feature of several of the established renewable technologies, is that size matters. Biomass boilers and CHP systems in particular have a threshold below which they get more expensive, and don’t work as well. This is linked to both the size of a building and the efficiency of a building. A small, very efficient building is in some respects hard to design, because we must compromise between an expensive renewable system that may be underutilised and a more carbon-intensive, but less expensive one. When we consider that heat pumps and biomass are arguably not as low-carbon as has sometimes been claimed, this calculation starts to look much less certain. Homebuilding And Renovation Magazine explain that “Robin Hamilton’s Dumble is 1,000m² ‘largely because at that size the eco technologies I’ve included begin to scale effectively’” This strikes me as not merely putting the cart before the horse but the antithesis of eco-minimal design. Even those who approach sustainability in a different way would surely view this as daft.

The drive for innovation in relation to sustainability seems to capture a tension that’s always existed. I caricature this as the tension between those that believe we can consume our way out of trouble (perhaps personified by Tesla advocates) and those that believe we must all don hair shirts to save the planet. Can we engineer ever more complex systems to sustain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed, or should we accept that such lifestyles will never be seen again, and we must give them up voluntarily now, and maybe ease the suffering, or have them forcibly and painfully removed in the coming decades? It’s much easier to sell the former option, to both consumers and the political establishment. Perhaps this is one reason (of very many) that the RHI and the FIT were fairly successful, the Green Deal was a disaster. Much of this could be down to the practical difficulties of the latter, but there does seem to exist, up and down the land, a greater interest in generating energy or having interesting ways of storing and distributing it, than there is with saving it.

Maybe it’s just harder to come up with genuinely innovative ways of building a well-insulated structure. The Larsen Truss was innovative almost forty years ago, now it’s almost standard for timber framed Passivhauses. But how many more ways are there to hold up 400mm of insulation and a roof?

On the evidence of the projects we are involved with, Passivhaus is increasingly the de facto standard for energy performance in Paragraph 55 houses. This is a good thing – many people already accept it’s not just the Gold Standard of efficient building fabric, but a considered, practical and complete methodology for delivering it. But low energy design in general, and Passivhaus in particular, arguably discourage innovation of the bold sort, particularly when it comes to the M&E systems. Instead it promotes incremental improvements to fabric design – the minutiae of which airtightness tape to use for a junction, the best type of duct insulation, or how to minimise the thermal bridge at a window installation. This is far removed from the strident type of innovation we put on the covers of magazines. When a building is finished there are usually only subtle clues about the level of fabric energy performance – rather thick walls might be the only point a casual observer might notice, and without a guided tour even us energy wonks can only speculate about the details.

A number of interesting threads emerged from David’s section of our presentation. The role landscape has to play, for example, seems to have diminished in importance, but is an integral part of the traditional Country House – not just the formal gardens but the grand vision of a Designed landscape and carefully constructed view. One perspective on this is that we are designing the next generation of Chartwells and Chatsworths. We have even been in a design meeting where it was asked where, in one hundred years and the yet-to-be-built house was owned by the National Trust, would all the visitors park? This is possibly an extreme example of the egotism architects are pilloried for, but it does place in context how rare these houses ought to be. It should also be acknowledged that these houses were symbols of fantastic wealth from a time of extreme inequality, which is perhaps not something we should aspire to re-create.

Another point was that the innovative word was introduced to avoid the handful of pastiche mansions that were permitted under the original PPG7. The original intention was not to upset M&E engineers, or even to promote new or unusual products and techniques, but to raise architectural standards. Unfortunately, this is sometimes how it is interpreted so if nothing else, the wording is another lesson in the unintended consequences of policy design.

This is in spite of the policy being on its third revision. To return to the wording, it’s also important to consider whether or not such housing can ever be considered sustainable. Against many criteria they are not, as the opening part of the clause implies. Is it rational to impose higher standards of sustainability in the areas that are not precluded by a house’s isolation? Is such an approach a tacit acknowledgement that the current energy standard within building regulations are inadequate? Are we asking too much of our under-resourced planners to adjudicate on energy and carbon emissions?

Although these are rhetorical questions, planners have had their tanks parked on the lawns of the Building Regulations for some time.

In 2003, the London Borough of Merton introduced the ‘innovative’ policy of requiring large commercial buildings to generate 10% of their energy use using on-site renewables. In theory, it encourages designers to improve the efficiency of the buildings in order to reduce the cost of the renewable technology. In reality, those costs are not high enough to really drive efficiency. It was enthusiastically taken up as a means of both compliance and overtly demonstrating one’s green credentials – “look at the size of my wind turbine!”. As one commentator at the time put it, we may as well be asking for developers to place solid gold obelisks in the foyer, sized in proportion to the energy consumption.

After that, it became standard practise to require specific Ecohomes and later Code for Sustainable Homes, or BREEAM levels as a condition of approval – it still is in many places, despite the demise of the Code. It’s not unusual conditions of planning to include sections of the Code simply copied and pasted, without the broader context. Dare I say, sometimes the planning authorities inserting these clauses don’t actually understand what they are asking for.

Today we have a variety of sustainability requirements imposed by planning authorities and the interpretation of the innovation phrase within Paragraph 55 is just one example.

There are two sensible reactions to this. The first is to say it’s ridiculous that planning authorities are trying to enforce what is clearly a building regulation issue, and they should stop it. Planners should say where we can build what general sort of buildings, and Building Regulations says how they should be built. Why is it that planners are so interested in sustainability anyway? In light of recent events, perhaps planners should consider mandating enhanced fire safety as well as enhanced energy performance.

The second option would be to say why not have a single, more holistic and integrated process. The fact that these two elements of permitting a building to be constructed are separate is a nonsense. The function and form of a building cannot be separated; indeed, they are also interconnected with the location and many other aspects covered by either planning or building regulations.

What would such a system look like?

Currently, planning permission can be sought without having to go into any real detail about how the proposal will be heated, ventilated, made safe and so on. Perhaps it’s reasonable to ask developers to demonstrate that their proposals are at least feasible with respect to Fire, Structure, Energy and so on, at a level of detail appropriate to the progression of the design. A staged/phased approach might be aligned with existing ways of organising the design process. At RIBA Stage 0, very loose ideas are presented that are considered in feasibility terms against not just usage and volume but whether, for example, they can be adequately insulated – does the density allow sufficiently thick walls in addition to the other footprint requirements? As the design progresses, increasing levels of detail are added with respect to all aspects of planning and building control, and all aspects are progressively de-risked.

Paragraph 55 is a particularly British thing; a setting of rules that, with the right combination of money and good taste might be bent. It is patently not promoting sustainability to be building one-off houses in the country side, particularly given the current housing crisis. On the other hand, in the numbers in question (around 6 per year) it’s not doing all that much harm, either to community cohesion, or the carbon emissions of UK PLC. A braver policy would simply be to cap the numbers of these houses and judge them on architectural and landscape merit. Of course they should be achieving extremely high levels of energy efficiency, thermal comfort and carbon emissions, but so should every other house we build.

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