contextual design

Contemporary contextual homes at Fallbrook. The form and colour of the roof pitch and chimneys are similar to neighbouring buildings, and the timber cladding blends into the wooded semi-rural site, while the creative anti-symmetrical shape makes the design contemporary and eye-catching

So many people have a vision of their dream home and have the financial capacity to make it real, but they’re held back by the fear that planners will refuse their bold plan, the neighbours will hate it and they’ll have their dream squashed before they even get started.

Can you relate? If this is you, don’t worry, we have spent many years designing contemporary homes and we know the secret to getting planning approval is to use what’s known as contextual design – that is, design which respects its context.

In this post we’ll explain what it is, why it matters and give some examples of contextual design from our own projects.

What is contextual design?

Simply put, contextual design is architecture that responds to and borrows from the physical characteristics of the site. This could mean the design pulls inspiration from the form, shapes, rhythm, colours, materials and textures of the surrounding environment. This includes:

  • The built environment - the form, materials, size and spacing of the neighbouring and local buildings
  • The natural environment - the forms, colours and textures of the landscape, water courses, trees etc
  • The historical context - the form of the structure previously occupying the site, the materials historically used in the area

A design does not need to utilise all these elements in order to be contextual. In fact, contrast is encouraged - as long as it is deliberate, considered and constitutes an enhancement of the area. You could use the traditional materials of the locale, yet use a striking different form, or you could borrow from the forms of the neighbouring buildings but use very different materials.

You may feel like all design should be contextual. We agree. Contextualism is encouraged in planning policy and by architecture schools and is generally considered good practice. But in reality context is not always respected – especially by big developers who will often drop the same design into any part of the country, resulting in designs that manage to be both boring and alien.

How contextual design makes planning easier

contextual design

Contemporary home at Kidds Acre Farm inspired by the form of the barn that previously occupied the site

There is a common perception among the public that planners will refuse anything even remotely different just because it is different.

Luckily, this is actually not the case.

You don’t need to go with a design that exactly matches your neighbours - although plenty of people do, just because they can’t face the stress of a potential planning battle.

Planning policy requires careful consideration of the local context, urban character, the needs of residents and the local economy, that all developments constitute an improvement of the area and sit comfortably within the area and that special historical and environmental assets are conserved.

These are all reasonable requirements, and good design should always consider these things anyway.

Contemporary design is supported and policy specifically discourages pastiche development where everything is the same.

However, because so much of the policy is very subjective, individual planners do wield quite a lot of power and it’s easier for them to refuse unusual designs and accept ordinary ones.

Working with an architect

Where a seasoned architect becomes invaluable is in selling a somewhat unusual design to planners using the subjective nature of the local planning policy and the national policy it is based on. Contextual features like using traditional local materials, taking inspiration from the site’s history, borrowing the form of neighbouring buildings or using the form of the site’s natural elements to blend into the landscape all make planners feel confident that it is a sensitive development that will be a comfortable enhancement of the site.

Of course, contextual design is especially crucial when working in a sensitive protected site or with Listed buildings, where developments that are not contextual are extremely unlikely to be accepted.

Our contextual design, coupled with our commitment to sustainability in all our designs, is the reason we have such a good success rate with projects in protected areas such as the South Downs national park area.

Examples of contextual design

contextual design

Two semi-detached homes at Portland Villas 11 which uses timber and brickwork like the neighbouring houses while choosing a more contemporary style for details

We use contextualism in our design process as a matter of course. It ties in perfectly with our preference for natural materials, as every locale has its own traditional palette of natural materials stemming from a time when people simply made their own homes with whatever they could harvest locally.

Here are a few examples of our projects and how they’re contextual. You can browse our residential new build, extensions and commercial projects if you’d like more examples.

  • South Street: the unusual curvy shape of the building is inspired by the neighbouring river and the form of boat hulls, and the flint and timber are both used locally
  • Kidds Acre Farm: the shape of the house is inspired by the barn that previously occupied the farmyard site
  • Portland Villas 11: the materials match the neighbouring buildings, even though the form is more contemporary
  • Crowlink Corner: very contemporary in contrast to other local buildings, but uses local materials and flows with the landscape as it cascades down a wooded slope in split levels
  • Lloyd Close: borrows the low sloping form of the roof and the large front dormers from the neighbouring buildings, but with contrasting materials

As you can see, we rarely design homes that match their neighbours exactly.

We specialise in contemporary design and believe the street scene can be respected without being copied. But having at least one thread of continuity with the surrounding environment makes planners much more likely to accept your project, and also results in a more harmonious and pleasing environment for local people. This makes it easier to get your neighbours on-side as well – especially as you shouldn’t be overshadowing or overlooking their properties if you’re respecting the size and spacing of the street scene.

When combined with sustainability and energy efficiency, which all planners are supposed to promote, you have an even more convincing case to support your development.

How could contextual design help you?

As mentioned, contextualism is standard practice for us and core to our design philosophy. If you have a new project in mind and want to know how we could help, please do get in touch.

If you come to our office or you live in the Brighton and Hove area, then we offer a free first consultation.

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