Principle 3: Materials, Character and Architecture

Context of the local environment should be taken into consideration when designing a new commercial or industrial building, along with its site layout and arrangement. Factors of context which should be considered when developing designs for large footprint buildings include:

  • Built context
  • Environmental context
  • Functional context
  • Spatial context
  • Operational context
  • Community context
  • Historic context

A contextual appraisal should inform the design process of any new development and should be used to influence the choice of material selection, boundary treatment, architectural-style, etc. Other studies such as Characterisation Reports, Landscape Character Assessments, Conservation Area Appraisals & Local Area Design Guides should also be reviewed, and any strong local vernacular or architectural themes reflected.

In considering the materials, character and style of the development, Landscape and Visual Impact Assessments (LVIA) will be helpful tools used to inform design choices for what is suitable and appropriate. A robust assessment of landscape will ensure context-led design does not focus solely on the architectural design elements of the scheme but will help ensure the development is in keeping with the landscape character of its surroundings. It is very important that the LVIA report is proportionate to the development proposed.

Proportion and scale are used extensively in creating architectural forms that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing, however appropriate proportion and scale can be challenging when considering the design of commercial or industrial buildings which are often large, ‘big box’ units of substantial dimensions. The scale of the built form should refer contextually to the size of the large footprint building relative to points of reference, such as the overall height and size composition of buildings in the local area, or an adjacent built form. It is recommended to analyse the scale of existing building in the immediate and wider surrounding area to ensure that new large footprint building is in-keeping with and not comparatively larger in scale than neighbouring buildings which could, depending on situation, result in overlooking and a sense of domineering over the surrounding area.

Regardless of whether the proposed larger footprint building is in an existing area of similar buildings, or a standalone building, it is essential that all new large footprint buildings appear as high quality and bespoke buildings in their own right and do not stand out as unattractive monolithic blocks. Due to the bulk and expansive elevations of larger buildings, it is often necessary break-up elevations wherever possible, to create more architectural interest and style and prevent prolonged street scenes (and wider views) dominated by a continuous blank and uninteresting elevation. Options should be considered for how to ‘break up’ elevations, either vertically or horizontally depending upon the height/width of the building. This could include introducing measures such as slight recesses or fissures within the elevation to help create the perception of depth, changes in materiality or the way it is applied, or changes in tone. Introducing additional height, either through increasing the height of a parapet, or introducing box frame structures can also not only break down a monotonous elevation, but can assist in linking the exterior elements of the building to the interior spaces, and vice versa, such as utilising breaks in the elevation to pronounce the main entrance point to the building etc.

EDG Case Study: Wildspace Warehouse, Rainham

It is important that all buildings, regardless of internal use, are designed to be features in themselves, and therefore there should not be an overt reliance on screening large buildings as the default approach to managing their impact. Every effort should be made to create a building which is positively designed, and even functional and utilitarian elements such as ventilation stacks, shading screens / louvres etc can be integrated into a design to create features which enhance, as oppose to detract, from the overall aesthetic.

Due to the scale of many of these buildings, it is understandable that it may not be viable to apply a high-quality treatment to all elevations, and it is therefore important to consider which elevations act as the primary and secondary frontages. For example, a primary frontage of a large footprint building, which is facing on to a main street or public area, should be of high in quality and distinction through the use of its materials and building design (fenestration, style, etc.), whereas a secondary frontage, most likely a non-visible side/back elevation, can afford to be of different quality to that expected of a public-facing frontage.

It is important that the proposed elevational materials, as well as the surrounding hardstanding areas, have been chosen to link back to the local context. Essex has a wealth of materials within the County’s vernacular, and this palette should be interpreted in a contemporary way on larger footprint buildings to ensure that they remain in keeping and reflective of the overriding local character.

There are many effective and innovative methods of interpreting a traditional palette on modern buildings; the challenge is achieving this at scale. References to locale could be hinted and linked through the architectural style, fenestration and scale of the building. Through using vernacular materials in the elevational design, together with referencing certain design elements evident in the locale, the development will help to ensure a consistent context for the built form. To reinforce this, it is highly recommended that the building provides visual cues and pointers to the local history of the area through the design of the new development.

Landscaping should be considered as integral part of the character and contribute to the buildings aesthetics and sense of place. Well-designed green infrastructure is more visually attractive and sustainable than predominantly hardstanding areas, and delivers important environmental, social, health and economic benefits. Within this type of development, it is important that, where ever possible, green infrastructure acts as a community resource for workers both for the development itself and, in the case of larger schemes, the wider business/retail/industrial estate. 

With the introduction of a large footprint building for commercial or industrial use, there will be a greater noise impact on the local area from sources such as HGV’s, machinery and higher people/vehicular traffic on site. As a result, there will need to be noise reduction measures to help mitigate these impacts, such as suitable boundary treatments or buildings to act as noise barriers or setting back new buildings from the main street, public squares, and/or adjacent properties to restrict the noise impact of the new building. Consideration should be given to combining noise barriers and screening, for example by bunds, in settings of particular sensitivity.

Signage is a crucial element of any larger footprint building; not only does it provides passive advertising to passing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, but it defines the buildings location within the built environment and, when done correctly, can contribute positively to sense of place and placemaking. Whilst signage is often dealt with by way of a separate application, there are some key principles which should be adhered to when dealing with signage on large buildings.

Signage should be appropriate in scale and dimensions to the host building to ensure that it does not appear ‘lost’ – larger signage can create an impressive effect on a building elevation, and this should be utilised to its potential. Signage should not be out of context and should reflect the host building and surrounding built form in terms of materiality. Corner elevations are often used on key buildings to allow signage to turn the corner and have a presence on two streets or spaces – this can work effectively particularly when combined with a change in the architectural treatment, or the location of the office element to a warehouse building etc, to the corner to create an emphasis. Appropriate lighting should also be considered to allow the signage, and building, to act as a feature during day and night.

The public realm provides a setting for all buildings and includes all parts of the urban environment that the public can experience or access, such as public spaces and in some cases, semi-public spaces. A high-quality public realm space can provide many benefits to a development, including enhancing the building’s setting, encouraging active use of space to support personal safety within the built environment, and creating a space for socialising and enjoyment. In terms of public spaces in the context of a commercial or industrial building, these could be communal areas for site workers and visitors to socialise and relax within a safe, relaxed environment. Consideration needs to be given to how the space is activated across the day, how it is maintained and whether it delineates sufficiently areas for pedestrian and vehicles.

Inclusive design to public realm creates environments that are accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or impairment, etc. There are some fundamental principles which should be applied when designing inclusively for developments such as a commercial or industrial building, which can be found in the Design Council website publication at - The Principles of Inclusive Design. By following those principles, then it should create a development that is:

  • Inclusive
  • Responsive
  • Flexible
  • Convenient
  • Accommodating
  • Welcoming
  • Realistic

Page updated: 11/09/2019

Make the most of the Essex Design Guide, register today

As well as ensuring you are always in the know about future changes and updates to the Essex Design Guide, registering with us will enable to you to add and manage bookmarks throughout the site, so your most-used areas of the guide are always easy to find.

Register for updates

© 2024 Copyright Essex County Council. All rights reserved.