Principle 4: Mixed Use/Town Centre and Local

Mixed use, town and local centre developments should, wherever possible, enable mixed uses to flourish within our communities. This, of course, depends upon many design aspects from masterplan onwards, however when considering how larger footprint buildings can work successful in centre locations, it is of upmost importance that they appear in-keeping and of appropriate scale whilst being positively connected and integrated with their surroundings. This can be challenging with larger buildings, however there are a variety of different ways which this can be successfully addressed.

In important centre locations, it is essential that prior to developing designs for the building, that a thorough analysis of the urban environment, including important design fundamentals such as; grain, frontage, size of units, pattern and rhythm and views, etc is undertaken. Is recommended for a new large footprint development that this will help to initially assess the suitability of the proposed location and will allow early consideration of how will it will interrelate within the existing urban blueprint of the local area. More details on how to respond to the existing built environment can be discovered through the Essex Design Guide website - Understanding Context 

A fundamental design principle for buildings within centres is to ensure that space is defined and enclosed by buildings, structures and landscape. The relationship between buildings on a street, obtaining a correct and appropriate scale of buildings to and between buildings and the street, are the key to this. To this end, it is important to consider how larger units can be accommodated alongside units of varying size and scale, and how their primary and secondary elevations can be treated to ensure active edges, such as shopfronts are located on primary elevations, with doors directly onto the street.

Apart from their functional use, buildings also play other roles within a streetscape, and this is paramount within mixed centres. For example, corner buildings with heightened elevations to attract people and vehicles to travel through connecting streets and explore what else is in the area further, buildings placed to block views inwards or outwards of a community, or even landmark buildings act as a statement to portray the special character of that area it is located in. As a result, depending on the location of the proposed building, it is suggested to apply a specific role to this building to solidify its purpose within an existing community (in the way an anchor store traditionally would).

Projections and setbacks from the standard building line, such as recessed bays and projecting entrances can add valuable emphasis to the commercial building without undermining the principle of continuity, within the overall streetscape. Additionally, where large footprint buildings can step back slightly from the common building line fronting onto main streets, they can create a sense of relief as well as offering a potentially greater frontage ‘forecourt’ area within the public realm to help set the building apart. This set back, albeit only relatively slight in some cases, also assists in creating an environment on upper floors more conducive to residential units.  

Town/local centres are ideal for mixed use developments of retail at ground floor with office and residential on upper levels. These uses help to ensure that the centre is active throughout the day and night, as well as providing a suitable density of people in the centre to strengthen its viability and create a ‘heart’ to a development. Careful consideration needs to be given to how resident amenity can be achieved on upper levels above large footprint buildings, as well as how noise from deliveries and servicing can be reduced. It is also important when undertaking a design for mixed use buildings in these locations that design elements such as separation between residential entrances and commercial are clearly defined. It should also be clear where the private and public spaces are for these type of developments, as well as an ethos of designing roads and routes with a design speed akin to that of a pedestrian walking pace in the vicinity of the development. 

Compared to other large footprint buildings which are often largely flanked by brick, cladding etc, commercial units are likely to require better levels of natural lighting, as this has a positive impact on vision, orientation, productivity, alertness, general health, as well as influencing social behaviour and cognitive performance. Also, by their nature, it is likely that commercial buildings will either large windows within an office, or considerable glazing or curtain walling on elevations to the street – particularly in the case of retail premises. Effort should be made to ensure that the most is made of natural light through appropriate orientation of buildings to reduce reliance on artificial lighting.

As opposed to large flat or mono-pitch roofs as is common in industrial buildings, buildings proposed for local/town centres should include a range of roof typologies in accordance with the prevailing nature or the surrounding built form. This could include a range of pitches, segmental barrel vault, hipped, or gable on roofscapes. This can sometimes be achieved as a ‘façade’ on the front of a larger flat roofed building but will help to achieve both an interesting street scene, and potentially assist in creating a tighter, narrow rhythm to frontages, as well as offering the opportunity to ‘hide’ utilities behind them.

An example of where this has been achieved successfully is Bond Street development in Chelmsford, where large units have been subdivided into smaller units, each with their own distinct façade which is articulated differently from its neighbour. Servicing is achieved entirely from the rear of the retail premises in a discrete service yard, whilst the frontage is given over entirely to pedestrians and accessed by a permeable network of routes which tie back into the City Centre. By breaking down what would have been a continual façade by way of recessing and projecting individual units, along with different material treatments and roof lines, the appearance is that of a row of narrow fronted shops more akin to a High Street.

Whilst it may not be possible in all instances to provide a rear service yard, particularly in existing built up areas, it is also worth considering when designing the layout arrangement for a commercial building, that there would require to be a suitable lay-by or secure drop-off point for any deliveries to be made out of working hours. Where this is to be made from the street, consideration should be given to appropriate material treatment which allows the space to be utilised for pedestrians outside of delivery hours.

Live-work units are gaining traction in many town centre locations, and the concept has been modernised to meet the requirements of entrepreneurs, small businesses and working professionals and the technological changes of the digital era. These spaces combine workspace with living accommodation, and they typically take the form of a businesses located on ground level fronting onto the high street, with living quarters above, behind or even alongside the commercial space. This type of building is ideal for mixed use developments where they are often occupied by small workshops and starter units and can usually be densely concentrated in a small area. As they are typically ‘backlot’ areas as opposed to primary elevations on High Streets etc, careful consideration would have to be given to building materials and style, as the building would be multi-use and this should be reflected in the elevational treatment. 

It is particularly important in town centre locations that consideration is given to how larger units can be potentially broken down (or expanded) to accommodate smaller spaces and meanwhile uses. This is an essential component to achieving sustainable town centres which can evolve and change over time. 

The provision of all-weather canopies is a recommended feature for areas exposed to the elements. As well as protecting from rain or direct sunlight by offering covered waiting areas, they can act as sheltered walkways between buildings and architectural features in their own right. It is important to remember that materials selected for canopy features will need to link back to the host building to enhance the overall frontage.

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

© 2020 Copyright Essex County Council. All rights reserved.