Built Context

The built-form context, is a key part of the Context Appraisal, is about analysing the nature of the existing context rather than explaining the design thinking behind any proposed scheme. Having completed a context appraisal as a first step, the follows design stages will be on a firm footing, providing a clear and concise justification for the proposals.

The Essex Design Guide is the primary source of design advice for residential development within the county. Its impact since publication cannot be overstated – it has been used to successfully reinforce the Essex building tradition against bland and inconsiderate design. However, its provisions on architecture and built form do not always translate well for higher density environments and taller buildings. Nor indeed do they always fit comfortably with the specific circumstances of both our Victorian seaside towns and our New Towns. These places, and places like them, have a distinct character of their own that is as important to them as the vernacular tradition is to our market towns.

It is essential therefore to start with a demonstrable appreciation of this built-form context. This can be collated quite simply from photographs, sketches and map extracts with unambiguous explanatory text.

It is important to examine not only the unit of sustainability within which the site falls – for example, an urban centre or neighbourhood centre – but also the general nature of the urban area as a whole.

Provided this work is regarded as a process to identify opportunities rather than one that imposes constraints, the result can be an urban pattern-book for specific places that communicates character, guides the designer and engages the community.

In most situations, the general character of an area can be identified and represented within a short supporting document. More sophisticated analyses may include the recording of a wider variety of visual and other sensory cues that combine to provide the designer with a rich resource for interpretation.

Of course, the vast majority of urban areas have been subject to change over time. They often comprise a mix of building types (differing in style, form, height and materials) and spatial types such as squares, streets and parks (differing in size, proportion, enclosure and materials).

The interplay between buildings and spaces and the scale of these relationships largely determine urban character, even before architectural style is considered. While in very historic centres these differences may be quite subtle, highly unified urban areas are rare and most are generally diverse. Their evolution gives them the character they have today – though not all of this is positive. Negative effects can occur when a development has been imposed that breaks too many urban design rules on one site. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to place a modern glass structure between buildings designed in a local, traditional idiom of brick and render if the modern building mirrors the height, proportional arrangement and plot size of its neighbours – if it is ‘well-mannered’. When this rule of thumb is broken, aesthetic tensions invariably occur.

When undertaking audits of built form, it is important to be mindful of those situations where buildings are clearly uncomfortable within their surroundings and where it is unwise to follow their precedent. There are, of course, always exceptions – but they need to be approached with extreme care.

Individual buildings (where the local character is indeterminate) can be inventive and challenging provided they are well designed: they may be intended to stand out among their neighbours as a new landmark, or may use materials in an innovative way.

However, buildings that incorporate features with a view to becoming a new landmark are often misplaced. Such buildings are rarely necessary for navigation around a built environment and, more often than not, such features are added on the whim of the designer. Used intelligently, landmarks play an important role in establishing a sense of legibility and drama within an area. But this role needs to be informed by a rigorous understanding of the surroundings, existing way-marking and the relative importance of the building itself.

Whatever the circumstances and design approach, the starting point is a review and analysis of the local built-form context.

Infill Sites

Existing key views and landmark buildings should be identified and respected by any new scheme. Similarly, points where new key buildings and views are required should be established along with the form they should take.

The Design and Access Statements

A Design and Access Statements (DAS) provide a framework for applicants to explain how a proposed development is a suitable response to the site and its setting, and demonstrate that it can be adequately accessed by prospective users.

Design and Access Statements supplement the context appraisal process by introducing the rationale behind key design decision making. In addition to analysing the context of the site as covered in the Context Appraisal the Design Access Statement does the following:

  1. Looks more closely at the access requirements to the site of the proposed scheme and;
  2. Begins to draw conclusions as to the character, scale and general parameters of any scheme that might be proposed for the site.

An effective context appraisal should consider the following:

  • It should be carried out prior to the commencement of the design process.
  • It is not in itself a design proposal, but it will give a clear steer to the way a design is developed.
  • Undertake an assessment of the site including scale, massing, form and access requirements.

Using the Built-Form Context Appraisal to inform the Design Process

The purpose of the Built-Form Context Appraisal is to inform the eventual design of any proposed scheme.

In the example below, we demonstrate how a context appraisal can inform the basis of future design.

Exploratory drawings, diagrams, photographs and comments are used to show how this might work in practice. By referring to the context appraisal throughout this exercise, it will become apparent how design parameters can be established to ensure that a future proposal responds to the context. More than this, a proposal should add to the quality of the existing environment, which in many cases has become fragmented by poor development.

To demonstrate one approach to this, the following studies  show the process which moves from context appraisal (analysis of existing) to the point where conclusions can be drawn in relation to the development of the scheme.

The approach shown represents only one way of carrying out this work. Other graphic means may be adopted, provided the author is aware of the principals that are behind the requirements of the Essex Design Guide.

Page updated: 6/08/2018

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