Interview with Chris Parsons
Ben reviews the journey from briefing to planning stage for his own self-build project, with their architect Chris Parsons from Parsons & Whittley.
Initial sketches seek to reconcile constraints and opportunities
After their briefing session with Ben & Kay, Parsons & Whittley set about sketching some ideas to see how the whole brief could come together. Constraints (such as where the building can be situated, the orientation etc.) and opportunities (for example nice views) needed to be incorporated into the designs.
The firm uses SketchUp for initial designs through to the planning stage; this 3-D software enables them to play with shapes to try to find a form that works.
When you add materials, the building takes on a different identity
Chris explains it was a deliberate decision to omit materials from the first sketches sent to Ben & Kay, as materials can have a significant impact on how a building looks and the first task was to isolate the form.
They had some ideas about materials when producing the first sketches, but when they put them onto the model in SketchUp, Chris felt it might be a step too far at that point to try and get commitment on material choices.
Involving planners early on can inform the end design
After a bit of feedback from Ben & Kay about the form and floor layout, Parsons & Whittley submitted updated designs. The planners flagged a potential issue with the height of the building, which could affect the neighbour.
As Chris puts it, “There’s no such thing really as a right to a view and there’s not much in terms of a right to light. However, the planners aren’t going to approve something that seriously impacts on the amenity and the enjoyment of the neighbour.”
Therefore both neighbours and the surrounding area have to be kept in mind during the design phase. The following measures were taken for Ben & Kay’s house to address the issue:
- Ridge height reduced
- Small catslide element put across the lesser status rooms at the back
- House repositioned slightly further away from neighbour than in the earlier consent
Specific materials may have architectural implications
Chris recalls that trying to find the right material balance for what they were trying to achieve required some ‘toing and froing’. Brick and barn aesthetics were discussed, along with black weatherboard, but Ben & Key felt this to be too strong. A rendered look was more appealing, but perhaps not for the whole building.
This thinking, along with trying to avoid overlooking the neighbour, meant different materials were considered for different elements and started to introduce a degree of complexity that neither party really wanted. However it was a valuable process that resulted in a return to a simpler form but with a provision to protect the neighbour’s privacy.
Understand the local vernacular in terms of materials
Chris explains that once form and scale have been agreed, the following questions will help work out what finishes will be applied to the outside:
- What are appropriate materials for the location and setting?
- What does the client like?
- Are there issues around maintenance and longevity of certain materials?
It’s also time to decide how the house will be built, using timber frame or masonry, for example. Kay expressed an interest in a soft lime rendered finish and to do that properly, Chris felt it would be easiest and most cost-effective to apply that to a masonry external skin.
It’ll be a whole lot easier if you avoid the green belt
Parsons & Whittley eventually managed to track down a copy of the green belt area, which they then transferred onto their plans. This showed the planners they weren’t straying into the green belt, only coming up to the edge of it so that the house would be as far away from the neighbour as possible and maximise the amount of private garden for Ben & Kay.
Anticipate what planners are going to ask you
Chris’s advice is to think carefully about what you’ll need to demonstrate within all of the documents being submitted as part of a planning application.
SketchUp allows them to position the house “in the real world”, so they did quite a lot of work in terms of a ‘shadow study’ for Ben & Kay’s project. By setting a date and time within the software, they can see where the shadows are likely to fall and demonstrate there’d be no overshadowing of the neighbour.
They also developed a cross-section that showed i) the existing consent, ii) all previous consents on the site, and iii) what was now being proposed, for comparison and to dispel concerns of overshadowing.
A section 73 application to alter existing consent may be appropriate
You don’t always need to submit a brand new planning application if consent already exists. In Ben & Kay’s case, Chris simply wanted to vary the approved drawings.
This was a tactical decision given the proximity of the site to the green belt. As the principle of building on it has already been established, the section 73 application allows the planning officer to determine if this dwelling they’re now presented with is acceptable in planning terms.
Changes in legislation require planning departments to list the drawings that they’ve approved, which makes it easier to pursue this route of seeking to change approved drawings rather than revisiting the whole policy of ‘can I have a house there?’.
It’s not always a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ planning decision
Planners are required to make a decision within eight weeks from the date of validation. Chris says that most planning authorities get about 90–95% of decisions through in that period of time. If decisions need to go to a committee, then the timeframe might be extended but only with permission. If they can’t make a decision within eight weeks, applicants have the option to appeal to the Secretary of State against non-determination. However this isn’t a process Chris would recommend as it would likely take at least six months to get through it.
The outcome will be yes or no but might be a yes with conditions, some of which the applicant isn’t happy about. If the planners were to refuse the section 73 application submitted on behalf of Ben & Kay, they could only do so on planning grounds. Parsons & Whittley would look at what those planning grounds were and advise on the best way to proceed. This may be simply amending the design to satisfy the planner’s concerns and re-submitting, which within 12 months for the same type of application does not carry a fee.
The appeal route would remain a last resort. However, Chris argues it shouldn't get to that point as a good architect will stay in contact with the officer during the eight-week review period to ascertain if there are any objections that can be resolved before any decision is made.
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