Paragraph 55: the chance to build an exceptional home in open countryside

Ric Blenkharn
Ric Blenkharn
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Ric Blenkharn, co-founder of Bramhall Blenkharn Architects,

I have recently been involved in the formal design review of house designs, submitted in response to the National Planning Policy Framework Paragraph 55.

This policy allows new houses to be built in the open countryside if they demonstrate exceptional quality under four criteria; that they be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas; reflect the highest standards in architecture; significantly enhance their immediate setting; and, be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.

There is a degree of subjectivity in the approval of such buildings but key for me is that buildings have a narrative or story relating them to their particular location. I have tried to understand what makes a building exceptional in such circumstances and it relates to its site.

I constantly refer to the written works of Robert Macfarlane, eminent writer and academic.

Macfarlane is fascinated by the relationship of language and landscape to shape our senses of place. He says: “it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names.”

Macfarlane has travelled widely across the country to comprehend the intimate way in which generations have understood their landscape and identified places, by the most minute level of detail, such as small outcrops of rock, the particular meandering of a stream or the nature of a clump of trees. Sense of place can be defined as an emotional relationship between people and places.

The comprehension of the physical environment has shaped the nature of our buildings from the dawn of time, It has played a key role in the siting of buildings in areas such as the North York Moors, where stone buildings, using material taken from the ground, have been shaped into houses huddling into south facing slopes, with minimal openings on their northern sides. If you visit any of the dales you will see south-facing slopes scattered with isolated farmsteads, looking as though they have always belonged there. They are part of the natural beauty we enjoy as a national park.

The use of materials taken from the immediate landscape roots buildings to their location and gives the country unique regional variations, but is only part of the understanding required to demonstrate “exceptional quality”.

To be exceptional, a new building should enhance its setting and reflect the highest standards in architecture. To do this, the narrative of poetry and comprehension of place, suggested by the likes of Macfarlane, should be embraced in the design of the new dwelling.

Analysis of a place through historical documents will assist in giving it real identity. Taken together with the brief and siting, a design response can then be made.

The intention of Paragraph 55 is to envisage new homes in distinctive settings, which are a thing of beauty in their own right.

The policy is the evolution of one that has been present in one form or the other since the mid-1990s. The intention was to continue the tradition of ‘the grand country house’, but has now become the means by which dwellings of any size can be developed within the open countryside. It is a real opportunity to raise the standards of architecture throughout our county.