Generally speaking, there are less essential differences between the councils of the various London boroughs with regards to their approach to design and planning than most clients and even Architects tend to think. Equally, it is important not to underestimate the importance of local knowledge and familiarity of all design professionals with council specific preferences, tendencies and above all preferred methods of communication and discussions about new projects. For example, It is often considered that Islington’s planners are very strict in both conservation and design terms. However, in reality, this is far from the truth. Most of Islington borough is, in fact, a conservation area which naturally means that conservation issues will receivecentral stage in all planning discussion. It is also true that Islington’s conservation officers are indeed strict and dedicated to their mission statement.
On the other hand, a less known fact, which may partly explain the above misconception is that Islington’s general attitude towards design is very advanced, arguably one of the most the most advanced in London. Our own experience repeatedly taught us that in fact Islington’s soft spot is good design; they clearly favour innovative, and thoughtful contemporary design over standard and boring attempts to recreate the old and even to seamlessly blend with it. As long as proposed schemes are considerate and respectful of the overall and local conservation context, we find Islington’s planning and conservation officers flexible and open to good discussions about any good proposal presented to them.
Generally speaking, two main approaches can be taken with listed buildings and buildings within conservation areas. The first is creating something new yet making it look old to blend in with existing properties. The second is to design distinctly contemporary interventions maintaining an extremely clear distinction between old and new.
It is safe to say that the general tendency in the UK and London, in particular, is towards the second approach with Islington’s planning professional clearly in line with this trend. Another general trend worth mentioning is towards consulting with planners very early on in the design process. It is very important to respect the planners and involve them in the process as an integral part of the project’s team rather than an external inspecting and restricting entity.
As with many other such professional interactions, your own approach and the attitude which you bring into the process will strongly affect what you will get out of it.
The key to success is to work with and not against the planning process and current general and local trends. Make sure you that you present nice and early clear and concise information in the context of a pre-planning consultation come up with innovative, amiable designs. It is not enough to have something distinctly modern, the design must work in all aspects including planning and conservation and its successful integration with its local context must be carefully considered.
The steps are as follows:
- Design a beautiful, considerate, yet bold scheme which you can back up with clear logic internally and externally, both in terms of design and usability but also sustainability and careful regard to planning and conservation aspects.
- Prepare an extensive pre-planning document covering much more than just plans. Create a comprehensive and balanced document discussing the site within its current and historical contexts and all relevant implications of your new intervention.
- Rather than simply submitting your pre-planning application and sit back waiting for the council’s written advice to arrive, start an early and fruitful discussion with the planners. Make them feel part of your team, simply by making sure that is is genuinely the case, speak about your client’s aspirations, timeframes, any considerations which you may have overlooked and shown willingness to take on board their comments.
- Our hands-on and long-term experience with this approach is that when we are starting our discussions with the council on these lines we meet positive response which enables us, in turn, to yield the desired results to your clients.
Our client owned a house in the Barnsbury conservation area. The property had been in their family for nearly a hundred years and was originally a butcher shop with rooms above. Our client wanted to build in the very small backyard, for either himself or for sale. The site is very tight and confined with no views. Being a strict conservation area, as well as locally listed, it could not be visible from the road at all. The project became even more challenging as the design also had to follow new build regulation and standards. Apart from the obvious challenge to allow sufficient natural light and air flow without any façades open towards the street or the back, the small site and the planning requirement for provision of sufficient open space called for a unique design solution.
Rather than allocating a single area for a small patio garden, the open space wraps around the house and weaves in and out of the Living room and kitchen areas. This offset of the building line from the boundary along with the strategic location of skylights results in an airy and light space which feels much larger than it actually is.
At first, our proposal met strong resistance from the planners due to the obvious restrictions on outlook, light conditions and great difficulty to achieve the standard requirements of open green space. However, with further analysis involving extensive use of 3D (BIM – Building Information Modeling) technology, we managed to demonstrate, to the planners how our innovative design can tackle and alleviate all of their justified concerns one by one. During this collaborative process we took on board many valid points raised by the planners, and finally, the scheme was granted planning permission. More than anything we attribute this success to our continued collaboration with the planners; we always made them feel as though they were a part of the process.