3 Oct 2011

Brownfields, no gardens

Last Wednesday evening (actually Sep 21, the day before I locked horns with the National Trust), I attended a talk put on by Cambridge Architectural Research and presented by David Birkbeck, who runs Design for Homes, and, incidentally, someone I have known for many years, having once written for Building Homes which David once edited. David is also a selfbuilder and I have written about his exploits here and here.

But he wasn't in Cambridge to talk about selfbuild, he was instead chewing over the Housing Design Awards and how the styles and fashions have changed over the years. He covered the last 15 years, the time that marked the end of the cul-de-sac style developments of the 80s and 90s, and the move into brownfields, Georgian densities, and flats. And Poundbury-style site layouts.

He was interesting on Poundbury, and quite critical of the tortuous road layouts it uses (all curvy and wiggly and seemingly chaotic). Much better to go the whole hog and build squares and streets, like the Georgians, and indeed he showed that the current crop of award winning schemes all tend to do this. (I'd pepper you with examples but, of course, I wasn't taking notes and I have trouble remembering stuff a week ago. In any event, you can access them at the Housing Awards Website.)

But towards the end of the presentation, the subject of gardens came up. Or rather, the lack of them. The current trend is to move away from simple balconies towards roof terraces which aren't overlooked, so you get a bit of decking and a planting bed or two, next to which you can place your sunlounger and pretend you are somewhere else. Often, these areas are situated at first or second floor level and have someone else's home underneath, so they are in fact variations on the intensive green roof. David mentioned that there are already a few claims coming in for water penetration through these green roofs into the homes below and he suspected that we would see more of this over the coming years. It's not altogether easy or practical to build a roof garden, but that's one of the consequences of our predilection towards building at Georgian densities (although I don't recall the Georgians' going for roof gardens!)

I like a bit of irony, so I couldn't help thinking that the current National Trust anti-NPPF campaign, if successful, will continue this urban cramming trend we have embarked upon (otherwise known as the brownfield first policy). The flipside of "Protect Our Countryside" is "Ban the Garden."


  1. ...The flipside of "Protect Our Countryside" is "Ban the Garden."

    A nice summation, however I believe we are already there due to economics anyway. The most recent medium to top end developments in my local market town, which is surrounded by average quality grazing land but with a constraining development plan, have had gardens that are VERY small simply to allow the developers to shoe-horn more houses onto the site.

    Unfortunately this has resulted in not only small gardens but also in dark gardens as they increase the room count by pushing to taller houses allowing in-roof rooms too with the corresponding increase in shadowing. The other-draw back is there is no way a family could alter or enhance the properties in anyway that required a change and addition to the footprint as they are hard up against the boundaries.

    This has somewhat backfired in the recent downturn though with two developments totally unable to sell the houses with these issues. I'd like to think this will result in a re-think of their approach to developments but I doubt it somehow!

  2. An interesting post Mark. I remember Arup Associates, who did the original master plan for what is now Cambourne, designing a grid for it and defending it against criticism of "rigidity". Curvy layouts they advised are disorientating, as one loses one's sense of direction. The other week, trying to find a friend's house which I had visited once, I drove down the curvy streets and duly took the wrong turning - on a development of only three streets and twenty or so houses.

    David Brock - www.thedavidbrockblog.com