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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Building on Tradition: The Agenda for Sustainable Design (Part 2 of 2)

Report by Gary Potter.

On Monday 27th June 2011 PLACE, The Irish Planning Institute and Ballymoney Borough Council held a joint event entitled "Building on Tradition: The Agenda for Sustainable Design". The PLACE Blog yesterday reported on Townscape Heritage Officer Ronan O’Donnell's experience as part of the Walled City Partnership's Townscape Heritage Initiative in Derry~Londonderry. Today, in part two, we will highlight the main features of the Building on Tradition - Sustainable Design Guide for the Northern Ireland Countryside which acts as supplementary guidance to PPS21, as outlined by Paul McTernan (SLR Consulting).


Paul McTernan explains the draft PPS21
Supplementary Design Guidance.

Part 2: Framing the new PPS21 Design Guidance
Paul McTernan from SLR Consulting presented the PPS21 Design Guide and provided a brief overview of the main features on Monday in Ballymoney. Paul is now Technical Director of SLR based in the international firms Belfast office. Paul has over 24 years’ planning experience and has made over 300 public enquiry appearances throughout his career which has involved work in both the public and private sector.

Draft PPS21 Supplementary Design Guidance.

Download Paul’s talk (PDF, 5.6mb): right-click and save here.

Paul began his presentation on Monday with a quick history of his career and design guidance in the countryside. During his first 15 years working in Scotland Paul was part of a team which in 1993 prepared a design guide for new build settlements in the countryside. Paul believes that this document was a “game changer” which raised expectations for development in the rural areas. He also highlighted the 2002/3 Cork design guidance for rural developments which “filled a massive gap for knowledge” and has since sold over 25,000 copies. Paul believes that the success of the document is down to the relevance it has to everyone and not just the architectural profession. It is a document that farmers found useful and rural communities could discuss.


A member of our sold out audience browse the draft guidance.
Via placeni on Flickr.

Continuing to set the scene for the PPS21 Design Guidance Paul provided some thought provoking quotes for the audience. “Design is anything … but simple!” he claims, as design by its very nature requires skills and everything from the type of door handle to the type of render externally is a design decision to be made when developing a new rural home. The PPS21 guidance aims to bring a sense of ownership to design and suggests that there are better ways to execute projects to avoid the flood of large, out of proportion houses with no connection to the landscape that have appeared in recent years. However the guidance must refrain from being over prescriptive or becoming too presumptuous. The purpose as Paul explained is not to create pastiche, but rather, “to educate, inform and inspire” and “positively nourish a change in aspirations and ambitions”.

Paul explained that the design guidance attempts to demystify PPS21 which is often difficult for non-professionals to fully comprehend. Paul also believes that planners do not receive as much training in design as they should. The guidance aims to change everyone’s thought process from sequential to a parallel process which considers all the aspects together. For example, setting, site layout, design, landscaping and where the car goes should be considered all together and not in a sequential process.

Draft PPS21 Design Guidance.
Whilst travelling around Northern Ireland researching Paul was impressed with how many areas are still intact and believed that the guidance should consider this. He cited examples such as areas around Fermanagh and the Glenshane Pass as prime examples of rural landscape that guidance should pay particular attention. The first third of the guidance deals with this issue by highlighting Northern Ireland’s distinctiveness in topologies, settlement patterns and townscape. Photography from the NI Tourist Board was used along with DoE landscape character information to impress upon the reader the importance of quality, clean environments and resources. Topologies, explained Paul, are vitally important and therefore are considered early on in the document. The first section of the guidance prepares the reader and provides clues early on for what is required to be considered.

The document suggests early on that the location of the site within the surrounding landscape is and important consideration which should be considered along with other issues such as river basin management, which Paul believes will grow to become very important in the coming years.

The guidance aims to ensure a sense of place through the identification of materials, stones, roof styles, etc. in illustrative palettes such as the one below: 

Palette of materials from the Draft PPS21 Design Guidance

Reuse and conversion has its own section to highlight how adapting and retrofitting existing properties can be carried out successfully. Existing settlements, farm groupings and single properties are dealt with and the topologies, patterns and character of each are explored and highlighted as important within the guidance. Ribbon and gap site policy is explored through principles of scale, size, proportion and characteristics; as are new builds and replacements.

Draft PPS21 Design Guidance.

Returning to issues of character and setting Paul highlighted that throughout history many rural Irish homes have wrapped themselves in nature and the landscape comes right up to the house. He suggested that tarmac driveways and out of character fencing is spared in favour of natural hedge rows and enhanced biodiversity. Paul explained that the guidance attempts to embed a sense of place in the client and encourage a good design concept through a parallel thought process which brings out the key elements such as, topology, setting, scale, proportion, character, biodiversity and sustainability.

Draft PPS21 Design Guidance.

In closing Paul explained that a wide range of stakeholders have been involved in the steering group which led to the draft document. In particular Paul highlighted the contribution from the rural community, farmers and the design profession. He reminded the audience that the period of consultation closes on 8 July and encouraged everyone to comment with constructive suggestions and/or positive encouragement. 

You can obtain a copy of the draft guidance and send your comments using this email address: [email protected]

At this point Michael Hegarty, PLACE Director, who chaired Monday’s event asked the audience for comments and suggestions…

The first comment from the audience commended the guidance as a step in the right direction but suggested that two problems would still exist. The first being “off-the-shelf” houses that pay little regard to their setting and the second issue raised by the audience members is that often sites are left unfinished or dramatically change within a few years. They suggested that that a revisit after five years by a planning officer should be implemented to ensure that the design is as it was approved and that landscaping has been carried out as specified. 

Addressing the point about “off-the-shelf” homes, Paul agreed that this was a problem and that we have to change the attitude of the persons procuring these designs. Although he admitted it would be difficult when it all comes down to cost, but if the person can be shown, with the help of the design guidance the value of good design then they may appreciate that it is an investment and “another route”.

Michael at this point highlighted that PPS1 is likely to be reviewed soon which may address issues of how planning policy works and perhaps would address the audience members suggestion of scheme reviews.

Draft PPS21 Design Guidance.

The next issue discussed dealt with the training provided to planners. A member of the audience accepted that it was good to have the guidance but the application of it must be carried out successfully and sensibly. Paul and Michael both agreed that planners should receive more design training and Michael suggested that with the transfer of planning and regeneration to councils there would be an opportunity to address training amongst councilors and planners.

Another event attendee asked if we should control so much to which Michael suggested that planning has always controlled, for example, area plans and conservation areas deal with control and to an extent, taste and appropriateness.

Draft PPS21 Design Guidance.

A further question arose regarding the transfer of planning to local authorities in which the audience member queried how Paul and Michael foresee this working. Paul expressed a belief that this is where planning belongs and although there will be considerable challenges and councilors may initially struggle with details, the transfer of planning will be better than the current system. He further explained the mechanisms for ensuring the system operates without misuse and highlighted that at any time if the DoE have reasonable grounds for suspicion they can pull in the application and consider it. Michael agreed with this and claimed the new system would be a “healthier system”.

Suggestions that there was scope for regional design guidance as opposed to one overall document were met with words of caution from Paul. He suggested that he would be hesitant to divide the country into areas which he worries could lead to an over prescriptive system. Following another point Paul clarified that the new guidance would have statutory status and clarified that there was a provision to request concept design statements and he felt that this would become more prevalent.


With all questions and comments addressed by Paul and Michael the event drew to a successful close. Michael closed by thanking everyone involved and stated that the new guidance was a “substantial, well structured and well written document” that he hopes will improve the built environment in the countryside.



PLACE would like to thank everyone involved in this successful event and we hope that everyone in attendance enjoyed the informative and interesting presentations. If you would like more information or wish to view the presentation presented by Paul you can find the links below…

More information:

Download Paul McTernan's presentation: 
Framing the new PPS21 Design Guidance [PDF, 5.6mb - right-click and save here]

View the DoE web page for Draft PPS21 Design Guidance:
Draft Supplementary Planning Guidance: Building on Tradition - a Sustainable Design Guide for the Northern Ireland Countryside

View the DoE web page for PPS21 Sustainable Development in the Countryside:
PPS21 Sustainable Development in the Countryside

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