David Morley’s Letter to The Sunday Times
In a letter published in the Property section of the Sunday Times last week, David Morley discusses how good housing design is still possible on brownfield sites and should be encouraged.
Cookie-cutter houses shouldn’t be our architectural legacy. Brownfield sites can produce high-quality, environmentally friendly developments and raise the bar for design.
Sunday May 21, 2023, 12.01am, The Sunday Times – Property
Our towns are blighted with derelict industrial land. In 2021 the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimated the capacity of vacant, previously developed sites exceeded one million new homes. Historic England calculated that the vacant mills across the north alone could accommodate 42,000 homes.
Look around almost any town centre in the UK and you will see a plethora of opportunities for vacant buildings and plots to be given a new use. We know that building new homes in these areas or repurposing underused properties are the best ways to fulfil housing need with minimal waste of resources and the least impact on the environment.
Yet, instead, we are creating another problem: swathes of closely packed and poorly designed identikit homes being potato-stamped across our countryside.
Why is this happening? At the heart of it is a combination of design quality and the flawed logic that building on greenfield sites is low cost. On this issue I applaud the housing secretary Michael Gove’s recent veto of the planning approval for a proposed development at Crane Valley in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Some of these schemes are successful. There are some greenfield developments with outstanding housing design quality such as Accordia in Cambridge and the Goldsmith Street development in Norwich. The King’s vision for Nansledan in Cornwall looks promising.
I have invited the secretary of state to see for himself the David Morley Architects scheme working with Rifkind Associates for a community of 500 new homes on a brownfield site — a disused quarry — at Matlock Spa in the Derbyshire Dales, which was praised by the Duke of Devonshire.
I believe all such projects, with some excellent design codes and award schemes, can help to promote good architecture. The problem is the high-volume housebuilders, constructing 1,000- plus units at a time, who are having the greatest impact on our landscape — and they seem the least interested in design.
They show a lazy approach, adopting a minimal number of house types packed as close together as they can get away with, constructing the lowest possible ceiling heights, small windows, no respect for the difference between north and south, and weak attempts to add visual interest, such as changing the colour of the bricks or roof tiles in otherwise identical houses.
Brownfield sites are shunned because they are seen as too costly and difficult to develop, whereas this land is usually far better connected and offers rich opportunities for building a successful public space.
The volume housebuilders seem wedded to tightly packed detached houses, where an elegant terrace would be more energy efficient and give better opportunities for creating people-friendly streets.
Instead of low ceilings, why not recognise that some extra height makes rooms feel larger and allows better proportioned windows for enhanced natural light and ventilation? The orientation really matters — careful thought can make the most of passive solar gain and minimise heat loss in winter, while avoiding overheating in summer.
Many of our most elegant townscapes have a consistent use of local materials to give a sense of harmony, but that only works because they are well planned and beautifully proportioned.
It needs an investment in local authority resources to send the message that well-considered design will be supported by speeding up the approvals process. Developers need to see tangible benefits from tackling the more difficult sites, demonstrating that investing quality at the earliest stages of each project will reap rewards further down the line.
This will address both ends of the problem. Design ingenuity can unlock those difficult brownfield sites and repurpose tired buildings. And it will raise the bar for quality design, where greenfield development can be justified.
The development at Matlock Spa was strongly supported by Derbyshire Dales district council. It has shown how prioritising legacy above profit can enable the most difficult sites to become wonderful places to live and visit.
David Morley Architects has designed 500 projects, winning more than 100 awards, including at Lords Cricket Ground, Oxford University, the Royal Parks, and London’s Kings Cross