13. Coding – bringing architects back to the volume house building table

Last month HTA Architects organised a fascinating evening during which four teams of architects critiqued the Upton Design Code.  Each had been responsible for designing a phase of English Partnerships’ flagship Upton project, and each had been confronted with the design code as the common basis on which to base their design proposals.  The discussion was preceded by the code’s designers, outlining their rationale and inspirations for the code, and proceeded by myself attempting to draw conclusions by relating the far reaching discussion to our own research evaluating the Government’s design code pilot programme[1].

By way of background, Upton is to be a mixed use urban extension to Northampton, with 1,000+ homes, a school, medical centre, retailing and other local facilities.  Following an Enquiry by Design process to engage local stakeholders in the project, a master plan was produced and finalised in early 2002.  As a means to ensure the coherent and consistent delivery of the principles enshrined in the master plan, the decision was taken to commission a detailed design code.  The code contains detailed requirements for all aspects of the scheme’s urban design, and to a lesser extent its architectural design.  Since then, the developers and designers for each phase have been subject to the code’s precepts, with teams chosen by English Partnerships to a large degree according to how well they respond to the code.

Proposed housing, Upton

The evening began with an interesting discussion focusing on how design codes enshrine certain values at the start of a project.  In Upton, these support the creation of a traditional urban form based on a perimeter block street system.  For some teams who did not share these values, this had proven to be problematic.  Such teams inevitably struggled to deliver what they regarded as a satisfactory project.

One team, for example, wished to design their phase around the requirements of micro-generation, and argued that perimeter blocks could not deliver an optimum solution.  Another group encountered problems over the use of parking courts, and a further group around the degree of standardisation they were attempting to build into their scheme.

Phase one housing at Upton

The off-pat response to this might be – ‘don’t tender for projects that don’t reflect your values’.  Fundamentally, however, the use of design codes means that architects are faced with a new and unfamiliar way of working.  Instead of designing the ‘total vision’ for a building or place, phase designers need to design on the basis of a vision already in place (the masterplan), as enshrined in the code.  In this capacity design codes represent particularly robust means to deliver masterplans.

Inevitably such a process limits the phase designer’s creative freedom, although only because the master planner and code designer have already been through a creative design process, on the basis of which the phase designers subsequently design.  This seems to require a new way of working, seeing the constraints imposed by the design code as a positive input to the creative process, just as good designers would normally respond to the constraints imposed by the site or the client’s brief.

A review of the various phases on display at the event showed each to be markedly different in architectural terms, although urbanistically coherent.  This, it could be argued, bodes well for the overall success of the code.  Effectively it has been able to establish and deliver the ‘must have’ fundamentals, whilst enabling greater flexibility elsewhere, such as in the architecture.  Of course, until the project is finally built out, the question of overall coherence will remain open.

For Upton, many of the problems raised by the design teams were not actually problems inherent in the use of coding, but instead were concerned with aspects of the masterplan.  Some argued, for example, that the interfaces between the various phases represent the critical junctures that would determine the success or otherwise of coded projects, and that in this respect the parcelling process at Upton should have been given greater attention.  It was telling that the event represented the first time that the separate teams had seen their projects laid out on the same plan as their neighbouring schemes.  A practice used elsewhere has been the employment of a coordinating architect specifically to ensure the successful coordination between phases.

Overall, getting the balance right between prescription and flexibility remained the key concern, and the major topic of conversation throughout the event.  Views differed on whether this had been achieved at Upton.  On the question of speed, experiences also varied.  Although the early phases had been time consuming in order to secure the necessary detailed permissions, later phases were characterised by an efficient planning process, with decisions made inside of eight weeks.

Some argued that the question of speed depends entirely on when the clock starts ticking; do you include the time masterplanning, coding, time designing the phases, or simply the time taken between applying for and obtaining outline consents.  All agreed that the project had been a great learning experience, both as a means to experiment with new ideas (e.g. delivering sustainability within a traditional urban form), but also for simply learning about how to work with design codes.

To my mind, beyond whether one likes or does not like a particular phase of Upton, the single greatest success of the Upton process was plain to see in the fact that 30 or so architects from different practices were sitting in a room together talking in a positive manner about how they had engaged with this large predominantly residential project.  Codes not only require high level design skills for their production, but also to interpret and implement them.  A few years ago architects as a profession had more or less been excluded from the volume housing sector by developers and local authorities content to see standard house types applied to standard road types rolled out across the country.

Zed-Factory housing, Upton

Is this the opportunity to once again bring creative design thinking back into volume housing?  Lets hope so, although with one proviso; that this time, design codes provide the appropriate coordinating force that will engage architects, but avoid the worst excesses of the 1960s and 70s, the period when architects last engaged in volume housing design in a big way.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


October 2006

[1] See Bartlett School of Planning, UCL and Tibbalds Planning & Urban Design (2006) Design Coding in Practice, An Evaluation, London, DCLG