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Sunday, April 09, 2006
Design codes
Research [pdf] out last week supposedly showed that Prescott's favoured 'design code' approach is a good thing for sites with multiple owners and complex developer/stakeholder set-ups. While I will resist the temptation to be cynical about research that was paid for by the ODPM, this isn't, to me, the controversial or 'anti-architectural' result that many architects will claim. Saying that design codes are intrinsically good or bad is like saying that diets are good or bad - its all in the content, not the form. The over-exposed and beloved-of-architects development at Borneo Sporenburg is an example of design codes as much as Seaside, Florida. Anything that gives complex sites some sort of overarching logic and order - whether a good masterplan that is strictly applied, or a design code, or, indeed, requirements for energy efficiency, use of local materials or tenure mix, is probably a good thing, but certainly won't guarantee 'quality' of design.

I would rather see more intelligent and imaginative design codes by good designers, than the wholesale dismissal of the concept that means that the gap is filled by the unimaginative. Codes currently are too obsessed with roof pitches (or pitched roofs in general), the proportions of windows, the naff little bits of planting that stand in for properly designed streets. But they could - as we tried to demonstrate recently with some design guidance in East London - speak about typology in broader senses, the breaking down of monolithic development areas into varied scales of plot and dwelling type, material choice in an imaginative and open-ended, while sensitive, way. One of the most useful parts of the design code could be about energy efficiency, water conservation, sustainable urban drainage, green roofs and solar hot water heaters - ways to force the unwilling, and encourage the enthusiastic, to stretch their design vocabulary in exciting and distinctive ways.

Codes are really just a new term for an old concept - the laws brought in after the Great Fire in 1666 are a classic example of a design code - and shouldn't be seen as a barrier to imaginative, individual design. As far as I'm concerned, its time to stop the argument about whether they should exist or not, and to start engaging with how good or bad the code is, and that's where I'd like to see the ODPM sponsoring research.

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