There is a place for heritage, but not at the price of quality of new residential development.
Local authorities in many of our cities put the lifestyles of occupants well behind the seemingly arbitrary, nostalgic, and emotional desire to retain old houses. This illogical trend of keeping old houses and forcing new development to be built around them is poisoning our built environment by creating physical restrictions which result in low quality new residential design.
Forcing developers to retain the old original house on the site, usually refurbished to be livable, leaves only a tight space, usually at the back of the property, to squeeze maybe 2 or 3 townhouses into. A side driveway is often the access to the development.
Obviously, the idea of the local authority is to maintain the ambience of the old architecture. The value of this is debatable, especially since many of these houses are usually of a poor design type. Additionally, authorities are not only creating conditions which restrict good design, but they are shutting-down an evolving heritage where well-designed new housing cannot become our future heritage.
Keeping the old house on a site prevents a well-designed new development from happening because of the following easy to understand, logical design reasons.
Successful design is always a lot harder to achieve when there is other infrastructure physically restricting it. Compromise then becomes a primary design parameter. When you combine design with compromise, you get demise. Keeping the old house on the site and trying to design a number of townhouses around or behind it, sees both the poorly designed old house forced into the development, and compromises the design of the new townhouses, primarily by way of restricting available space. This space restriction not only limits good new design but also eliminates what may be the one redeeming thing about the old houses, their back yard.
A cleared site allows greater design freedom. For example, if the development kept the old house and allowed 3 new townhouses to be built around it, you would usually get a better result if you designed 4 new townhouses without the old house, and the old house is replaced by a new house of superior design quality. With this improvement, each residence could also have their own back yard.
Part of the restrictive design parameters an old house imposes on new design is that the new residences are less likely to achieve north orientation. North orientation is an absolute essential for good basic building design. It allows warm winter sun to enter the building which is a means of free passive heating, and it blocks hot summer sun from entering the building which a means of free passive cooling. This passive environmental control also has significant positive physiological and psychological benefits for occupants.
North orientation is usually written into authority planning regulations, however successfully designing for north orientation is difficult and authorities can turn a blind eye to its enforcement because it is harder for them, even though it is essential and elementary to good design. The main problem is that for residences to achieve north orientation, sites need to have suitable size, shape and access, and no old houses impeding design. Even so, not all sites are suitable for well-designed development.
Finally, another big problem with keeping old houses, is that it forces placement of the site’s driveway off onto the side boundary. This is bad design. It is essential for developments to contain their own traffic. If traffic is pushed to a side boundary (even for battle-axe, single house sites), the neighbour on that side becomes a development victim, being exposed to excessive traffic noise and pollution, and also from reduced privacy.
Local authorities are at the heart of the problem of developers having to design around old buildings. To a lesser extent, developers are also part of the problem, just wanting to get their approvals through, then build and sell for the right price; good design including north orientation is worthless to them unless it helps achieve these goals of theirs. Even talented architects cannot do the almost impossible task of creating good design with restrictive planning policies, then having to satisfy their finance-driven developer clients as well.
The burden of responsibility lies almost exclusively with the authorities. Their reluctance to enact meaningful planning principles leads directly to poorer design outcomes, which diminishes the quality of the built environment for all of us far into the future.
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