Neil Embleton presents his planning review for Summer 2019
What is so special about Bristol which makes it such an attractive place to live? We love Bristol because of its rich culture, diversity and sense of being part of history. Bristol has the feeling of being a real place with deep roots and a strong character.
We could summarise the qualities of Bristol in two categories:-
- Historical roots - trade, manufacture, the docks, location, topography, period styles, history.
- A culture of innovation - Brunel, SS Gt Britain, aviation, Concorde, Severn Crossings, Tobacco Factory, Wallis and Grommit, Bristol Blue Glass.
So, how can we encourage future development which builds on the achievements and qualities of the city and positively enhances the character of Bristol? Furthermore, how do we see the climate change and housing crises being resolved in the future, both in Bristol and the UK as a whole?
Buildings which reflect their surroundings
Paintworks, Phase 4
Bath is famous worldwide for its Georgian architecture; a set piece in one common style. By contrast, Bristol is made up of a vast range of building types and styles. The major influences have been the docks and industrial structures in rough red brick on the one hand and the refined Georgian terraces of Clifton on the other.
The final phase of the Paintworks on the Bath Road, shown here, will include one substantial red brick warehouse; a ‘flagship’ for the whole development.
This red brick industrial style is well represented by many recent Bristol buildings including the offices on Welsh Back built in the 70s. The building is robust and gritty and has the atmosphere of a dockside warehouse.
Many recent developments in Bristol are modelled on the Georgian character of Clifton. These handsome Housing assoication flats, built at the bottom of Brandon Hill in the late 1980s, fit in perfectly.
Buildings which reflect the spirit of innovation
The new Southmead Hospital has, at a stroke, revolutionised the concept of the general hospital in the UK; designed with 100% single bed wards. The greatly extended length of external wall required has been achieved by a combination of the building wrapping around external courtyards and the use of top lit atrium spaces.
The exterior of the building is extremely handsome and the interior atrium spaces are more like a modern airport hotel than a hospital. It is the innovative planning that has given the building its very special character. This is a very high level of public provision, which in the current climate we may not see repeated in a hurry! (See exterior and interior photos below).
The residential development aptly named ‘The Point’ on the Harbourside is a thoroughly modern concept. Stylistically, the buildings have little relation to their historic surroundings, yet the ingenious master planning of the blocks opens up views not only across the harbour, but more particularly, along the harbour, creating vistas towards the City to the east and Cumberland Basin to the west.
Furthermore, the overall density of the whole development has been substantially increased by the impressive red block facing towards the Gt Britain which, very cleverly, has back-to-back flats and the huge scale of a dockside warehouse. This is a development which is highly original and sits well on Harbourside.
Malvern Court, in the Redland conservation area, reinterprets the Regency villa in modern style apartment blocks. The design reflects Georgian precedent with the use of white render and ties into the local street pattern by the liberal use of rubble stone and traditional boundary railings.
But buildings do not necessarily have to be modern to demonstrate innovation. The New Synthetic Chemistry Building at the University of Bristol fits comfortably into its civic and collegiate surroundings, in rubble stone and buff brickwork and with a carefully articulated form, whilst at the same time quietly ‘breaking the mould’ of laboratory design.
The layout divides the labs into four separate vertical stacks, each with its own rooftop plant room, thus avoiding a total shutdown in the event of an extract/contamination problem. Also, each floor level is arranged with a services corridor on one side of the labs and a ‘clean’ corridor on the other (with integral write-up areas and supervising staff offices) to minimise potential safety incidents.
The recently completed Anchorage at Wapping Wharf demonstrates the future of Bristol’s densification policy (within the draft Local Plan), with four storey flats in the dockside style above an ‘active’ ground floor of shops and cafes. This new development is the best of its kind in the city and demonstrates how higher densities can be achieved with mid-rise solutions, creating an attractive urban living environment without any need to resort to high rise buildings.
Going further afield to Bath, the recent Albert Crescent within Bath Riverside is a splendid piece of architecture and urban design. It reinterprets the Georgian house in the modern style to reflect modern lifestyles. Tall windows, double height spaces, glass balconies and a top floor given over to the master suite with dressing room, bathroom and private balcony. These houses are utterly modern yet fit perfectly into the pattern of Regency Bath.
Future challenges for housing provision
Housing in Bristol and the UK at large is under serious pressure from two sides; environmental concerns and the general poor quality of design and construction.
With the debate on climate change moving rapidly to the centre ground, future imperatives for urban design will have ecological concerns at their heart. Bristol City Council’s Draft Local Plan is proposing zero-carbon development and buildings designed to cope with rising temperatures, without the need for air conditioning.
The Hanham Hall Eco Village, completed 6 years ago, was the subject of a national design competition, won by a mainstream house builder and architect-designed to ambitious targets, winning the award for ‘Best Sustainable Development in Britain 2014’.
The 187 homes have been built within the grounds of Hanham Hall (itself converted into start-up business units) and the development includes the following features:-
- High levels of thermal insulation and airtightness
- Triple glazed windows with external shutters to reduce summer heat gain
- Underground centralised heating
- Sustainable urban drainage SUDS with ecological retention ponds
- Community allotments and green houses
- Community orchard
- Controlled residents’ parking
- Large green open spaces
This was an opportunity to start an ideal/purpose-built new community from scratch, all to best current standards and with generous community facilities. This project will be an important exemplar for future schemes. Recently launched is the proposed Brabazon development at Cribbs/Patchway (above). A total of 2,600 houses are proposed over 20 years, along with offices and commercial buildings, upgraded transport infrastructure (including a new railway station), Metrobus link, cycleways and new roads.
The first phase of approx. 280 units was granted planning permission at the end of 2018 and work is currently on site. This development shows every sign of leading the way in terms of strategic planning on disused brownfield land, to create integrated and connected future communities to address the dual concerns of housing provision and climate change.
On a more general level, there is increasing concern nationwide about not only the quantity but also the quality of new homes currently being built. 70% of homes are now built by volume housebuilders and to quote Ben Bolgar, Senior Design Director for the Prince’s Foundation:-
‘’People are tired of seeing the same old cheap boxes on the edge of towns (and surrounding our villages). But people and the government want real places, not cheap rubbish that adds no value to the host community’’.
When the Prince of Wales unveiled Poundbury, his neo-traditional Dorset town on the edge of Dorchester, in the early 1990’s it was slated by certain elements of the press as ‘period pastiche’. However, like the Prince’s ideas on organic food and the environment, the Poundbury has been a great success and highly influential. To date, 1,700 homes have been built and 2,300 jobs have been created in 185 businesses (many of which are start-ups) and Poundbury now generates £78 for the local community each year.
The Prince’s Foundation has just launched a manifesto; ‘’Housing Britain: A Call to Action’’ (at ‘’princes-foundation.org/resources’’) which sets out how planners, builders, landowners and government could transform house building in this country, and make new development on the edges of their towns and villages attractive to existing communities. This report makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the future of our built environment. In the introduction to the report, Charles calls for fundamental change:-
‘’I have long believed that for communities to prosper, they require a built environment that provides good quality homes that are planned as walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income neighbourhoods, with integrated affordable housing that is as well designed as well as the rest. They also need a range of local services accessible by public transport, green routes and natural places that are enjoyable and safe for cycling, and, above all, a local identity that fosters pride and a sense of belonging, and has character and beauty.’’
The Prince has extended his initiative at Poundbury (a young Prince on site in this pic) encouraging further developments which are underway around the UK including:-
- Nansledan near Newquay, which will have 4,000 houses (see photo below)
- Coed Darcy on a former oil refinery site near Swansea and
- Chapleton near Inverness
The Prince’s Design Manifesto is packed with vision and good intent:-
- Consign the monoculture housing estate to the past.
- Insist on beauty at the beginning of the planning stage; impose quality controls on large builders.
- Offer low rates and rents to start-up companies.
- No more car-centric design. Pavements should be at least 2 metres wide; kerbs should be lowered to prioritise pedestrians.
- Slow traffic down by placing an ‘event’, such as a public space or a change in building line, every 60-80 metres.
- No more tower blocks: bring back mansion blocks and mid-rise developments.
- Build more flats and maisonettes above small employers to encourage social vibrancy.
- Empower small and medium-size developers, as well as different housing investors, to create diverse, mixed-use communities.
- Place affordable housing seamlessly among other types, and keep it affordable in perpetuity.
- Find ways to save and repurpose historic buildings.
- Make use of fast-track factory fabrication.
- Create green spaces and access to nature to boost physical and mental health.
- Include ‘bee bricks’, bird boxes and edible planting
Implications for Bishopston
You will recognise that we have many of the qualities listed above in our own Bishopston, e.g. mixed use, public transport, walkability, flats over independent shops/cafes, old buildings repurposed, (some) wide pavements; not forgetting, of course, beauty and a blessed absence of tower blocks! Many good reasons why we should take care not to allow the pressures of modern life to spoil it.....