The Self-Test – practical tips on how to design for residential, by Stephen Hill

17 Jul 2015

The Self-Test – practical tips on how to design for residential by Stephen Hill.

It would seem an obvious approach to design homes and residential master plans that make people feel good about where they live, that are aesthetic, convenient, encourage well-being and engender a sense of community. But in reality there are still developments that are unnecessarily problematic, designed by architects alongside the developers and their planners who are keen to create but who do so safe in the knowledge that they are not the ones who will live there.

Designing using “the self-test” approach means starting with the fundamental question: “Would I want to live there myself?” The answer should always be yes, because if you don’t, why would anyone else? As architects, our clients are not just the partners with which we work, but every person who invests in and uses the environments we have created.
It is not possible to cater for every individual’s needs – what is well designed to one person may seem badly designed to another – but certain unwritten rules can be followed that make the very best of every situation and opportunity.

1. Humanising spaces and places

Well-being is intangible and subjective, but natural light has a universal impact on positivity, and homes should be designed and located in places that encourage its penetration. Single aspect, north facing homes should be avoided as they are unlikely to benefit from sunlight, and run the risk of promoting perpetually gloomy environments. If the location is such that a north-facing aspect is unavoidable, then, wherever possible, interior spaces should be manipulated to create areas that catch either the early morning or evening sun – simply angling a room by 30 degrees can make an enormous difference.

A new home should be a blank canvas, but the configuration and layout needs to feel comfortable and welcoming as well as be flexible and responsive to 21 century living. The way we use our homes has changed considerably over the years and today’s lifestyles encourage a greater fluidity and conviviality between spaces – far more so than the ‘solitary rooms off the hallway’ of many period properties.

2. The Os to avoid

over-looking, over-shadowing, over-bearing Adherence to commercial imperatives is a fundamental part of design, but a quick test to determine whether or not the homes on the drawing board are either over-looked, over-shadowed or over-bearing is a key pre-requisite at the early stages. Moreover, if the emerging proposals begin to suggest that over-development is occuring, with the potential for monotonous, over-regularity, then all the good intentions for creating somewhere that people will want to live (and develop community) could be lost. A row of houses facing a tower block, if orientated and configured incorrectly, run the risk of being permanently in shadow; and without adequate space and good design, windows can directly over-look gardens and into the homes of others. Determining from the very outset whether a master plan creates an environment that is affected by any of the three Os will impact on the final result.

3. Ensure a place has its own identity

Making a place distinctive gives its users and residents a sense of ownership and pride. The homes, landscape and amenities might be the standard building blocks of an environment, but creative use of location, materials, height and their disposition is what makes an area unique and specific to its situation. 4. Orientations and organising spaces The orientation and organisation of spaces is crucial on both a micro and macro scale. In the same way that people want a home to flow in an organised, ordered and sympathetic manner, where particular rooms are given a focus such as a fire place or a picture window for example, they also want to feel that their outdoor space is equally well orientated and organised. The development of several hundred, or even thousand, homes should be given a focus – a place where people feel that they can meet and develop as a community – a small district centre, with convenient and accessible facilities for instance. People need to understand their environment for it to maintain their well-being and this means giving people what they need in a way that is attractive and inspiring