PROJECT: Spiral Eco House, North Grays Farm, Membury, Devon
ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Rural Solutions, East Devon District Council, Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, The Ethical Partnership, Sadler Brown Architecture, Alistair W Baldwin Associates, Buro Happold
The test for plans for new isolated homes in the countryside is a notoriously tough one for applicants. Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) stipulates that such proposals should be of exceptional quality or innovative nature. One scheme in Devon managed not only to overcome this hurdle but also to meet the similarly strict test for achieving planning permission in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).
The Spiral Eco House design, which is sited on a farm in the Blackdown Hills AONB, was inspired by the an ammonite fossil belonging to the applicant, many of which can be found in the area. Following a lengthy period of discussions with officers and two design review panel reports, the scheme won planning permission from East Devon District Council in 2014 and was completed late last year. Last autumn, the building made it onto TV screens when it was showcased in Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme. It is one of only a few projects in an AONB to have met the so-called "Gummer’s Law" – named after the minister who introduced the policy in 1997 – which set the criteria of exceptional quality or innovative nature.
Planning consultancy Rural Solutions, acting on behalf of home owners Elizabeth and Stephen Tetlow, said it started pre-application discussions with the council in late 2012. "Paragraph 55 goes against the grain of planning rules that don’t allow houses outside settlements", says James Ellis, associate director at Rural Solutions. "That general presumption against building in the countryside is a difficult test to overcome and there is a fear of precedent. So we had to present detailed research on how paragraph 55 had been applied across the country and how we were intending to meet the test."
A key aspect of the proposal’s design is its curvilinear shape, which aims to allow the house to sit in the hillside valley setting. The applicants further argued that the building’s timber panel cladding and roof of solar photovoltaic panels would represent exceptional quality while minimising its impact on the wider landscape. The design had to be adapted after the South West Design Review Panel recommended that it should be scaled down to fit its context. Once the plans were amended, a second review was satisfied that the design was exceptional.
The building also incorporates advanced energy production technology, including an integrated geosolar energy generation and storage system and a hydrogen gas generator linked to the photovoltaic panels on the roof. This allows the house to go beyond being zero-carbon and to actually produce energy that is fed back into the national grid. This mechanism enabled the scheme to be classed as "truly innovative" by the review panel and local authority, as well being accepted as being of exceptional quality.
In addition to meeting paragraph 55, the scheme also had to overcome the strict hurdle of justifying such a development in an AONB. Under the NPPF, AONBs "have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty". Landscape considerations had to be a key part of the evolving design. "It is very much rolling Devon landscape punctuated by buildings," says Ellis. "It was a conscious decision to put the house in the corner of a field – it’s intended to sit within the landscape."
To help progress a design that would achieve this, the project team engaged early on with the Blackdown Hills AONB team. "When we first met them, we outlined the process we were going to follow rather than present them with a detailed concept," says Ellis. "The project team seemed to understand the relevance of the AONB designation," says Lisa Turner, planning officer at the AONB. "The applicants wanted to do the right thing because of their love for the local area." The AONB was satisfied that, subject to detailed aspects of the design and the management of a local nature reserve at the site, the proposal would respect the essential landscape features of the site, including the defined field pattern and the area’s very rural nature.
The planning application won unanimous approval from planning committee members in 2014. East Devon development control officer Charlie McCullough, case officer for the scheme, maintains that the key to this successful outcome was a commitment by both parties to work on the scheme over a long time period during the pre-application process. "It was important for us to engage at an early stage and to work with the applicant over that long period of time to try and overcome myriad of issues, sometimes conflicting," he says.
"Rural Solutions had worked on paragraph 55 sites across the country, so were able to bring that knowledge and examples of case law to the table," adds McCullough. "The applicants were very knowledgeable about the site. Both the applicants and agents were willing to positively address any concerns we had and to demonstrate how that very high benchmark of the policy could be addressed."