JOHN SEWELL
Design advice in the Peak District
The Peak District has never been short of design advice. The best design guides explain what
is special about the local tradition, and how to harmonise new and old.
‘The beauty of our English countryside is daily
being disfigured, not only by the thoughtlessness of
speculative builders, but also through the apathy and
indifference of the public, for there are today great
numbers of people, many in responsible positions, who
think that the present has no obligations either to the
past or the future, and that if a man wants to build a
house he need consider only his own convenience and
profit, and that it may be as ugly and out of place as he
chooses to make it.’
This is fighting talk, written in 1933 as the foreword
to the very first design guide for the Peak District
prepared by the Peak District Advisory Panel of the
CPRE, 18 years before the national park came into
being. Much has changed since then. Successive
planning acts have radically altered our approach to
development. But there has also been a fundamental
shift in public opinion towards valuing our heritage.
Safeguarding the best of the past for future generations
is now part of our national consciousness.
The first design guide had one clear aim: stop-
ping the spread of suburbia into the countryside.
Successive guides in 1964 and 1973 by the then Peak
Park Joint Planning Board emphasised the need for
development to be within villages and for buildings to
have horizontal rather than vertical proportions. The
illustrations of good examples however, look somewhat
startling to modern eyes. The 1964 guide had on its
cover a modern bungalow whose front elevation is
more picture window than walling. But compared with
the red brick, bay-fronted horrors that had de-camped
from Sheffield during the inter-war years, this was a
big step forward.
In 1976 the planning board produced a larger, more
detailed document in Essex Design Guide mode.
There were now ticks and crosses against massing
diagrams and window designs. No one was left in any
doubt about what was wanted. Revised in 1991, this
guide remained the definitive statement on new build
and conversions until 2007, when the current design
guide was published. This broadens the coverage
beyond residential development, and concentrates
on the principles of good design and designing in
harmony with the local tradition. It aims to inspire
rather than dictate.
Where are we now? The restrictive housing policy
introduced in the 1994 structure plan concentrates on
locally needed, affordable housing. This ensures that
large-scale housing developments are a thing of the
past. But what of individual house design? It is helpful
here to look at form, materials and detailing.
The battle on form is largely won. New designs tend
to be low two-storey, of simple gable-roofed shape with
A drawing from the 1933
design guide under the
heading ‘Types of housing
which deface the beauty of
the Peak’
A bungalow in Ashford
in theWater, from cover
of 1964 guide. The front
elevation is more picture
window than walling.
a horizontal emphasis to the main elevation. In propor-
tional terms, a length-to-height ratio of between 2.0
and 2.3 reflects the traditional Peak District farmhouse
or cottage. In other words, a new house ought to be at
least twice as long as its height to eaves. Comparing
this to an elevation that conforms to the golden sec-
tion ratio of 1.62 provides an instructive comparison
between vernacular and polite architecture.
Even when in the 1980s the planning board was
still saying a reluctant yes to bungalows, it tried to
improve submitted designs by vertically articulating
(into a dominant and secondary element) what in
proportional terms was nearer a railway carriage than
a vernacular building. Nowadays bungalows are firmly
discouraged, on the basis that there is no tradition of
single-storey housing in the Peak: even almshouses
have two storeys.
The other key massing problem afflicting new
housing in the 70s and 80s was the over-wide gable
– almost double the traditional, five-to-six metre
width in some cases – resulting in a corresponding
increase in ridge height. As with middle-aged spread,
continued vigilance is required, although fortunately
the worst excesses have been curbed. Where a wider
gable is unavoidable, it can masked by a secondary,
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An 18th century cottage
in Alstonefield whose
front elevation has a
length-to-height ratio of
2.7, or 2.25 if you omit
the left-hand bay.
side extension of more modest width, or by altering the
gable profile to resemble a narrower building with an
attached rear lean-to.
In terms of materials, the early guides accepted
that stone, although ideal, was for the most part
unaffordable. They recommended the better types of
reconstructed stone walling or the locally produced
Davieblock with its fragments of limestone embedded
in a concrete matrix (something like a double two in
dominos). Hardrow brand concrete tiles were consid-
ered an acceptable substitute for the area’s traditional
stone slates.
As the amount of new housing decreased, and the
poor weathering and durability of these substitute
materials became apparent, their popularity declined.
Now applicants themselves want to build with natural
stone from local quarries. Unfortunately, there is
not yet a local supply of new stone slates. As in the
19th century, blue slate from outside the area is the
second-best option.
The current architectural cliché of exposed timber
cladding sits unhappily with the Peak’s stone-building
tradition. In sustainability terms, we recommend that
materials should be either renewable or long-lasting.
Recent new housing in Pilsley, a Chatsworth Estate
village, has gritstone walling that has been used up to
five times in the past 250 years.
This leaves detailing as the main area of guidance
still under the spotlight. Arguably it is the least critical
of the three factors. Get the shape and materials right,
and the design is well on the way to being approvable.
Detailing is critical, though, in allowing a building to
be an expression of its time. When traditional details
are slavishly copied and all three factors of shape,
materials and detailing are perfectly aligned with the
vernacular, we simply recreate the past and de-value
the original in the process. This has always been the
Achilles’ heel of design guides: the temptation to see
them as pattern books promoting an ultra-conservative
approach that stymies the innovative as well as the
nasty. A recent new house in Monyash could date from
the 1890s rather than the 1990s. Only the trickle vents
give it away. This is emphatically not what we should
be aiming for.
Former mill offices at
Wildboarclough, with a
length-to-height ratio of
1.62, the golden section.
A bungalow proposal from
the 1980s.
A redesign offered by the
planning board
Far right: A new house
in Monyash: not what we
should be aiming for
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Far left: A vernacular
reinterpretation: a new
house inWinster
Top and bottom right:
Another vernacular
reinterpretation: a new
house in Calver
Left: A barn conversion in
Earl Sterndale, showing
cart openings unconverted
Right: Stone slate courses
at the base of a heather-
thatch roof. This may be a
possible location for solar or
photovoltaic panels.
All the Peak District guides have stressed the
need for good contemporary design to complement
the tradition in an exciting and stimulating way.
Unfortunately, this is the hardest design option. It
requires good designers knowledgeable on the local
tradition, and equally good clients. Too often, agents
with insufficient design training are working for clients
who, if they can not afford a 17th century cottage want
what is, in their terms, the next best thing: a new-build
replica. Instead, the approach to be encouraged is a
re-interpretation of the local tradition.
One example in Winster (ignore the horrible win-
dows) has a formality to the window openings and a
solid-to-void ratio that you would expect in a traditional
building but in a contemporary arrangement. A  more
recent house in Calver takes even more liberties with
the front elevation (an attempt to re-interpret the
house and attached barn tradition), but the rear, facing
north, is largely blank. As in the Winster example,
correct massing and use of materials ensures that the
house fits well in the village context.
Conversions, particularly of farm buildings, have
long been a problem area. Too often the authority
conceded the principle of complete conversion to resi-
dential without ensuring adequate unconverted space
existed elsewhere on site for garage, workshop, stabling
or the host of other storage functions needed now or
in the future. Without this, an application for a new
outbuilding was sure to follow once the conversion was
occupied or changed hands.
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A modern inter vention:
a new gym within a
redundant wheelhouse at
Calver
of rooms (to maximise light and solar gain); and
high thermal mass, adaptability and use of long-life
materials (to be as energy efficient as possible). There
are other design strategies we might follow, relating for
instance to the placing of solar or photovoltaic panels
on a roof. Traditionally, roofs of tile, blue slate or even
heather thatch had several courses of stone slates at
their base. Rather than the usual approach of separate
panels on a roof, a neater solution locates the panels
in a continuous band along the bottom section of the
roof in what would have been the stone slate zone.This
offers a simpler, more balanced arrangement much
less likely to draw attention to itself.
Throughout the centuries technological advances
have generated new design. Adaptations to mitigate
the effects of climate change, both now and in the
future, are likely to have a similar impact, particularly
in respect of heat loss and solar shading. How these
changes manifest themselves in the detailing of a
building, without spoiling the harmony between old
and new, is an exciting design challenge.
There are two good reasons to be optimistic about
the future. First, vernacular buildings are more robust
than we sometimes think. They can sustain a good
deal of often inappropriate change to their detailing,
which may have changed anyway over the centuries,
but are easily restored to something like their original
character.
The second reason is a consequence of society’s
increasing awareness of, and concern for, conserva-
tion. This shows itself in an increasing willingness of
building owners to correct the past mistakes of others.
The alien 1970s house that somehow elbowed its
way into Winster conservation area – one of the most
urban villages in the park – was recently re-fronted in
natural stone, reroofed and given a new, more pleasing
identity. I would like to think that the park’s various
design guides have had an influence here.
The chief virtue of design guides seems to me to be
their educational role in characterising what is special
about the local tradition in terms that everyone can
understand, and their role in showing what is possible
in terms of harmonising new and old. Our goal for
building conservation has to be universal enlighten-
ment: to do ourselves out of a job.
Nowadays, complete conversion is rarely granted.
Large cart openings are excluded from the convertible
area and kept as flexible storage spaces, unconnected
internally with the conversion. Not only do these bays
accommodate the largest variety of alternative uses,
they are usually centre-stage on the elevation. Keeping
the large, boarded doors to these openings goes a long
way to retaining the character of the entire building
– an important factor when satisfying the key design
principle that the completed building should look like
a converted barn (or converted mill) rather than a
new house. For similar reasons there should obviously
be no extensions or domesticating features such as
porches or chimneys. When it comes to hay barns and
cruck barns, bitter experience has shown that they
can not be converted to residential use without an
unacceptable loss of character.
Modern interventions, where these are well-designed
and respect the spirit and character of the original
building, are welcomed as an expression of both the
new use and the new chapter in a building’s history.
The redundant wheelhouse at Calver Mill had long
ago lost its twin waterwheels, but the dramatic space is
a fitting location for a new gymnasium for the nearby
mill conversion. The new glass-and-steel structure
involved no change to the external appearance.
Sustainability is the new element in any guide.
Sustainable design principles should inform all aspects
of development. In this respect there is much that
traditional buildings can teach us with regard to siting
(to minimise exposure); orientation and disposition
Left and right: A
1970s house inWinster,
remodelled in 2005
John Sewell is historic
buildings architect with
the Peak District National
Park Authority.
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