Making appraisals work: the matrix
A town centre characterisation project for hastings developed a simple method of evaluating buildings in historic areas in relation to a thorough audit.
The church at 10 Pelham Crescent, Hastings
that appeal decisions will have regard to the authority's justification for designation of a particular conservation area, is that lacking adequate justification or design guidance severely limits any resistance to an application on conservation or design grounds, especially when the application carries the caché of regeneration.
Consider the conservation policies in a typical local plan. They are mostly variants on the theme that new buildings or changes to existing ones must be of high quality, preserve or enhance character, be 'in keeping', 'reflect local styles', 'be in scale' or just 'look right' (honest, one authority's policy really does say that). With such policies it is a wonder that anything of architectural distinction ever gets completed, and little wonder that regeneration and conservation are so often seen as opposites, within authorities and without.
Hastings Borough Council, with English Heritage and the South East Economic Development Agency (SEEDA) commissioned a team assembled by Conservation Architecture & Planning to undertake a characterisation of Hastings town centre, with several existing conservation areas as well as identified 'character areas' all lacking appraisal and requiring reconciliation, new designation or redefinition - in short, a wide-ranging critical review of the town's conservation map. Team members were Jack Warshaw (director/editor-in-chief); Sue Beech (project leader/appraiser); Rob Cowan (urban design); and Oliver Bradbury (historian).
The urgency of the project was underscored by SEEDA's designation of Hastings as a gateway regeneration project. Key areas of the town for which new 'flagship' development proposals were in progress included the station area and a stretch of seafront, including the foreground of Pelham Crescent, Hastings' famous early 19th-century set piece. A well-publicised competition for that site saw Lord Foster emerge with the winning scheme. But would it meet conservation criteria?
Without any formally adopted basis on which the borough council could guide or judge these and other development proposals, the impact on the character of the town of large-scale developments, exaggerated by its bowl-shaped topography, could be irreconcilable. Lack of clearly defined values or controls in relation to existing buildings could also threaten many of them with replacement or drastic change in the name of regeneration. The council needed powerful but easy-to-use weaponry; SEEDA needed a positive climate of regeneration; and English Heritage needed a foundation for future townscape heritage initiative (THI) or other funding in the service of Hastings' historic town status.
The client team was anxious that all parties should
Our historic cities and towns, and the people who live in, them are under threat, not just from terrorist attack, or even from the increased personal surveillance that is bound to follow, but from the seemingly irresistible force of... regeneration - the current New Labour, politically correct term for large-scale redevelopment.
Nowhere are the growing effects more evident than in London. Gripped by regeneration, and now Olympic fever, the sky's the limit, with blockbuster proposals that will soon dwarf even the Gherkin. The London Plan beams that the mayor wishes to see many more tall buildings. Lord Rogers advocates building a new high-density city the size of Leeds for Thames Gateway.
Even world heritage sites are not exempt. Looking at the impact of Canary Wharf on Greenwich now, could anyone have really cared 20 years ago? So-called affordable as well as luxury flats are being stuffed into schemes festooned with tiny balconies and no safe children's playspace. Resources directed towards 'flagship' projects act as a drain on low-key, community-based ones. If we believe that conserving cultural heritage is the sustainable approach, are we doing enough to advance it?
More down to earth, where we aim to deliver effective regeneration in an historic town, are we successfully focusing on conservation-led measures as the delivery vehicles, rather than on development-led measures that expose conflicts? Can conserving a place ensure a healthy future in economic, environmental, capacity and sustainability terms? Can regeneration efforts embrace cultural values without sacrificing practical ones?
Government policy defines conservation areas in terms of preservation or enhancement. As much as one would like to put proactive enhancement at the top of the agenda, the reality is that coalface planning officers have to make day-to-day judgments about the applications that come before them. The effect of advice in PPG 15,
take ownership of a robust working characterisation. We suggested that the study should be formed of three parts: defining character, urban design and building assessment. The first would provide the understanding of why Hastings was special; the second a picture of how streets, terraces, squares, plot sizes, topography and settings interacted and were often degraded; the third would provide a reasonably objective system for evaluating existing or new buildings against the unique range of locally distinctive characteristics that we would identify. This third part, which would have to be invented, was given the working title of the matrix.
When anyone proposes a system for doing anything it invariably arouses suspicion. First, that it may be all right in theory but is likely to be imperfect in practice, and will not cope with variation or complexity. Second, that it is just another self-promoting device, a paint-by-numbers kit for chimpanzees. Third, that it is not really objective at all, therefore flawed and bound to fail. But what if we were to come up with a method in which any measurement was not only secondary to judgment, but also reliant on a carefully structured, defensible set of relative values grown from the characteristics of the place itself - in effect applying conservation plan techniques to an entire town?
This approach involves scoring buildings, proposed or existing, against a set of elemental characteristics, identified in a comprehensive audit. Naturally, both the audit and the characteristics would need to be reliable, or the chances of successfully defending any challenge to a building evaluation would be weakened. To demonstrate that the process was sound, we would have to score every key building, as agreed with the client team, against the criteria (13 of them in this case) which had emerged from the audit and which the client accepted as representing the features that make Hastings special. This system can help any historic area to retain its significance.
Tools intended for practical, everyday application over a period of time should possess ease of understanding, ease of application, effectiveness and longevity.
understanding is more likely if it builds on a proven knowledge base. For historic areas, the most widely accepted knowledge base is the English Heritage advice as set out in Conservation Area Practice (1993) and Conservation Area Appraisals (1995), soon to be replaced by Understanding Place. These set out basic criteria for defining the special interest of an area and include a checklist for determining whether individual unlisted buildings make a positive contribution. The appraisal would then form a sound basis for action, which could include enhancement, new buildings and regeneration projects.
However, in many authorities the basic appraisals, let alone a set of coordinated strategies, have not been undertaken. Instead, major building projects, typically with large commercial elements, are identified as the primary engine of regeneration, with comparatively few, typically public resources allocated to conservation projects. Like so many mini-Canary Wharfs, the
commercial projects take on identities, absorb urban capacity, and overwhelm the character and still neglected potential of the existing fabric.
Application requires a clear, simple methodology which can take its place in the development control process. Not an idiot's guide - training, experience, thought and fine judgment are still required - but a process that can be applied without having to go back to basics each time. Effectiveness means achieving practical results. Being understood and acceptable to most applicants, adopted at an early stage in the planning process, presentable through decision reports and defensible in appeals are essential attributes. Longevity simply means having a system that stands the test of time and is not just a novelty or fashion.
This project presented the twin challenges: first, characterising and reviewing the designations of several distinct areas within the centre of Hastings, using the English Heritage appraisal process augmented by Rob Cowan's urban design analysis; second, using the elements of characterisation as a standard against which the ability of buildings to contribute to reinforce special interest could be measured.
We looked at 12 distinct areas, each one part of a continuous development history that was set out at the beginning. A great deal of time was spent walking the course, photographing and evaluating rather than describing. A number of maps would graphically depict characteristics and issues. Once all the facts were drawn together and analysed, a definitive set of characteristics could be distilled. These were then discussed with the client team and the scoring thresholds considered.
What score would a building need to fall within the positive, neutral or negative category? We simply divided the total number of 13 characteristics by three. Above nine would be classed as positive; five to nine would be neutral; and below five negative. At the end of the exercise anyone in a position to evaluate or contribute to decision-making should be fully able to determine the status of the building or proposal, and understand how it was arrived at.
The most important message to get across is that the matrix will be different in each case. In Hastings, for example, the predominant facing material is stucco, where in another place it could be stone masonry, or red brick, or cob. Also one characteristic, age, which does not apply to new buildings, has to be excluded. Characteristics need to be scaled towards fine grain, as might be appropriate in an ancient rural village, or broad brush, for a large town or mixed urban setting.
This is not a substitute for accepted techniques, but an augmentation. We think it is potentially most useful where there is pressure for change, hence the particular application where regeneration is being sought.
Recent client feedback indicates that, while opportunities to implement the findings of the characterisation are progressing and will inform policies in the next local plan review, major planning applications expected in the near future, will invoke the use of the matrix in their evaluation.
Jack Warshaw, principal of Conservation Architecture & Planning, works with historic and new buildings and historic environments in the UK and overseas.