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Patterns for Suffolk Buildings

Old Timberframe HouseDriving around Britain's countryside observing some of our ancient buildings one can clearly distinguish different regions by both the style of buildings and the materials used to construct them. From Oolitic limestone in the Cotswolds, cob and thatch in the South West to Sandstone and cobbles in the North West and Flint and pantiles in Norfolk. Natural materials give regions an identity and reflect the underlying geology of the region which provided the raw materials for builders to construct homes for humble farm workers to the landed gentry. But, today, the requirement for reduced build time, pressure on space and the use of standardised materials have all led to the creation of many so-called 'Identikit' housing developments. Developments which have no regional identity and fail to create environments which are treasured by the people who live in them.

Patterns for Suffolk Buildings

The book 'Patterns for Suffolk Buildings' produced by the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust Ltd in association with The Suffolk Preservation Society provides an insight into Suffolk's rich architectural heritage and suggests how the past can form a sound basis for future developments albeit in a different form. A central theme throughout the book is how we need to use design to create interest, individualism and empathy with the surrounding environment. Themes that move against the trend to build high density 'Identikit' housing.

The following text gives a brief overview of the books content and philosophy.

Suffolk is still a rural county and despite its proximity to London has maintained its own particular identity. This is reflected in the many villages and properties which dot its landscape which are organically linked to the three distinctive regions which make up the county: heath and shingle in the East, chalk and sand to the north-west and heavy clay in the centre. It is these local materials which were used to construct Suffolk's building stock over the last 500 years leading to a symbiotic link between nature's earth and man's habitat. But, today's use of man-made materials and modern building ideologies bare no link to the past and are alien to Suffolk's architectural heritage. This has led to a visual clash between 'old' and 'new' rather than Suffolk's architectural heritage being used as a basis for future development.

Quintessential Suffolk Building

Traditional Suffolk HouseTraditional Suffolk houses, whether late medieval timber frame or 18C and 19C brick have one striking feature: they are simple, relying on their wonderful proportions rather than ornamental features. Despite the use of 17C pargeting, which is rare, and confined to fairly minor elements, friezes or garlands or restrained panelling or combing.

The proportions of many Suffolk farmhouses were dictated by the available size of the timber used in their construction which normally meant lengths of timber no more than 15ft in height. Few retained their originals windows and doors by the 17C and 18C modernisation is nearly always restrained and relates comfortably to the basic form of the building. Steep pitched roofs originally designed for thatch, more often clad with peg tiles or pantiles with black glazed pantiles increase in popularity as one travel northwards.

Flint HouseIn towns such as Beccles and Bungay local brick red or white have replaced timber framed houses or simply hidden the originals frames from sight because of the threat of fire. While the early 15C timber framed houses which are perceived as the backbone of the county's vernacular architecture are replaced by flint houses to the North and West of the county.

The above clearly demonstrates the breadth of materials used in the county's ancient building stock and provides an insight into the range of materials available to developers to build the housing stock of the future.

What has gone wrong?

Few people are happy with the quality of the buildings which have sprung up in the last 20 or 30 years. Much of the criticism focuses on the design of the houses themselves, but rather than addressing this element it is important to look at some more fundamental factors before the houses themselves can be considered.

The problems

Housebuilders are primarily concerned with maximising profits. This results in their developments being cramped drawing board exercises rather than being visualised within the landscape which they exist.

  • Most new estate layouts in Suffolk are primarily designed for the easy passage of transport. Little enthusiasm has been shown for innovative layouts which help to minimise speed and discourage through traffic.
  • In a rural environment a developments relationship with its local topography is vital. Most new developments show no attempt to make anything other than a succession of boxes for living. The use of indigenous materials from local clay to flint to construct either clay lump or flint and brick houses are never considered when up against the all conquering mass produced brick and block.

Why has it gone wrong

There is no doubt that much of the problem of poor quality and layout of new homes is dominated by the balance sheet of the property market. But money is not the only culprit. There is little direction, with too few examples of how housing can be provided both economically with a high degree of functionality and aesthetic standards. This is demonstrated by the fact that only a small proportion of new housing is designed by qualified people, with less than 10% of this figure by architects.

What must be done

There is great need for radical change to encourage good design concepts for all new housing developments.

These concepts should include:

  • A reflection of regional character, though not necessarily in traditional form.
  • Developments must give priority to people not cars.
  • Developments need to create a recognisable place with both buildings and space working in harmony.
  • Landscaping should be considered as an integral part of the design.
  • The use of good quality materials are preferable to trivial, sometimes costly, detailing.
  • Above all, simplicity. Suffolk's traditional houses rely on their superb proportions to give them a wonderful sense of dignity and innate comfort.

Future development?

There are various different village patterns. New developments need to take these into account. The three most typical village types are nucleated where a village grows around a church or market for example. Followed by the scattered parish structure where small hamlets consist of houses huddled around village greens and the linear village like Kersey or Long Melford. New developments should conform to the existing layout of a village. For example in a linear village where buildings follows a single main street means that new development should continue this pattern rather than extend sideways into the surrounding fields.

Aesthetically any new development should reflect its location. A decision needs to be made whether to create an urban atmosphere or less formal rural settlement, taking into account the character, materials and detailing of the surrounding buildings. It is also important to stress that new developments should not only respond to landscape features within its boundaries but beyond it.

Important views, hills, woods, church towers and other buildings both old and new also need to be engaged in the scheme. They can all be used to give structure, interest and focal points for new developments. These focal points provide visual variety and interest helping to provide new developments with an identifiable sense of place.

Conclusions

Many of the ideas outlined in 'Patterns for Suffolk Buildings' are common sense. Year after year surveys indicate that Britons dream of living in a thatched cottage located in a village. People do not have to be sold the idea of a traditionally constructed house in a village - they already love the idea and dream of it. Therefore developers need to study how villages and towns have grown and then ensure future housing schemes are in sympathy with this format. Local materials and forms need to be taken into account, as well as the proposed development's location to ensure visual empathy. New developments are for people, therefore the car should not dominate the scheme. Finally, design, design and design. Quality materials, simple proportions and scale plus attention to detail all add value and interest to developments providing living environments which enhance our lives.

For further information concerning the book The 'Patterns of Suffolk Buildings' contact The Suffolk Preservation Society, Lavenham, Suffolk CO10 9QZ telephone 01787 247 179. Email: suffolk@conservation.u-net.com

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