‘Context’ is a design-related concept that we usually associate with heritage development. But it shouldn’t just be limited to schemes for listed buildings, non-designated heritage assets and development in Conservation Areas.  ‘Context’ is just as important, relevant and integral to creating great design anywhere. A good understanding of ‘Context’ enables the creation of an honest and truthful form of development that respects the past, present and future of a site, and facilitates a much more creative approach to development.   

What is ‘Context’?

The London Plan’s 2014 Character and Context SPG defines ‘Context’ as ‘The way in which places, sites and spaces physically, functionally or visually inter-relate, and the way in which they are experienced sequentially and understood’.  

So when you think about ‘Context’ in terms of the starting point for a scheme, consider: 

  • How a place looks – what defines a street, the immediate vicinity or the wider area of the site? What’s the materials palette and architectural style? What about building heights, plot widths, roof forms, front gardens or no front gardens? What’s the density of development, is there uniformity of style or is it somewhat eclectic?; 
  • How a place works – in terms of land uses and activities going on, consider traffic levels, public and private space and the urban realm, do people stick around or move through quickly?
  • How a place feels – what sense do you get of being in a place? Is it vibrant and full of life, is it quiet and calm, is it dying on its feet or successful, safe or unsafe?  

Taking these elements together gives you a greater understanding of a site and area. Some may be more relevant than others, particularly given the scale of your proposal, but they are all vital to consider. Make these your starting points, because you can bet this is what your case officer will be doing when they assess your application.  

Is it Important?

It is. It’s important to appraise all these physical, practical, instinctual and emotional ‘contextual’ elements, because collectively they underpin the basis of great design – which at the end of the day is about creating quality buildings and places for people to live, work, stay and play in and pass through.  

Clearly, this is just common sense. But sometimes it can get lost along the way. How many times have you either looked at an architect’s initial scheme, or an application, or a new development and thought ‘What??’ or ‘How did they arrive here?’ 

Well, it’s usually because instinctively you feel that the scheme doesn’t sit comfortably where it is. It could be that it’s a 10 floor building towering above two storey structures, or it’s a big white rendered box amidst slim, narrow red-brick buildings, or it has a completely different roof profile to the neighbouring terrace, or it completely ignores the local street pattern, or there’s simply just too much development on the site. 

Understanding ‘Context’ is critical because great design begins with an appreciation of this. It doesn’t mean that new design must slavishly adhere to what’s already there. It’s more about understanding an area and using that awareness of its intrinsic character – how it functions and feels – as the starting point for your design, be it a roof extension, a single dwelling, an office, warehouse, residential suburb, or inner city regeneration. 

On the National Stage:

Around us we are seeing a refocus and commitment to quality-led design. Design that primarily looks to its context and the spirit of its place. Just think about 2019’s RIBA Stirling Prize winning scheme Goldsmith Street, Norwich. This fantastic social housing scheme took its inspiration from the context and density of a nearby Victorian suburb. The principal focus was on the need to create a highly sustainable, people centred place that used the design parameters of traditional streets, gardens and shared amenity spaces. Norwich City Council and their Architects Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley didn’t rely on the monolithic use of blocks of apartments surrounded by engineered parking spaces and mean landscaping, but took a more nuanced look at the area and what has historically worked well in terms of place creation, and used this as the basis for their scheme. They, and the occupants of Goldsmith Street, have been justly rewarded for this. 

Similarly, the Government also appears to be committed to improving the quality of design for new development. The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission, established in 2018 (as an alternative to CABE) has 3 primary aims: the promotion of better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area; to explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent; and to enable the planning system to support better design and style.  

Their interim report, published in July 2019, confirmed the need to create beautiful buildings and places. Whilst they have focused on the need to place ‘beauty’ at the heart of sustainable design and planning, an understanding of ‘Context’ is essential to that.   

Local Stuff:

In our work, some of the best schemes we have worked on recently have been highly sustainable and founded on a truthful understanding of ‘Context’. You can take a look at the following examples in more detail in our Success Stories. 

In Sandford, North Somerset, the client and design team (led by DHV Architects) for a residential scheme understood the ‘Context’ and characteristics of this Mendips village and its wider landscape setting. The design focused on the importance of retaining and enhancing the site’s mature landscape, producing houses that reflected the local vernacular, albeit with a modern twist, and creating large gardens for growing families. 

At One Portwall Square, a new office development in the heart of Redcliffe, central Bristol, AHMM Architects understood the need for a ‘quiet’ building that would reflect the strong architectural elements of the locally listed 100 Temple Street. As a result, the approved scheme nestles within the surrounding buildings, matching the height of its neighbours and reflecting their material palettes and styles. Importantly it has also created a new publicly accessible landscaped square around existing trees that will enable the future growth of facilities at 100 Temple Street. All of these elements were predicated on a robust understanding of the ‘Context’, particularly how the area looked and worked and the type of office environment they wanted to achieve.   

Finally, Access Self Storage within the Ashton area of Bristol looks like a standard large storage unit on three of its four elevations, but the fourth facade is starkly different. Fronting a domestic terrace of 19th century cottages, it has been modified to reflect the height, elevational style, colours and small front gardens of the dwellings that sit directly opposite. This has resulted in a much more sensitive and comfortable relationship between the old and new – not only is this good architecture, but demonstrates how the design team (led by The Bush Consultancy) have understood and acknowledged the significance of this modest row of houses.  

PVs Top Tips: 

So, if that’s given you some food for thought, here are our top five tips for understanding ‘Context’ and using it to inform your scheme: 

  1. Don’t make the mistake that ‘Context’ is only relevant to heritage schemes. It’s not. It forms the basis of any scheme. 
  2. Before you put pen to paper, get out on-site – look at it, walk around, check out the various vantage points, make a note of what the area looks like, what’s good, what’s bad, what works and what doesn’t, how it feels, what’s going on and what the range of uses are. Identify the elements that should guide or restrict your design.
  3. Check to see if the LPA has any Supplementary Guidance that you can use relating to your area or the type of development you are promoting.
  4. As your design evolves, think about how comfortable your scheme will feel within the street scene and how it responds to the area. If you’re not convinced then keep refining it.
  5. Use your Design and Access Statement to demonstrate your understanding of an area and tell your design story. This doesn’t mean that you can’t push at the boundaries of design or quantum – we should always be doing this –  but this needs to be underpinned by a sound understanding of ‘Context’, however grand or modest your proposals.