Advice: How to create places in which people want to live

Designers should seek to humanise spaces and create distinctive identities if they are to create places that are aesthetic and encourage wellbeing and community, says Stephen Hill

Stephen Hill: Clyne Castle in Swansea created a small community with a real pride in their surroundings [Pic credit: Holder Mathias]
Stephen Hill: Clyne Castle in Swansea created a small community with a real pride in their surroundings [Pic credit: Holder Mathias]

It would seem an obvious approach to design homes and residential masterplans that make people feel good about where they live, that are aesthetic, convenient, encourage well-being and engender a sense of community. But in reality there are still developments that are unnecessarily problematic, designed by architects and planners who are keen to create, but who do so safe in the knowledge that they are not the ones who will live there.

Designing using "the self-test" approach means starting with the fundamental question: "Would I want to live there myself?" The answer should always be yes, because if you wouldn't, why would anyone else?

As architects, our clients are not just the partners with which we work, but every person who invests in and uses the environments we have created. It is not possible to cater for every individual’s needs - what is well designed to one person may seem badly designed to another - but certain rules can be followed.

Humanising spaces and places is important
Well-being is intangible and subjective, but natural light has a universal impact on positivity, and homes should be designed and located in places that encourage its penetration. Single aspect, north facing homes should be avoided as they are unlikely to benefit from sunlight, and run the risk of promoting perpetually gloomy environments. If the location is such that a north-facing aspect is unavoidable, then, wherever possible, interior spaces should be manipulated to create areas that catch either the early morning or evening sun - simply angling a room by 30 degrees can make an enormous difference. A new home should be a blank canvas, but the configuration and layout needs to feel comfortable and welcoming as well as be flexible and responsive to 21st century living. The way we use our homes has changed considerably over the years and today’s lifestyles encourage a greater fluidity and conviviality between spaces - far more so than the ‘solitary rooms off the hallway’ of many period properties.

The Os to avoid: over-looking, over-shadowing, over-bearing
Adherence to commercial imperatives is a fundamental part of design, but a quick test to determine whether or not the homes on the drawing board are either over-looked, over-shadowed or over-bearing is a key pre-requisite at the early stages. Moreover, if the emerging proposals begin to suggest that over-development is occurring, with the potential for monotonous over-regularity, then all the good intentions for creating somewhere in which people will want to live (and develop community) could be lost. A row of houses facing a tower block, if orientated and configured incorrectly, runs the risk of being permanently in shadow. Without good design, windows can directly overlook gardens and other homes. Determining from the very outset whether a masterplan creates an environment that is affected by any of the three Os will impact on the final result.

Ensure a place has its own identity
Making a place distinctive gives its users and residents a sense of ownership and pride. The homes, landscape and amenities might be the standard building blocks of an environment, but creative use of location, materials, height and their disposition is what makes an area unique and specific to its situation.

Consideration should be given to orientation and organising spaces
The orientation and organisation of spaces is crucial on both a micro and macro scale. In the same way that people want a home to flow in an organised, ordered and sympathetic manner, in which, for example, particular rooms are given a focus such as a fireplace or a picture window, they also want to feel that their outdoor space is well-oriented and organised. A development of several hundred, or even thousand, homes should be given a focus – a place where people feel that they can meet and develop as a community - perhaps a small district centre, with convenient and accessible facilities.

Stephen Hill is a partner at Holder Mathias Architects, a London-based firm that designs for the retail, residential, leisure and commercial office sectors.

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