Rural Design Guide

Sustainable Design > Rural Design Guide

A step-by-step guide to rural dwelling design, from selecting a designer to the impact of development.

Finding the Right Site

1. Select a Designer / Define a Brief

It is important to develop a considered brief at the inception of any building project. A detailed brief will ensure a well designed house that suits the needs of the client. The process of defining and refining a brief can be lengthy and will inevitably undergo change along the way. It is the role of the designer to advise the client and guide them through this process.

Some issues a client may wish to consider at the outset could include:

  • Contemporary or classical design?
  • Size- how many rooms?
  • Noise, privacy or other nuisance
  • Use of sustainable energy techniques
  • Making the most of good views
  • Keeping as many hedges and trees as possible to attract wildlife
  • Use of discreet garden lighting – not street lamps normally found in towns
  • Developing a house which will have little impact on the surrounding environment

2. Site Location / Selection

Once the broad requirements have been considered, choosing where to build is a critical stage in the process. Buildings have a huge impact on the character of an area relative to the land area they occupy. It is crucial that an understanding of local natural features are incorporated into the site selection process and the overall design brief.

Depending on individual circumstances any number of factors will inform the development location. The following points should generally be considered when selecting a site:

  • Privacy – New dwellings should be contained within the landscape, therefore visually prominent locations such as hilltops should be avoided. It is important to be aware that prominent developments can be seen when approaching the site from all directions. In the open countryside look for a reasonably flat site which avoids the need to build a platform or cut and fill.
  • Weather and Shelter – During storms or bad weather, the effects on buildings and the landscape can be damaging. Traditional methods of site layout involved making use of natural tucks in the landscape, sheltered areas beside woodland, working with contours (not against them), and generally steering clear of locations that suffer the worst effects of the wind and rain. While less critical today, given modern materials and building practices, traditional siting patterns and techniques can often inform visual integration.
  • Form and Orientation – The form and orientation of the dwelling is determined by a variety of things such as shape, size of house required, contours, overall appearance of the landscape, access and car circulation. It is possible to capture a view without the whole house facing towards it, e.g. by placing windows in gable ends. It is also important to manage the conflict between privacy and glazed frontages to the road.
  • Principles of Site Layout – Take advantage of the site’s and the wider landscape’s natural assets as much as possible. The site and configuration of the wider landscape should guide the overall shape and form of the house.
  • Contours – Work with the natural contours of the site. Avoid large cuts into the hillside to create a level platform, when viewed from afar no amount of planting can integrate the house and site into the wider landscape. Building up the natural levels to create a mound or platform is also undesirable.

3. Planning Policy

The Department of the Environment is responsible for planning control in Northern Ireland. Planning Service, an Agency within the Department, administers its development control and development plan functions.

Planning Policy that informs the control of development in the countryside is contained within the following:

  • Regional Development Strategy (RDS) – Reflects a commitment to creating a sustainable approach to accommodating growth within the Region highlighting that the impact of unregulated development in the countryside has the potential to reduce its value as a regional asset by damaging landscape, biodiversity and natural habitats and to create additional and unnecessary problems for the supply of services. It further acknowledges that the principles of sustainable development must be at the heart of future rural development.
  • Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland (PSRNI) – A number of policies contained within the Planning Strategy continue to inform aspects of rural development in Northern Ireland.
  • Draft PPS 21: Sustainable Development in the Countryside – Draft PPS 21 supersedes PPS 14 Sustainable Development in the Countryside as of the 25/11/2008. The aim of PPS 21 is to manage development in the countryside:
    • in a manner consistent with achieving the strategic objectives of the Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025; and
    • in a manner which strikes a balance between the need to protect the countryside from unnecessary or inappropriate development, while supporting rural communities.
  • Development Plans – Development Plans apply the regional policies of the Department at the appropriate local level. They inform the general public, statutory authorities, developers and other interested bodies of the policy framework and land use proposals that will guide development decisions within their local area. All Development Plans are required to be in general conformity with the Regional Development Strategy. Development Plans will contain information regarding the sensitivity of rural locations and the policies that will apply.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, Council’s administer development control functions in conformity with County Development Plans and Local Area Plans.

4. Technical Requirements – Obtaining Planning Permission

Once the site has been selected and a design concept developed around the clients brief, planning permission will need to be obtained.

Outline Permission – For a new building an outline planning application can be lodged to establish whether the development is acceptable in principle. This has the advantage that detailed drawings are normally not needed, but it will help to provide the authority with as much information as possible. An outline planning application will establish whether or not the principle of development within the proposed site will be acceptable.

Along with the appropriate application forms and fee, it will be necessary to submit an ordnance survey based location plan, a site layout drawing, site analysis, scheme design drawings and photographs of the site from various vantage points.

Applications that are submitted for full planning permission or reserved matters (following outline approval) will require more detailed information about the proposal, such as:

  • Site layout plan/block plan to scale (if new septic tank is proposed this must be shown on the block plan)
  • Existing and / or proposed floor plans to scale
  • Existing and / or proposed front, side and rear elevations to scale
  • Elevation drawings including details of material to be used in the external finish of walls and roofs, including their colour

5. Vantage Points / Perspective Views

Views into and out of the site are crucial when deciding where to position a new dwelling. Maximise all significant views without imposing on the surrounding landscape. It is crucial that new development is not visually obtrusive and does not impose upon neighbouring dwellings, avoiding overlooking issues. Good planning and design will aim to:

  • Avoid blocking neighbour’s views (out of courtesy rather than any legal obligation)
  • Avoid over looking neighbouring or nearby properties

6. Access Position and Standard

  • Try to choose a site that can achieve its access sightlines without altering existing native hedgerows or mature trees along its (or an adjoining neighbour’s) boundaries.
  • When it is necessary to remove existing native hedges then proposals should (where possible) either seek to push these hedges back or reinstate with native hedge species, behind the required visibility splay.
  • Whether forming a long access lane within your property or reinstating roadside boundaries aim to replicate the character of the rural country road or laneway as much as possible.

See Rural Entrance Guide for further information.

7. Impact of Development

Building in the countryside is a necessity for many rural dwellers but the soaring increase in new buildings in recent years has blighted the Northern Ireland Countryside. The rural landscape has come under threat due to a lack of understanding and cohesion between design, setting and local character. It is critical that an understanding and appreciation of character, policy and guidance is established before embarking on any design project so that all visual and environmental impacts are minimised.

Scheme Design

1. Context

Design guidance should be read in conjunction with the policies controlling rural development in Northern Ireland. Design guides are there to help inform good design and not restrict it. Good design guidance will ‘guide’ the developer not only in site selection or location but will assist those involved in the building process with issues such as local context and character to more detailed design issues such as scale, proportion, form, shape, materials, colours, access and sightlines.

Good design guidance should further promote sustainability in new design. Energy efficiency in the design of buildings is not just an eco-friendly initiative; it is pragmatic and cost effective. Energy efficiency in design can result in reduced heating, cooling and lighting costs, as well as reducing individual and collective dependence on natural resources and artificial materials that impact on the environment.

2. Local Design Features

It is important to identify the rural character and signature of an area both past and present to see what lessons can be learnt from them. Lessons can be applied in the design and siting of new houses to achieve continuity with the main traditional characteristics, whilst at the same time allowing new house types to evolve in response to the changing needs of the 21st Century. Traditional siting patterns, building types and materials, details and finishes can help inform key design decisions.

3. Further Design Information

The successful integration of one-off houses into the countryside depends on a thorough analysis of the setting, site and brief and the creation of a design that responds well to all three. The quality of design must be applied to a whole range of issues from the macro to the micro.
The following key questions and issues should be considered at the beginning and throughout the design process:

  • Size of dwelling
  • Proximity – of new house to existing houses
  • Size of site – in relation to size of house
  • Site features – the strengths (maximise these) and weaknesses (minimise these through good design)
  • Orientation – where does the sun rise and set
  • Good views towards the south or south west are best. Views into and out of the site
  • Site contours – these can pose difficulties or opportunities when integrating a house into the landscape or achieving access and vehicular circulation within the site
  • Form – what is the overall shape of the proposed house? Is it a box or cube shape like small classical farm or country houses. Is it generally a linear form or is it a cuboid form with smaller offshoots such as a T or C house in plan?
  • Mass – ie. How bulky is it? If this is excessive reduce or break down bulk.
    Down Design Guide
    Task A: Rural Dwelling Design Guide
  • Appearance – Scale, form, colour, materials in relation to surrounding context: landforms; field patterns; existing buildings and groups of mature trees all affect the appearance of houses.


Once the design has been finalised a full planning application can be submitted together with the appropriate fee to the planning authority for your area. Consider arranging a pre-planning meeting with the council where you will have an opportunity to discuss your proposal and raise any concerns or queries you may have. Pre-planning discussions are an effective means of keeping all parties informed and can prove to be an extremely helpful step in the determination process.