Rural Housing

Sustainable Design > Rural Housing

The design principles of rural residential development

There are buildings that make you look twice, but for all the wrong reasons. Whether these are hilltop haciendas, homes apparently built purely for show, or forlorn bungalows, these are the buildings that sit uneasily in the landscape. Looking at such homes, it’s easy to see why rural development is frequently a contentious issue.
And yet nobody wants the countryside to become a museum, forever unchanging. Sympathetic development, on appropriate sites and where homes sit comfortably within the landscape, is to be welcomed.

So what constitutes good design in a rural environment? In part, this will always depend on an individual site. Nevertheless, it’s possible to apply certain design principles to all developments, covering such factors as initial site selection, construction and landscaping.

In addition to any aesthetic factors, there are sound financial reasons to have a working understanding of such principles. Well-designed buildings and developments are far more likely to make it through the planning process without either rejection or substantial revisions.

The key factors to consider:

Careful site selection:

What’s an appropriate site for rural development? When looking at potential locations, developers should pay particular attention to two initial considerations. Firstly, can a locality absorb another building without it causing adverse visual impact? If it can, is a potential site one where a new building can be visually integrated into the landscape?

One glaring example of a site that planners usually deem to be inappropriate is the top of a hill. For traditional builders, the view was far less important than shelter from the weather and any prevailing winds. Accordingly, older homes often nestle into hills rather than dominate the landscape. Contemporary developers should look for similar sites, especially those where natural features provide a backdrop.

Other sites where permission is likely to be refused include sites between existing villages and hamlets, prominent corner sites and sites that lead to ribbon development. In contrast, building next to existing dwellings, or perhaps converting existing buildings such as outhouses, is usually better because it follows a traditional rural pattern of development.

Be aware of any local planning priorities and policies where you want to build. Planning officials will be able to help here.

Site layout:

Once you’ve identified a potential building plot, it’s crucial to carry out a ‘site analysis’. This records such factors as aspect, existing buildings and landscape features, boundary treatments and so on. The building design shouldn’t battle with these features, but work with them to preserve what’s best.

For this reason, simply dropping a standard home on to a plot of land is unacceptable. Planners look long and carefully at the potential visual impact of any development, and any proposals for substantial buildings close to roads will attract particularly close scrutiny.

In many respects, this is borne from an increasing realisation that suburban patterns of development – houses with front and back gardens located close to the road – don’t work in a rural setting. Instead, it’s better to preserve the traditional rural pattern of buildings surrounded by land, often set back from the main road and accessed by a lane.

Appropriate house design:

It’s not just suburban patterns of development that sit uneasily in the countryside. Plonking a standard suburban house into a rural location is just as jarring. Irish rural building has developed over generations, a gradual process that has produced a distinctive style.

Without suggesting that new homes should slavishly follow traditional designs, today’s designers need to be aware of this rich heritage. Many traditional buildings, for example, are just one room deep because the only roofing timbers available were of a limited length. Such buildings are described as ‘linear’, long and comparatively thin.

They have often been gradually added to down the years, a piecemeal process with most extensions added at the back or side. Often, the residents would move into newly built parts of the home and give the rest over to animals, storage or workshops. In this way, courtyards were gradually formed and enclosed. Clever modern buildings reflect this. Rather than standing on their own, garages and sheds can be incorporated into a group of buildings.

Traditional rural designs are simple, even austere. Without slipping into pastiche, modern designs should be similarly fuss-free, especially the front elevation.

Appropriate landscaping:

Landscaping is not an add-on when planning rural developments, it should be an integral part of the design. That was certainly the case in the past. As well as being located in sheltered spots, traditional buildings were often sheltered by a belt of trees to protect from the chill of prevailing winds – a simple but effective measure.

A general rule of thumb is that landscaping should reflect its locale. In addition, developers need to pay particularly close attention to boundaries, retaining and protecting such features as long-established hedges and existing walls. Where these have to be removed to provide access e.g. an existing gateway won’t meet safety standards, the new access should blend with the locale.

Other factors to consider include planting to soften the impact of new buildings, and choosing appropriate materials for new walls and drives. Conifers may provide quick-growing cover, but should be used only sparingly. Broad-leafed trees are preferable.

Good construction:

If the above ideas seem to suggest that planners will only look kindly on traditional building methods, that’s not the case. However, it’s worth re-emphasising that planners look for designs that reference traditional methods and traditional designs.
To give a straightforward example, a building with stepped gables might gently echo its neighbours. Keeping the number of different materials down hints at the simplicity of older rural buildings. Windows and doors are, where possible, simple and unfussy.