The Absurdities of the UK Planning System That Mean We Will Never Reach Net Zero in Housing

The images of this house in Cheltenham, UK show several ‘interesting’ issues to do with solar buildings. It is a new house, one of a pair, in this famously Georgian (1714 -1835) city.

The Legacy of Carbon Planning: The first issue, one I have covered elsewhere in this site, is the orientation forced upon this building by the road pattern. The road pattern is ‘historic’ meaning it was created so far back in the mists of time that nobody can remember how it was determined. But the fact is that it was not determined by orientation. If the houses on this road address the street (as they do) then they are not in an ideal orientation to the sun. 

These are the buildings of the age of carbon – they use carbon forms for heating and eschew the sun. Such buildings – not facing the sun, and not at all well insulated (if at all) – are a huge problem in the context of climate change. They cannot get ‘off’ carbon easily as they aren’t planned to avail themselves of the zero carbon energy of the sun. All we can do with them is properly insulate and seal them. And that isn’t being done as it is not being grant-funded by the UK government. Which is an issue of gross incompetence even in view of the UK’s completely unambitious zero carbon targets.

One can say ‘well, we cant legislate for the past – those roads are a ‘given’. This is true, but it is also true that Town Planners are still applying carbon epoch planning on new towns and developments. Moreover, they are still forcing the architecture of carbon upon us with their style constraints. Planning is, at date, seemingly completely immune to orientation and unaware that the sun can provide in the order of 50% of all heating inputs in a residence that is properly oriented and insulated. In short we are still stuck with Planners whose heads are in the past.

The road patterns of cities of carbon force its buildings into sub-prime orientation to the sun.

In the context of impending climate catastrophe is it really appropriate to impose carbon-epoch planning and style constraints on new buildings, rather than encouraging the architecture to use the sun to ‘go zero’? The uppermost of this pair of new houses illustrates the absurdity of a Planner-sponsored architecture completely out of touch with the times, and its owner..

Inappropriate Style constraints: Another interesting issue is that of style. I have worked as an architect in the city of Cheltenham before, and I can attest the stylistic stranglehold the Planners hold over this city. They still (by the evidence of this house) seem to believe everything in the city should look ‘Historicalesque’ and impose their simultaneously rigorous and arbitrary style mores on the unfortunate architects that work here. The result is buildings like this that ‘ape’ historic forms and proportions but in a wholly unconvincing way leading most of the modern architecture in the city to be ingratiatingly poor copies of the magnificent originals. It doesn’t much matter how much money is thrown at the architecture either – from this house to major banks and building society buildings all fail miserably to be ‘Georgian’ or even convincingly historic. The fact is we aren’t Georgians anymore and any attempt to copy their architecture is bound to be unconvincing.

There is a form of building that could be built on this site that would avail itself of the free zero carbon energy of the sun, but it isn’t a copy of a Georgian house. And it wouldn’t address a road that itself scuppers good solar orientation! 

There are two things I would change in the Planner’s brief here and in every other city in the world:

1. Don’t impose style constraints on architects. You can’t legislate for good architecture – you just get the dog’s dinner that the Planners have made of most towns and cities in the UK by their ‘nannyism’. There would still be a dogs dinner, but a least most of the ingratiatingly poor copies would disappear, hopefully, and some brilliant work that was suppressed before would emerge. 

There is another argument against style lockdowns too. That is that they demean the very buildings they seek to elevate – the original historic buildings. They do this by generating an ocean of insincere replicas, and soon enough people will not be able to tell what is real and what is faked up to look real. And that is a very dangerous place to take things. I love historic buildings so much I never try to copy them. 

2. Where a site does not have good orientation to the sun you must permit architects to orient their buildings on the site to the sun. If the site isn’t oriented to the sun the building may be adjusted to do so. We must overcome the historic hobbling effect of road systems conceived for high carbon buildings.

Architecture out of tune with the times: The final issue with this house in Cheltenham is slightly comical. The owner of this house is so determined to do the right thing – go solar – that they are imposing truly ugly structures onto this house to do so. They are to be congratulated for ‘going solar’, but have gone well beyond the bounds of good manners to do so. Note the massive solar array on the top of the roof just being installed there. God knows what structural calisthenics are required to hold it there and brace it against the wind. Notwithstanding all this expense and effort all of the solar panels on this house are sub-optimally oriented. They point Southeast, so after midday most of the solar radiation will just reflect off them at too shallow an angle. Their maximum effectiveness, according to this Ed Mazria orientation diagram is maybe 75% as they appear to point approximately 45% off solar south. That is the MAXIMUM.

The solar panels on the garage structure are a real mess and show a building not designed for solar panels. Likewise the main house but even more spectacularly ugly – the solar panels on the ridgetop a complete absurdity. It appears that the architect didn’t even get the placing of the main fireplace right, obliging the owner into the industrial look flue visible here. Any idea of poise or dignity in the architectural style is utterly shredded by the earnest desire of the owner to go solar. There is an appropriate architecture for this site and within the absurdities imposed by the Planners and architect this brave client has attempted it. If only the professionals could appreciate how stupid this makes them look.

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