As well as working on our projects at Thread Architects, Rachel, Anya and Andy all explore and broaden their architectural knowledge, skills and expertise through their other roles and interests. We will be looking at some of these roles and experiences in our blog over the next few weeks.

This first blog by Andy explains his role in Design Review Panels and Paragraph 79 Homes.

Andy has been a design review panel member for the OPUN Architecture and Design Centre for the East Midlands  for 7 years. Design Review is a respected method of improving the quality of new development by offering constructive, impartial and expert advice. Design Review panel meetings allow local authorities, clients, developers and design teams to present their schemes at the pre-planning stage to a panel of experts from the built environment sector and benefit from the discussion and constructive advice of the panel.

During his time as a panel member Andy has been involved in the review of a range of projects from factory extensions, housing developments to new build “paragraph 79” homes. It is these new build houses that Andy find the most inspiring.


What is a Paragraph 79 Home?

 Briefly, a Paragraph 79 home is usually an isolated new dwelling built in the open countryside that is of exceptional architectural design or is highly innovative.

Building an isolated home out on the countryside would be many peoples dream. However, in general the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is written to encourage sustainable development close to existing services, transport and populations. Therefore, Local Planning Authorities will generally resist and refuse isolated proposals.

However, within the NPPF special circumstance are set out that allow new isolated homes to be built in the countryside, subject to certain requirements. Until recently these projects were nicknamed “Paragraph 55” houses. The NPPF was revised and updated by the government in July 2018 and these homes are now covered in Paragraph 79.

Now any proposed design needs to be reviewed against the following criteria:

79 Planning policies and decisions should avoid the development of isolated homes in the countryside unless one or more of the following circumstances apply: 

a)  there is an essential need for a rural worker, including those taking majority control of a farm business, to live permanently at or near their place of work in the countryside; 

b)  the development would represent the optimal viable use of a heritage asset or would be appropriate enabling development to secure the future of heritage assets; 

c)  the development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and enhance its immediate setting; 

d)  the development would involve the subdivision of an existing residential dwelling; or 

e)  the design is of exceptional quality, in that it: 

–  is truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture, and would help to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas; and 

–  would significantly enhance its immediate setting and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area. 


Of these 5 criteria, it is proposals that look to meet section “e” that are often taken to design review.



So how can the criteria be met?

 Section “e” in the new paragraph 79 of the NPPF is far from straight forward and describes four or five parameters (we’ll argue five) that need to be met to successfully apply for a new build home in the open county side.

Truly Outstanding – so not just good or even excellent, but utterly brilliant! At a design review the panel would be looking for an exceptional design;

(or) Innovative – maybe even harder to achieve than “truly outstanding.” Not too long-ago adopting principles such as on-site power production technologies and Passive House design were rare at this scale and could be utilised as a tool to meet this criterion. In the present day and these technologies and practices are more common place. How then do you pull your design away from the crowd and demonstrate true innovation? This might be through construction technique and materials such as our straw bale house.

Significantly enhance its immediate setting – The quality of design required for a paragraph 79 home means that the site and locality should be improved by the addition of the design – it’s better than it was before and make the most of the site characteristics. Our recent design for a large house refurbishment and extension in Ashbourne did just this with the planning inspectorate stating that it positively enhanced the character and appearance of the area.

Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area – This requires that the design is site specific and fully understands what makes the site and local area special and explicitly of that place.

Reflect the highest standards in architecture and would help to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas – This section sums up all the other criteria. To underline is how high the bar is set to achieve the quality of the design necessary. However, if the design has met all the criteria above it should be well on the way of achieving this level.


So how do successful designs meet these needs? Through his role in design review, Andy has been privileged to study a range of house designs and approaches that have been successful and unsuccessful in obtaining permission. From this we have been able to start to make our own conclusions on how Thread would approach a paragraph 79 home design.


The right site

Although there are many important elements and considerations in a successful design there is one that overarches all the others – the site. In simplest terms, for a design to be exceptional, the site must also be exceptional. It is the one element of the design that can not be changed. At the earliest stage of a project a site appraisal should be undertaken to ascertain whether a given site has the potential to become an outstanding location of an exceptional design. If you see a plot that you think may have potential contact us, or another professional, to review the site with you.


Strong narratives

The most successful schemes embrace two narratives within their designs – these are the narratives of the site and of the client.

The narrative of the site comes from a full understanding of what makes it special and distinct. To discover this narrative all characteristics of the site must be analysed. This could include the history, geology, use, orientation, views, movements, topography, ecology and arboriculture characteristics to name but a few. There may also be stories about the site from the Client or that are locally known that can be recorded. The important consideration is to keep an open mind and not exclude anything but then to hone down and identify what are the important characteristics.

The narrative of the Client is of equal importance and may require as much effort to understand. Although it is important to know the standard data such as the number of bedrooms, living rooms etc, the understanding must go deeper than that.  The most successful schemes contain a thorough and detailed description of how the Client wishes to live on and be part of the site. This could be a direct relationship with the Client wishing to make a living on the site (such as a small holding) or a clear link between how the Client wants to move around the site and the connections that can be made between the spaces and landscape.

It is important that these two narratives are then intertwined and inseparable. The final design must be a home that could only be created from one site for one Client and would not work anywhere else for anyone else. Both the design team and Client must buy into this. The Client must be an integral part of the design team.


Diagrams showing our understanding of the site and how our design was woven into this narrative

Avoid a tick list approach – Integration is key

It is tempting when presented with a list of criteria to attempt to tick each off as a separate element and approach. However, once the narrative has been identified every idea that is part of the project’s development should be integrated into this. This can mean that, if the idea does not fit the narrative it should not be included. This is where the innovation required for the project can grow from. The innovation can come from the form, materials, structure, layout, performance or integration of the design and should completely buy in to the larger idea of what the design is, what the design’s heart is.

A great example of this is Caring Wood by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell, the Houses of the Year in 2017.


Show your working

It is crucial that design team record and illustrate the method of how they reached the solution presented to the planning department. This is important for several reasons:

  • It allows the design team to reflect on and check their process to ensure that there is a clarity of thought and process;
  • It allows the Client to understand and reflect on the design and be an active part of the development;
  • It allows the planners, design review panel, planning committee or whoever needs to judge the design from outside the design team and Client group to buy into the process and design.
Concept development models for a large countryside house extension



 Although the criteria for a successful paragraph 79 house is onerous and the bar for the quality of design is high our conclusion is that the best approach to the design is one that stems from an in depth understanding of the site and the Client, with a clarity to the approach. This requires a shared ownership and authorship of the design by all members of the design team, including the Client.

At Thread we would adopt this approach for all our clients, whether an extension to an existing building or a new home in the open countryside.

If you are thinking about a Paragraph 79 home and would like further advice, contact us here.