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Delivering design quality through design codes

Luke Hillson, MRTPI, BSc, RPUD runs the RTPI's ‘Planning for Good Design’ online CPD masterclass.

Good design codes can be a useful tool for designers, developers, applications, and local authorities aiding the delivery of high-quality places. Bad design codes, however, can fail to prevent or even enable the delivery of poor-quality places and developments.

So, how design codes should be written and used to achieve the best outcomes?

First, let’s clarify what the design codes are. Design codes are design documents that detail the design aspirations and requirements for development within any given site, area, or region. They are more prescriptive and detailed than a design guide but allow some degree of flexibility for the proposed design response.

Why do we use design codes?

Good design codes, which are well considered, can be utilised to successfully deliver high quality development and places. They can be used to provide greater certainty on the quality outcome of any given development, be utilised where there is more than one developer to ensure a cohesive place, and are appropriate for urban extensions or regeneration sites where there is existing character and development to respond to.

What makes a good design code?

A good design code will be based upon a good level of understanding of any given site, area, or region. Extensive analysis and understanding of the existing place, history, landscape, built form, community and movement networks will assist in producing a design code that is responsive to the existing adjacent development.

Good design codes will successfully strike a delicate balance between being overly prescriptive, which can stifle innovation and creativity, with being too vague which can result in 'anywhere' development being proposed.

A well-written design code will include enough detail to provide the applicant with clarity on the expectations of the design proposals and the local authority with a clear yardstick by which to measure them. It will, however, where appropriate, allow for some flexibility for innovative proposals that were possibly unforeseen at the time of authoring the design code but would contribute to delivering an enhanced high-quality design.

How to use a design code and future feedback reviews

Design codes should be clear and concise, with diagrams and illustrations maximised and written text minimised. Designers, developers and applications should ensure that they are aware of any relevant design codes on their development site and use them to guide the design development proposals on that site. Similarly, the local authority should base their assessment of any design proposals on the relevant design code. The design code can be used to aid any discussions between the applications and the local authority to guide the design development process.

It is important, however, to be aware that design codes don't always get it right the first time, or factors change, and places evolve. Throughout the delivery of a place or development, particularly those phased over a number of years, it is important to review the design code against the changing design climate and delivery of early phases to ensure that it continues to deliver high design quality. Where it doesn't, appropriate amendments should be made to ensure it does.

If you would like to know more about good design and the application of design codes, please join us for the ‘Planning for Good Design’ online CPD masterclass I lead.

Please check the CPD Masterclass Calendar for upcoming dates and times.

Free downloadable RTPI publication on how design codes can contribute to net-zero and nature’s recovery: Cracking the Code

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