Adding value by designing for small sites

How to make the most of small spaces

As we hurtle towards Christmas, if you’re anything like us you’ve still got a mountain of jobs to tick off. And getting a Christmas tree if you haven’t already (what have you been doing?) will be close to the top of the list.

Fitting a tree in your lounge is easier said than done. But whilst at first glance it might seem like there’s not enough room, there’s always scope for something festive no matter how small your space.

We’ll leave you to work out the finer details of finding space for the tree, but it’s got us thinking about how much we love to make the most out of small spaces too.

Finding the value in small sites

With the value of land rocketing and the housing crisis across the UK showing no signs of abating, it’s easy to see why challenging urban gap sites are becoming more attractive to developers.

After building out your more straightforward sites, you find yourselves revisiting those that were put on the “difficult pile” to see what can be made of them.

We don’t blame you. But the question still remains, how can you eke out some added value from your most compromised or hemmed in sites?

We’ve worked on some tricky sites in our time. And there’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting real value out of what initially seems like a non-starter. So here are some reflections on what we’ve learnt from a couple of our most memorable small sites.

Sandycombe Road, Richmond

If you were to take a look at the original brief for Sandycombe Road, you’d be forgiven for dismissing it out of hand. But we knew from experience that this long, thin site backing onto a railway line had potential. So when we were asked to offer our creative perspective to this, we relished the opportunity.

In use as industrial land, our client had a bigger vision. They wanted to investigate whether value could be added through conversion to residential, but with only one point of access (a 3m gap between houses) and measuring only 16m at its widest point, there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre.

But through careful assessment of site constraints and a good understanding of the planning policy position, the final scheme comfortably delivered nine apartments and three office units.

Springfield Road, Brighton

In Brighton, we designed a new single storey infill home in the rear garden of a large semi-detached Victorian house.

Again with a narrow access point of 2m width, and a tight relationship with a neighbouring property, this was the epitome of a small site!

We needed a clever design here that didn’t waste any opportunities to maximise space and minimise impact on residential amenity.


The secret to success on small sites

In both cases, in order to deliver a scheme that would pass scrutiny, we followed these important steps.

Understand the local planning guidance on design

Each local planning authority (LPA) will offer different guidance and have their own policy requirements on small-scale development. Some LPAs will even produce specific guidance on infill or backland sites.

Policies and guidance give useful insight into what planning officers will be looking for when a proposal reaches their desk. So getting things right first time round reduces negotiation and amendments.

Considerations such as residential amenity and overlooking are always key and were especially the case on both sites in Richmond and Brighton.

However, from reviewing Richmond’s local policy we also knew they were looking for a strong structural design and that little or no set back from the pavement edge would be acceptable. And in Brighton, it was clear that a sustainable design would be key.

Working with what you have

What the Richmond site lacked in depth, it made up for with the potential for height. Nestled behind generously sizes terraced properties with long gardens to the west, and with no immediate sensitive neighbouring use to the east, we were able to maximise new floorspace by positioning two new three-storey buildings further away from the terraces than the existing industrial unit.

The long garden lengths meant that separation distance between the rear elevations of the existing properties and the new building all exceeded 20m, which in turn ensured that the new built form remained inconspicuous from the street (in line with Richmond’s design guidance).

At Brighton, it was clear that smaller was better. We altered the roof design following negotiations with the planners to create a recessive roof light and reduced the building’s footprint whilst maintaining space standards. All the while, still being able to deliver on sustainable design features such as a sedum roof.

Small but perfectly formed, this new build house in Brighton incorporates a recessive roof light amongst the sedum roof

Getting the finer details right

In Brighton, we opted to use SIPS (structural insulated panel system) panels which are a highly sustainable option. Being pre-insulated, the panels create an airtight system to achieve insulation standards that can’t be achieved with conventional building methods. This boosted the building’s sustainability credentials to meet Brighton’s sustainability policy criteria.

We also sunk the building by approximately 1m and oriented the large habitable windows towards a private courtyard, away from the rear elevations of nearby properties. That meant that we could still deliver a spacious and light interior without impacting on residential amenity.

And at Richmond, with a full appreciation of the sensitivities at hand, we oriented the new build so that the principle elevation looked east, across the railway line, and used opaque glazing at key locations on the western elevation to allow daylight in without causing overlooking.

There is always a solution

Our experience has shown us that there is always a solution to be found for a tricky site no matter how tight you are for space.

And whilst compromise and negotiations are par for the course with the planning system, we have always been able to find a design solution that will add value. And it’s perhaps in those initially daunting sites that others have dismissed, where, with the help of an architect who knows how to create something from nothing, that you will be able to see something that others cannot.

If you have a challenging site and you’re stuck for a solution, get in touch and let us take a fresh look at it.