Thoughts on design and planning with Sebastian Anstruther

CLA member Sebastian Anstruther, from the Barlavington Estate in West Sussex, reflects on the importance of modern design and construction within the South Downs National Park.

Sebastian Anstruther: This kind of modular offsite construction is very exciting in terms of its environmental performance because you can get the tolerances which are just not achievable when you are building in the normal muddy boots building site environment. They can be challenging in terms of planning, particularly in protected landscapes where design is of course extremely important and where buy-in from the community is extremely important.

People have this view of offsite construction as something which is essentially robotic and mechanical and without the human element. Now, you don't have to do it like that. You can take the advantages of modern methods of construction which is by standardising everything, you keep costs really low. You have a modular system so you can build any shape and size and provide any accommodation you want.

You can still keep those costs very low and the environmental performance very high, but you can still make them beautiful. Now, beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Here in the South Downs National Park people may have a certain view of what constitutes traditional vernacular design and design features. A modern treatment can be appropriate and can look great.

I think we also need a little bit of ambition here and the planning system generally needs a little bit of ambition. If we just want to take the safe route, the easy route, and I'm naming no names, but build pastiche communities, what historic legacy, what architectural legacy are we leaving to our children and grandchildren? Don't we want to try to push the envelope sometimes and build things which are challenging, which are unusual, which are new, but which take the discussion about design forward to the next generation?

After all, otherwise, we'd all still be living in caves, wouldn't we? I'm excited about trying to do something new and something which looks new, but I don't want to do it in an aggressive way. We can still pitch grooves on and roses around the door. I might not go as far as carriage lamps, but we can make these beautiful places to live and we can build communities which have integrity and beauty and which work where people can live and work and shop.

If we can get the costs down, maybe we can even afford to build a new primary school. We can certainly have village shops. We can have community spaces. As the owner of the development site, we can afford to provide my much more public open space than if you have to sweat every inch and end up with million-pound homes with porticos. What have you really achieved by that?

Okay, you've made some money, but you've made something which doesn't relate to the community or the community's need in any way. You've just got wealthy people who've come in who've bought these houses. You've annoyed everybody. What kind of legacy have you actually left? Also, your construction costs are so high that you won't have been able to provide the affordable housing which rural communities desperately need. I do think that a new approach is at least worth considering, and that's what we're trying to do here.