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Understanding Hertfordshire's character

The character of Hertfordshire’s landscape, settlements, built form and established palette of materials should be understood, maintained and enhanced through sensitive design.

Design proposals should, where appropriate and reasonable, be shown to respond sensitively to the character of the local area.  A sensitive response to the design of a site can be either ‘conservative’ or ‘contemporary’ depending on its appropriateness to the site and its setting. 

Issues of character should not only address the built form but also the landscape, the character of the public realm, thresholds (the spaces between buildings or between buildings and the public realm) and highway design. 

A design response should establish those elements that contribute to local distinctiveness and examine how /if they can be incorporated into the design. Are there particular local materials, features or forms that are particular to the area and can be used as a source of inspiration? Is it appropriate to use the motifs under consideration or will they contribute to pastiche?  This analysis provides overall cues which provide the context to development. 

Landscape

Objective: To promote character in the landscape by utilising site characteristics to reinforce locally distinctive patterns of development.

Landscape is important because it links culture with nature and the past with the present. It includes the character and appearance of land, including its shape, form, ecology, natural features, colours and elements, and the way these components combine. It includes all open space, including its planting, boundaries and treatment. Landscape is dynamic, and change should be managed that seeks to both conserve and enhance landscape character. 

Hertfordshire is located between London on its southern boundaries and the Chiltern Hills, which gently rise to a crest forming most of its north western boundary. The tributaries of the Thames valley define its western edge with Buckinghamshire and the more open landscapes of Essex and Cambridgeshire comprise most of its eastern boundary. The valley of the River Lea creates a strongly defined south eastern boundary. 

The landscape of Hertfordshire is broadly that of south east and eastern England, being relatively low lying clays with more chalk and flints towards the north. Rivers and main lines of communication generally cross the county from north and north-west to the south. Within this overall picture, the character of the county is relatively diverse. The county is about 1643 square kilometres in area with a population of over 1 million. 

The proximity of London and the pressures for development during the 20th century have resulted in the growth of suburban development in the southern part of Hertfordshire. This in turn led to the designation of a large proportion of the county as green belt. 

The green belt, the Chilterns area of outstanding beauty, the conservation areas, registered parks and gardens, nature designations and listed buildings have ensured that the character of much of the landscape and all of the built heritage will exert an influence on the location, layout, scale and appearance of new development. 

The landscape and biodiversity module provides more detailed information and guidance and should be referred to for more information on landscape issues and opportunities in Hertfordshire. It compliments this design module by providing guidance and practical solutions on how landscape and biodiversity considerations can be positively incorporated into development schemes.

The Chilterns conservation board produces the Chilterns buildings design guide. Its aim is to promote the beauty of traditional cottages, houses and farm buildings in the Chilterns and offers advice on how new buildings in the area can respect the traditions of the past and fit in with their surroundings.

Settlement type and built form

Objective:  To promote character in the townscape by respecting local heritage (townscapes and materials), to reinforce locally distinctive patterns of development.

The green belt has ensured that despite the proximity of Greater London on the southern boundary of the county, towns in Hertfordshire are relatively freestanding and of a modest size and scale, notwithstanding significant suburban expansion, especially in the south.

UHC - settlements and contraints map

Click to enlarge  

About 81% of the population of Hertfordshire live in towns with a population of over 5,000. About 51% live in the ten largest towns, each with a population of over 30,000. These towns show the variation in urban character across the County.

Watford has some of the characteristics of outer London. Cheshunt, Waltham Cross and Hoddesdon are old towns which now form an almost continuous belt of urbanisation extending out of London along the Lee Valley. St Albans, Hitchin, Hertford and Ware are historic market towns. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were the world’s first garden cities. Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and Hatfield are New Towns created since 1945. 

Hertfordshire’s inherited built environment is generally low rise with only a handful of town centres which have more than isolated instances of taller buildings (Watford, Hemel Hempstead, etc).    

The built environment is protected by the listing of buildings of historic or architectural interest, the scheduling of monuments and the designation of almost 200 conservation areas. 

Historic buildings and areas need to adapt in order to remain viable; conservation is the activity which seeks to manage change, in order that the integrity or authenticity of historic buildings and areas is maintained and enhanced. Future change in Hertfordshire’s built environment therefore needs to recognise those elements which define their special character. 

The design of new development should not seek to replicate historic buildings in order to respect them; indeed it is usually the case that blurring the distinction between the historic and new denies the authentic quality of the original building. It is usually advisable to build in an unmistakably 21st century manner, but in a way that does not dominate or ignore the historic building or area. 

The setting of listed buildings and conservation areas are also protected. This will affect the height, bulk and footprint of new buildings in close proximity to these buildings or areas.   

Historic towns and built form

A considerable number of towns have early medieval origins, which are still apparent in their street patterns, plot layout and built form. The basic plot, the burgage, set at right angles to the main street, is narrow (often no more than 6 – 10 metres) but relatively long (sometimes between 30 – 60 metres), leading to a back lane or river (see Ware, Ashwell, Hitchin, Baldock, Hoddesdon, Berkhamsted, etc).

Burgages thus have imposed a grain and building footprint characteristic of most market towns. They have however suffered from post war redevelopment, but with the core of most of these towns now in designated conservation areas, more sensitive infilling and development of the plots is taking place.

UHC - historic towns

Many high streets retain the medieval buildings on burgage plots, albeit much altered over centuries. The basic form is between 2 and 3 storeys (plus an attic storey in places) with a cartway to one side. The buildings developed down the burgage plot, with ancillary buildings such as workshops, stabling, stores, etc. 

Most burgage plot buildings are medieval in origin, timber frame with the gable end often (but not always) facing the street. Sometimes the timber frame is ‘jettied’ out at first floor level. The 18th century classical fashion resulted in many medieval buildings being refronted and remodelled in brick. Later shopfronts and larger windows were inserted.

The Garden City influence and built form

The other major settlement pattern in Hertfordshire is more recent, dating from the first half of the 20th century and is particularly well represented in Hertfordshire.  This is the Garden City (Letchworth: 1900s and Welwyn: 1920s – 30s) and the New Town (Stevenage, Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead 1940s – 50s). 

Both settlement forms are highly regarded internationally and are based on relatively low density, mainly low rise layout, with curving roads, set back building lines and an emphasis on the use of landscape in their planning.

The housing areas are domestic and suburban in scale, and especially in the new towns, planned in neighbourhoods whose centre consists of local facilities and a primary school within easy walking distance of housing. 

The other feature of these settlements is the strict adherence to zoning, which tends to result in ‘monoculture’ areas. The Garden City influenced to some degree, the density and layout of much of the suburban development in Hertfordshire in the interwar period.

UHC - garden city

Garden City townscape

The typical styles of interwar and post war suburban environments found around most of Hertfordshire towns originate in the two styles which dominated the early 20th Century, the vernacular revival (or arts and crafts) and the neo-Georgian architecture of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden cities respectively. 

The neo vernacular was inspired by the informal and simple architecture of traditional cottages and farmhouses, often with rendered walls, asymmetrically placed windows and steep, sweeping tiled roofs. The neo Georgian, with classical roots, is more formal and symmetrical, with sash windows and brick walls. Hipped roofs were also favoured.

UHC - garden city townscape

Both types are set back from the pavement, behind hedge boundaries. They are grouped around small greens and often along winding roads. 

As a further reaction to Victorian terrace houses, they are predominantly individual, semi-detached or in shorter informal terraces. The overwhelming characteristic of these environments is their spaciousness and the influence of trees and hedges.

Density is usually between 20 and 30 dwellings per hectare. Post war New Town housing echoes much of this spacious, green, ‘low-rise’ character, although with more formality and slightly higher densities. The style of the houses reflects the simplicity of modern and Scandinavian architecture, softened by low pitched roofs. 

Private housing developers enthusiastically adopted these forms and layouts for large volume developments.

Conservation

Objective: The heritage assets of Hertfordshire both enhance its distinctiveness and are sustainable, non renewable resources. New development should contribute to their quality, re-use and management through sensitive design.

Hertfordshire’s historic environment comprises of historic, archaeological, architectural or artistic merit heritage assets. These assets are both designated – such as listed buildings, scheduled monuments, registered parks or gardens or conservation areas – or not designated but identified by the local authority.

In both cases the existence of these assets are material planning considerations. Moreover, new development proposed within the setting of a heritage asset will also be taken into account. The scale and proportion, layout, massing and materials of new development should be considered within the context of a heritage asset (usually within conservation areas or associated with Listed Buildings).

However, sensitive new design should not normally be taken as copying the older building/s, nor should new extensions seek to blur the distinction between existing and new.

New work, as alterations, extensions or within the setting of historic buildings, should instead seek to ‘tell the story’ of the evolution of the original buildings through sensitive contemporary interventions. New work should generally be subservient to the original. The temptation to over-restore historic assets, taking away the evidence of ageing and weathering should be avoided.

The typical styles of interwar and post war suburban environments found around most of Hertfordshire towns originate in the two styles which dominated the early 20th Century, the vernacular revival (or arts and crafts) and the neo Georgian architecture of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden cities respectively. 

The neo vernacular was inspired by the informal and simple architecture of traditional cottages and farmhouses, often with rendered walls, asymmetrically placed windows and steep, sweeping tiled roofs. The neo Georgian, with classical roots, is more formal and symmetrical, with sash windows and brick walls. Hipped roofs were also favoured. 

Both types are set back from the pavement, behind hedge boundaries. They are grouped around small greens and often along winding roads. As a further reaction to Victorian terrace houses, they are predominantly individual, semi-detached or in shorter informal terraces. The overwhelming characteristic of these environments is their spaciousness and the influence of trees and hedges. Density is usually between 20 and 30 dwellings per hectare.

Post war new town housing echoes much of this spacious, green, ‘lowrise’ character, although with more formality and slightly higher densities. The style of the houses reflects the simplicity of modern and Scandinavian architecture, softened by low pitched roofs. Private housing developers enthusiastically adopted these forms and layouts for large volume developments.

At the local level conservation area statements and management plans are being compiled for each conservation area. These documents, produced by local authorities, identify the character of a conservation area and its constituent parts and define what makes the area ‘special’. They may also identify where enhancement opportunities exist. 

Village design statements produced by some communities, can give useful indications regarding the value placed on aspects of character identified by local people. 

The most up to date source of policy and guidance on conservation and the historic environment is the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG), which replaces the Planning Policy Statements. Local planning authorities should set out in their local plan a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment, including heritage assets most at risk through neglect, decay or other threats. 

Local authorities should take into account the environmental and heritage benefits that conservation can bring as well as the wider social, cultural and economic benefits. It is always advisable to contact the conservation officer in the relevant district council at an early stage in the development process.  

Traditional and locally sourced materials

Objective:  To promote character in the townscape by using locally sourced materials. 

The palette of traditional (mainly pre 1850s) building materials is related to the geology and landscape which characterises the county and which gives it its distinctiveness. As geology rarely coincides with county boundaries, it is not surprising that zones of traditional building materials overlap with adjacent counties.

UCH - local materials

Throughout Hertfordshire the basic walling materials are brick and timber frame.  Brick was first used in Roman times (see the thin bricks at St Albans), but was subsequently utilised widely since the 15th century. The predominant brick colour is a darker red, although from the 18th century a white brick (gaults, etc) was used in the eastern half of the county and a more yellow London stock was widely used in the south. 

Timber frame was a common form of construction throughout the medieval period, due to the wooded nature of the county. The frame is of the Eastern England type (closely spaced studwork, usually with curved cross braces). 

From the 17th century, timber frame was gradually superseded by brick. Timber frames were often overlain by lath and plaster; the plaster being given decorative moulding called pargetting, especially in the east of the county. Weatherboarding was a popular form of cladding used from the 18th century, often for agricultural, cottage and mill buildings. 

Less widely used materials are:   

  • Chalk (mainly from the Chilterns), was used sparingly as it is not an ideal building material stone due to its relative softness.
  • Other stones, not native to the region, were imported for significant buildings.
  • Flints often found in clay and chalk areas of the south and East Anglia.
  • Clay lumps mainly in the north east, on the borders with Cambridgeshire.

There is a modest but growing interest in locally sourced building materials and the skills required to use them. 

Regionally there are a number of brickworks and tile works which can produce these materials in large quantities. However white bricks are less easy to source. Lime plaster and mortar is now recognised as a sympathetic alternative to conventional cement based products, allowing natural materials to ‘breathe’. 

Native grown hardwoods and softwoods for cladding and framing are increasingly easy to source. Strawbale, a natural product of the east of England arable industry, is an excellent walling material, often used in conjunction with lime plaster. The qualities of cob and clay lump walling are recognised to a lesser degree, but have the advantage of perhaps being the most easily sourced local material. 

Other traditional materials are used, but are now more easily and economically sourced from more distant locations. 

Thatch: Often more easily sourced from Eastern Europe than Norfolk. 

Slate: Often more easily sourced from Spain and Brazil than North Wales. 

These factors should be considered regarding specification and transport.

A materials module has been produced as part of the suite of Building Futures modules. It complements this design module and should be referred to for more information on the opportunities to use materials efficiently, such as reclaimed/reused or recycled materials.

UCH - local materials bricks

 Brown 'plum' bricks and flints (mainly in west Herts)

UCH - local materials bricks 2