Senior Development Control Officer Charlie McCullough says the owners of this inspirational eco home worked hard to address any planning concerns

An innovative fossil design house in East Devon had to meet stringent planning regulations. Senior Development Control Officer Charlie McCullough talks about his involvement in this fascinating case

Building the house of your dreams is not an undertaking that should be taken lightly, particularly if that dream centres on your home sitting in an idyllic meadow in the middle of AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) designated countryside.

An instant planning no no you would think?

However, for one couple, exactly such a dream did become reality, but it took patience, dedication and above all a willingness to work with – and not against – their local planning authority and a thorough understanding of national, as well as local, planning policies.

Charlie McCullough, Senior Development Control Officer at East Devon District Council, has recently seen the results of this applicant’s labours, which took two years to achieve planning permission and another three years before being finally completed.

“We received a pre-application enquiry at the end of 2012, which involved us meeting with the applicants’ planning agents and their architects, who talked us through their concept for their clients.

“The proposed project was a curvilinear house, shaped like an ammonite shell and clad in materials appropriate to the area (in the Blackdown Hills), including timber, stonework and render. The materials weren’t particularly exceptional, in themselves but were designed to reflect those used on other buildings in the area but used in an innovative way.”

However, what did make this application extremely ambitious was its setting in a rural field, which meant the building had to meet the rigorous requirements of Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework.

“The NPF’s para 55 is concerned with new homes in countryside – basically it says you shouldn’t allow them unless there are special circumstances demonstrated, such as a house for a rural worker or where it will save a heritage building from collapse or, as was the case in this instance, where the design of the house being proposed is of exceptional quality or an exceptional nature.

“The planning agents had done other Para. 55 projects elsewhere, so it was useful that we weren’t starting from scratch and not dealing with applicants who didn’t have a full grasp of the extremely high test to pass. As a result of initial pre application consultations, we advised them that in order to demonstrate how they would reach that benchmark of being of exceptional quality or innovative nature they would need to go through a design review process.

“This involves an external independent panel – who have nothing to do with the council – looking at the proposed design. The panel consists of architects, landscape architects, ecologists and other built environment professionals. They like to see schemes early so they can influence them and they look at a scheme as a whole, to see what it is trying to achieve and then raise pointers over areas of concern.

“We took the case to two design review panels – the first one had concerns about the scale and impact on the landscape, and whether the design had been fully thought through. The applicants then went away and came back with a revised design, which then went to a second review panel who liked the scheme. Following their positive feedback, they submitted an application.

“The application went out to consultation and then went before our Development Management Committee, who unanimously approved it.

In Charlie McCullough’s view the most important thing that made this project successful was the applicants’ dedication to the project and level of knowledge. Plus the trust and transparency between all the parties involved in the application.

“You need to have applicants who are willing to play the long game and to go through the necessary stages. They didn’t try and rush the project and were prepared to do what it took to make it successful. You also need to have councillors who are willing to take a fairly enlightened approach and our Development Management Committee were able to do that.

“When I visited the site for the first time since it was completed, I was surprised at how small it looked, which is a good thing. It doesn’t stand out and sits quite comfortably within its setting. The cladding is beginning to silver down as it weathers and the different timber used gives variation, helping to break up the overall scale of the building, so it is beginning to look at one with its setting.

“The applicants have also worked hard to enhance that setting and have reintroduced traditional plant species in the meadow and created additional hedge banks around the site margin, providing habitat for fauna.

“The applicants helped themselves greatly by positively engaging in the pre-application discussions and seeking to address planning concerns throughout the process. It was very much a case of working together in order to achieve the best possible result.”

The finished house was featured on TV show Grand Designs in October 2017 and was described by the show's presenter Kevin McCloud as outstanding.