How design review promotes good design

And how it can be used to help secure sensitive planning applications.

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But what is it? How does it work? And would it help to secure consent for your project?

Design Review is an independent peer review assessment of design quality. It provides a professional perspective on what would otherwise be a very subjective issue. It results in a written statement that can be relied upon by both developers and planners to be an authoritative appraisal of the design under consideration.

The process was developed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in the late 1990’s in recognition of the fact that the planning system has difficulty in making decisions about design quality. It concluded that decisions about design were often based on the opinion of the planning or conservation officer, people who, typically, would not have received any training or experience in design.

In response, CABE set up a Design Review Panel of built environment professionals that could be called upon to assess the design quality of large projects of national importance. Appropriate projects in the early stages of design development could be brought to Design Review by either the developer or the local planning authority for assessment. Although the panel would be a non-statutory consultee, there was a tacit agreement that both parties would take heed of the panel’s conclusions and recommendations.

In the early 2000’s, Design Review gained a reputation for successfully improving the design quality of many significant projects. Developers who acted upon the suggestions of the panel found that local authorities would recognise the associated improvements in design quality and planners increasingly came to trust the system. Local authorities appreciated the tangible improvements in design quality and developers found that there was a more objective route to obtaining planning permission.

Subsequently, many regional and local design review panels were set up around the country which used the same structure and methodology as the CABE panel to assess important projects in their respective areas.

I have had the privilege of being a member of several national, regional and local Design Review Panels since 2000. It’s been a privilege to have been involved because it provides an opportunity to comment, make suggestions and, ultimately, pass judgement on some amazing projects around the country. Collectively we have made a difference. And when working at its best, the process can make a good project even better or send a poor project back to the drawing board.

But what about your project? How can Design Review help at a smaller scale?

Well, Design Review exists to assist projects of all scales. Developments do not have to be large to be important and we have used the process in recent years to help secure planning on sensitive projects at a smaller scale. Here are two examples:

Case Study 1: A city centre townhouse

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  • A tight site, located in a city centre Conservation Area

  • Adjacent to a terrace of Victorian Grade II listed houses and a Grade II listed Georgian villa.

  • The Conservation officer had reservations about the design and the impact on the listed buildings.

  • In particular she didn’t like the fact that the proposal was taller than the listed buildings.

Review process

  • We presented the scheme as submitted for the planning application.

  • The comments were generally positive but it was felt that there was some room for improvement.

  • There were no concerns about the height of the proposal.

  • The panel felt that, given the domestic nature of the project, the elevations should be made more playful and engaging, perhaps through the use of further decorative brickwork.

  • Following the review we amended the design in accordance with the recommendations, including a more creative and colourful facade.

  • Permission was subsequently granted.


  • Designers and clients need to maintain flexibility and be open to some change.

  • Demonstrating an ability to compromise is a good negotiation strategy.

  • But you should always submit a proposal that you whole-heartedly believe in.

  • All parties considered that the design was improved by the process.

Case Study 2: A subterranean house in a rural village

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  • This project had been featured on the BBC series 'The Planners' and had already received consent via another architect for a single dwelling.

  • It was particularly unusual given that the site was a huge hole in the ground having originally been dug for the village quarry.

  • The site was located in the village Conservation Area and the key planning policy to overcome included the need to ‘maintain or enhance the character of the Conservation Area’.

  • In planning terms, this meant producing something of good design quality (not necessarily, as you might think, replicating other dwellings in the area).

  • The Conservation Office wanted to control the design and this led to a curvilinear, complicated house design that was subsequently permitted.

  • However, the design turned out to be too expensive to build and our brief was to re-design the scheme, maintaining quality but at a more affordable price.

  • Our strategy was to arrive at a stronger, simpler concept but also to advise the client to use Design Review to obtain an independent assessment of its design quality.

Review process

  • Again, we presented the scheme as submitted for the planning application.

  • The panel were complimentary about the design and made only secondary design recommendations.

  • In this case, with client agreement, we chose not to make any amendments to the design.

  • Planning was subsequently granted with no comment from the conservation officer.


  • In this case Design Review was integral to our strategy for obtaining planning permission from the outset.

  • We knew we would be presenting to like-minded professionals and so had a good sense of the design moves that would be well received.

  • Although the process added some cost, it significantly reduced the planning risk.

When to use Design Review

As an architect, it would be natural for me to conclude that design quality is important on all projects and that, therefore, Design Review should always be used! 

However, it would be a rather heavy-handed tactic for uncontentious proposals and it is best suited to projects in sensitive situations or where it is known that the proposals, either their use or design, are going to be controversial locally.

Design Review Panels typically meet monthly or bi-monthly and so there is a limit on their capacity. The costs involved could range from hundreds of pounds for a local review to several thousand for projects of regional or national importance.

Hence it is important to assess the costs relative to the likely risks. Something that can only be done collaboratively between client and architect considering the merits of the particular project.

You can find out more about Design Review via this link to the Design Council.