Putting ecology at the top of your design agenda will reap rewards for more than nature alone, says Emma Reed.
For those at the beginning of a project, thinking about biodiversity in your designs should be at the top of the agenda. For those of you further down the line you may well have ecology knowledge coming out of your ears!
Sadly, sites can sometimes be designed from a commercial point of view and their landscape and magic can be all but forgotten. Then, landscape and ecological requirements are put in place by the local planning authority (LPA) and mitigation is squeezed into any available gap and can lack strategy, vision and connectivity. To counteract this, if biodiversity is considered from the outset it can more easily be integrated into a design and can result in a richer environment for all. Most importantly, it must be understood that ecology management is a long-term labour of love and produces rewarding results which evolve over time.
Ecological planning requirements
Each LPA varies with their requirements with regards to biodiversity as they attempt to contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment as set out within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). While a biodiversity net gain (BNG) is encouraged it is not currently mandatory under national planning policy. Most LPAs will require an ecological assessment to establish the baseline ecology on site so the proposals can be assessed against what exists. Some are trying to get ahead of the game and now require a BNG as part of the emerging Environmental Bill 2020.
It is expected that when enacted the Environmental Bill will require a 10 per cent BNG for a minimum of 30 years for developments going forwards. In order to evidence the BNG a biodiversity metric will likely be an additional planning requirement. BNG measures the existing biodiversity against post development biodiversity, ensuring that the site is in a better state than it was previously.
An ecology consultant can carry out the necessary surveys and analysis for you. It is a good idea to gain quotes from different chartered ecology firms registered with the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and to chat with them to see if you can establish a successful relationship. If you are working with an architectural practice or design firm they will likely be able to organise this for you.
Ecological surveys have a seasonal window of time when they can be carried out (May to September for most species) so it is essential to feed this into your programme from the outset. There can be several stages to the surveys so it is best to start early in the season so each can be carried out within the timeframe.
Initially the ecologist will carry out a Phase 1 survey to establish what habitats are present, from that Phase 2 surveys may need to be carried out such as bat roosting surveys. Some Phase 2 surveys may have a more specific timeframe such as in ancient woodland where woodland floor indicator species are most prevalent from May to June, so it is important to be mindful of timings.
Landscape led projects
Every site is unique and, when designing for biodiversity, cues are readily taken from the natural environment surrounding the development. At Reed Studio we have one glamping project which is nestled on the side of a clough (northern English for a narrow cleft in the hillside) at the point at which moorland meets farmland. We took the opportunity to integrate the two habitats with banks of heathland species stretching like fingers across the site and eventually merging with glades of hay meadow, which appear to seep in from the neighbouring field.
The clients in this particular project are deeply passionate about the natural environment and embracing a bank of thistles here and there where butterflies are abundant is right up their street. In this project the hay meadows were to be harvested from local species-rich hay cuts and heathers and bilberries from off cuts elsewhere on site. The site is therefore truly from local provenance and a great success in returning what was once a heavily engineered and levelled horse arena into a site which marries magically into its natural hillside environment.
At another site perched on a brow and overlooking the dales of County Durham, we had a successful relationship with ecologists Naturally Wild (www.naturallywild.co.uk) to evolve an ecologically rich proposal in an otherwise species-poor field. Where local hay cuts were not an option, specifying a more species-rich meadow mix was appropriate, to be managed in a way that the meadow can evolve and not be hindered by the recreational use of the roadside motel-style glamping site. The meadow mix specified had a greater variety of flowering species than the standard mixes and therefore greater opportunity for some flowering species to survive if others might fail.
Emorsgate (www.wildseed.co.uk), amongst other British seed companies, produce different seed mixes of native wildflower that suit each individual site. Tree and hedgerow species were also carefully selected that were seen to be growing in the local vicinity and that would work with the existing site conditions. Despite doubling the footprint of the existing roadside café and installing 10 glamping pods, the 10 per cent BNG required by the LPA has been easily achievable and integrated into a naturalistic design where guests will have an experience of nature and not a monoculture field with pods placed regimentally within it.
Be prepared in terms of time and money. The ecology process is costly, several thousand pounds can easily be spent on ecological impact assessments, arboricultural surveys, biodiversity metrics, bat surveys and any other species-specific surveys. However, in the long term these assessments will give you a deeper understanding of your land and its existing ecological condition, as well as its potential.
If you reconfigure your thinking to consider the biodiversity of your site as an asset you will likely have a much smoother ride. Take the now famous Knepp Estate in West Sussex for example, where a 3,500 acre tract of land has been devoted to a rewilding project. The formally intensively farmed estate is now a rich hive of biodiversity and uses grazing animals as the drivers of habitat creation. A natural system of biodiversity is the unique selling point at this site and visitors are keen to be enveloped by it.
Designing for biodiversity can be a joy if tackled at the outset. Take stock of what you have and look to enhance. Where challenges occur they often provide opportunities that might not otherwise have arisen, and a design outcome that is all the richer.
About the Author
Emma Reed is a chartered landscape architect and director of Reed Studio. Perched on the Pennines of West Yorkshire, Reed Studio provides landscape, garden, farm diversification and architectural design services for clients across the UK, with projects ranging from glamping sites, to rural businesses, workshops and destination cafés.
The studio offers a landscape-led approach to design, creating sites and buildings which nestle within their surroundings. The team prides itself on providing clients with a plethora of design options and also writes technical landscape and visual appraisals to satisfy local authorities, meeting planning policy requirements and assimilating into local landscape character.
Pens and a roll of tracing paper accompany Emma’s every trip and she relishes the opportunity to sketch out strategy plans, concepts and site-wide journeys and experiences. email@example.com / www.reedstudio.co.uk