A new rural vernacular?

In recent years a new relationship between town and countryside has been evolving in the UK. While global trends continue to point to urbanisation, more developed economies are beginning to see a movement towards working-from-home and even a modest resurgence in small-scale local industry and commerce. With a large number of people commuting from rural areas to urban ones for work, the logical outcome is that people are likely to be spending a larger proportion of their time in a rural environment. The lifestyle benefits and their subsequent effects on productivity are well-documented and the benefits to communities from a more diverse round-the-clock presence, more flexible family time, as well as the potential carbon reduction and financial savings of reduced travelling, mean that this modest ‘re-localisation’ is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

In contrast to its urban counterpart, rural architectural development is comparatively slow. The lack of economic imperative to adapt and a romanticised view of the rural ‘idyll’ combine to mean that the relationship between home, work, buildings and infrastructure in a rural context is not regularly considered in schools of architecture. How might buildings designed for more round-the-clock occupation work? What if they needed to accommodate community, manufacturing or office facilities in addition to residential? How would this combine with the existing building stock and appease those who are keen to preserve the rural landscape? Suddenly the need for outward-looking social facilities, delivery routes, noise, waste and cross-over with domestic concerns becomes a design and delivery challenge.

There is an irony here: These questions are not really new at all. A brief look at the range in scale, structure and materiality in almost any historic village or town makes it clear that needs evolved over time and periodically required a change in architectural approach. The demands of the late 20th Century were, perhaps, the most out-of-keeping with those that went before, with small-scale industry and retail, in particular, virtually wiped out in exchange for residential-only use and the spread of car ownership meaning that physical contact between occupant and landscape became rare. It is perhaps through the lens of the car window that we have now come to understand the countryside: A museum frozen in time and not to be touched or altered. A place for mini-breaks or a pint on the village green before heading back to town or a retirement village where the inconvenience of noise and activity have been nullified.

With the inconvenience and expense of commuting reduced, the countryside could potentially become more diverse, with a broader range of age groups and backgrounds. The potential for jobs growth in manufacturing and construction (currently industries in relative decline) through supply of materials, CNC, 3D printing and the design disciplines and professions that support them is huge. While traditional making skills are scarce and often unaffordable, high levels of craft can be achieved through the precision made accessible through IT. Small business ownership is again on the rise and the diverse range of possibilities as these meet the existing residential requirement makes for an exciting future, with the demands and expectations of a more global generation representing real opportunities for rural design, with imitation of an imagined historical precedent no longer up to the task.

At APA we are very interested in developing a new attitude to live-work in the rural context and its possibilities for local ecologies, economies and social wellbeing. We have also made this central to our work at the University of Brighton, particularly with reference to the Rurality work of Graham Perring and Kate Cheyne. Our current project in Horsted Keynes, Mid-Sussex, is the first in a series of small-scale developments that combine workshop, office and storage facilities and emphasise the use of locally-generated energy, locally sourced and grown materials and re-use of existing resources within a limited budget.

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