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Shining new light on Abercrombie’s principles of design

Glass solar panels used within a greenhouse frame Glass solar panels used within a greenhouse frame Polysolar

Ninety years ago Sir Patrick Abercrombie wrote CPRE’s manifesto: The Preservation of Rural England. Calling attention to the aesthetic side of planning, Abercrombie wrote ‘It is necessary to consider … the beauty of the landscape and the principles of design involved in its maintenance. … We want to see if it is possible to put a great many more buildings … into the countryside and yet preserve its beauty either substantially or in a changed form.’

profile pic KHFast forward ninety years, and a lot has changed. Think of new buildings and new forms of energy production such as nuclear power, solar, and wind energy, all impacting on our landscapes in various ways. Our needs have also changed: our demand for power has increased tremendously since 1926. But some things haven’t changed, and Abercrombie’s words haven’t lost their value. His question is an interesting one to re-explore in this modern world.

Something that springs to mind when considering the gap between our country’s energy supply and our growing demand, are the buildings Abercrombie mentioned. Could these buildings help keeping our lights on, while at the same time respecting the beauty of our landscapes? Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations on buildings didn’t exist in Abercrombie’s time, but I wonder what he would have thought of them. We’re fortunate enough to see the sun rise every day: another thing that hasn’t changed since 1926. Equipping our homes with solar PV installations to capture the sun’s energy is a simple and clean way of locally generating electricity. Even on cloudy days the PV system can still produce power to run household appliances and keep the lights on, adding to lower bills and making homes more resilient to power cuts.

But whereas we see less of the sun as we move into winter, we don’t see less of the solar PV systems installed on our home or that of our neighbours. These installations are there 24/7, and are built to last for many years. As with all developments, solar systems can be installed in a variety of ways, and good design doesn’t just happen by chance. Some installations can be considered ‘unsightly’ or outright ‘eyesores’. These poorly designed systems tend to have the largest negative impacts on the visual appearance of a building or the wider landscape, at times resulting in neighbourhood disputes. Yet there are also installations that are beautifully designed, and add to the appearance of a building and its surroundings.

CPRE supports solar on buildings that is considerate of the landscape it’s situated in. We argue for careful siting and sensitive design of solar systems, taking account of the character of the landscape, for example through installing solar slate tiles into a slate roof: closely resembling the colour and size of the roofing material. It’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think most of us would agree that a solar system that is in sympathy with the building and the wider environment could be considered good judgement.

Therefore we need widely available and easily accessible principles to guide the design and siting of solar panels on buildings. For some, not least in relation to new types of solar glass that generates electricity, these may even be seen as new forms of beauty. For example, generally exposed to sunlight, greenhouses can be ideal structures on which to integrate transparent solar PV glass. That’s why CPRE and BRE National Solar Centre have developed a guide and summary leaflet in which we illustrate principles of good design with a range of images of solar systems on buildings throughout the UK. We hope you find it useful, if not inspiring.

What do you think are beautiful solar installations on buildings? Use Twitter or Facebook to share your images: @CPRE using the hashtag #StunningSolar

Find out more

Download the report: Ensuring Place-Responsive Design for Solar Photovoltaics on Buildings

Download the leaflet: Solar Design Tips

Read the press release


A solar system that is in sympathy with the building and the wider environment could be considered good judgement

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