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What is a nice old pub... if it must be new? (part 2)

June 2018



In developing our design criteria for the creation of the pub for modern times we do not intend to prescribe a universal design guide because one of the greatest assets of the country’s pubs is their variety and their distinct regional identity.

However, drawing on the references on previous pages, and as an update of George Orwell’s ten criteria, we now set out our own vision for the next generation of community pubs based on our own ten criteria.

During our research it has been revealing and encouraging to discover that virtually everyone has an opinion on what a pub should or should not be like, whether they be pubgoers or not, or operators, designers or brewers. We have therefore taken care to focus on the history and evolution of the pub, social trends, and on statutory and commercial criteria for example, to establish what we hope will be a more durable range of criteria for the future of pub design rather than just collecting and editing opinion and preferences.

ONE - The first view

The building should be distinctive, highly visible and inviting from a distance with a civic presence and a sense of style, while still retaining a domestic character. 

It should also exhibit, and promote, a sense of regional identity, maybe in its built form or use of materials. It should suggest a sense of occasion and entertainment, but also a sense of informality and community. The sheltering profile of a pitched roof, nicely crafted signage and the promise of a warm welcome signalled by a smoking chimney stack are all elements that distinguish a pub from afar.

Just as Britain’s pubs are unique in the world so is their signage. Pub signs do much more than identify the premises as a pub. They give a personality and a face to a pub, often with humour, historical or local references, or just as beautiful art. Modern planning regulations greatly constrain this wonderful and historic art form and should be vigorously challenged if the genre is to survive and flourish.

TWO - The closer view


On closer view the pub should emit the warm glow of low level lighting, seemingly even during daylight hours, projecting a sense of the atmosphere within, friendly, comfortable, cosy and sociable. 

The pub still suffers from the public’s perception of it as a male dominated boozer and if it is to dispel this image it must offer greater visibility of its charms and attractions, from the closer view at least. The pub frontage and entrance should therefore be sufficiently glazed to allow one to see in, and be seen, before entering.

It should have a covered porch to provide shelter and a welcome, and to clearly light and sign the entrance. It should facilitate cleaning wet and muddy boots, gathering before entering, provide shelter in a storm and be fitted with a lobby to protect the interior from noise and draughts.

The closer view should also demonstrate love and care for the building, traditionally in the form of hanging baskets of flowers or polished brass fittings but could be in the form of decorative finishes or construction, artwork, beautiful signage or landscaping.

THREE - The bar

The bar should be located within 3 or 4 paces of the entrance to facilitate an immediate welcome and should be designed as the main gathering point to promote social interaction. 

The bar is the place where acquaintances are made and friendships are developed, both between guests and with their hosts. It is a meeting place that serves drinks but should most certainly not just be regarded as just a drinks dispense station, as it is in many “food led” pubs which are merely restaurants posing as pubs.  A central location and a bar layout around which guests can gather while allowing the host to attend to them quickly and equally is very important, and from here one should be able to view all the other inviting spaces. It also assists in providing efficient security and supervision.

The bar should have a wooden bar top, or at least a warm and tactile material, with a moulded front edge, or better still a leaning rail that keeps you elbow off the wet bar top, plus coat hooks and a foot rail. More sophisticated venues might have a zinc or even a pewter bar top, or be of timber but inlaid with another material such as leather or beautifully marbled Linoleum. However, they should always maintain that warm and tactile character that says, “you can lean on me as long as you like”.

FOUR - Internal spaces

There should be a variety of spaces, not necessarily subdivided in the manner of Victorian pubs, but linked in an attractive sequence that might accommodate many functions and groups at any one time. 

Some spaces should be smaller and domestic in scale and character and others might be larger and grander for events and evoke a more civic atmosphere at the centre of the community. 

Such spaces should accommodate functions as diverse as individual working, meetings and interviews to parties, all day dining, café and crèche facilities, presentations, informal gatherings of family, friends or work colleagues, club meetings and events, to the quiet reading of the days papers.

However, all these spaces should be part of a larger communal whole, accommodating both the individual within the community and the spirit of community within the individual. In this way the pub can offer a range of social spaces and a spatial experience that cannot be replicated at home.

FIVE - Seating areas

Seating should be designed to encourage social interaction. 

There may be booths, window seats and all sorts of nooks and crannies, and the more the better, but these should feel connected to the remainder of the pub. However, the main seating areas should comprise communal seating with banquettes, large booths and wall benches to suit the configuration of the space, albeit with loose tables for flexibility, so that groups of all sizes can assemble, divide and re-orientate themselves as people come and go. 

Tables with numbers to which guests are despatched without the opportunity of any further social interaction are the antithesis of the community pub. By contrast, the more sociable layouts described earlier allow the pub to perform as a stage for continual social interaction, whether pre-arranged or spontaneous, encouraging banter and debate, political discussion and argument maybe, friendship and romance.

SIX - Finishes & materials

Regarding finishes and materials, as George Orwell said, “there should be nothing fake or false”. 

The antique dealer’s mantra of “worn in but not worn out” is an essential attribute of pubs where they should be designed to improve with age and where the typical commercial pub operator’s urge to refurbish every 5 years is easily resisted.

Other characteristics such as softness, warmth, comfort, familiarity, highly tactile qualities and, very importantly, good acoustics that allow people to talk and be heard, are all essential characteristics of the nice pub, whether old or new, traditional or contemporary. Conversation is the most fundamental activity in a pub and the only reason alcohol is there is because it so effectively encourages this activity, so it follows that being heard is as important as “being served”.  

We do not believe the perfect pub needs to be “uncompromisingly Victorian” as suggested by George Orwell (a great many of our greatest pubs precede the Victorian era anyway) but his advice that there should be “no glass topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak” remains valid.

SEVEN - Fireplaces

There should be an open fire burning in at least 2 spaces. 

The welcome of a roaring hearth is, throughout the ages, a defining characteristic and one of the most familiar images of the pub throughout its history. George Orwell specified “a good fire burning in at least 2 bars”, but the modern British house is so rarely fitted with even one open fire today that this becomes one of the leading attractions of the pub, and one that few can replicate at home.

An open fire can form an effective lure to tempt guests into a space or through a sequence of spaces, but their greatest charm is that they, like the bar, provide a most natural and convivial gathering place, as has been their role throughout the history. They should therefore be planned and sited to perform this role properly, bringing people together, whether seated or standing.

EIGHT - Lighting

The origin of the pub as a home suggests that the most suitable form of lighting is essentially domestic, low level with shaded light sources, creating pools of light that illuminate individual conversations and meetings.

The quality of “snugness” that Pevsner spoke of, “sheltered, low, cosy, for people to stand together”, is well provided by low ceilinged spaces where lighting is naturally floor or wall mounted from multiple lighting points providing a diffuse and warm light onto the side of faces rather than from above.

The current trend for industrial styled lighting is a sorry phase that will surely pass, however downlighting can be appropriate low over a bar counter where the countertop can be used to reflect the light up onto drinkers faces, bathing everyone in a warm happy glow, but otherwise it should be avoided.

Pub interiors should be carefully designed to admit sunlight, particularly the warm glow of the evening sun, permit views in and out and prohibit uncomfortable glare, and the building should ideally be orientated to allow the sun on its face.

The best light of all is of course candle light, providing everyone with their own little “open fire”.

NINE - Features

Pub games, quiz nights, a base for local sporting clubs, creche facilities, live entertainment, open fires and candles on the table after dark are all simple features that the pub can offer that the home cannot.

Other simple offerings such as wi-fi and device charging, a well-stocked first aid cabinet, a post office and parcel collection service are also nice additions, easily provided, that help establish the pub at the centre of the community.

The layout of a pub therefore needs to be gauged to accommodate these ancillary uses where appropriate, and the adoption of a plan that comprises a sequence of separate but interconnected spaces usually facilitates this variety of functions better than the large open spaces often found in the modern pub.

TEN - Outside spaces

Outside spaces, whether gardens connecting guests to nature, birdsong and fresh air or pavements connecting them to the hustle and bustle of the city, are essential features of the community pub. 

They broaden the range of spaces available and widen the range of guests where gardens, for example, appeal greatly to families, promoting the pub as a civilised and caring centre of the community.

Access to external areas should be seamless and secure, allowing an easy flow in as wide a range of weather as possible. Covered external areas are also valuable as they allow the appeal of the pub garden to extend for as long as possible through the year.

Conclusion - The community pub

Both George Orwell and Nicholas Pevsner agreed that, above all, a pub must have “atmosphere”. Adopting the above design criteria will help create this atmosphere, if placed in the management of a convivial and attentive host and provided with good quality food and drinks. 

We have not advocated any style as history shows that “style”, or more particularly “fashion”, has no bearing on the success of a community pub. Many a miserable and gloomy pub perfectly matches Orwell’s stipulation that they be “uncompromisingly Victorian”. Rather, we have tried to evolve broad but rigorous criteria for future pub design based on the treasured history of one of the UK’s most enduring institutions.

John Ruskin suggested that we ask two things of our buildings: that they should “shelter” us and that they should “speak” to us. The ability to speak to us and tell us their stories is a defining characteristic of pubs, more so than any other building in our society, bar none (if you excuse the pun). So, what we do advocate for our future community pubs is that they should speak to us, of their people, of their region, its character and its history. They should tell us of all those things that they have to offer, whether food, drink, architecture or landscape. Above all they should speak of their individual brand of hospitality from which they derive their atmosphere and their vital and enduring place in British society.

Thank you for your interest. We would be delighted to receive any feedback on the issues raised and on our ten design criteria as they continue to evolve. Please post comments below , call us on 020 7739 8279, or better still, invite us down the pub!

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