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The Shoe Box Effect

Recent debate around the eagerly anticipated release of the Better Apartment Design guidelines from the Office of the Victorian Government Architects (OVGA) provides the perfect opportunity to closely examine the implications of the standards and draw some national and international comparisons.

Shrinking apartment sizes are nothing new. It’s a growing phenomenon in Australian capital cities and is evident globally in places such as London, New York and San Francisco, as the affordability of spacious housing becomes an unattainable dream for those seeking inner-city living.

The release of Plan Melbourne, which cements the directive to increase densities in and around existing centres close to jobs, services and public transport, and limit urban sprawl; will only support the trend towards increased apartment living.   

The production of apartment standards for Melbourne has been triggered by the prevalence of the ‘micro apartment’ trend largely driven by developers and overseas investors. This highlights an obvious gap in controls around apartment sizes and design, which has led to some poor amenity outcomes for occupants.

In an ideal world the market would self-regulate and the industry would deliver a product that people want to buy. However, in the current investor-led climate, the products are being found to be increasingly disappointing. In the words of The Australian Institute of Architects’ Victorian president, Peter Malatt:

''Many of the apartments are not much better than a motel room. We can’t live in a motel room for the rest of our lives.''

The Better Apartment Design guidelines have not been officially released but speculation is rife around their content. Allegations include that the new standards will regulate minimum apartment sizes, sunlight access, ventilation, and balcony sizes and that these controls will be mandatory for all new apartment development.

The use of minimum apartment design standards are already operating in NSW and New Zealand. The optimistic feedback from these case studies is that yes, there will be impacts on housing supply and construction cost, but although there will be initial resistance and frustration, the developers will accept that it leads to marketable outcomes.

The document proposed for Victoria is said to be based heavily on NSW’s State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development (SEPP 65) and the supporting Residential Flat Design Code, introduced in 2002. SEPP 65 sets out minimum mandatory requirements governed at State level with Council’s having further jurisdiction to tighten these controls through their Development Control Plans (DCP’s).

The general consensus seems to be that SEPP 65 has improved apartment design and amenity in Sydney. However, on the downside it has introduced further hurdles for developers in the planning process, said to be stifling development, resulting in inflexibility in design and producing an impact on housing affordability. The ability for councils to further increase the minimum apartment standards has also caused much anguish, with some councils choosing to up the minimum apartment sizes by as much as 20m2, resulting in a myriad of controls across different municipalities.

What then is the right balance? Given the current situation, it is clear there needs to be State-led direction and governance to avoid unliveable apartments, but what can be learnt from the criticisms of the NSW system?

I think it’s in the implementation. Design by Innovation not Regulation is the term used by Australia’s Urban Taskforce (in relation to SEPP 65). Yes, minimum standards will provide certainty. But mandatory controls do not provide any flexibility to acknowledge a quality design response and something outside the box (excuse the pun). If something is well designed do the minimums and numerical requirements matter? On the flipside, an apartment that meets all of the minimum requirements can still be poorly designed. These guidelines also need to be conscious of new innovations in apartment living and the adaptable lifestyle of apartment dwellers.

The necessary flexibility could be provided through adopting performance-based criteria within the guidelines. This would provide for innovative apartment design while still ensuring there are standards that need to be met with clear guidance on how to achieve these. The guidance should not only assist the designer but also give Council clarity in making a decision. This flexibility could allow for smaller unique sites on which it would be development prohibitive to enforce mandatory controls.  What about the idea of bonuses or trade-offs on more negotiable requirements, which support flexibility but still ensure the amenity essentials are provided?

New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, has very prescriptive minimum apartment standards, all discretionary and able to be varied on a case-by-case basis. This level of detail even calculates the distance a room relying on borrowed light may be from the light source based on a percentage of the size of the window. Confused? Think of the time spent by council officers in assessing each case - Even more hold ups to development.

Back in Victoria, the City of Melbourne’s Draft Housing Strategy, Homes for People, identifies the need for more affordable housing in Melbourne. It identifies affordability, along with housing diversity and design quality, are being impacted by high land values and construction. In the same vein, a key challenge the council is facing is that quality, amenity and performance are decreasing while density is increasing.

Can the infamous Better Apartment Design guidelines address all of these issues and result in better place-specific built outcomes for Melbourne’s apartment stock?

The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding (or the implementation). The OVGA must ensure compliance does not stifle innovation and progress in its mission to provide a ‘clear, coherent and fair’ context for development.

town planning melbourne, apartment living, apartment sizes

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