dKO talks on the Melbourne-Sydney development dymanic

I recently sat down with dKO Principal Koos de Keijzer and dKO Design director Jesse Linardi for an informal discussion regarding their experiences in both Sydney and Melbourne. This follows on from Mark's initial article which explored the Melbourne-Sydney development dynamic and the increasing movement of skilled industry-related firms and personnel between both cities.

Managing architectural teams in both Melbourne and Sydney made the duo excellent individuals to pose questions to, and explore the different nuances between both cities.

Q & A with dKO's Koos de Keijzer and Jesse Linardi

LD: How long ago did dKO establish the Sydney Office?

KdK: 10 years, now.

LD: Do you find you are working on similar projects across both offices?

JL: Historically we predominantly worked on housing in Sydney, with a push more recently towards medium-density high-rise and low-rise, and that’s been with developers from both Melbourne and Sydney.

As you would know the market in Melbourne is hot, partly due to this perception of the ease with which you can get a planning permit for a significant building in Melbourne. In Sydney they’ve got an additional set of guidelines in SEP65 which is a lot more onerous than what we currently have in Melbourne.

LD: An announcement on a similar set of guidelines here in Melbourne isn’t too far off.

JL: Hopefully as I think there’s some value in that. Larger sites in Melbourne have been bought up generally by offshore developers of late, mostly from Asian countries. The flow-on effect is that the prices for these sites have gone up and so the local guys are looking to Sydney which has less competition presently.

LD: Have you found it’s the smaller, more boutique developers here in Melbourne who are the ones turning their attention towards Sydney?

JL: It seems to be the developers looking towards purchasing sites in the 10 million - 20 million site value under pressure. Keeping in mind that that’s still quite a lot of money for a site, yet they’re the ones who are getting pushed out in the current Melbourne market.

The last couple of years has seen Koos and I have driving that process - we go up to Sydney, he's there two days a week every week and I'm in Sydney at least one day a week. We have a team of twenty and there's constant communication; as I mentioned earlier there's been that real push up there into the medium density projects.

KdK: Now probably the big difference between Sydney and Melbourne is that land is much more scarce in Sydney so certainly from a land efficiency point ot view, and density point of view, there's a different paradigm in Sydney than there is in Melbourne.

There's still an abundance of greenfield, idyllic suburban sites here in Melbourne than you would find in Sydney. Melbourne in many ways, is still a very suburban city whereas Sydney, because it's actually constrained by Hawkesbury, by the National Park to the south, by the Blue Mountains, the Basin, is quite limited with development sites so the whole concept of density becomes quite considerable.

For the last few years we've completed a lot of masterplanning, urban design and now apartment design in the inner suburbs of Sydney.

JL: I'll add the Sydney sphere is probably a little less driven by investors than in Melbourne, where the bigger projects here are marketed internationally. I'm not saying they're not in Sydney but much more of the product would be targeted at the owner occupier, so it's a different kind of apartment.

KdK: I feel the big difference for Melbourne architects working in Sydney is that historically Melbourne architects try a little bit harder. We're competing with a lot of big firms up there so when we look at a site we might look at 3-4 schemes and really do copious amounts of research and visualisation of what the urban form might feel like. What you'll find is a lot of our competition up there doesn't actually do that.

LD: Eve in Sydney has been a big success story for your office.

JL: Eve is Fridcorp's first major building in Sydney and was the result of a design competition. dKO prepared the original... there's a two stage DA process in Sydney where the first stage is basically a bulk scale, massing envelope and then there's an invited competition run by the City of Sydney. Three firms were invited: ourselves, SJB and Woods Bagot. It's a paid competition and we were provided with a brief by Fridcorp and we obviously won that competition which was a big win for dKO.

KdK: Maybe explain why you think we won.

JL: Honestly, I think we won the competition because we do a lot of projects in Melbourne where we work in the Richmonds, the Collingwoods and those sorts of suburbs where it's critical to understand context. The culture of the suburb, the materiality, the way people live et cetera and so you don't end up with a big glass tower. Erskineville - this is probably not the right analogy but it's a Collingwood, Fitzroy kind of suburb undergoing gentrification.

KdK: With a lot of really tight, quite small worker's cottages.

JL: So we really embraced that language, the materials, the nature of the building not being monolithic - that's honestly why I think we won.

KdK: And that really is a strong part of our office ethos, we do feel quite strongly about context - a building in Erskineville Sydney shouldn't look the same as a building in Port Melbourne. There isn't kind of like this 'house style'. Certainly when you have that real fine grain context, Victorian terraces and parapets and bagged brick - it's understanding that and trying to identify how we use that potentially.

The dKO-designed Eve apartment complex in Sydney's Erskenville

LD: What was the response to Eve from people within the neighbourhood? Was there a sense of NIMBYism?

KdK: That project is within a precinct, similar to Fishermans Bend where council have a masterplan and has actually been quite adamant as to how the precinct will evolve and develop. Currently there are a lot of old factories, warehouses and workers cottages - in many ways it's not too dissimilar to what's happening down in Port Melbourne's Bay Street where you've got that fine grain mixed with larger buildings.

To Sydney City Council's credit I think they've been fairly... almost European in how they've crafted Erskineville whereas here in Melbourne it's very much left to the developers and architects. In Sydney they probably pre-plan it a lot more, Jesse?

JL: And they also have floor space ratios so you can't do 300m towers on sites that are too small. I actually think it's a better outcome in the end.

LD: Do you think there's lessons that Melbourne should learn from Sydney and vice-versa? From a planning and architectural design perspective?

JL: I think it's obvious that Sydney maintains a the more rigorous approach to planning.

LD: Do you feel there is a perception that the CBD and some inner city suburbs in Melbourne are a bit of a free for all?

JL: I feel that Melbourne's CBD possibly has that perception about it. Certainly City of Yarra, those municipalities around the edges, City of Moreland, they're far more involved and hands on but I don't think it's City of Melbourne, it's that next level up in planning.

KdK: I do currently think Melbourne is a free for all. I think what has made Melbourne special in the past is the diversity of spaces, the big streets, the smaller streets, how the urban form touches the ground. I think a lot of the scale of the buildings.... where everyone's seduced by a sexy skyline but at the end of the day it's about what happens at ground level that makes a world of difference to the city. In 50 years time we will probably look back and say "Geez what were we thinking?".

JL: Sydney could learn tremendously from Melbourne's laneway culture and the grittiness at ground level. Certainly in Sydney's CBD you don't have that quality that you have here. Speaking to a landscape architect in Sydney last week he was saying that they've started to adopt the Melbourne model of streets there. So there definitely is a sharing of intellectual property.

KdK: Melbourne can learn with regards to Sydney's stance toward residential amenity. Having buildings in Melbourne where half the apartments face south I feel is just awful, whereas in Sydney the code says that only 10% of total apartments can face south. That actually forces you to design in a different manner, where intimately some sites work and some sites don't.

LD: Do you want to comment on the planning guidelines that were covered in the AFR article? The three key points were 1) minimum sizes for apartments 2) must be north facing 3) 20% of the site must be open space.

JL: I don't agree on the minimum size for the apartment.

LD: Neither do I.

KdK: I was actually part of the process and I think the process is good. Certainly I think you can do 22sqm apartments well: it's siting and orientation that's what's critical to design quality.

LD: For me what it comes down to is the amenity and provision of quality natural light and ventilation. You can have a well designed micro apartment that you could live in comfortably.

JL: Absolutely it comes down to design.

KdK: Apartment size I feel is quite cultural. Back in the 80's they were much larger, now they're much smaller and I think the more sophisticated the market becomes the more compact the apartments can become.

If you go to Hong Kong there are some really compact apartments that are still afforded a great degree of amenity. The reason why this issue has come into focus in Melbourne is that there's a lot of shonky developers that are racking and stacking their apartments without analyzing amenity and outlook.

LD: Appreciate your time gentlemen.


Vinny's picture

Does this piece confirm that development in Melbourne is of low quality, poorly planned, cheaply designed and built for maximum profits for developers? No surprises there. History will not be kind to this period of Melbourne's development cycle and it's legacy will be one we'll have to live with for a very long time.

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Mark Baljak's picture

Quite the jump to tar every development with the same brush Vinny?

I'd say there's good and bad just like any other city and by industry players such as Koos de Keijzer highlighting the bad, it serves to apply pressure to bringing minimum standards up.

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