Apartment Design Standards Q&A

In response to the first research findings from the Rate My Building project, journalist Nathan Johnson from Architecture & Design, sent through some questions relating to minimum apartment design standards which have been much talked about since they were leaked to the media in 2014.

The original interview was posted on Architecture & Design.

Nathan Johnson (NJ) – What do you think of the news that Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne is preparing a discussion paper on setting design standards for Melbourne apartments?

Red + Black Architect (R+BA) – I am cautious about this news. On the one hand any step towards improving the design quality of apartments is a good thing. In my view we desperately need a minimum design standard as the free market approach is failing our urban population. On the other hand apartment design standards have been talked about for a long time now and I think it is now time for action. To add in more talk about possibly taking action, one day in the future, will cause thousands of additional poorly designed homes to be built in our cities. Once they are built and sold off they are very difficult if not impossible to remedy.

NJ – What would you as an architect like to see from a set of Apartment Standards for Victoria?

R+BA – First of all we should look at what the problems people are experiencing are. As an example I can refer to some of the responses in the Rate My Building survey research which highlight some of the issues we need to solve

Example One:

“The kitchen lacks storage space for pots and pans. Cabinets are narrow and shallow. Not designed for people who cook their meals.”

  • Occupier of a new apartment (less than 5 years old) in NSW

Not everyone wants to use their kitchen to cook their meals. However by allowing the free market to determine adequate kitchen design, it would appear that inadequate kitchen design becomes the standard built outcome. This is particularly the case on the smaller 1 bedroom and studio apartments. This has an adverse impact on those (who are likely to be in the majority) who want to prepare their own meals. For the sake of a developer’s profit margin in a single year, a large number of residents for the lifetime of the building will have a basic human activity made very difficult.

Example Two:

“Bedroom is too small for a queen size bed.”

  • Occupier of a new apartment (less than 5 years old) in Victoria

Whilst not everyone wants or owns a queen sized bed, for some people, particularly those who are taller than average, a queen sized bed is the only size which will enable a good night sleep. Market conditions are therefore forcing some people to choose between living uncomfortable, unhealthy lives, or not in an apartment and therefore not in the city. I think these are precisely the types of issues that minimum apartment standards should address.

There are other issues pertaining to tower developments which also need further scrutiny. The separation or distance between apartment towers and the mix of apartment types within a tower, I think is also crying out for better oversight. Allowing the market to determine these issues has led to poor outcomes such as in Southbank where very large towers have been built with only a few metres separating them. These may be part of the Apartment Standards or they may be addressed within the planning system. Regardless of how it is done, we need to put in place a system that will get the best built outcomes, not just deliver the biggest developer profits.

NJ – What are the forces driving apartment quality down in Victoria at the moment?

R+BA – Clearly there are a few factors involved. I think a significant contributor is the large amount of foreign investment we are seeing at the moment. Foreign investment is great for our cities overall however it can cause future problems if we get swept up in the enthusiasm and fail to properly plan and design. Many of these investors will never step foot in their apartment and will either choose to rent it out or in some cases leave it unoccupied in the medium term. Just because apartment quality is not a high priority for these investors, doesn’t mean that future occupants of these apartments should be forced into living with below basic amenity.

Some would also be quick to point the finger at developers. Developers have a very strong interest in, and in many cases a duty to make the most money for the company. They are poorly placed to create any change that may have any negative impact on their current or future profits. They will comply with laws and regulations of course but will not aim for higher standards unless they come attached with higher profits.

So we have a situation where a substantial number of purchasers are not interested in quality and the developers on the supply side trying to maximise profits. So then who or what is protecting the long term interests of our built environment?

NJ – How would your version of the standards benefit apartment quality?

R+BA – In my view, a developer should be able to choose between two regulatory frameworks. Option one would be to comply with a series of mandated minimum requirements. These requirements would cover aspects such as overall apartment sizes, minimum room sizes, access to daylight and ventilation and other considerations to ensure basic suitability for a healthy living standard. As a further example, bedroom sizes must be at least a prescribed minimum size to enable a queen sized bed to be easily accommodated. This rulebook approach would enable developer’s certainty with regards to internal amenity requirements.

A second option would also be open for developers which would be more a performance based approach. To achieve compliance they would be required to satisfy the OVGA Design Review Panel that although particular sizes have not been met, amenity has not been compromised. Smaller spaces can absolutely be liveable, however in order to retain amenity, they must be designed very well.

These rules would achieve a higher standard of dwelling which would be suitable for a much wider demographic. It would give the occupiers choice over how they live on a day to day basis and not effectively decide for them.

NJ – Who should be the key parties involved in the design and application of these standards?

R+BA – The clear leaders in the area of design policy are the Office of the Victorian Government Architect. They need to be given the resources needed to finish the job they have started. Under the Napthine Government the OVGA were isolated and had their funding cut, despite delivering excellent results. The key leadership position within the OVGA, that of Victorian Government Architect, was left to sit vacant, despite the previous VGA giving six-months’ notice of his intention to leave. We need this to be addressed in the very short term if we are serious about the design quality in our cities.

As for who should be designing apartment buildings I would argue that we need to give these buildings more respect generally and mandate the use of Architects to design them. No doubt there will be some building designers who have the skills to do the job. For these people the answer is very well discussed in a previous article by the Australian Institute of Architects President, David Karotkin who noted the following:

There are pathways for building designers to become registered architects to accommodate those who do not have the appropriate university degree. Building design professionals who can demonstrate the required competency standards and who are willing to commit to the professional standards and obligations of the Architects Act are able to become registered architects. There is no restriction on who can demonstrate these standards in order to become an architect.

Australian Institute of Architects President, David Karotkin

As our cities grow, it is vital that we design them to be as sustainable, healthy and liveable as possible. There is very strong evidence to suggest that we are going backwards on apartment design. Our current free market approach is delivering developers higher profits but leaving an enduring legacy of poor apartments which will have very negative impacts on our future. Once individually sold off, these problems are almost impossible to fix.

As Winston Churchill once said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

This post originally appeared on the Red and Black Architect blog. Atelier Red + Black are an Urban Melbourne Industry Hub member organisation.

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