For many months, there’s been an active debate between Melbourne’s apartment owners, tenants and builders about the need to regulate a minimum size for our apartments. One-bed apartments in Sydney must be at least 50m2, however more than three-quarters of new one-bed apartments being built in Victoria are equal or smaller than this.
So do we need new legislation to protect our state from a legacy of un-liveable dog boxes, or could we actually be better off with no minimum size regulation at all?
Planning Minister Richard Wynne released a discussion paper on inner city Apartments in May and has just finished a four month period of consultation. This means Victorian apartments could soon have new regulations on access to daylight, ventilation, accessibility, noise, and most notably, floor size.
While it’s too early to predict what will change, I think it would be a mistake to follow Sydney and set a new minimum size to increase the floor area of all apartments. Here’s why.
Housing in Melbourne is becoming increasingly unaffordable, particularly for the many new migrants and students who live in the CBD. With every additional square metre, the cost to build increases, and the property becomes out of reach for an extra group of people.
The average construction cost per square metre is about $3,100 for apartments in Melbourne. At the higher end of the scale, The Property Council of Australia has estimated that adding just 5sqm to the average one-bed apartment would increase costs by up to $45,000.
Instead of locking low-income people out of the market all together, our new standards should encourage innovative design to make smaller spaces more liveable. This means clever storage, larger windows, multi-purpose rooms and convertible fittings, such as fold-out beds for example.
Of course, ‘liveable’ is a completely subjective term too. A 40sqm CBD apartment might be totally unlivable for a couple who want to entertain guests or work from home.
However, a single student may find the same space perfectly adequate, particularly if they do most of their work, socialising and eating out of home as many CBD dwellers do.
It’s also important to remember the power of the market in protecting a minimum standard of living.
Apartments that are too small or too poorly designed for any lifestyle will struggle to sell or lease. Banks have also set their own lending limits for micro-apartments in recent years out of fear that the owner won’t be able to resell.
Whatever legislative changes are made, we have to recognise that Melburnians don’t all live the same lifestyle. The way that many of us live has changed dramatically in recent decades, and our lifestyles will become more diverse as demographics change and costs increase.
You could think of this as the loss of a gold standard, or a force that drives us to develop better ways of living. For example, I predict we’ll see more low-income people living in boarding home style accommodation in the coming years.
This co-habitation could reverse the worrying trend of social isolation, particularly in our major cities. By prioritising design and innovation over an arbitrary standard, our future homes can enable us to lead happier, more financially independent lives, but only if we have the right perspective.
Jim Tsaganas is a Melbourne based Building Surveyor with more than 20 years of surveying experience. He is currently the Managing Director of building permits provider Nicholson Wright, which he founded in 1996.