Dear Melbourne: it’s time to bring back the suburban flat

The ‘six pack’ flat and all of its variants have consistently provided an affordable alternative to the detached house in suburban Melbourne for over 80 years. All signs point to contemporary versions of the traditional ‘flat’ playing an essential role in meeting future housing needs.

If Melbourne is to cope with the sort of growth forecast in the coming 20 years, then more people will need to embrace apartment living. Around one-third of our future housing need is expected to be in our suburbs, so for many people, these needs will be best met by low-rise apartments in middle and even outer suburban Melbourne.

Yet the job of getting on with delivering more suburban apartments seems to have been side-stepped in the rush to avoid the sort of suburban backlash that caused political havoc in the mid 2000’s.

Housing supply in Melbourne’s established suburbs will need to move beyond townhouses and a few apartments in shopping centres. We need to find a way to deliver new forms of well-designed low-rise flats for the 21st century.

Source: Domain

Melbourne’s rich history of flat design

Melburnians have a largely unheralded history of living in flats. In the pre-war era, flats were the dwelling of choice for wealthy bohemians looking for an alternative to the terrace or suburban bungalow.

The Art-Deco ‘garden flat' with its central courtyard and separate entrances became somewhat of a Melbourne design signature. The pre-war era saw many notable flat complexes constructed, most of which are now prized for their architectural quality and distinctive interiors.

The 1950's and 60’s brought on a flat boom, and the advent of the ubiquitous ‘six pack’ flat. The Uniform Building Regulations and municipal planning controls in the 1950’s led to the creation of the six pack typology which delivered the largest yield from the permitted building envelopes.

Whilst many regard them as ugly ducklings, these flats provided a valuable source of affordable housing in transport and job-rich locations across inner and Middle Melbourne in the post war ‘long boom’.

The common failings of the six pack were less about their interior design than their relationship to adjoining buildings, backyards and streetscapes. They took their amenity from the neighbours gardens and the ground plane was largely dedicated to car access and parking. These narrow corridors of land along boundaries provided basic daylight access and the minimum permissible separation from neighbours.

Despite these stark design shortcomings, walk-ups provided very affordable rental accommodation for migrants, low income families and young adults. In fact they continue to provide an important supply of affordable housing in suburbs that would otherwise be completely out of reach of low and middle income earners.

Source: REA Media

The demise of the Six-Pack

The collapse in the flat market in the late 1970’s was partly, but not entirely, driven by public backlash and more restrictive planning controls. Economics were also at play, as housing demand by baby boomers weakened, interest rates increased and the price of land in inner Melbourne escalated.

The early 1990’s saw the creation of new residential design codes to facilitate low-rise residential development across Melbourne’s suburbs. These codes re-shaped medium density housing typologies across suburban Melbourne. The walk up flat disappeared and was replaced by one and two storey townhouse developments.

Well-heeled suburbs like Camberwell and Balwyn experienced a rapid growth in townhouses, which then led to the ‘Save Our Suburbs’ backlash has politicised residential development ever since.

Resident opposition to infill development saw many Councils codify neighbourhood character policies in their planning schemes. These policies were viewed sceptically by many as a tool to limit urban consolidation, or a “code for keeping things as they are … the ethos is exclusionary and anti-change.”[1]

The debate over what the term neighbourhood character means in the context of a rapidly growing city continues to this day.

Source: Homehound

New suburban flats for the 21st Century

Low-rise apartments are needed in accessible locations right across suburban Melbourne. They make a great contribution towards housing diversity, affordability and urban consolidation – they can deliver densities of 45-60 dwellings/ha whereas townhouses typically yield circa 30 dwellings/ha.

Applying a paradigm of preserving neighbourhood character everywhere simply won’t deliver the housing outcomes we need. Residential zoning along transport corridors, around shopping centres and train stations needs to actively facilitate contemporary apartment typologies, and it’s time we began to simply accept the fact that these locations will change in character as part of Melbourne’s evolution.

If we are to avoid the public backlash against flats of in the 1960s then a nuanced approach is needed to the design of the modern flat. There are plenty of excellent contemporary examples to be found across Melbourne.

Contemporary suburban flat developments will necessarily be multi-storey buildings. They will be modestly taller than the traditional suburban bungalow, and they will not conform to narrow definitions of ‘existing neighbourhood character'. They will be better designed and better neighbours than their 1970's antecedents.

There is an urgent need to revisit zoning across suburban Melbourne to promote more low-rise apartments in accessible locations, as well as focusing our collective efforts on design issues such as:

  • Promoting lot consolidation to enable better integrated flat designs;
  • Promoting quality internal design of apartments rather than the obsessing over the size of apartments;
  • Providing shared facilities such as common gardens, laundries, car-share schemes, dining facilities, rooftop decks, etc.;
  • Providing less on-site parking in locations well served by other transport options;
  • Greater use of basement and semi- basement parking to free up ground space for built form and greenery;
  • Promoting the use of durable, low maintenance construction materials;
  • Improving the environmental performance of dwellings.

I think that Melbourne would be better off if the community at large were more concerned with these design challenges rather than attempting to shoehorn new apartment designs into rigidly defined notions of ‘existing suburban character’.

[1] An expression used by the developer of the award winning St Leonard apartments (St Kilda) at the time of Rescode’s release in 2001.

Mark Woodland is a director of Echelon Planning.


Rohan Storey's picture

I totally agree that suburban apartments should be encouraged, and a lot of the time there isnt much character to match - but it does depend exactly where they are proposed. Interestingly the middle ring areas where many of the six packs were built would now be seen as heritage rich, even where not actualy heritage areas, and even where theyre mostly interwar bungalows, and these are exactly the areas where the new residential zoning has been applied, mandating large areas to single houses on 1/4 acre blocks, and three storey maximums where multi-unit are allowed.

So that zoning would have to change if there is to be any great increase in density within reach of trams - though why not increase density further out ? In fact, why not build flats on the fringe ? Since there's no planning rules against this, I assume that the market doesn't want it, or thinks it wont sell. Why don't developers build small units on chealer land further out and create some really affordable housing ??

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Bilby's picture

A profound question, Rohan. And since no one has tried it, the thesis that they won't sell is entirely untested.

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johnproctor's picture

You can buy both apartments and townhouses in most growth areas... Townhouses are becoming a much more common option, first trialled in craigieburn town centre highland estate by lend lease I think.

Here's an example in tarneit, equivalent size to a single fronted terrace in the inner city. Can search apartments South morang to see a 60 unit development going on out there.

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Rohan Storey's picture

Thanks for that John, yes I had noticed there were some here and there, but forgot, probably because there are so few ultimately. But its a start, and if they sell, then maybe future estates might have more substantial town centres with dozens or hundreds of flats and townhouses clustered around / on top of the shops and PT transport node - but long way to go to get to the kind of very high densities, even high rises, as seen on the fringes of greater Toronto.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

The suburban flat has been back for quite a few years already.

Recently in inner and middle ring suburbs in Melbourne small apartment developments with basement parking are becoming just as common as townhouse developments.

Even in the outer suburbs these developments are selling well and getting built.

Here are a few in Caroline Springs:

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

Rockbank Town centre:

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Rohan Storey's picture

Wow had no idea Caroline Springs had a second (proper) town centre with another lake, shopping centre, hotels and apartments ! Might feel like a real actual place - though still a bit over spacious and car-based, but not far off. Rockbank as well, and in the far future the Werribee East thing - what about all the others I wonder ?

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