The Planning Minister Richard Wynne on Better Apartments

Walking around some of Melbourne’s best-designed apartments recently, I was struck by how much design could make a small space feel like a home.

I was on the Robin Boyd Foundation’s exemplary apartment tour, showing off the best in Melbourne apartments.

In Victoria, there are some exceptional examples of how clever spaces, light and ventilation can add to liveability, and how apartments built some decades ago still hold their own today.

Victoria’s property industry is brimming with experts in clever design, the very people I’m appealing to contribute to the draft apartment guidelines our government is working on.

In May, I launched a discussion paper, Better Apartments, at the Planning Institute of Australia’s national conference.

The discussion paper was chosen as the best way to kick-start consultation. Rather than beginning with draft guidelines, I want the people who deliver apartments and the people who live in them to have their say from the start.

Developers are lured to Melbourne for its liveability and investment potential.

Record-low interest rates and a thriving property market have encouraged property investors and owner-occupiers to buy. These are some of the factors pushing up apartment approvals in the past few years.

While that is great news for the state’s economy and for our property industry, we need to make sure planning policy keeps pace with the surge in apartment living.

The rise in apartments has thrown up a red flag from local government, architectural and industry bodies around the standards of some apartments in Victoria.

While I’ve seen some great apartments, I have also seen some dogboxes - poorly designed with little access to natural light, airflow and storage.

The Better Apartments discussion paper raises those concerns and weighs up housing needs, market demands and building standards with the aim of improving liveability and affordability.

The government’s goal is to deliver sustainable housing outcomes, deliver on affordability, respond to the desire to live near jobs and services while also supporting investment.

The discussion paper’s focus is on internal amenity, as well as outlook and privacy.

While apartment sizes are a hot talking point, we must keep in mind that good design is the key. There are some fantastic small apartments offering good amenity, natural light and are affordable, just as there are plenty of poorly-designed large apartments.

We are working towards guidelines that give certainty but still allow for innovation and new ideas.

As well as Better Apartments, work has begun on a refreshed Plan Melbourne strategy and we have begun detailed work to plan the country’s biggest infill opportunity, Fishermans Bend.

We aren’t starting from scratch. Rather, major issues left out of Plan Melbourne and Fishermans Bend plans to date, such as energy efficiency, housing affordability and climate change, will be included.

Future planning work will also factor in the major infrastrcuture projects the Andrews Labor Government has committed to, such as the Melbourne Metro Rail project.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can deliver innovative, robust, world leading policy in apartment design. We will be holding stakeholder forums and already, online submissons and survey responses are rolling in.

We will strive to deliver apartments to balance affordability and liveability, in buildings which enhance the city skyline and the streetscape.

Melbourne leads the world in liveability, let’s see that reflected in our aspirations for apartment living.

The Hon Richard Wynne is the member for Richmond and the Minister for Planning. Follow the Planning Minister on Twitter.


Martin Mankowski's picture

While apartment sizes are a hot talking point, we must keep in mind that good design is the key. There are some fantastic small apartments offering good amenity, natural light and are affordable, just as there are plenty of poorly-designed large apartments.

Glad to hear him say this. Hope this means when the guidelines are finalised, they don't mandate a minimum size, but focus on design elements. Fingers crossed.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

It is very difficult to get a consensus on what good design is and even more difficult to translate that into workable planning controls.

It is much easier to just apply a mandatory minimum apartment size and pretend that will solve the problem.

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Bilby's picture

Martin, the comments that there are "... fantastic small apartments ... just as there are plenty of poorly designed large apartments" could be read as suggesting that the numbers being constructed in each of these categories are in any way comparable. I recognise that this is not what you are saying, but it could be interpreted in this way. The legacy of the current boom is both poor design / amenity and small sizes. If it had only been poor design, that would have been the lesser evil than what we now face as a society - poor CBD planning resulting in a lack of diversity of housing options into the future.

Who would argue that there are not vastly more poorly designed small apartments being built than poorly designed large ones?

The fact is, poorly designed small apartments vastly outnumber any other category being constructed right now in inner Melbourne. The "fantastic" design examples are often cited, but are remarkable more for their rarity than for their exemplary design credentials per se.

Hence, we need either mandated minimum design standards and sizes, or performance based design standards, or both. And I would still argue that a poorly designed large apartment offers more hope for future adaptation of buildings than a poorly designed small apartment - unless it becomes economically feasible to consolidate Melbourne's badly designed small units in the future.

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Laurence Dragomir's picture

The fact is, poorly designed small apartments vastly outnumber any other category being constructed right now in inner Melbourne.

I wasn't aware that this was fact.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

So we need more larger apartments to address a lack of diversity of housing options into the future for Melbourne?

People forget that despite the recent growth in apartments Melbourne is still a city which is dominated by free standing dwellings with more than 3 bedrooms. Over 70% of dwellings in Melbourne have three or more bedrooms with only 6% having one or less bedrooms.

The boom in smaller apartments is making up for a historical lack of housing options in Melbourne.

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Melbourne_Fragments's picture

^ in the CBD and southbank,compare the number of cramped, poorly designed CE style apartments, even with slighty glossier externals from the likes of Brady, with genuinely diverse and creatively designed apartments. There seems like a pretty clear gap between the former, and the latter, which are generally only possibly to afford with a 6 figure salary, and not much in the middleground.
In any case all we're really seeing built is the same old curtain wall disguising shelves for the most part, nothing truly exemplary.

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Martin Mankowski's picture

^^ Agreed Laurence.

Nor was I aware that maker apartments bigger automatically makes them better, and will solve all our problems.

Bilby - Interesting you mention a lack of diversity in our housing stock. Because a lack of diversity is exactly what you'll get if you enforce minimum sizes - apartment after apartment @50sqm. And they wont be any better designed - just bigger. They wont be any incentive to be more innovative in terms of use of space. In fact it will almost certainly be the opposite, as developers desperately try to save money to compensate for the fact that they can now build less apartments in the same space.

Your obsession with size is nothing more than a victory of idealism over practicality. The reality is bigger apartments will result in price rises, as no developer will swallow the cost of being able to build less apartments themselves. Higher costs will result in lesser demand, resulting in less apartments being built. Once again people will be priced out of the inner suburbs, and so will be forced back to the outer suburbs, once again living the dream of 5 bedrooms and a theatre room for $350K in picturesque Cranbourne, whilst enduring a 1.5h car trip to work. And all so you can impose your ideal of what a good size apartment is. Because, hey, lets face it - the market are too stupid to work it out for themselves, right?

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Bilby's picture

Yes, the market is "too stupid" - not only to elevate the standard of design in our booming apartment industry, but tin general. "The market" is not an intelligent entity, whereas human beings are. Perhaps the market is ok for deciding whether suppliers put Pink Lady apples on the shelves rather than Jonathans, but in this case it's people / citizens who should decide what the present and future of Melbourne's housing situation should be - not the market.

To address your other points, Martin: I never said "bigger automatically makes better". I would advocate for improved design standards, not bigger apartments per se. Better design for the city as a whole involves building morel larger apartments, however.

Lastly, from the evidence available, it would certainly appear that in terms of the numbers of apartments being built right now (or let's say over the past 2 years), there are more small, poorly designed apartments going up in Melbourne than any other kind of apartment (or housing category) being built in inner Melbourne at present. Most apartments of this nature are being built in the CBD, but this problem is not exclusive to the CBD. Pick a large project in the CBD at present with 1 bedroom apartments in the lower end of the buying range, and do an analysis the the quality of its apartment stock - are they of high or even medium design quality?

I do stand to be corrected, but as I said, in inner Melbourne, the evidence suggests that most apartments currently being built are neither large, nor are they well designed. If anyone can present evidence to the contrary, I would feel more encouraged that our city is building for some sort of sustainable housing situation.

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Riddlz's picture

Where is this evidence that they are mostly poorly designed? Do you have anything to back it up other than your own hearsay or anecdotes?

Is it possible that you have such incredibly high standards for apartment space and design that almost nothing meets your expectation? I hope you can at least see that not everyone has the same expectations and standards as you do?.

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Bilby's picture

Nope. All hearsay and anecdotes here.

And you?

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johnproctor's picture

^ the evidence is in the insatiable demand for the apartments that you say are neither large or well designed.

They clearly are large enough and well enough designed for many owner occupiers and investors to purchase and for those investors to then rent out to applicants.

You don't have to live in them and neither does the Planning Minister or anyone at the Victorian Government architects office.

Many young professionals, local and international students, retirees looking for a city pad to match their tree change home are really keen to move into the inner city and the CBD in these 'dog boxes' because they don't see them as dog boxes, they don't see them as restrictive or depressing, they see them as a few steps away from everything the city has to offer including a park instead of a backyard or balcony, a restaurant instead of a full size kitchen, a gym instead of an exercise room, a library instead of a study.

I plan to fill in the questionaire but frankly it is set up in such a way that most of my opinions on how the real world operates cannot be answered in the questionaire. As other writers have said on this site it is (deliberately or not) leading.

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Bilby's picture

Demand for housing is not 'evidence' of how well or how poorly it is designed. What other options are there in this price bracket?

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Martin Mankowski's picture

Demand for housing is not 'evidence' of how well or how poorly it is designed. What other options are there in this price bracket?

Like I mentioned above, the other options in that price bracket are to buy a bigger house, or even apartment, in the outer suburbs. However people are still choosing to buy a small apartment in the inner suburbs/cbd. Not because they have to, but because it suits their lifestyle. Because they are happy to make that trade off. And you want to take that choice away from them. The idea that, whilst they may think they are perfectly happy with what they have, deep down they are not, and that it takes people like you to point it out to them, is the height of arrogance.

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johnproctor's picture

Honestly on this issue Bilby is just an auto-bot not open to considering anyone else's view of the world but his own.

Its fine to strongly believe in your own opinion but to not even acknowledge the different opinion being put forward by others is pathetic.

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Bilby's picture

There's a difference between disagreeing with an opinion and not acknowledging one. I always try to acknowledge others' views by responding directly to their arguments and giving them the critical attention they deserve. Would you prefer I merely agreed with everything said on this forum?

In any case, I'm not saying that people think that they are perfectly happy with their housing. In fact the opposite. If individuals are happy with their housing, whether a house or small 1 bedroom apartment, that is absolutely great. However, there are many people who end up in housing situations that they themselves consider far from ideal, even though there are other options available. For many, the trade-off between the 'burbs and the city is not worthwhile, even considering the space and amenity issues they may face in the inner-city or CBD. I still argue, however, that this doesn't mean that they would consider their home in the city to be well designed, or even pleasant. I will freely admit that my own home right now is downright uncomfortable and poorly designed, but I persist because I need to live close to work and close to the cultural life I enjoy. I grew up in the suburbs, and I won't return unless was literally forced to do so.

That doesn't change the experience of my housing, though. So, my conclusion remains, demand for inner-city housing says little about how well or how poorly it is designed, and a great deal about how well it is located.

I certainly wouldn't advocate changes to the design code that increase costs - I simply believe that better design = a better quality of life and ultimately, a better society for all.

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