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Internal Amenity, one for all and all for one?

Internal amenity is delicate, multifaceted and, most of all, subjective.

The uncertainly and often changing goal posts as to what is an ‘appropriate level of internal amenity’ have long created frustration within the development community. Perhaps as a response to this or, despite all of this, the recent proposition by the new State Government for apartment standards has prompted a lot of new debate and opinion on all things ‘internal amenity’.

Craig Yelland’s article demonstrates there is some heavy opposition to a new apartment code by well-respected and highly capable architects that continue to deliver a highly desirable product across the market. There are also whispers of support, particularly from decision makers who want a transparent process and some defined ‘standards’ for applications to be assessed against.

As a former local government planner and appeals advocate, I have sat on both sides of the fence. There is no doubt that internal amenity has been high on the agenda for local and state government planners and VCAT over the past few years. The uncertainty and inconsistencies between the different decision makers often forces applications into VCAT, creating unnecessary time delays and costs onto developers.

Perhaps this is the latest Government’s answer to the questions the decision makers have been asking for some time. What IS an appropriate level of internal amenity? Do smaller apartments automatically equate to having lesser amenity? The release of the better apartments discussion paper is at least a start to addressing the ambiguity.

The benefit of a code with performance measures is that it provides guidance for decision makers and greater certainty for developers and architects. The expectations of decision makers will become more aligned, which will in turn reduce timeframes for planning applications that get caught up in the system due to subjective and overzealous concerns raised by individual planners or urban designers. A reduced timeframe for decision making is urgently needed.

However, a balance should be struck between common sense, which allows for innovation and appropriate design responses, and prescriptive planning policy, which provides certainty. If policy is too restrictive, innovative architecture, affordable options and public benefit often achieved through ‘pushing the boundaries’ will be compromised. Flexibility and reasonableness must still be exercised.

Internal amenity is ultimately translated into the comfort and experience of the occupant, and to a certain extent what may be preferential to one person may not be to another. We can often trust the good architects to get the balance right and ensure that each apartment is afforded good internal amenity, but for others, the fundamentals of designing a dwelling are often overlooked. This raises the question: ‘what is the minimum comfort level?’ Does a code ensure that this minimum level is provided or does it thwart innovative design and ability for occupants to exercise their personal preference?

This brings me to the often blanket approach to no borrowed light. Borrowed light doesn’t mean poor design or amenity. It provides an option. In a one bedroom apartment, for example, an occupant type would consist of one or two persons, none of which require privacy. The bedroom is for sleeping in; most people desire to sleep in the dark. If the owner / occupant market wants borrowed light, build it when appropriate. There are so many successful examples.

Generally speaking Melbourne’s apartment market is a mature one. Buildings should be designed to offer a diverse range of dwellings to suit the needs of different people and price points. If all one bedroom apartments are 50sqm, does it provide housing diversity? Does a code need to specify that a diversity of apartments should be provided in each development i.e. percentage of one, two and three bedroom apartments. The market will be guided by profitability and demand may not always be met.

During a recent visit to Havana, Cuba I became very philosophical about our planning regulations and way of life in Melbourne. In Havana (and obviously many other parts of the world), dwellings are small, comprise small or no balconies, and living areas are orientated to the street (not to the rear with a back yard). Residents leave their windows and doors open inviting interaction with the outside world; life, music, love, laughter, all the ingredients of a high quality way of life. It reminded me that small places to live can prompt activity and eyes on the street, creating safe and vibrant places.

Do we need a heavily prescriptive code or should it ask questions? Meeting the ResCode standard doesn’t always result in a good amenity or a site responsive outcome given it applies Melbourne wide, but it does provide guidance. Merits based assessment is how planning operates in Victoria and it is successful in the hands of a good decision maker.

A new standard for apartments should be developed in consultation with the industry, including developers, real estate agents and architects who have a here and now understanding of the market demands and development costs. An apartment is a home, it shouldn’t just be an organisation of its parts.

Jo Harrison is Associate - Planning at Meinhardt, bringing 10 years of experience in statutory planning and appeals advocacy for local government in metropolitan Melbourne. Connect with Jo on LinkedIn or email [email protected]

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