Better apartments for the future

By 2051 the number of households in greater Melbourne is projected to almost double from 1.59 million in 2011 to 3.11 million. We face a huge challenge to ensure there is sufficient housing to meet the needs of future households. Apartments are an important part of the housing mix.

Since 2009, Melbourne has experienced successive years of record apartment approvals and development. For the first time there are more apartments being built than houses in Melbourne’s growth areas.

With the explosion of apartments in recent years there is concern across the community with the quality of apartments being built in Victoria.

To ensure apartments are being designed to meet needs now and into the future, the Victorian Government released 'Better Apartments - A discussion paper' in May 2015 and asked for feedback on the issues raised in the discussion paper from a wide range of community, industry and other stakeholders.

Below is David Lock Associates response to the issues raised in the discussion paper:

We understand that there is concern about the quality of apartments being developed in Melbourne. However, we also understand that there is a link between amenity and cost — better amenity often (though not always) costs more to construct. This has an adverse effect on affordability and, therefore, the ability for first home-buyers to get into the market. (We note that in Sydney, where the Residential Flat Design Code stipulates minimum standards, units are currently 80 per cent more expensive than those in Melbourne.)

We believe that many people make a deliberate choice to accept a lower standard of one or more aspects of amenity when buying or renting an apartment, either because this is the only way they can afford to enter the market, or as a trade-off for a higher standard of another aspect of amenity, such as location. An obvious example of this is people who choose to live in an apartment in a converted warehouse or office building, without a balcony or car parking space, because it enables them to live in the CBD where they don’t have the financial and time costs of travel to work and entertainment. Another example is studio apartments without a separate bedroom, which provide an affordable first home option. A further example is people who choose a south-facing apartment for its view, despite the lack of solar access.

Among other things, the ability for people to choose from a wide range of housing options enables them to select housing that matches their lifestyle and financial position at different stages of their life. While a studio apartment close to the CBD may not meet someone’s needs for their whole life, it may suit their lifestyle for a period of time and may be the only way they can afford to purchase their first home.

Stipulating minimum standards for internal amenity (beyond those already contained within the National Construction Code) is likely to remove housing options at the affordable end of the market, reducing choice and lessening the proportion of people who can afford to own their own home. We consider that the NCC already precludes unacceptably sub-standard apartments, and do not believe that it is necessary for government to further restrict people’s housing choice by increasing minimum amenity standards.

However, we do believe that there needs to be a consistent standard for apartment building separation, to ensure development does not unreasonably prejudice the potential of neighbouring properties. Our view is that this standard needs to relate to the height of a building (i.e. the taller the building, the greater the separation), and have the discretion to distinguish between the primary orientation of an apartment and the aspect from ‘secondary’ habitable rooms such as bedrooms and non-habitable rooms such as bathrooms. It should also have the discretion to consider the relative widths of neighbouring properties (and, therefore, their relative capacity to contribute to a shared separation), and the likelihood of a neighbouring property being redeveloped (e.g. to recognise the constraints that heritage or strata titling place on development potential).

There is also a legitimate concern that people do not fully understand the amenity standards of the apartments they are considering buying or renting, particularly with off-the-plan apartment sales. In response to this, we suggest that a rating system be developed for apartment amenity and that each apartment for sale or rent be required to have its rating explained to potential purchasers or renters. A standard set of apartment amenity criteria could be developed, so that apartments can be easily compared. For example, the size and access to natural daylight and ventilation of each room (including ceiling height), living room solar access, balcony size and solar access, energy efficiency, noise, outlook, storage, adaptability, universal accessibility, corridor daylight and ventilation, car parking and provision of communal facilities could all be rated “good”, “standard” or “poor”, based on a standard set of objective 2 criteria. At the same time, the location of the apartment in terms of its accessibility to amenities such as public transport and parks could be rated.

A rating system would ensure that potential purchasers and renters can make informed choices about apartments, without restricting the options available to them. It would also ensure that the price of apartments is closely related to their amenity, so that relatively poor apartments provide an affordable housing option.

Mark Sheppard is a Principal at David Lock Associates. This article recently appeared on the David Lock Associates website.

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