For apartment living to succeed, good design should be mandatory

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Small, dark, airless, claustrophobic. As Michael Bachelard writes today, that is a fair if depressing description of many of the high- and medium-rise apartments that have sprung up in Melbourne’s inner suburbs in recent years.

The tiniest studios are barely hutches. Two-bedders you would expect to accommodate a young family typically cram minimal kitchen, living and dining spaces into one impossibly awkward box. Legally, bedrooms must have access to natural light, but in too many recent buildings this can mean windows facing light wells, frosting onto a living area or a sliver of glass squeezed at the end of a narrow dogleg, a solution known in the trade as a “snorkel” or “saddlebag”.

Developers might advertise high-rise homes as “luxurious”, and they do sometimes come with attractive shared amenities.Credit: Luis Ascui

Developers often advertise these homes as “luxurious”, and they do sometimes come with attractive shared amenities such as theatre rooms and swimming pools. But where it really counts – size, design, layout, build quality, noise pollution and outdoor private and communal space – they often fall well short.

Evidently, this is a problem if we expect people to live in apartments long-term, as they must if we are to efficiently accommodate an ever-growing population close to transport, shopping, employment and amenities. (By 2056, Melbourne is projected to have grown by another 4 million people, though it may well be even greater given previous underestimates.)

While there has been a surge in apartment block construction in Melbourne since 2009, many units have been built with scant regard for the families who might actually have to live in them. Aimed at investors, they typically have one or two bedrooms and are rented to singles and childless couples: households prepared to compromise on space for location, at least temporarily, in a way that growing families can’t.

As architect Natalia Krystal wrote for the University of Queensland in 2018: “The notion that apartments are transitional homes before or after raising a family and moving to the ultimately desirable detached dwelling persists in planning policy.”

Indeed, Victoria’s associate government architect, Jill Garner, told Domain back in 2011: “That high-rise model is an answer to population growth that comes from somewhere like China, where hundreds of thousands of people have been brought out of villages. There is a middle ground that Australia hasn’t managed to grasp yet.”

Last month, Infrastructure Victoria warned there was still an urgent need for more “child-friendly” apartments and townhouses that had space to park a pram, a bathroom with a bath, bedrooms big enough for two children and outdoor play space.

According to the 2021-22 parliamentary inquiry into apartment design standards, families with children are forecast to represent the highest rate of growth in Victorian households from 2016 to 2056, yet in 2015, only 5 per cent of apartments being constructed or marketed in Victoria had three or more bedrooms, “an indication that very few new apartments were suited to the longer‑term needs of households with children”.

Evidently, the market has little interest in supplying this kind of housing, at least while there is still profit to be made from building for investors. More government intervention is clearly required if we are to actively shape our city to better serve our changing needs instead of relying on private developers to do it for us.

The Victorian state government did introduce rules in 2017 – the Better Apartments Design Standards – that imposed a minimum size for bedrooms and living areas, and updated them in 2021 to require better-quality external features and more outdoor space. It was progress of a kind, though urban designer Andy Fergus told the recent parliamentary inquiry that the rule changes had merely “lifted Victoria from the 19th to the 20th century”.

Critically, the government has baulked at mandating minimum apartment sizes, despite it being a measure already in place in NSW, Western Australia, Auckland, Dublin, Edinburgh, London and many cities across the United States.

Meanwhile, as submissions to the parliamentary inquiry suggest, developers are finding ways to “game” Victoria’s regulations, meeting the bedroom size requirement but ingeniously tucking kitchens into hallways or omitting space for a dining table. Again, these are dealbreakers for families with children or others who need a home not a bolthole.

It need not be this way. Nor is this a new problem that cannot be solved. Indeed, in 1946 amid a chronic housing shortage, The Age teamed up with the Institute of Architects and the then-young architect Robin Boyd, who was tasked with producing plans for houses that were affordable, able to be constructed by small builders or homeowners themselves and were properly thought through. We called it the Small Homes Service. It was a different solution for different times, but it proved that affordable did not have to mean horrible. Modest, yes, but eminently liveable too.

After hearing numerous submissions from planners, property advocates, councils and other interested parties, the apartment inquiry last year concluded that a mandatory minimum size requirement, stipulated within the Victoria Planning Provisions, would support good design.

It also recommended there be “a clear and quantifiable definition of adequate daylight”, called for an investigation into improving ventilation and measures to improve communal space and – critically – said the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning should develop guidelines on accommodating families in apartments.

The new planning minister, Sonya Kilkenny, who has yet to respond to the inquiry, should give these recommendations serious consideration, especially considering they come from a bipartisan committee. Melbourne’s much-vaunted “liveability” depends on it.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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