Model apartment configurations from the NSW Residential Flat Design Code

Both the Financial Review and The Age report that the Office of the Victorian Government Architect is proposing a draft standard to regulate the size and amenity of new apartments (Move to ban micro apartments, studios in Melbourne and Strict new rules for high-rise apartments on table).

This isn’t surprising; this is an election year and Planning Minister Mathew Guy has been under consistent pressure about the number and standard of high rise residential towers approved in the centre of Melbourne on his watch.

We can’t see the draft standard because at the time of writing it’s not available to the public on the Government Architect’s website. However the mainstream media evidently has priority access* and tells us the key elements of the draft standard include:

  • Minimum size of 37 sq m for studio apartments and 50 sq m for one bedders
  • 90% of apartments must receive direct sunlight
  • Living areas must face north
  • All apartments above ground level must have a 2 metre deep balcony
  • 30% of building material used must be recycled or locally sourced
  • No more than eight apartments per lift per floor
  • No building should have a depth greater than 18 metres
  • Buildings nine storeys or higher must be separated by a gap of 12 – 24 metres.
  • 2.7 metre minimum ceiling heights
  • Minimum storage provisions – 4 sq m in a studio or one bedroom apartment

Many of these ideas are drawn from the Residential Flat Design Code introduced in NSW in 2002. The NSW Code, which is currently being reviewed, sets out ways to achieve ten Design Quality Principles. It also mandates that apartment buildings over three storeys must be designed by a registered architect. (1)

I don’t doubt most of the ideas in the draft standard would improve the quality of apartment living. After all, the rich don’t buy penthouses for no reason; they’re bigger and better than the average apartment in almost all respects.

The trouble of course is most of us can’t afford to have everything. Much as I’d love it, instead of shelling out for a lofty 2.7 m ceiling I might opt for the standard 2.4 m height so I could afford a location with greater accessibility and a little more buzz.

Or I might be prepared to save money by foregoing a 2 m deep balcony, calculating that above nine storeys it would be too windy to be useful; I might see the vibrant streets and squares that attracted me to apartment living in the first place as providing all the outdoor space I want.

In short, if I can’t afford to have everything, I’ll make trade-offs. For the young singles and couples moving to city centre and inner city apartments, the location is the key attraction, not the dwelling.

The draft standard puts me in mind of the old adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the Government Architect, everything looks like an “amenity” problem that can be solved by “design”.

But regulations have social and economic costs as well as benefits. If implemented, these proposals would reduce the scope for residents to optimise housing choice relative to their available funds (see Should there be a minimum size for city centre apartments?).

They would increase costs for all apartment types, render some projects unviable, and hit those at the bottom end of the apartment market hardest. (2)

That’s not to say there isn’t an important role for regulation. That role includes how developments relate to surrounding land uses and how apartments within a building relate to each other e.g. fire risk, sound transmission. I think there are also some consumer protection issues that warrant regulation because of their inherent technical complexity (see Living in the CBD: does it have to be miserable?)

However given the cost implications, the case for regulation is very weak when it comes to matters that apply to the interior of an apartment and can be easily comprehended by an average buyer or renter. (3)

Prospective residents can readily assess attributes like floor area, aspect, storage provision, ceiling height, balcony size, interior light penetration, and the number of apartments sharing an elevator. (4)

There’s a long history of paternalism in housing regulation that’s almost always increased costs and in too many cases, like the “slum” clearances of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has had disastrous results. Architects and designers need to remember that good housing outcomes require more than one tool.

The NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure’s current review of the Residential Flat Design Code shows the pressure on governments to over-regulate. One proposal put to the Department is to mandate “a range of standard furniture sizes / dimensions” for apartments. Some Councils want the Code to regulate “whether an apartment has a good spatial layout”.

The Discussion Paper produced for the review mentions affordability a number of times but the focus is relentlessly on design issues. Most telling is the absence of any measurement or analysis of how the Code has impacted dwelling supply and affordability.

That’s astonishing given the parlous state of supply in NSW. As I noted recently, significantly more medium and high density dwellings were approved in metropolitan Melbourne between January 2010 and April 2014 than in metropolitan Sydney (see Does housing supply impact on inequality?).

It can’t be assumed all of the shortfall is due to the Code (it doesn’t apply to developments up to three storeys), but it’s certainly got to be one of the prime suspects. (5)

The draft standard proposed by the Victorian Government Architect is a throwback to another era. The authors don’t seem to get that tastes have changed. What matters most for those buying or renting these apartments is where they live. Increasing the cost of that choice will place a burden on all apartment dwellers and exclude some from the locations they want (see Thomas the Think Engine, How small is too small for an apartment?)

It could be really bad news for housing affordability and choice if the Government Architect’s draft standard were to become an election issue. Fortunately, the Planning Minister rightly told ABC Radio on 23 July that he won’t make any decision before the 29 November election. The Opposition should avoid locking itself in on this one too.

See also: Are city centre apartment towers the “slums of the future”?

*Update 6:50 pm 25/07/14: The Office of the Victorian Government Architect says the Fin Review’s priority access to the draft was via a leak (although the Office doesn’t deny any of the specific claims made by the newspaper).

_______________________________

  1. The NSW Residential Flat Design Code is given statutory force by State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design quality of residential flat development.
  2. An architect interviewed by the Financial Review estimated the Government Architect’s proposals could add $40,000 to the cost of building a studio apartment.
  3. 85% of apartments in Melbourne’s city centre are bought by investors.
  4. At most, there might be a consumer protection argument for requiring developers to provide more information about the attributes of an apartment.
  5. The Office of the Victorian Government Architects needs to take into account that most of the developments in NSW that’re subject to the Code aren’t the sort of high rise towers that are the key motivating force for instituting regulations in Victoria.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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