By Michael Mobbs

13 June 2012 – A little something from The Burr about apartments and a seminal report, Governing the Compact City, by the City Futures team led by Dr Hazel Easthope

Think about it; you live in a unit, or may one day.  If so, what are you getting?

We’ll come to the air, the noise, the water, the energy and the other nuts and bolts.

First, though, let’s be clear.

If you live in a unit, or own or rent one, you’re neck deep in the fourth layer of government; above you are the local council, the state government then the federal government. That fourth layer is the “body corporate” the little government that runs the place, sets the rules and arbitrates on a zillion things.

Or, hear it from the horse’s mouth, as Australia’s first researchers to carry out exhaustive enquiries into units and governance heard it when they queried the owners, occupiers and body corporates of units across NSW:

“The philosophy of the Act is basically ‘Look, you people just run your own business and have a happy little democracy and everything will work out.’ ….That sort of approach, which underlies the Act, is not good enough. To take an analogy, that’s not how the Traffic Act is run. You don’t just say, ‘Here’s the keys, go and drive a car, sort it out yourself’. There have to be rules, there have to be penalties, there have to be restrictions and all of these things have to be policed” (Owner interview, respondent 139)”

“Initially [the] developer & their colleagues held too many proxies and railroaded the EC [executive committee] for about five years. This nearly resulted in missing the seven year warranty.” (Owner survey, respondent 964)

“It is one of my biggest investments of my money and this is my retirement and I want to have a say and be involved in this issue.” (Owner interview, respondent 102)

“He comes along to the meetings and really only is interested in championing things that directly affect his lot. So that sometimes distorts or takes the committee down rabbit holes of discussions that aren’t really about the common property, but about doing things that would be advantageous to that particular committee member’s lot…” (Executive committee interview, respondent 9)

And, finally;

“Most owners don’t give a damn as long as their money comes in …. one third to a half are non owning

tenants. So the owners live elsewhere, they don’t care. They can adjust their rental levels once a year, they have an agent to look after their property. So in terms of the daily cleanliness and the noise levels, how pleasant or unpleasant, they don’t care, they just rent it out. And any expense they have is tax deductible. So that’s most probably one of the reasons most of them don’t give a damn what goes on.” (Executive committee survey, respondent 53)

“The architect made entitlements to the lots he owned incredibly low and the commercial one he was leasing incredibly high, and then varied them arbitrarily for the other residential lots, making them not correspond accurately with the relative sizes of those units. It took them a while to understand, but some were paying 28-30 per cent more in strata rates than others for similar sized apartments.” (Executive committee interview, respondent 239)

The report, Governing the Compact City,  will stand as the first detailed and broadly scoped analysis of how units are governed, the positives, the negatives, the red tape, some solutions and some barriers to change. (1)

It lays the necessary foundation for reforms needed to make it simpler, fairer and more cost effective and pleasant to live in a unit.

A key goal of the research was, “To explore the role, capacity and effectiveness of owners corporations as agencies of property governance and management in contemporary urban Australia.”

We know that it’s how buildings are used which most affects whether they are sustainable, not their design.

Without the report it’s unlikely strategies may be made to turn existing and new units into sustainable living spaces where water and energy is used sustainably – that is, rainwater that falls there is used, not mains water from far off dams pumped to cause high pollution. Solar and other sources are used instead of coal fired power.

Nor is it likely that, without the report to inform body corporates and reformers, the main cause of pollution, the production, transport and waste of food, will be cut by integrating food production with compact housing.

As one of the least sustainable forms of development the design, governance and the way units use the sun’s light and energy, cars, food and water matter a lot to us all. (2)

City Futures carried out the research and is establishing itself as the “go to” place for urban research and how our cities really work.

One of the few authors of ground-breaking research in Australia, Bill Randolph and his colleagues have shone light on what’s really happening.  It reminds me of Brendan Gleeson’s book, Lifeboat Cities, perhaps the standout Australian enquiry into the past and future of our cities.

Professor Bill Randolph set up City Futures in 2004.  It’s now one of Australia’s top urban policy research centres. It gets the goods on urban planning, housing, design, development and social policy, our work aims to advance understanding of Australia’s cities, their people, the policies that manage their growth, and their impacts on our environment and economy.

Aside from the apparent rigour of the research for this valuable report there are the impressive range of partners to the project:  the owners group which has done so much to put reform onto the legislative agenda, the Owners Corporation Network, set up by Stephen Goddard and some other go-getters, NSW Land and Property Information, Strata Community Association of Australia, NSW Fair Trading, Macquarie Bank and Lannock.  With such buy in it’s possible the next, essential step will be taken – legislative reform.

We can get a handle on the value of the research with these facts from the report:

  • There are an estimated 1,944,125 strata and community title lots in Australia
  • [There is] an estimated resident strata population of approximately 1.2 million people around Australia.

To get the data Randolph’s team consulted 1550 individuals including 1020 strata owners, 413 executive committee members, 106 strata managing agents and 11 peak body representatives.

There’s no reason for reform to be delayed when the report, working from such exhaustive research makes observations such as:

  • Practical implementation of the strata schemes management legislation poses a major challenge for the volunteer committees of some schemes and existing government support is considered insufficient to support this process.
  • Coming to an agreement in strata schemes can be a difficult and slow process.’

How can so many people in so many existing units “go sustainable” with the current red tape?  The answer is clear: they can’t unless they are exceptional.

“Almost one-third (29 per cent) of executive committee survey respondents said that there were problems with building design that influenced management decisions in their schemes. The most commonly identified problems were the complexity of the scheme (for instance, consisting of multiple buildings), the design and placement of services and utilities, the existence of old and heritage buildings, problems with access and problems with drainage.”

Well?

What’s your plan, Mr O’Farrell?

(1)  Detailed information from the project is here. See the final report  here

(2)  The research into the energy used by units clearly shows they use higher amounts of energy than other forms of housing; think of all those lifts going up and down 24/7, the lighting on all the time in carparks and common areas, the pools . . . ; think of the NSW BASIX standards for water and energy efficiency which are far lower than those for houses, and see the study comparing energy use of different building types in NSW which concluded:

“Comparing across building types, both the greenhouse and energy findings in Table 5 clearly show that the surveyed high-rise buildings, consuming on average 49,063 MJ/dwelling.year and generating 5.4 tonnes of greenhouse emissions per year, represented the least efficient housing form.”

Multi-unit Residential Buildings Energy and Peak Demand Study, Paul Myors and Energy Australia and Rachel O’Leary and Rob Helstrom, NSW Department of Infrastructure Planning and Natural Resources, October 2005

(3)  There are an estimated 1,944,125 strata and community title lots in Australia (see Appendix 1). Approximately 81.3 per cent – or 1,580,573 – of these lots are residential or mixed use (based on the reliable figures available for New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). The average household size of households living in flats, units or apartments and row, terrace and townhouses across Australia is 1.9  people (based on figures of numbers of people usually resident by property type in the 2006 ABS Census of Population and Housing). Multiplying 1,580,573 by 1.9 provides an estimated resident strata population of approximately 3 million people around Australia. 2 As of July 2011 there were 595,362 residential and mixed use lots in NSW (see Chapter 2). The average size of households living in flats, units or apartments and row, terrace and town houses across NSW is 2.0 (based on figures of numbers of people usually resident by property type in the 2006 ABS Census of Population and Housing). Multiplying 595,362 by 2.0 provides an estimated resident strata population of approximately 1.2 million people.’

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t. The book shows how Sustainable House has recycled more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year.

See: How to make a suburb sustainable: theplan.sustainablehouse.com.au and www.sustainablehouse.com.au Twitter, m_mobbs