By Anne White
24 April 2012 –
Since I started working in NSW I have become interested in how we are achieving market led urban consolidation in the inner city areas. Whilst all our state plans aspire to urban consolidation to accommodate our growing population, I question whether in some areas we are truly achieving this.

In particular I am referring to apartment block developments where the units can cover the whole of a single level and often the size of a large house. Apartments that I have termed McUnits.

I have carried out some initial research into this topic – but I believe that the growing trend of McUnits is a new phenomenon.

I believe that this phenomenon needs to be further investigated, and monitored, as Sydney is required to accommodate a larger population.

I will start by introducing the term McUnit, and how this research topic developed. Then, using Sydney as the focus I will provide case studies and examples of McUnits.

I will be specifically focusing on the inner city suburbs of Manly, Mosman, North Sydney and Woollahra. I will then go on to identify their attributes, but also the issues that I have noticed with the McUnit phenomenon and its lack of contribution to urban consolidation. Before identifying possible planning mechanisms to limit their spread.

And finally I will highlight possible next steps and additional areas of research.

But before we look at examples of McUnits – I firstly wanted to introduce McMansions. They are large and sprawling homes often with two or three fronted garages.

The homes are packed full with entertainment rooms, formal and casual dining rooms, bars and kids rumpus rooms. Rows and rows of these houses can be found in Sydney’s west.

In fact the term McMansion has now been immortalised with an entry in the Macquarie Dictionary.

“A home viewed as large and opulent but lacking any individual character or charm, and not blending with the other houses in the neighbourhood.”

New data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this year confirms that Australia is still building the largest homes in the world. The typical size of a new free standing Australian home has reached 244 square metres. So how does this compare to the rest of the world?

The average new home built in the United States has shrunk to 222 square metres, 10 per cent smaller than the average Australian home. Conversely Britain has the smallest average home sizes in Europe at 76 square metres.

Sydney’s houses are by far the nation’s biggest with new free standing house typically spanning 270 square metres.

But what I am particularly interested in is whether the attraction to large homes is also applicable to units in Sydney.

Residential flat buildings are traditionally used as a form of higher density urban consolidation. Sustainably located in the inner city – to make the best use of the existing infrastructure, and other amenities.

Single homes are knocked down and replaced with a larger number of smaller units.

But is this really high density living when the building consists of only two or three large apartments?

Are we missing opportunities for urban consolidation – because our appetite for large units in Sydney is getting bigger and bigger?

I have focused my research on the central eastern suburbs around the harbour, close to the city. With excellent infrastructure and amenities, these are exactly the kinds of areas where we should be looking to maximise urban consolidation.

Surely this is just good planning practice?
So the suburbs that I have concentrated on include Manly, Mosman, North Sydney and Woollahra.

But before I started investigating McUnits in these areas I firstly wanted to explore what the metropolitan plan 2036 is proposing for the Sydney metropolitan area.

This metropolitan plan sets out the long term planning framework and is prepared by the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. The plan recognises the expanding population of Sydney, which will need to accommodate an additional 770,000 homes by 2036.

It specifically identifies that these homes should include a range of housing types – sizes and affordability levels – for a growing and ageing population. These new homes should be driven by urban consolidation with 70 per cent located in existing suburbs.

The delivery of these new homes will be driven by the subregional strategies, Each council area is covered by a draft subregional strategy, which identifies housing targets that should be facilitated by the local controls.

Each local council area is given a housing target to achieve. These are the targets for each of the council areas I identified, to be achieved over the next 25 years. These targets were calculated by the department after considering household and dwelling projections, demographic and economic trends, land capacity, infrastructure and feasibility.

But what about the communities desire for large and over sized units?
Because whilst the number of dwellings is increasing in each of the council areas I have focused on, the number of bedrooms has increased at a greater rate, and therefore so has the size of the unit.

And at the largest end – the creation of McUnits.

Finding examples of large, over sized units in these areas is not difficult. in the council area of North Sydney and just north of the Sydney harbour bridge is a whole floor apartment which is currently for sale.

The advertisement describes it as “house like living”. It has three beds, two baths and two  car spaces, and is 279 square metres. Larger than the average Australian home by 36 square metres.

A unit recently placed for sale in Balmoral is located on the water front in the council area of Mosman. Again this is a whole floor apartment, and one of only four units. So isn’t only four units a missed opportunity? Couldn’t more units have been accommodated on the site?

A proposed unit in Double Bay in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs contains three bedrooms, two with ensuite. There is a main kitchen and a service kitchen. The service kitchen has direct access to the lobby to allow a discreet entry and exit for servicing.

There is even a grand piano shown on each floor plan. The unit size is 385 square metres, 140 square metres larger than the average Australian free standing home – and five times bigger than the average British house size.

A purpose built Mc Unit in Fairleigh, west of Manly beach is designed over two levels, in a block of only  three units – Its facilities include a private gas heated swimming pool and spa. As the advertisement says – it is more like a house than an apartment.

At 485 square metres this unit is twice the size of the average American home.

A harbor front unit in Vaucluse on the eastern suburbs peninsula is one of  four and takes over the whole floor. It contains three bedrooms – all ensuite – and has a total size 644 square metres.

This is a newly completed unit, which was built on the same site as a five unit residential flat building and a single dwelling house. So when this unit block was developed there was a net reduction of two dwellings.

Despite being over 600 square metres  this unit only has three bedrooms. Is this really the scale of development we should be approving in our inner city? Is this kind of development sustainable? Not all these amazing units are purpose built.

Then there is a building that recently gained approval for alterations and additions. The existing building is a 40 year old water front residential flat building in Point Piper – located in the council area of Woollahra.

The block previously accommodated 12 units. The application was to “alter” the existing building.  This unit block has been converted from 12 units – and now only contains six units. One per floor. The average unit size is 462 square metres – and the ground floor apartment is currently for sale advertised as 938 square metres.

So whilst we are trying to facilitate additional dwellings to respond to the state framework, one of the market forces that is working against us is the creation of less dwellings on site. Shouldn’t the planning profession be concerned about this type of development?

So if you can afford it, the reason for living in these large and expansive units is clear. And there is a demand for these types of units – otherwise the market wouldn’t be providing them.

These units have great amenity – and great aspect. Due to their size – these units are as big as large houses but yet they are often located on a single level. They are very appropriate for a downsizing but ageing market.

The occupants can maintain the large lifestyle that they previously enjoyed in the family house – but without the worry of stairs. And without a garden to maintain and with the help of a strata manager – they are low maintenance.

These luxury apartments have high quality facilities including pools, private gyms and wine cellars. The units are highly secure and private due to the limited number of occupants.

So yes – McUnits provide an excellent quality of life – but is there a downside?

A key aim of the metropolitan plan for Sydney is to provide for urban consolidation – with 70 per cent of new homes to be provided in existing suburbs. But in the examples I have investigated I think that we are missing dwelling opportunities.

These units represent a low dwelling growth. If subdivided, the unit in Vaucluse could easily provide three generous two bedroom units. Multipy that by four storeys and there would have been 12 units on the site instead of four.

Indeed in some of the examples – including the one in Point Piper – there was actually a decline in unit numbers on the site. To understand this scenario in more detail, I concentrated on this one suburb and analysed the available Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

With the exception of only one collector district between 2001 and 2006 there was a decrease in dwellings numbers in Point Piper.

The units usually contain a minimum of  three bedrooms, and often exceed the national average for house size.

The high quality and limited number of units in these areas makes them very expensive. Only the

wealthy will be able to afford to live in these areas. In the cases where there is actually a reduction of dwellings on site this will further push up the price of accommodation in the area.

What about people who want to stay in the area they were brought up but don’t have the money available for a McUnit?

In some cases these luxury homes may not be acting as a principal dwelling, but are offering a Sydney city retreat only occupied for a few days a week.

McUnits require a large amount of excavation. The occupants of these units are very car focused, and expect two or three parking spaces. In addition to the basement levels to accommodate the cars, excavation is also required for facilities such as gyms and wine cellars which are all created into the natural ground level.

Energy use is a concern. Their massive size and number of facilities makes them energy hungry– particularly considering the small number of people that live there.

So having investigated McUnits should we be concerned about their proliferation in these areas?

Is there a need for a planned intervention?

Should we be investigating ways to facilitate additional units on a site, whilst also encouraging diversity and flexibility?

The current state plans recognise that smaller dwellings are more affordable and sustainable and encourages a range of housing types, sizes and affordability levels for a growing and ageing population. But it does not provide any solutions to control unit sizes where oversized McUnits are being proposed.

NSW State Environmental Planning Policy 65 applies to residential flat building. (with three or more storeys and four or more self contained dwellings).

The accompanying code includes a number of controls for new flat buildings to ensure amenity. The guide sets controls to ensure that minimum standards are met. Minimum amounts of open space. Minimum floor to ceiling heights and minimum balcony size.

And the minimum unit size of a three bedroom unit is 148 sq m.

But what about maximums?  Should a quality residential flat development only contain four massive units?

Should a quality residential flat development promote urban consolidation and provide unit diversity?

An example of local control is in Ealing, a suburb of West London. A borough wide strategic housing market and needs assessment is prepared to identify community housing needs.

The preparation of this needs assessment is a requirement under the national planning framework. This assessment then goes on to inform local housing policies, including the local planning framework.

The controls for market housing are that 60 per cent are to be one or two bedrooms while 40 per cent are to be three or four bedrooms. If a development does not meet this diversity it will not be approved.

As planning policy makers in NSW is this the kind of control that we should be considering?

In addition, or alternatively, what about a net dwelling yield? A developer can build units of any size, but at a very minimum it must provide the same number of units as was there previously. This would prevent the 50 per cent loss of units that occurred on the Point Piper site.

Having analysed the available ABS data over the last two intercensual periods the council areas that I investigated are increasing in residential dwelling numbers.

But what will the changes in housing numbers, unit sizes and dwelling density reveal once the 2011 census data is released?

To finish I would like to pose a few questions.

Is the McUnit phenomenon on a scale that is enough to cause concern?

Have I been investigating a unique situation or are Mc Units spreading to other parts of the country?

Do we need to change our planning controls to halt their spread? If so, how should we do this and at what level of government?

Anne White

I am not sure what the answer to these questions are. But I am proposing that McUnits are a new phenomenon that require further research and monitoring to ensure that future unit developments in Sydney achieve sustainable urban consolidation.

Anne White is a British trained urban planner who has practised in the UK and Australia.  Now an Australian resident, she is tackling the planning issues of the Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

This article was based on a paper presented to last year’s international urban design conference in Queensland.