News from the front desk issue 424: About 600 people turned out this week to the launch of Design WA with its new design guidelines for apartments.

Host was the Urban Development Institute of Australia WA and according to the association’s chief executive officer Tanya Steinbeck there might have been more people if the venue was bigger.

To suggest the new guidelines were highly anticipated is an understatement. So too would be noting that there was a little concern about cost.

Now hands up here: we declare up front we’ve got a soft spot for WA, after two events there a few years back which sadly we have not replicated.

Never mind, we are keen to keep tabs on the west and the fabulous people we met there.

So we called Steinbeck to get a better view of how the industry would react to the guidelines and also to the mooted tightening of energy efficiency for residential property in the Australian Building Code.

When we did our “Greening the West” salon and Surround Sound, WA was in the full flush of the mining boom and the objective of our events was to ask why WA and Perth were not racing to be greener, given they were sloshing around with so much money.

In those days the wealth seemed palpable in the streets, especially on one particular late arvo when crowds of businessmen were toddling home after a big Melbourne Cup session, trailing clouds of what seemed like the same after shave.

We learnt, thanks to Landcorp and its chief operating officer at the time Nicholas Wolff, now at ANGNSW who hailed from Sydney, that WA had some unusual construction practices. Namely, and intriguingly, the propensity – no, non-negotiable habit – of flattening the land on which anything was to be built. We mean smooth, smooth, flat.

Steinbeck said the industry still does the same.

Another thing it does is insist on is building with brick and tile.

Now Steinbeck seems to us to be the paradigm of the reasonable industry advocate.

She’s calm and balanced and carefully spoken, (not at all like this column in the full flush of sustainability passion).

In general, Steinbeck told us on Wednesday, the industry welcomes the new design guidelines and the 10 principles. This includes supporting sustainability in general, she said, which is not specifically mentioned in the guidelines principles unless you include the last one, “working with the environment”.

“The main concern is the impact on affordability,” she says and that’s the biggest bone of contention.

WA’s planning department has done its own “stress testing” and estimates the policy and the guidelines will add about $5000 to the cost of an apartment, she says.

But the UDIA members are not so easily convinced. In NSW where similar guidelines were introduced a few years ago the additional cost per apartment was around $150,000 Steinbeck says.

“We’ve requested to see the costings behind the modelling to see how it’s done.

“We’ve been asking for it for quite some time and it’s not been forthcoming. But we’ve been assured by the minister’s office that we will have it imminently.”

Everyone can cope with a few extra thousand dollars, but not the upper end of the cost potential, she says.

The general consensus about the guidelines seems to be that “the government is attempting to combat Perth’s changing demographics, urban sprawl, cost of living pressures and liveability issues by encouraging high-quality urban infill developments, and this new system will require apartment developers to meet a range of fresh rules”.

WA Property Council executive director Sandra Brewer said the benefits would lead to community confidence in the quality and suitability of developments to their surroundings.

“Urban infill and increased density are fraught topics in Perth’s established suburbs, and one of the solutions lies in the delivery of good design,” she told Community News.

“Ensuring developments are unique and appropriate to their environment will result in greater community acceptance for high density living and housing infill, which is necessary as Perth’s population grows.”

But biggest immediate concern in terms of paying for better quality, Steinbeck says, is the state of the market in WA.

There is “talk of green shoots” and positive sentiment now that there is a slight uptick in mining investments in the north and south of the state, “nowhere near where it was”. (With concerns emerging about where to get the labor from since the east coast is now deeply embedded in infrastructure work and sucking up so many trades.)

But it’s very early days. Currently there are 16,000 dwellings for sale; a healthy market has about 12,000, she says.

Adding to market nerves is restricted finance in the wake of the banking royal commission, with valuations not stacking up even for approved finance.

This puts a big dampener on enthusiasm to improve quality, if it was there at all. Likewise sustainability.

Steinbeck says the uncertainty extends to the new building codes on energy for housing.

“While we can appreciate changes to the regulations and the outcome is to reduce ongoing running costs, it will add some cost to the purchase cost,” she says.

“To get a 6 star yes it’s cheaper to run and that’s great but at the moment in WA it’s hard to get finance anywhere.”

Could the housing sector investigate ways to finance better quality sustainability and energy, through an environmental upgrade agreement mechanism for instance?

Could be interesting, she says. But again, not so easy.

Already “pretty much every second house has solar” but now the amount generated is so big that the grid can’t cope with all the additional energy, Steinbeck says.

That was news to us. We know there are screams and shouts from the grid people that it’s all too hard but frankly with all the clever technology we have, it’s hard to understand why this problem has not yet been solved.

We did a quick fact check and Murray Hogarth from Wattwatchers told us that there are in fact saturated pockets and that networks can refuse or limit the size of solar input for residential property. We know commercial solar can’t access the grid.

“From a developer’s perspective and industry we’re generally supportive of sustainability measures that are practical and affordable,” Steinbeck says.

“Everybody likes the idea but nobody is willing to pay for it…that’s been the narrative.”

Ellen McIlwaine’s song also includes the lines, “everybody wants to go first class but nobody wants to pay”. Listen to the song here

(How true. Check out the Ellen Mcllwaine song along the same lines.)

Steinbeck gets that we need a different way of thinking. Especially in the kinds of materials the industry is using.

“Every house here is brick and tile. In Sydney or Melbourne, you have lightweight construction. Here it doesn’t happen.”

Why? It’s an ingrained cultural thing that you must have brick and tile, she says. And perhaps, we’ve heard, a tad to do with the vertical integration of developers, many of whom apparently own companies that produce bricks and tiles.

Yet another good lesson in lifting the hood and looking under the bonnet to see how things actually work. Always paying particular attention to the fuel lines (money flows).

WA builders’ propensity to demand ultra flat blocks to build on Steinbeck is another under the hood problem that is troubling. Blocks must be “flat as a tack” and developers have to go to great expense to do the flattening and then bring in fill, which happens to be in scarce supply, she says.

Steinbeck is working on these issues with her members but the looming federal election has shifted these ideas down the pecking order a bit.

Up top and urgent she says is a prospective change of government bringing with it a possible end to negative gearing and reversals of concessions on capital gains tax.

These old building habits add to cost, do nothing for the affordability of running costs – in fact add real cost the nominal cost of housing (and the planet) –  and yet they persist.

But when it comes to new regulations or standards that have benefits for the environment and for occupants of buildings, or maybe for new homeowners, there is fierce resistance to change. Human nature? Maybe.

Now if we’re talking about issues that need a looking under the bonnet, these are all doozies.

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  1. Double brick was used because of the abundance of natural resource very close to the city. The soils are A class which is inert and allowed for masonry structures without heavy engineering. We had immigrants from southern Europe who brought their trades here. Brick and block laying, Hard wall plaster and ceramic tiling. Those trades are depleting, there is less sand and the economics are moving in favour of framing. Yes the world here is changing.

  2. Perth coastal region is unique in that has A class soils. Basically beach sand. The repose of sand is 30 degrees which means it is not self supporting. Build a sandcastle in dry beach sand and what happens? Also it will, wind erode. So in WA before the developers were building the walls -home owners were left with very dubious results. The developer because they are doing it en masse can do it less expensively and avoid the owner disputes. The walls generally follow the typography. There have been attempts at modifying the practice but the additional cost which go into the built form affect valuations negatively. Lets say everything is not as it always seems

  3. I want to sub-divide my block. Most of it is sand. The local council is blocking zone changing because of ‘soil depletion’ concerns. Humbug.
    My block is surrounded by nappy land cookie cutter slapped up housing built on beautiful, fertile soil. It’s utter madness that Perth is building on such rich soil. Perth will reap what it sows and regret the tree-less and desert like expanses of colour bond.
    In Perth, no properly designed and constructed house needs air conditioning. Stop using double brick already.