It’s ironic that while workspace ratios have declined in recent years, we continue to think big is best in residential development.

The last decade or so has seen a significant reduction in the average office space per employee. In 1995, it was around 30 square metres; today it is 20 square metres or less. And yet, Australians currently build some of the largest new houses in the world. As our population grows and our cities expand, we will need to challenge this “supersize-me” thinking.

Speaking at Green Cities 2015, Professor Rob Adams, director of city design at the City of Melbourne, argued that population growth – which may mean Australia is home to 40 million people by 2060 – could be the best thing to happen in our cities, provided we embrace a philosophy of “intensification, not dispersion”.

The word “density” often evokes concrete jungles of high-rise apartments, commuters sardined into crowded trains and congested streets. However, density can also mean cafés, culture and employment on your doorstep.

And it seems that not everyone is lured by the Great Australian Dream of backyard and four bedrooms. The Grattan Institute’s report, The Housing we’d Choose, found that people want a much more varied mix of housing than our cities currently provide. The research also found significant shortfalls of semi-detached housing and apartments in middle and outer suburbs.

We work longer hours than we did just a few decades ago, and are home less often. Both property prices and land availability for development is pressurised. Smaller homes in metro areas may give us the best of both worlds – and meet the needs of these changing lifestyles.

And yet, apartment living remains a “second rate dream” in Australia. dwp|suters’ Community Futures report, released in February, explores how to reposition apartment living as a positive lifestyle choice for more Australians.

As dwp|suters’ national sustainability manager Rory Martin (and the GBCA’s Future Green Leader for 2014) says, “Freedom and choice are the secrets to selling an updated Great Australian Dream.

“We are now seeing the growing popularity of community gardens and subscription-based services such as flexicar and Car Next Door. Our expectations are moving towards services on demand – with no upkeep, maintenance or replacement to worry about. Apartments are part of this movement, with facilities such as pools, wine cellars, cinemas and gyms available without residents having to consider their upkeep.”

Martin points to the Carlton Wellbeing Precinct in Melbourne as an example of density at its best.

“The traditional aged care village has gone vertical, which enables those who’ve lived in the area for many years to retire in their area without having to relocate to the outer suburbs where these types of facilities are typically located,” he says.

“Developments like these maintain the social fabric of the area, with generational connection. Social barriers are also removed with on-ground location of a cafe and gardens which draw in visitors and locals alike to ensure activity at ground level.”

Acclaimed urban planner Larry Beasley, who also spoke at Green Cities, argues for “gentle densification”.

“We need clustered density and diversity, with mixed use buildings and green construction, transportation options beyond the car, social, community and cultural facilities that provide support and city, and protected open space,” he says.

Beasley argues that when done right, density and quality act together in a symbiotic relationship.

Romilly Madew

“Density creates value which ensures quality construction, adding value to neighbourhood infrastructure, which in turn creates a quality neighbourhood,” he says.

As Green Star – Communities projects such as Bowden in South Australia and Barangaroo South in Sydney demonstrate, a great place to live is not just a question of space – it’s about amenity too. People want to live close to shops and services, to entertainment and excitement – to, in a word, “life”.

Rory Martin together with Lend Lease general manager sustainability Sarah Kinsela and Hickory Group’s Damien Crough, will explore whether size matters at Green Building Day on 21 May in Melbourne.

Romilly Madew is chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia.

One reply on “Does size matter?”

  1. The position put forward in this article is only partially correct. Yes, there is a case to be made about justification of the Australian Dream, but the article overlooks the issue of the very low amenity of the apartments currently being built: they are too small, frequently with poor light and ventilation and too expensive. The alternative to McDonald mansions in the far suburbs, should not be a substandard quality apartment in or near to the CBD. There exists an abundance of psychological studies about size thresholds and where the small size starts impacting people occupying the residential unit. Having two people live in a 40m2 apartment where the bedroom barely fits a double bed and has no window is not a healthy environment for a young couple working long hours and living an active life.The frequently quoted threshold of size was around 25 m2 / person.
    One only has to look at models adopted in northern Europe to see that there are residential models which can achieve 18 – 20,000 inhabitants per hectare in a way that achieves great amenity and provides some flexibility for a changing structure of the family unit. However, most of those models require substantial changes to local planning regulations – block sizes, setbacks etc. We would be much better off starting a serious nation wide conversation about diversity of residential models, rather than limiting to the debate of ‘house in the suburbs vs a small apartment in the 40 storey building’.

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