Palladium on Light, an urban infill project in Adelaide

31 July 2014 — Adelaide’s inner-city apartment market seems to be contradicting the trends of Melbourne’s high rise apartment developers and planning authorities who appear to have downgraded sustainability. Instead, Adelaide is opting for higher environmental outcomes and buyers themselves are questioning the sustainability of their intended purchases.

According to Nigel Howden from Intro Design Adelaide, developments need to meet design guidelines similar to those of New South Wales’ State Environmental Planning Policy 65, something he says benefits the end result by setting fundamental baselines for size, light, ventilation, outdoor areas and liveability.

Nigel Howden

His current project, the 18-storey Palladium on Light, is an urban infill project typical of development the South Australian government is promoting as part of its commitment to deliver more housing without furthering urban sprawl. According to the South Australian government’s policy document, Planning Reform – a Driver of Economic Growth, the 2014 Urban Renewal Legislation says the community will only accept urban renewal if it is “based on the highest standards of urban design”.

For this reason, a statutory assessment role has been given to Government Architect, Ben Hewett, and a supporting design review panel. All proposals for inner-city projects over $10 million are reviewed by the panel, as are all projects over four storeys in the inner rim areas within 5-20 kilometres of the CBD.

Howden says the effect of the review process and the state’s multi-residential design guidelines is the creation of a level playing field, where all developers recognise they cannot attempt to maximise returns through compromising basic sustainability and liveability factors.

“No architect would dare put a proposal to the review committee which didn’t meet the guidelines,” he tells The Fifth Estate.

“It’s a great thing, the liveability of apartments has gone up dramatically, but it did upset a lot of developers initially.”

Good quality is the trend

Palladium on Light

Howden also says the Adelaide market itself is driving good design. Because the price of an inner rim detached dwelling is comparable to the price of an inner-city apartment, the type of owner-occupier buyers who are purchasing at Palladium are looking for a level of amenity in design that is similar to a house.

The apartments are larger than the minimum prescribed in Adelaide, which is the same 50 square metres dictated by SEPP 65 in Sydney. Palladium’s one-bedroom apartments have 55 sq m net internal floor area plus a seven sq m balcony, and the two bedrooms range from 75 sq m to 90 sq m with 17.5 sq m balconies or, on the ground floor, courtyards. There is also a 260 sq m two-level penthouse.

“We have been very careful of not undersizing the apartments, which has not been challenging in terms of the client [Diadem Corporation], who is quite shrewd. They saw the value in having a good-sized product.

“That’s been the acid test – the bigger apartments sold more quickly.

“A lot of potential buyers are downsizing, and they are looking at trying to fit their lives into an apartment, so they look for things like ample storage.”

In the design, therefore, inbuilt storage includes walk in wardrobes with full joinery, bathroom storage, large built-in hallway storage and substantial kitchen storage.

This market asks for green

Palladium on Light

Potential buyers have also been savvy to some of the sustainability aspects around indoor air quality and the origin of materials. Howden says they have queried things such as whether joinery contains medium-density fibreboard with formaldehyde, and whether timber is certified as sustainably sourced.

Buyers want to know about VOCs

“We have been very careful with products. Potential buyers are asking about where materials are sourced from, so we have been getting information on the supply chain because they want to know whether things are environmentally friendly,” Howden says.

The project is also using paints and finishes throughout which are low in volatile organic compounds and 80 per cent of apartments feature sustainably produced bamboo flooring.

Higher ceilings help with light and ventilation

Natural light penetration has been increased through designing all rooms with 2.7-metre ceilings, rather than the 2.4 metres, which is the Building Code of Australia’s minimum height for all habitable rooms except kitchens, which have a 2.1-metre minimum. Howden says the difference the extra 30 centimetres makes in terms of allowing daylight deeper into the rooms is substantial.

Almost all apartments have achieved natural cross-ventilation, and all bedrooms and living areas have operable windows. Under the Adelaide design guidelines, all bedrooms must also have external windows for natural light, a contrast to Melbourne where onboard bedrooms that only receive borrowed interior light are permitted in many areas.

To improve thermal efficiency, architectural perforated aluminium elements have been added to the facade. These have multiple purposes – they create articulation, which softens the large balconies, create strategic shading onto glazing and help improve privacy, given the project is located across the road from the busy public space of Light Square.

Double glazing has also been used for the majority of windows both for thermal efficiency and for acoustic attenuation given the inner-urban location. On the north and south elevations, extensive use of precast gives effective thermal massing.

Gas is being used for indoor cooking, and for the pre-installed barbecues on each balcony. A gas ring main is providing hot water, reducing electricity demand. The airconditioning is a fully-ducted central system, and the NatHERS rating for the apartments ranges from six star to eight star.

In terms of the market appreciation of sustainability, his experience is that differentiation in terms of products and the level of amenity such as natural light and ventilation are the things people respond to, as they can “visualise them and understand them”.

The common space trade-off

The project has several sub-penthouses that share common access to a pool and deck, but Howden says the decision was made to forgo common amenity spaces for the lower apartments in exchange for larger balconies. This has multiple benefits, including meeting the government’s directive to increase activation of the public domain, through encouraging residents to use public spaces like Light Square.

The apartments are also located above and behind a heritage building, which has been retained and converted into commercial space including a cafe.

“We questioned how much people would use common spaces, given the location,” he says.

And by providing bigger balconies that allow for use as an outdoor room, it increases the degree of casual surveillance of Light Square and its immediate surrounds, which contributes to improved public safety.

Making car use a more intentional act

As a location, the degree of walkability and public transport accessibility is extremely high. However, Howden says Adelaide is still a very car-centric city. To minimise space dedicated to car parking within the site, a European car-stacking system is being installed. There are also lockers for residents in the car park that can be used for bikes and large item storage.

The stacking system saves space and adds a level of security, but it also adds another step to the process of getting the car out. Howden says this possibly makes it more likely people will walk, cycle or catch public transport for short trips within the CBD, because they can’t simply pop downstairs, jump in the car and go, instead they have to order their car through the control system.

Howden says the big challenge in terms of increasing the appetite for higher density living in Adelaide is about educating people about the advantages of moving into the city.

The SA Government policy made the financial case clearly, stating that transport costs are the second highest household expense after mortgage or rent. The government estimated that for a household in the suburbs in a detached home, the combined cost over 20 years amounts to $735,000, while for an inner city apartment it is only $578,500. That’s a difference of 37 per cent.

Learning from the best and worst of overseas examples

Having previously worked as an architect and planner on major projects in London, Manchester and on part of the masterplanning for Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, Howden has seen both the best and the worst of high density residential development.

“In Manchester, a lot of building was below par in terms of amenity and sustainability, and there were a lot of lessons learned through that,” he says.

Howden says that promoting community through public spaces and elements such as common vegetable gardens like London’s allotment is probably the next stage in terms of Adelaide’s progress towards a more densely occupied and sustainable inner urban area.

Howden says the building designer’s role is “one of the biggest things we can use to create change” in terms of improving sustainability in the urban space.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just thinking sustainably about products, but also about amenity and liveability through clever planning and site layout. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good design, and that’s where SEPP 65 gives us a more rigorous structure to get these things through.”