Melbourne apartment towers

Australia’s apartment boom is in full swing. Nationally, 40 per cent of new dwellings are now apartments or units, and building approvals outnumber those for houses. Melbourne and Brisbane are the most extreme cases, but these trends are national; and they are fundamentally reshaping the future of urban Australia.

In Melbourne, for example, the inner city is being flooded with 1-2 bedroom micro-apartments set in increasingly tall towers (+30 storeys). Almost half are under 50 square metres – not much bigger than a generous double garage. These would be outlawed in other world cities, including Sydney. The Property Council of Australia and much of the industry acknowledges the problem. Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne has now released a discussion paper, and there is a plan for new guidelines next year.

The differences between a small one bedroom 42 m2 apartment and a standard one bedroom 50 m2 apartment.

The market is not delivering what families need, and as a result, future liveability in Australian cities is in jeopardy. Much of the commentary is about size and density. An urgent discussion is also needed about quality and the market.

Reports of “vertical slums” are not entirely unwarranted. Apartments can be great homes – why are ours so mismatched with families and affordability concerns? For working families in the city who need access to services and work, there are few affordable alternatives.

Quality vacuum – a race to the bottom

Many new apartments have bedrooms with no windows, low ceilings and inadequate storage. They have poor access to natural light and ventilation, and underperform on environmental efficiency. Internal amenity of apartments is comparatively under-regulated. Apartment bedrooms without windows, for instance, are illegal in New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver.

An example of the features included in a “poor” housing development.

Current regulation is failing families and future Australians. Building Code of Australia (BCA) and National Construction Code (NCC) requirements, borne out of original concerns with safety, are seemingly inadequate to the delicate task of ensuring quality while enabling innovation. Even the Guidelines for Higher Density Development (DPCD 2004) fail to provide specific and measurable outcomes, with high-level objectives that are evidently easily bypassed in practice.

Marketing airspace – unconstrained towers

A recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of world cities. Developers in Melbourne can build at four times the densities allowed in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong. Moreover, inner city developers are generally under no obligation to contribute to essential public infrastructure, such as affordable housing and community facilities, through density bonus systems. The findings are nothing short of damning, not least for a city that prizes itself, year on year, as the “world’s most liveable city”.

Market-driven urban development “logic” is rarely questioned, but there’s evidence of wholesale market failure. Much of our high density, high-rise apartment stock caters to the local and overseas investor market, enticed by favourable taxation and regulatory regimes. Putting aside concerns about the potential impact of tightening regulations on foreign property investments, many new apartments seem basically unaligned to households’ and families’ changing needs.

Two priorities emerge: for reform, and for understanding changing housing needs.

Reform or regret

Hodyl’s report makes a case for urgent market reforms to establish density controls; density bonuses to link development to public benefit, including open spaces, affordable housing and community facilities and an enforceable tower separation rule to mandate the minimum distances between towers. It also argues that Melbourne would benefit from apartment standards.

In Sydney, guidelines and processes have long been in place to regulate minimum apartment sizes, maximum numbers of apartments per floor, requirements for window provision, minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and minimum storage sizes (SEPP 65).

Reforms towards “good design” pre-suppose an understanding of the future occupants of apartments and their housing needs. A recent study found “good design” is a reasonably uncontroversial concept: it is design that accommodates changing household comfort and needs, and contributes positively to the environment, health, wellbeing and safety.

A current study called the LATCH Project is underway to determine changing household needs and the everyday experiences of inner-city apartment dwellers, including families.

The research reveals the huge diversity of households – future apartment dwellers are not just single-person households and empty-nesters. They need daylight, functioning kitchen spaces, storage, nearby schools and open space. Things that currently fail to align with high-density developments across our cities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

8 replies on “Life in a windowless box: the vertical slums of Melbourne”

  1. Apartments the future slums… oh dear!
    When I was growing up they were inhabited by film stars and were very luxurious.
    Looks like the high rise epidemic of the 50s all over again!!

  2. “40 per cent of new dwellings are now apartments or units”. If these apartments are generally getting smaller as the article suggests then the building fabric energy efficiency requirements are getting more and more lax as the Floor Area Correction Factor in the NATHERS house energy rating tools has a bigger and bigger impact. Soon we’ll be using glad wrap for apartment curtain wall facades. It seems wrong to me that over time a greater proportion of our new housing stock is getting less and less energy efficient from a fabric point of view. It’s time for the Australian Building Codes Board to look at this emerging issue and explain to our industry why these BCA Class 2 requirements are so slack for small apartments and yet the equivalent Section J fabric thermal performance requirements for other forms of multi-res buildings (Class 3 serviced apartments, Class 3 special accommodation buildings and Class 9c aged care buildings) are so stringent regardless of the size of the individual rooms/units.

  3. But they are not really intended for living in are they? They are just vertically stacked safety deposit boxes for the rich. Foreign or locally owned, very few of them will be lived in, or even rented out. They are just another speculative asset class, a particularly attractive laundry solution for washing dodgy foreign money. It’s the same all over – London, Vancouver, NYC – the neo-liberals’ dream. This fluffing about 5sqm here and there or what design standards to apply is all very well but it does not address the root problem, which is government and economic policy.

    Densification is not the panacea it is claimed to be. Australia is a vast country, but unnecessarily restrictive urban growth boundaries coupled with hopeless tax arrangements that facilitate developer land-banking, and an ongoing imported population ponzi scheme, results in a woefully restricted land supply. Add some negative gearing into the mix, and a national obsession with property and leverage, and you have our absurdly inflated housing costs.

    Release land, introduce a land tax, remove negative gearing. Create an elastic supply and a sustainable market. These are the sort of conversations we should be having before we get into the design argument.

    And I am an architect, but not allowed to call myself such because I originally registered in the UK. So that makes me a designer. It’s all semantics, and a lot of crap.

    Thanks for the article

  4. Agree the architects design most larger projects and they themselves, the developers and the authorities that approved the poor designs are to blame if any blame is to be made. Anyhow there will always be a need for smaller or compact living spaces, and people that want larger spaces will not live in smaller ones unless nothing viable exists in the area. And it is unlikely current or future economy will provide more for less cost. Architects and all others involved in work on poorly designed buildings will not help their credentials, their work situation or their association. Some architects and their association may wish to create a monopoly for themselves. It is my view monopoly should not be permitted in any industry, it is a danger to freedom, to economy and to competition – monopoly eventuates in disaster.

    Fair Trade Competition without monopoly is what drives human beings and the world, it is an essence of freedom to create, innovate, research etc. There is ample checks and balances, Australian standards and professional research and reference materials available to ensure a good outcome for all. However enclosing, restricting the professionals, the trades, the artisans, the talented etc., leads to inefficiency, stagnation and corruption already proven in many nations around the world that have ended up poor, if not in a war – all results of monopoly.

  5. Please don’t blame the architects all the time! We aim for livability and environmental sustainability. We are however under the direction of developers and financiers, and must achieve their targets. Enshrining reasonable standards as in NSW will ensure the developers are not able to dumb down dwellings that will last long after the developer has moved on.

  6. Hi Janine,

    Thanks for your comment-I am not talking about the battleaxe bedrooms, they I agree are terrible and I can see why market forces would oppose this-it is the one to the left of the diagram-the one that borrows its light from the bedroom-through a door.

    Thanks for the further information. I do not oppose further regulation-but do oppose restriction of registered designers Architects are currently lobbying for. I feel the Architects that have been designing a majority multi level buildings have let the public down, and now use this failure to propose a restriction on other designers.

  7. Unfortunately the example shown does comply with the building code. It is done regularly for CBD and inner city apartments in Melbourne. The BCA is for the window to be 10% of the floor area and open by 5%. There is no guide on the length of the battle axe (not saddle bag as listed above) as the BCA was not really designed for apartments. Borrowed light bedrooms are also allowed and bedrooms on the ground floor of a very narrow light well (I have seen up to 7 levels)in high rise developments are also OK in the BCA. It would take too long to change the daylight requirements in the BCA.

    More councils are trying to stop this from occurring however VCAT has approved these poor developments over and over again. Over the past year or so there are less battle axe and borrowed light bedrooms coming to council as it appears they are not selling and council continuously rejecting these poor designs are having an effect. Also VCAT now seems to be more aware of the importance of daylight and sustainable design.
    There are a group of councils who have been working hard to encourage better designed houses and apartments for many years. A new rating tool has just been released that planning applicants will use and part of this checks the daylight inside each unit. The group is called CASBE (Council Alliance for a Sustainable Built Environment) and the tool is called BESS (Built Environment Sustainability Scorecard). You should also look at the Moreland Apartment Design Code.
    But it’s too late for the people who have already bought the poorly designed units!

  8. Currently a majority of these multi level apartments are being designed by architects who propose a restriction of trade on other designers.

    The examples you give of saddle bag layout would not satisfy the Australian National Construction Code (BCA) as light requirements to bedrooms are not met. Are these examples given here from Australia? or are they just there to illustrate the article.

    Perhaps the National Construction Code needs to be the one to cover apartment standards not state only requirements.

    Fact is these current-vertical slums are being designed by Architects working for developers.

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