The Victorian government has reopened the discussion on size, quality and planning of medium- and high-density apartment projects in Melbourne, with the release of a discussion paper and call for public comment.

Last year, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect prepared proposed minimum standards for apartments, which were leaked to media in draft form. At the same time, the City of Melbourne and leading members of the architecture fraternity had been vocally advocating for a better quality of dwelling, with quality issues identified in apartments under development or recently completed including bedrooms lacking windows and direct natural light, minimal natural ventilation and floorplates described by Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle as “dog boxes”.

Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne said the new consultation was the first time the planning and property industry, government and the public had been brought together to talk about the types of apartments we should be building.

“We need to encourage a higher standard of apartment design to avoid poorly designed homes lacking space, light and ventilation,” Mr Wynne said.

“This is more than establishing minimum standards; it’s about keeping pace with how people want to live.”

The Australian Institute of Architects welcomed the move, congratulating Minister Wynne on recognising the importance of design for creating liveable cities.

“We fully support the introduction of minimum standards in the interest of the public and the long term sustainability of the construction sector,” Victorian Chapter President Peter Malatt said.

“The Institute supports a model similar to the NSW SEPP 65 framework that also includes a residential flat code.”

The Better Apartments discussion paper is not only consulting on what any standard should be, it also opens up discussion on how any standard could best be implemented, including the possibility of being “customer focused” and preparing guides for buyers on good design while otherwise letting the market decide anything beyond the minimums required by the Australian Construction Code.

Other suggestions for implementing improved standards includes mandating minimums such as size and access to open space, or developing a “ResCode” to be applied as part of a streamlined incentive-based planning process, or revising the current Guidelines for Higher Density Residential Development.

The discussion paper outlines a number of issues that need to be considered in terms of individual apartment quality, such as the benefits of natural light and ventilation, designing for both private and common open space, visual amenity and size of floorplans.

It also addresses questions of the positives and negatives of providing parking, particularly the impact of podium parking on street level visual amenity. Energy efficiency, water efficiency and waste management during the operational life of the building, and the degree to which apartments can be resized, repurposed or adapted to suit changing occupant needs, including meeting Liveable Housing Design guidelines for accessibility, are also considered.

Several key points are made about current high density apartments that call into question their long-term sustainability.

According to the government, high density apartments have a higher rate of waste to landfill than detached housing, many of them are high consumers of energy for lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation where there is a lack of natural light to all rooms and poor ventilation and solar orientation, and there is also a substantial energy draw where podium parking is utilised due to the need for mechanical ventilation.

Another key issue raised was that the 95 per cent of apartments currently being constructed or marketed in Melbourne may not be suitable for the long-term needs of families with children, with only five per cent of current projects having three bedrooms or more, according to research carried out by Charter Keck Cramer for the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning.

Based on a sample of 10,373 apartments that are currently either being marketed or constructed, the research found that 4428 [about 43 per cent] were one bedroom apartments, 72 per cent were between 41 and 50 square metres in size, and seven per cent were smaller than 40 square metres.

Two bedroom apartments comprised 52 per cent of the apartments surveyed, and 10 per cent of these were 55 square metres or smaller, the majority between 56 and 70 square metres, and 29 per cent 71 square metres or larger.

CKC has predicted that between 2015 and 2017, over 35,000 apartments will be built across Melbourne, the majority of them on former commercial, industrial or mixed-use sites.

The discussion paper says that the growing number of apartments means the city is likely to be “undergoing a permanent change in housing preferences equivalent to other cities internationally, where apartment living is much more common”.

“This means that high levels of apartment development is likely to continue. Despite the recent growth in apartment living, Melbourne still has comparatively few apartment blocks relative to other international cities, which reflects the longstanding dominance of detached housing as the city’s preferred housing.”

Submissions in response to the Better Apartments discussion paper are due by the end of July. The minister said draft guidelines would be released in late 2015, following a round of industry consultations, with a final report due to be delivered to the minister in mid-2016.

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  1. Apartment standards will be looked at in this review, the item that needs attention is that currently a majority of multi level apartments are being designed by Architects. Architects are pushing these design standards in the hope that they may have a similar sub note to sepp 65 in NSW that being only architects design these buildings. I would say that as there are other registered practitioners in the state of Victoria and the track record of the Architects in designing this form of building thus far, this lock out of other registered practitioners leading to an anti competitive market should not be considered as part of the review.