Melbourne apartment blocks

The Victorian government has released a final draft of proposed design standards for apartments for consultation, however minimum sizes have controversially been left out, an omission that has been strongly criticised by architects.

Planning minister Richard Wynne said the Better Apartments standards aimed to improve the liveability of apartments for a range of household types while also providing affordable housing.

“Twenty years ago, apartments represented just five per cent of all new dwellings constructed in Victoria. Today they account for more than 33 per cent,” Mr Wynne said.

“We are plugging a hole in the planning rules which allowed dog boxes to be built because we want future apartments to be constructed for long-term living.”

The draft is the result of an extensive round of community consultation and stakeholder discussion, and address considerations such as building setbacks, room depth, accessibility, waste and water, energy efficiency, storage, open space and noise minimisation.

The standards have taken a step back from some initial proposals, including the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s suggestion of setting NSW-style minimum sizes for apartments, nor do they propose a South Australian-style design review process.

Mr Wynne said no minimum size for internal areas had been proposed in the interests of promoting design innovation and encouraging developers to provide a mix of apartment styles in developments.

Energy efficiency lacking, along with other sustainability opportunities

The new standards have also failed to set any ambition beyond the current requirements of the National Construction Code on crucial fronts such as energy efficiency.

The only stipulation is that designs should aim to ensure good passive solar for the greatest possible percentage of apartments and aim not to exceed defined cooling loads.

There are no elements of energy efficiency otherwise specified, nor are energy-using systems including heating, ventilation and airconditioning, lighting, hot water or vertical transportation addressed.

Thermal comfort also is based on passive solar being incorporated for a percentage of apartments, and there are no requirements around glazing, insulation, thermal mass or other design elements that can achieve higher than code-minimum performance.

 AIA says government can do better

The Australian Institute of Architects criticised the standards for not raising the bar high enough and is disappointed there was no minimum size stipulated, president of the Victorian chapter of the AIA Vanessa Bird said. Ms Bird also said the institute’s proposals for mechanisms to ensure design excellence, such as a parallel design review panel process, had not been included.

“While we agree with Minister Wynne that size is not the only determiner of good design, design excellence and innovation must be demonstrated before deviating from minimum metric standards,” Ms Bird said.

Minimum sizes acted to protect the public from “the worst of the worst”, while a design review process would enable innovation and flexibility.

“It’s clear that change is required,” she said.

The institute was also disappointed at the absence of design professionals to asses design at a local government level.

“In the current draft, this responsibility rests with the responsible planning authority, whose traditional role is to ensure compliance with the planning provisions, not assess design.”

The standards have proposed the involvement of registered architects or registered building designers with the appropriate qualification as part of a “checkpoint” after the planning stage and at building permit stage.

This design verification process would aim to ensure that all the relevant apartment design matters have been met, the standards state.

However, Ms Bird said design expertise needed to be assessed in a variety of ways at key stages of the development process.

There is, however, a range of positive outcomes – including windowless rooms are out

On the plus side, the guidelines would no longer allow for windowless bedrooms or living areas with only borrowed natural daylight, such as the “snorkel” bedroom.

They propose measures around room depth and natural light penetration, minimums for private outdoor space, common outdoor space, deep soil areas and tree planting specifications, stronger set-back provisions, rainwater harvesting for amenities’ use, natural ventilation of corridors and a proportion of apartments, and a minimum percentage of apartments meeting the principles of universal design in terms of adaptability.

It is also proposed there be a minimum standard for storage above and beyond the usual storage provided in bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms, with an option to provide a mix of secure storage within apartments or in common areas.

The government is also planning to provide training for local government planners and building design professionals on how to design, prepare applications and assess apartment applications to develop their capacity to implement the new provisions.

“The government will fund and deliver training to all planning officers in Victoria and offer 1000 free places to industry participants, and registered architects and registered building practitioners who wish to attend,” the paper stated.

A more advanced training course will also be offered and consumers will be able to access a range of tools to see if apartments comply with the design standards.

“Consumers will be able to make informed decisions about apartments they are considering purchasing or renting,” the discussion paper said.

Addressing affordability

Ms Bird said that certainty in the planning process that made referral to VCAT the exception rather than the rule would reduce the cost of housing.

“We are keen that affordability is not confused with profitability when we are setting the agenda for the future liveability of our city,” she said.

Ms Bird said the Institute was “heartened by the fact that this is not a final document, and will continue to engage with the government to raise the quality of the standards”.

  • Consultation on the draft standards closes on 16 September 2016.