24 July 2014 — Guidelines for minimum apartment sizes by the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, based on New South Wales policies, are provoking an outcry from Melbourne developers.
However, the measures have been supported by a recent City of Melbourne report – Homes for People: Draft Housing Strategy 2014-2018 – which was submitted to the Future Melbourne (Planning) Committee in June, and says that the recent wave of new apartment developments were too small and too expensive. The report recommends the adoption of the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development and the supporting Residential Flat Design Code as a “best practice” set of principles, along with a greater focus on sustainability, improved community amenity and increased delivery of affordable and family-friendly apartments.
According to a January 2014 Housing Affordability Survey report by Demographia cited in the report, Melbourne is now the sixth least affordable city in the world in which to purchase housing, and Sydney is the fourth least affordable. The report goes on to say that there are only two per cent of apartments within a 56-minute commute of the CBD affordable to service workers and lower-level administrative staff. For those on nurses or teachers wages, only 24 per cent within this radius are affordable.
The size of apartments is also declining, with City of Melbourne research in 2014 showing that of more 20,000 apartments currently in the pipeline across over 100 developments, 96 per cent are two bedroom and smaller, and the small percentage of larger apartments of three bedrooms or more are generally expensive penthouses rather than family-friendly dwellings. 40 per cent of the one bedroom apartments are also less than 50 square metres in size.
Proposed minimum sizes
In NSW under SEPP 65, 50 sq m is the minimum allowable size for a one-bedroom apartment, as it is also in Adelaide and London. The OVGA is proposing 37 sq m as the minimum for a studio apartment and 50 sq m as the minimum for a one-bedroom apartment.
The Australian Financial Review quoted Stephen Speer, head of marketing and development for Hengyi Australia, the Chinese-backed developer of the 69-level Lighthouse tower, as saying these rules would have a “massive impact” on the supply of new apartments.
The Lighthouse project sold 75 per cent of its 607 apartments off the plan, amounting to $240 million in sales, and many of those dwellings are smaller than the proposed minimum sizes. The developer however argues the market is adjusting to smaller spaces and that increasing sizes would make dwellings unaffordable.
“They’re discriminatory against first-home buyers and entry-level investors. Not everyone can afford a $1 million apartment,” Mr Speer said.
However, as the report points out, the majority of apartments are being designed for and purchased by the investor market, not entry-level owner-occupiers, so it will be tenants who will live with the reduced amenity and liveability of the so-called micro-apartments, some of which are as small as 33 sq m for a one bedroom apartment – less than the size of four car spaces in the average supermarket car park.
Major pain unlikely
Scott Carver architect and director Bob Perry, who is on the board of Place Leaders Asia Pacific, told The Fifth Estate that introducing SEPP 65 type standards to Melbourne was unlikely to be a body blow for the development sector.
“The market soon settles itself down,” Mr Perry said. “Our clients accept it leads to a highly marketable outcome, even if there may be some frustration involved to achieve it.”
Based in Sydney, Mr Perry’s practice has been designing and delivering large scale mixed-use neighbourhoods under SEPP 65 since it was implemented in 2002. And he believes the planning instrument, while not perfect, has resulted in better, place-specific built outcomes.
It has also, he said, created a common vocabulary for developers and architects to discuss design.
As a set of guidelines, SEPP 65 covers basic principles around occupant and community wellbeing including natural cross-ventilation, solar access, visual amenity and privacy. It also imposes a requirement for all major projects to utilise the services of an architect during the design process, and sets minimum size for apartments. It was an initiative of former Premier Bob Carr, who was appalled by the quality of the apartment developments he was seeing in parts of Sydney during the early 1990s.
Mr Perry said there have been sustainability gains that flow from implementing the guidelines such as making better use of passive solar design principles, which are a fundamental of energy efficiency.
“It gives you qualitative guidelines to pursue as a designer, and that has led to many of the innovations we have been seeing such as winter gardens and ways of achieving cross-ventilation. A lot of green benefits are folded into that,” Mr Perry said.
Where he sees an issue is the tendency development consent authorities can have of treating the guidelines as rigid rules.
“Some of them are not motivated to make qualitative decisions about the guidelines, so they are policed like rules,” Mr Perry said.
“On smaller sites the architects and developers can have real headaches. I think that per cent performance targets are incrementally onerous with reduction in scale of a project,” Mr Perry said.
“Perhaps there should be a sliding scale according to size of project or they need to be administered as guidelines and not as rigid rules. Smaller sites with unfortunate orientation should not be punished by rigid preconceptions. I think it would be good to have the option of trade-offs. There needs to be flexibility in the regulations as no site suits the guidelines perfectly.”
An observable trend in the high rise CBD developments in Melbourne is the incorporation of high-end facilities for residents including gyms, pools, spas and private lounge areas. The report noted that these types of inclusions, along with significant amounts of car parking and second bathrooms in apartments, add both to the development cost and to higher body corporate ongoing energy and maintenance costs.
These cost increases can reduce the affordability of the apartments for both renters and owner-occupant purchasers, and the energy use component also increases the overall environmental and carbon footprint of the occupants.
Community not responding well to high rise
Even with these types of lifestyle facilities on offer, The Future Living community consultation process carried out by City of Melbourne in 2013 saw only 16 per cent of recent apartment developments rated as good by respondents, and none of those rated as good were in the high rise category.
Design issues the process highlighted included very small apartment sizes, poor building and apartment layouts, limited flexibility, lack of storage, adaptability and accessibility, and poor levels of internal amenity due to lack of light, ventilation and privacy.
The density of Melbourne’s CBD has also been called into question, with some developments in excess of 5000 dwellings a hectare. This is up to four times the density allowed in planning policies in Hong Kong, New York and Sydney, and 10 times the density allowed in London.
The report says, “Extreme site densities are not needed to accommodate the projected population growth of Melbourne. If such developments do go ahead, they should be high quality and offer residents a good quality of life, be highly environmentally friendly and designed with sufficient flexibility so as to have long-term appeal.
“The demand from investors for smaller apartments, the lack of planning policy guiding internal amenity along with few enforceable density or height controls means that the apartment market in the municipality is in danger of leaving a lasting legacy of poor quality housing.”
The Homes for People Draft Housing Strategy is available here.