Melbourne apartment blocks

The Victorian government’s new apartment design standards have been slammed – by the architects for failing to reverse the damage of free-for-all planning of the previous Liberal government, and by the industry, predictably, for being too prescriptive. Believe it or not, bedrooms will now need to be big enough to fit an actual bed.

The new guidelines that come into effect in March were developed in response to a glut of high-rise apartments with appalling amenity, particularly around Melbourne CBD, with Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne earlier this year describing them as dog boxes.

Former Victorian Government Architect Geoffrey London recently told The Fifth Estate these apartments had left a “dreadful legacy” for Melbourne. Nightingale Housing general manager Jessie Hochberg also told The Fifth Estate’s Surround Sound on Housing this month that she personally viewed apartments in Melbourne with bedrooms a real estate agent could not guarantee would fit a bed.

The new guidelines take more of a performance-based approach rather than the prescriptive approach of NSW, outlining objectives such as energy efficiency, liveability, amenity, daylighting, ventilation, storage, outdoor private and common space, and using landscaping to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

Each objective sets out standards that apartment projects should “normally” meet.

However, development consent authorities have the ability to approve an alternative solution if it meets the objectives, or if there are site considerations that make meeting the standard impossible.

Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the Better Apartments Design Standards would “allow for flexibility and innovation while making sure spaces are liveable”.

The standards address mobility needs and encourage sustainability by encouraging recycling, energy and water efficiency, and minimising stormwater run-off, he said.

Under the standard, borrowed light will no longer be allowed for habitable rooms, including bedrooms. However, the “snorkel” design, where light comes from a window at the end of a narrow corridor-like part of a bedroom, will be permitted if they are “well designed”, the standard states.

“These standards bring us up to speed with other states, they preserve affordability and will make sure bedrooms are big enough to fit a bed,” Mr Wynne said.

AIA says try harder

The Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects has criticised the guidelines, saying the government could have tried harder.

Victorian chapter president Vanessa Bird said the guidelines did not go far enough to ensure a quality built environment for future generations.

“The city we build today is the city our children and grandchildren have to live with,” she said.

‘While we welcome some of the liveability initiatives contained within the document, like room size, storage, noise, accessibility and natural ventilation, we don’t believe they go far enough to protect the public interest.

“We are disappointed that this document is the best the government can deliver.”

Ms Bird said that given the lengthy two-year consultation period and extensive expertise, advice and input from industry, the AIA had hoped for a “more substantive outcome”.

“These particular standards will not produce the change required to assist consumers and safeguard the long-term quality of the built environment, as it does not address design excellence, nor mandate design review for site-specific responses.”

PCA says it’s too prescriptive

The Property Council has also given the standards a mixed review, and is particularly concerned about specific requirements such as minimum sizes for private outdoor space.

PCA Victorian executive director Sally Capp said this kind of requirement was “too prescriptive”.

Overall, however, Ms Capp said the standards represented “good policy that meets the government’s objectives and set an industry benchmark to ensure quality for the community”.

She said the new setback provisions recognised that developments needed to be assessed on a merits basis, welcoming the government’s position there is no “one size fits all solution”.

There could be some “teething issues” as the standards are implemented, Ms Capp said.

“We remain concerned regarding the discretion left to councils to implement the standards. Education for industry and councils is going to be crucial to ensure that this policy delivers the quality outcomes expected.”

Mr Wynne said the standards would be complemented by other documents to be released next year, including new design guidelines and an apartment buyers’ and renters’ guide. An education and training program will also be launched for planning and building design practitioners.

Urban Taskforce now wants NSW to lower the bar

NSW’s Urban Taskforce has seized on the flexibility of the Victorian guidelines as proof NSW should relax its approach, claiming the only way to ensure greater delivery of affordable housing is to reduce adherence to the current NSW standards.

“If the Victorian government, after extensive consultation, has not adopted the NSW requirement for solar access but focused instead on daylight access this approach is clearly sensible and practical and must be adopted by the NSW Government,” Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said.

“The people and the climate of both Sydney and Melbourne are very similar so it seems that Sydney now has excessive standards in comparison to similar cities.”

He said the Victorian standards focusing on defining minimum room sizes and apartment depths rather than minimum apartment sizes should also be considered by NSW.

“The NSW Apartment Design Guide was intended to be a guideline to provide guidance on appropriate apartment design, however often planning authorities choose to apply the standards in the guidelines as hard-and-fast rules which must be adhered to,” Mr Johnson said.

“This defeats the purpose of the guideline and can deter developers from proceeding with their apartment projects if the design requirements make the project unfeasible”.

  • Read the new standards here

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  1. Mr.Wynne said……”An education and training program will also be launched for planning and building design practitioners”.
    I find this very strange. It seems to be a statement that they are not yet qualified. Why not send them to architecture school if they lack the skills.