Reference: Exemplar Design A: Design Strategy Architecture with IncluDesign

Housing crisis: Victoria’s Future Homes project provides adaptable designs for three storey apartment buildings that can be bought by developers, housing organisations and others for $15,000. The program offers fast track approvals and “really good design” sourced via a competition.

Our readers well know that solutions to the housing crisis don’t come easy. Numerous attempts have been made to address it by both state and federal governments, including policy changes, tax reforms, levers and incentives, with minimal success to date.

Enter the Victorian government’s Future Homes program, launched in April this year. This program aims to achieve positive change by targeting an issue identified by researchers as having the highest potential for impacting housing affordability: boosting density in the middle suburbs.

Victoria’s Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 strategy states that the city will need 1.6 million additional homes, in places where people want to live, to increase housing supply and improve affordability in the coming decades. It also stipulates that 70 per cent of residential development should occur in existing suburbs, to create a liveable, sustainable city and curb urban sprawl.

Future Homes, led by the Department of Transport and Planning in collaboration with the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, aims to develop the “missing middle” of attractive infill medium density housing, in well serviced suburbs, in the hope of making them more desirable.

Initially launched as a pilot in the Maribyrnong City Council local government area, the government recently announced that it has been expanded to state-wide implementation across metropolitan and regional Victoria.

According to Stefan Preuss, Associate Victorian Government Architect with the OVGA, the concept behind Future Homes is informed by Plan Melbourne, similar design competitions by the Government Architects Offices in New South Wales and Queensland and research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Swinburne University, Monash University as well as the Grattan Institute’s 2018 Housing affordability: re-imagining the Australian dream.

Stefan Preuss, Associate Victorian Government Architect,  Office of the Victorian Government Architect

“The Grattan Institute study looked at all sorts of government levers to increase affordability – anything from shared equity schemes to improving renting conditions, reducing immigration and tax reform,” he said.

“The standout lever was boosting density in the middle suburbs. So while that’s not easy to do, it would potentially have a very large and very positive impact on city development.”

Future Home provides adaptable designs for three storey apartment buildings that can be purchased by developers, building cooperatives, housing organisations or anyone interested in undertaking this type of project.

“The idea was that really good design would be made available for a very affordable price, with a fast track planning process of around four months that takes away the risk of landing in VCAT,” said Mr Preuss.

Research from the Grattan Institute shows that although it is politically challenging, boosting density in middle suburbs can potentially have the greatest positive impact on housing affordability. Source: Housing affordability: Re-imagining the Australian dream, Grattan Institute, 2018.

“It reduces holding times, reduces uncertainty, and actually provides really good products that are recognised as being best practice. And that’s not just best practice in terms of planning, but also in terms of being a good neighbour and a good home.

“The program aims to foster the idea that a great apartment can be a home, not just an interim dwelling until you can afford a house.”

Future Homes includes a choice of four “site-less” designs. Each contains 13-17 apartments of different sizes, ranging from one to three bedrooms with adaptable floor plans.

The designs were sourced via a rigorous competition involving some of the state’s top architectural firms. They were then reviewed and refined by a team of consultants and the OVGA, to ensure they meet or exceed planning and environmental standards.

While the schemes are designed for lots of around 1200 square metres, the size of two typical side-by-side lot sizes, they can be adapted to a wide range of sites if this is done in line with the program’s “adaptation guide”.

Strict criteria apply to site eligibility for the program, as specified in the Victoria Planning Provisions clause 53.24. This includes GRZ (General Residential Zone) zoning, a location within 800 metres of a train station or activity centre, and no heritage or neighbourhood character overlays.

Reference: Exemplar Design B: Lian

For a price of $15,000, purchasers receive a package with different layouts, orientation and car parking options (at grade or basement), which can be adjusted to suit a variety of sites. This includes site plans, floor plans, elevations, sections, window and materials schedules, 3D models, and a detailed site adaptation guide. Importantly, it also gives access to a streamlined planning process, which can reduce approval times to around four months.

As well as beautiful architectural design, the templates offer spacious apartments with top-level amenity, including natural light, cross ventilation, family-friendly facilities, accessibility and generous open spaces.

According to Mr Preuss, “Good levels of landscaping are really important to retain the quality that people are seeking in the suburbs. They want green, leafy, nature-based suburbs, and these developments actually retain or create that.”

Sustainability is also a top priority, with apartments featuring high-level energy efficiency, good solar orientation, full electrification (with no gas on site), an average 7.5 star energy efficiency rating, rainwater tanks, bicycle parking, and provisions for extensive solar panels and electric car charging, effectively making Future Homes net zero carbon ready in operation.

One of the program’s main aims is to address the proliferation of low-quality medium density apartment and townhouse developments in Victoria. These are characterised by crowded, over-developed sites and homes with poor natural light, restricted ventilation and little quality open space.

The OVGA hopes that developers and other interested parties will be attracted by the increased planning certainty and lowered risk provided by the program. Planning concessions include reduced parking provisions, with apartments of all sizes only requiring a single parking space.

The program also eliminates third party appeal rights, which can delay such projects in VCAT for years. Department of Transport and Planning and the OVGA provide support and referrals throughout the planning approval process, and once referred to council, approval decisions are delegated to the chief executive officer rather than the councillors.

The designs are developed to town planning resolution, but still require the services of a professional to adapt them to each specific site and obtain a building permit.

There are already plans in place to grow the Future Homes program to include four and five storey developments, as well as expand the areas, zones and sites where the designs can be used. These are detailed in Victoria’s Housing Statement 2024-2034.

Mr Preuss stressed that expansion into regional cities and towns is particularly important, as many of these have shortages of key worker housing and similar affordability issues to the major cities.

In terms of impacting housing affordability, Mr Preuss said that the selling price of these apartments is difficult to predict, because government can’t regulate construction costs. As the program only launched in 2023, a final built product is still a few years away.

He is hopeful, however. “The Grattan Institute research says that the more housing you provide, the more affordable housing will become. It’s supply and demand.” Furthermore, the designs are suitable for construction methods, which may become cheaper in the future, such as prefabricated and modular builds.

“If we want to solve the housing crisis, this is one building block, but we need more,” he said.

“If we want to build 80,000 dwellings a year in Victoria, we need to seriously look at other pathways, such as modern methods of construction, housing cooperatives, and getting the banks on board.

“I would describe it as working towards an ecosystem, part of which government can create by itself, part of which industry needs to create, and part of it needs to be a collaboration.”

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  1. I do hope the Victorian Government has incorporated the new features in the NCC Livable Housing Design Standard in this project. Saying “accessible” could just mean meeting the standard that already exists for public common areas of apartment buildings. Contrary to popular belief, these features can be designed in without extra cost and still look good. No, not a grab rail in sight!