“More than three-quarters of new one-bedroom apartments built across the state are 50 square metres or less, which means they probably would have been illegal in Sydney, London and Adelaide” [i].
In July 2014, a draft of the proposed Victoria Apartment Design Standards (VADS) was leaked prompting heated debate amongst the planning, architecture and property development communities. The result was a hurried shelving of the project with promises of greater consultation before anything similar became public.
At stake is the perennial struggle between amenity and affordability. Some claim the splurge of new high rise apartments to be vertical slums of the future, while the Property Council suggests adding an additional 5m floor space would increase the cost of a new apartment by $45,000[ii].
New apartment guidelines could be approved by the Planning Minsters toward the end of 2016. Moreland Council submitted its own apartment design code to the Minister at the end of 2015 that aim to increase liveability (see MADC blog post). It now appears likely that Moreland’s amendment will not be approved, in favour of a Victoria wide apartment code.
Both Moreland’s proposal and the leaked 2014 proposal hint at what the new policy might contain, while the impact of 14 years of similar policy in NSW provide a guide to the impact on development.
NSW Residential Flat Design Code
NSW introduced a Residential Flat Design Code (RFDC) in 2002 which outlined rules of thumb to achieve the 10 principals outlined in the State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP 65), which include: Context; Scale; Built form; Density; Resource, energy and water efficiency; Landscape; Amenity; Safety and security; Social dimensions and housing affordability; and Aesthetics.
Seven years after SEPP 55 research from the Property Council showed that 87% (n=18) agreed that it had improved apartment design and with relatively minor impact on affordability[iii]. Further research from property developers suggests that the volume of apartment construction is lower and the cost of apartments greater in Sydney compared to Melbourne[iv]. It is unlikely that apartment design codes are the only reason for this difference.
There are also concerns that developers dumb down designs after planning approval and that inflexible application of the code has reduced the opportunity for innovative design that create better living environs[v].
A review of the original policy has now resulted in an Apartment Design Guide. It includes a reduction in car parking requirements when apartments are located within 800m of a train station or light rail[vi] (See Apartments for Cars for more on this debate). Changes to minimum direct sun light access from three hours to two reflect the increasing density of the city and the difficulty of achieving this. There is also a recognition that maximising Northern aspect is not necessarily the best design approach, when factors such as views and noise sources are considered. In Melbourne it is argued that a westerly orientation is ideal for three quarters of the year, provided excellent shading is available for summer months to reduce heat gain[vii].
The emphasis on this policy as a guide is intended to introduce greater flexibility and is claimed may reduce the cost of an apartment by up to $50,000[viii].
Better Apartments for Victoria
With a large proportion of CBD apartments being bought by foreign investors[ix] whose first concerns are probably not the liveability of spaces, the new standards are likely to result in less of what some have described as ‘dog boxes’. These standards might also increase the knowledge of local investors, providing a foundation on which to understand apartment design beyond square meters and a desirable view. It may also break the mould of apartment design and allow architects more freedom to find creative solutions. Time will tell.